South of Kaitaia, the narrow, mangrove-flanked fissures of the Hokianga Harbour snake deep inland past tiny and almost moribund communities. For a few days’ relaxation, the tranquillity and easy pace of this rural backwater are hard to beat. From the southern shores, the harbour’s incredible, deep-blue waters beautifully set off the mountainous sand dunes of North Head. The dunes are best seen from the rocky promontory of South Head, high above the treacherous Hokianga Bar, or can be reached by boat for sandboarding or the fantastic Sandtrails Hokianga tours. The high forest ranges immediately to the south make excellent hiking territory, and the giant kauri of the Waipoua Forest are within easy striking distance.
Note that there are no banks between Kaitaia and Dargaville, 170km away to the south. The ATMs in Rawene and Omapere accept a limited range of cards so bring cash.
According to legend, it was from here that the great Polynesian explorer Kupe left Aotearoa to go back to his homeland in Hawaiiki during the tenth century, and the harbour thus became known as Hokianganui-a-Kupe, “the place of Kupe’s great return”. Cook saw the Hokianga Heads from the Endeavour in 1770 but didn’t realize what lay beyond, and it wasn’t until a missionary crossed the hill from the Bay of Islands in 1819 that Europeans became aware of the harbour’s existence. Catholics, Anglicans and Wesleyans soon followed, converting the local Ngapuhi, gaining their trust, intermarrying with them and establishing the well-integrated Maori and European communities that exist today. The Hokianga area soon rivalled the Bay of Islands in importance and notched up several firsts: European boat building began here in 1826; the first signal station opened two years later; and the first Catholic Mass was celebrated in the same year.
With the demise of kauri felling and milling, Hokianga became an economic backwater, but over the last couple of decades, city dwellers, artists and craftspeople have started creeping in, settling in Kohukohu on the north shore, Rawene, a short ferry ride away to the south, and the two larger but still small-time settlements of Opononi and Omapere, opposite the dunes near the harbour entrance.