There is nothing like kite-boarding over Aitutaki lagoon, looking down into the pristine waters at the turtles and eagle rays, and the vividly-coloured fish and coral heads.
If Mike Lee can transform himself from a sweary, stressed out restaurant chef to the zen master of kite-boarding, perhaps he can teach Jonathan Milne to stand up on the board.
“Let go of the bar … just let go of the bar …”
Standing kneedeep on a sandbar far out in Aitutaki’s lagoon, there’s a strange calm in Mike Lee’s voice.
I regain control of the kite, and guide it up into the sky again; at 12 o’clock above me, the sun is in my eyes. I gingerly place one foot on the board, then the other, and I’m moving forward and – no, no, no, the kite’s diving again.
“Let go of the bar …”
And crash, I’ve dropped the big yellow kite in the water. Again.
For 18 years, Mike Lee was a cook. He’d do seven-week voyages on factory trawlers, cooking for the crews. Or he’d run restaurants, in Picton and Napier, in New Zealand.
Behind the pass, with 30 dinner orders lined up, he lived on the stress. “That’s when I really felt it. It’s rewarding. I liked the fast pace.
“I didn’t throw things around. I probably would swear a bit.”
Then, 20 years ago, his mother Tereapii died. She was from the Aitutaki village of Nikaupara; she and his dad Robin had been building a house there. They had planned to retire there, but she never had the chance.
So, after 30 years in which he had come to Aitutaki for holidays, Mike Lee finally came home to live.
A couple of friends visited him with their kite-boards, and he got hooked. They taught him the basics, he got his instructor’s certificate and, for the past dozen years, he’s been teaching kite-boarding to tourists.
It was hard at first, but in the past four or five years, business picked up. He would take the tourists out kiteboarding off Honeymoon Island. They’d stop for a barbecue lunch and salads.
He’s seen it all. There was the experienced kiteboarder who decided to leap his board over the reef – but then he couldn’t beat the current back.
“You wouldn’t want to land on the reef, not this reef, it’s really sharp,” Lee muses. “He was about 20 metres outside the reef, and we had to go and get him.”
He hired four more instructors. He bought a four-person boat, then an eight-person boast, and then a 16-person boat. He owns about 30 kites.
Always, he paid cash up front – and that was fortunate. Because, in March, it all stopped. First, Aitutaki shut down its borders to cruise ships; then the entire country’s border were closed to all tourists.
Since then, Lee’s only customers have been locals. I was just his third customer since the border closure. His fourth customer is booked in this afternoon.
How does he maintain such zen-like calm?
“I think it’s just from my mum, really. And it’s a Cook Islands thing. My mum and all my uncles and aunties are really placid, I guess it’s in the family tree.
“Nothing really stresses me now. I’m pretty lucky – I’m grateful for what I’m doing.”
Now aged 51, he has his 10-year-old son Brandon living with him. Yes, Brandon Lee, like the movie star son of another zen master, Bruce Lee.
“Brandon doesn’t do martial arts,” Mike Lee laughs. “He loves it here, he’s out catching freshwater prawns now. He couldn’t do that in Auckland.”
Brandon’s dad, meanwhile, has been diversifying. It’s the word of the moment, but he’s been doing it for years.
Lee switched up from boarding to foiling, soaring a metre above the water. “The lagoon is the perfect place to do it because you’re up high, and you look down and you see all the long coral heads, the turtles, the eagle rays, the fish, the colour – and you’re silent, you don’t scare them.
“It’s really something to see. It takes a lot to impress me, but that really gets me.”
He helped Trina Armstrong from Koru Café set up Aitutaki Conservation Trust. (His job was just to sort out the rubbish and recycle bins, he says modestly).
In February he went to Texas to do a course in making aircrete (cement and foam) blocks to build houses from, and he’s brought the technique back to Aitutaki to help locals get into low-cost homes.
And, somewhat ambitiously in a time of lockdown, he hopes to host an international kiteboarding regatta on Aitutaki lagoon next year.
For now though, he’s got me to deal with. The yellow kite bucks and swoops. Mike Lee stands a metre or two behind me, as I grapple with the cables and the board beneath my feet.
“Let go of the bar …”
And bang! It’s hit the water again. The string sort of pings, and goes slack in a way it hasn’t in my previous six hours of lessons. I look down the line, and there’s a big tear right down the middle of the kite.
Lee can’t quite help himself. “I guess that’s why I was saying, let go of the bar …:
We silently coil up the strings. The breeze ripples across the lagoon.
Surely, having an expensive kite ripped in half by student who can’t listen to instructions – surely that must ruffle his calm?
“Having a kite rip, it’s really nothing,” he says, serenely.
“I think, it could be worse, I could be back in the kitchen in New Zealand. I think, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than here.”