Thrusting 350km from Auckland into the subtropical north, Northland separates the Pacific Ocean from the Tasman Sea. The two oceans swirl together off Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s most northerly road-accessible point, which tourists often approach via the sands of Ninety Mile Beach. Kiwis regularly describe this staunchly Maori province as the “Winterless North”, a phrase that evokes the citrus trees, avocado plantations, vineyards, warm aquamarine waters and beaches of white silica or golden sand. These attractions have increasingly made the upper reaches of the region a magnet for discerning tourists and holidaying Kiwis, keen to escape the hullabaloo of Auckland traffic. Increased tourism has, in turn, slowly brought back some prosperity and a more positive and welcoming attitude to a region once noted for its ambivalence to visitors.
Scenically, Northland splits down the middle. The east coast is a labyrinth of coves hidden between plunging headlands. Beaches tend to be calm and safe, with the force of occasional Pacific storms broken by clusters of protective barrier islands. There could hardly be a greater contrast than the long, virtually straight, west coast pounded by powerful Tasman breakers and broken only by occasional harbours. Tidal rips and holes make swimming dangerous, and there are no lifeguard patrols. Some beaches are even designated as roads but are full of hazards for the unwary – and rental cars aren’t insured for beach driving. Exploration of the undulating interior involves long forays down twisting side roads.
Beyond Auckland’s extended suburbs, on the east shore, is the rural Matakana Coast, popular with yachties circumnavigating Kawau Island and snorkellers exploring the underwater world of the Goat Island Marine Reserve. The broad sweep of Bream Bay runs to the dramatic crags of Whangarei Heads at the entrance to Northland’s major port and town, Whangarei. Off the coast here lie the Poor Knights Islands, one of the world’s premier dive spots with a multitude of unique dives around the islands. Tourists in a hurry tend to make straight for the Bay of Islands, a jagged bite out of the coastline steeped in New Zealand history and dotted with islands suitable for cruising, diving and swimming (some of the time) with dolphins. Everything north of here is loosely referred to as The Far North, a region characterized by the quiet remoteness of the Whangaroa Harbour, Doubtless Bay, and the Aupori Peninsula, which backs Ninety Mile Beach and leads to Cape Reinga.
The west coast is clearly discernable from the east, marked by the struggle out of economic neglect caused by the cessation of kauri logging and establishment of farming and tourism in its stead, both of which are finally beginning to alter the landscape and create a more positive atmosphere. First stop on the way back south from Ninety Mile Beach is the fragmented but alluring Hokianga Harbour, one of New Zealand’s largest, with spectacular sand dunes gracing the north head. South of here you’re into the Waipoua Forest, which is all that remains after the depredations of the kauri loggers – a story best told at the excellent Kauri Museum at Matakohe.
Northland was the site of most of the early contact between Maori and European settlers, and the birthplace of New Zealand’s most important document, the Treaty of Waitangi. Maori legend tells of how the great Polynesian explorer Kupe discovered the Hokianga Harbour and, finding the climate and abundance of food to his liking, encouraged his people to return and settle there. It was their descendants in the Bay of Islands who had the dubious honour of making the first contact with white men, as European whalers plundered the seas and missionaries sought converts. Eventually, the northern chiefs signed away their sovereignty in return for assurances on land and traditional rights, which were seldom respected. There is still a perception among some Maori in the rest of the country that the five northern iwi gave Aotearoa away to the Pakeha.
As more fertile farmlands were found in newly settled regions further south, rapacious kauri loggers and gum diggers cleared the bush, and later, as extractive industries died away, pioneers moved in, turning much of the land to dairy country. Local dairy factories closed as larger semi-industrial complexes centralized processing, leaving small towns all but destitute, though the planting of fast-growing exotic trees and sporadic horticulture keep local economies ticking over.