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A cruise around the maritime playground of the Bay of Islands brings on fishy moments, starry memories and salty tastes

It all seems quite sane at first, zooming away from Paihia wharf in our boat’s launch, sandwiched hip-to-hip with a bunch of shy backpacking strangers. One girl seems oblivious to the world, her eyes penetrating her Fifty Shades of Grey paperback, a guy stabs manically at his iPhone, another clearly the victim of a late night, and doesn’t seem to feel the spray hitting his still-numb face.And then Jonny, our skipper, comes right out with it: “So, who’s up for a weekend of eating raw fish?” The“Yeaahhhhh!” comes from the token tall Swede, the “Coooool!” from the young German lad, and the “You are not serious I hope?” is eloquently delivered by the older British lady, who looks positively terrified. It’s funny, I’ve never referred to myself as an ‘older British lady’ before.

Helplessly gazing at the luxury cruise ship anchored near the rust-coloured vessel we are headed for, I wonder if I might have booked the wrong type of houseboat experience. I contemplate the three-course celebrity chef-inspired banquets that the gleaming white liner will serve up to its freshly showered and mani/pedi-groomed passengers. I then think of Captain Bligh and his loyal crew who were set adrift in the HMS Bounty’s launch by Fletcher Christian in 1789, and wonder if mutiny is still illegal. As we near the wild and wacky YHA-run floating hostel, I focus on the positives: I don’t have a humdinger of a hangover; I left my phone at home; and I’ve got a sexy new novel on my list. Plus, I might just survive the next  22 hours as I climb aboard The Rock. Within minutes, Jonny’s laid-back crew make us feel at home, sipping on beers and mugs of tea as we all exchange names and itineraries. I even get a biscuit! C’mon, who needs celebrity chefs? Food for thought

It’s target practice time, and we’re promised a free beer if we successfully shoot an Australian called Matilda, who is on board with us today. Matilda is the plastic duck that’s now being tied to the boat’s rear. The Europeans take this with a pinch of salt, but the Kiwis take it seriously. They aim with precision, their beers forming an orderly queue. Anchoring in a secluded outer Bay of Islands cove, we throw our lines to catch snapper for dinner. And the hunger is on. Crew member, Nathan, demonstrates how to fillet mullet; bait for our snapper. It’s a bloody mess, filled with flashing memories from high school biology classes. With surgical precision, Nathan then removes the still-living heart from a caught snapper (hunger rapidly fading). It continues to beat on his hand, hopping around like a scene from a cartoon. Only this is real!

“Now this is iron-rich food guys,” he explains with utter seriousness. Captivated carnivores laugh while queasy vegetarians take a seat. “This nutritious dish is treasured by the indigenous people, so look upon it as a superfood.” Nathan then offers it around the group, calling: “Anyone?” But no sooner than I let out a Hyacinth Bucket-like nervous shriek, a teenager steps forward with an outstretched hand. In it went. But it wasn’t like the dreaded challenges in those reality TV shows, where it goes down almost without touching the sides. No, this kid munched, savouring every last capillary, like rolling a fine red wine around the tongue. In (stunned) support, we clapped and cheered. Our slowly resuscitating olfactory systems tell us that the Scotch steaks and beef sausages have hit the barbeque.

At dinner, only one catch-of-the-day is shared between us (very small and large fish are returned to the water for conservation). But there is plenty for all as we feast on our meats with kumara (the local sweet potato favoured by the Maoris), fresh breads, pasta, rice and beetroot salad around the long table, in the kitchen-cum-diner-cum lounge-cum-bar-cum-pool room. As night blankets our twinkling boat, satiated stomachs prop against the bar. Others brush round the pool table, as jokes fly between opponents. “You’re shooting with two left feet man!” and “Your balls are zig zagging mate!” and “It’s the boat swaying!” seem to be on constant replay.The laughter increases and nothing matters. The music is playing, accents are singing, and the drinks are flowing. But refreshingly, nobody is drunk. Through the exchanges of foreign words and chinking glasses, we all share the common language of escapism.


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