Stand up paddling with stingrays in New Zealand’s Murderer’s Bay

Though Captain James Cook was the first European to set foot on the islands of New Zealand in 1769, he was not the first European to “discover it”. That honor would belong to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who sailed past the country while navigating the Southern Ocean for the Dutch east India Company in 1642.

Blown off course by a strong easterly wind, Abel Tasman first sighted the northwest reaches of the South Island of New Zealand and thought he may have stumbled upon the bottom part of Argentina. Confused but intrigued, Tasman decided to make the most of the discovery and arranged an expedition party to be sent ashore to gather fresh water.

Unfortunately, the expedition was met by a band of native Maori people curious of the tall ships which had suddenly appeared off their coast, and after a hostile skirmish which historians have attributed to multiple cultural misunderstandings, Tasman sailed from the area with four fewer men than he had arrived with. As a result of the incident, Tasman saw it fitting to label the area as “Murderer’s Bay”.

360 years later, I ruminated on this violent turn of events while stand-up paddling above a gray stingray languishing in the tidal shallows of Murderer’s Bay.

On a brilliantly sunny and calm morning in which it was possible to stare straight through the turquoise waters, I found myself paddling in nearly the exact same spot where Tasman’s men had met their fate so many centuries ago. No longer referred to as Murderer’s Bay, with the discovery of gold in the region in the 1850′s it was prosperously renamed Golden Bay, and the name has stuck ever since.

Located in the sunniest region of New Zealand, Golden Bay is still somewhat of a secret when compared to neighboring Abel Tasman National Park. Although the Tata Islands–rocks that sit just offshore of Golden Bay and are covered in fur seals–are technically still part of Abel Tasman National Park, Golden Bay offers the same South Pacific setting as it’s crowded counterpart, yet for some reason there is hardly anybody here.

Except, of course, for me and the stingrays.

%Gallery-146107%With my wife and I swapping between a stand up board and one man kayak, the peaceful sound of waves lapping gently across the rocks is a stark contrast to the bloody encounter which once took place here. Completely alone as we paddle beneath rock archways and haul our water craft onto empty white sand beaches, the nearest we have been to violence all morning was a nesting shag bird dive bombing me when I paddled too close to his rock.

A fur seal here, a stingray or shearwater there, I realize there is nothing about this place that makes me think of death at all. Just like Kaikoura, Golden Bay is alive.

With the afternoon breezes introducing an audience of whitecaps to the bay, it was time to head ashore and point the caravan towards the far reaches of Farwell Spit. A 26km stretch of constantly shifting sand which is a favorite of the packaged eco-tourist trips, we instead hopped into a friend’s white ute (pickup truck) and bounced our way over the well-graded dirt track to Wharariki Beach, an expanse of sand dunes and rock formations which technically lies on the island’s wild west coast.

It is difficult to convey just how other worldy and exactly how empty Wharariki Beach really is.

Sure, there are a handful of tourists scattered here and there meandering amongst the dunes and the caves, but from a distance, the red sweater or purple tank top they may be sporting look no different than colorful scraps of paper blowing along the base of towering rock faces.

My local Kiwi friend who has brought me here, Nick, occasionally will surf down at Wharariki when the wind and waves are right.

“You ever get anyone else out in the water here?” I breathlessly ask, still utterly in awe of the place.

“Nah, never mate. Nobody wants to drive out this far. That, and nobody knows about it.”

As I watch a solitary fur seal exit a cave set in one of Wharariki’s massive boulders, and with the sun perfectly illuminating the stone archway pointing out towards the tempestuous Tasman Sea, I question out loud why more travelers to New Zealand don’t come here.

It’s no longer Murderer’s Bay, you won’t get killed by local Maori, but amazingly, 360 years after having been “discovered”, the place still feels like a wayward cove etched on an early explorer’s map, still waiting for someone else to find it.

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.