"Do you like wearing a skirt?" asks Sarah. "Only at weekends," I reply, nervously. I pull on the waterproof spray skirt while apprehensively eyeing up the not inconsiderable distance between us and our destination. As the crow flies it's five kilometres from St Heliers Beach in Auckland to Rangitoto Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Easy peasy for a crow; less straightforward in a kayak.
There are eight of us on this Auckland Sea Kayaks sunset tour in four double kayaks. I'm sharing with my sister, which should be interesting given the secret to kayaking is teamwork. She's already commandeered the front seat so I'm relegated to the back and have been instructed to steer.
After being kitted out and briefed by Sarah, our enthusiastic guide, we set off, aiming for Rangitoto's volcanic summit.
Steering proves to be trickier than I expected. Partly because it takes me a while to get used to the foot pedals that operate the rudder and partly because as soon as we stray the tiniest fraction off course, my sister loudly declares, "We're going the wrong way."
Revenge comes in the form of a choppy sea and a brisk headwind, which means every few strokes she gets splashed in the face.
Eventually we find a steady rhythm and my apprehension ebbs away. Apart from the occasional ferry, commercial boats can't use this waterway so my fears of being run over by a container ship were unfounded.
After 90 minutes of paddling we reach Rangitoto and pull into a boat ramp next to the island's main ferry jetty. Immediately, Sarah springs into action, unloading a camp stove and containers of food from waterproof bins in her kayak. Minutes later we're enjoying hot cups of tea and coffee and freshly baked muffins.
It turns out this is just the entree. For main course there's steak with two types of salad and sourdough bread. There's even ratatouille for the vegetarians.
All of this is prepared without fuss or fanfare and it comes as no surprise to discover that Sarah spent seven years in the New Zealand Navy. We're clearly in safe hands.
Suitably stuffed, we start up the meandering two-kilometre path to the island's summit. Rangitoto is the youngest of the islands in the Hauraki Gulf, having been formed by a series of volcanic eruptions around 600 years ago. The ground either side of the path looks soft, like freshly ploughed fields, but it's actually rock hard lava.
We climb higher, through the world's largest pohutukawa forest, until we reach a viewing platform overlooking the crater. Today, the 200-metre-wide forested void looks benign; 600 years ago it would have been spewing angry torrents of molten lava.
But this is not the view we've come to see. We ascend one last set of steps to reach a wooden platform and bask in a hallelujah-inducing 360-degree panorama of Auckland Harbour. Sarah points out lesser-known islands such as Motukorea, which we paddled past on the way over, and Motutapu, which you can walk to from Rangitoto via a causeway built during World War II. To the east is the outline of Waiheke Island and beyond that the dim shadow of the Coromandel Peninsula.
The sun slips behind the horizon, flooding the sky with reds and oranges, and the city skyline twinkles into life. Sarah gives us each a head torch and we carefully retrace our steps.
By the time we reach the kayaks it's 9.30pm and inky black. Each kayak has a light but Sarah emphasises it is especially important we stay together going back. She points out a cluster of lights on the horizon to aim for and we set off, carefully dipping our paddles into the oil-black sea.
This is the first time I've kayaked at night and it's eerily exciting. I become mesmerised by the city's constantly twinkling lights. Above us the sky is ablaze with stars and the only sound is the rhythmic splash of paddles. No one talks, not even my sister when we stray off course.
As we approach the beach, I wonder what the people strolling along the promenade must think when they see us materialise out of the gloom. I imagine them speculating that we're secret agents on a covert mission. Suddenly, I'm Daniel Craig returning to base. I leap out of the kayak and stride purposefully up the beach, eyes narrowed, jaw clenched. And then I remember something and the illusion shatters: I'm wearing a skirt.
The writer travelled as a guest of Auckland Sea Kayaks.
Emirates flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland. Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com.
Auckland Sea Kayak's sunset tour to Rangitoto Island departs daily from St Heliers Bay at 4pm during summer and 2.30pm during winter. Cost $NZ185, including all equipment and dinner. See aucklandseakayaks.co.nz.