Exploring Northland

At the end of January we spent nine
days exploring Northland, the long peninsula which sticks up north of Auckland,
jutting up into the South Pacific. This was the completion of a trip we made in
November 2008, but cut short because of bad weather. This time the weather was
bad for the first 1½ days and the last 1½ days, but ranged from reasonable to
good in the middle. We saw giant kauri trees, weird spherical boulders,
gannets, and lots of great coastal scenery. On the way we stayed in eight
different places, two with spa baths, and had some really nice meals, including
lots of good veggie food.

 

We set off on Saturday 23rd
January, less than two weeks after our return from Australia.  It felt slightly odd having two holidays so
close together, but Monday 25th was a public holiday in Wellington,
so going that week meant that Ian only had to take four days’ leave instead of
five.   

 

We flew to Auckland, picked up a
hire car, and set off to drive up the west coast despite the wet miserable
weather. This was a change from last time, when we drove up the east coast. We
drove through Waitakere Heads Regional Park, stopping to do some walks,
including one at Piha Beach where a world surfing championship was taking
place. The next day we travelled on north, past the vast inlet of Kaipara
Harbour, and stopped at the Kauri Museum at Matakohe. This is very well done,
with lots of interesting exhibits about the giant kauri trees and the people
who felled them in the past. We later saw some of the remaining trees in
Waipoua Forest, as well as Tane Mahuta, the Lord of the Forest, the largest
kauri still alive. We went on to the mouth of Hokianga Harbour, where we stayed
in Opononi and were impressed by the views of the sand dunes opposite from
South Head.

 

One of the nearby highlights was walking
along Koutu Beach and seeing the dozens of giant spherical boulders there.
These are very similar to the Moeraki Boulders we saw on the South Island, but
many were much larger and this set seems almost completely unknown to tourists.
We crossed Hokianga Harbour by ferry and went on to Kaitaia, the main town of
the Far North. From there we took a coach trip up to Cape Reinga, at the very
tip of the country, driving along 90 Mile Beach on the way up (it’s actually
only about 60 miles). We parked up by some large dunes, where some maniacs
people (including Sandie) had a go at sand-tobogganing, sliding down the dunes
at great speed on plastic trays.

 

At Cape Reinga we visited the
lighthouse and the place where Maori spirits are supposed to leave to travel
back to their spiritual home. We enjoyed the great views, and saw a strange
dark ring around the sun, caused by ice layers in the upper atmosphere. From
Kaitaia we drove on to Mangonui, a pleasant little town where we spent the
night. Then we began our journey south down the east coast of Northland.  The next day we visited Whangaroa, and
discovered St Paul’s Rock towering over the town. We drove up and found a
footpath, but as is often the way with kiwi footpaths it turned into a steep
scramble and then at the end a climb up a vertical rock-face clinging to a
chain. We chickened out of this and just enjoyed the views from the top. At
nearby Matauri Bay we found the memorial to the Rainbow Warrior, which was sunk
in Auckland Harbour by French agents in 1985, and subsequently towed to
Northland and scuttled just offshore. The climb up was easier, and the views
just as good.

 

Our next destination was the Bay
of Islands, which we reached in our aborted previous trip. We visited Kerikeri
and saw the original mission and church which was established in New Zealand,
and then stayed in Paihia, the main resort town. From here we did a boat trip
out on the Bay of Islands, going as far as the Hole in the Rock just off Cape
Brett. The sea was too rough for the captain to take us through the hole,
however. On the way back some of us opted to spend an hour on one of the
islands, Urupukapuka, where we climbed to a hilltop to get views over the bay
and the islands. This was also a relief, as the boat was very crowded. When it came
back for us, it was almost empty, which was really nice. We took the car ferry
round to Russell, one-time ‘Hellhole of the South Pacific’ but now a quiet
little seaside village, since the drunken sailors and rows of brothels have departed
(as far as we could tell).

 

From there we did a coastal loop,
with not much to visit except a cafe at Helena Bay, which we appreciated as it
was raining at the time. We carried on down to the peninsula of Whangarei
Heads, by which time the weather had improved and we did some pleasant coastal
walks including one to Smuggler’s Cove, an idyllic white sand beach at the end
of the peninsula. We stayed in Whangarei, the largest town in Northland, and
ate at the Killer Prawn, which had been recommended. Ian had the signature
dish, a bowl of prawns in a spicy broth (you are given a large paper bib to
wear while eating), and they whipped up a special veggie dish for Sandie that
she enjoyed. The next morning the weather was really good, so we stopped at
Uretiti beach just south of Whangarei, which has miles of beautiful sand and
dunes behind. We stayed for a couple of hours and then it began to cloud over
and we headed on south. That was the end of the good weather on our trip.

 

We visited a couple of regional
parks on the way south – Scandrett and Wenderholm, and did some interesting
walks at each. The former was very quiet, but the latter was crowded with
people having a day out at the beach, despite the cold grey weather. We stayed
overnight on the Whangaparoa Peninsula and visited Shakespear Regional Park,
where we had another good walk. Then the weather started to turn quite murky
and wet, so we visited one last regional park, on the opposite coast – Muriwai Beach.
Here there is a big gannet colony, and it’s possible to get really close to the
birds and watch them flying and feeding their chicks. That was the end of the
trip – from there we returned to Auckland Airport and flew back to Wellington,
where the weather was even colder.

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