Northland’s exclamation mark is the Aupori Peninsula, a narrow, 100km-long finger of consolidated and grassed-over dunes ending in a lumpy knot of 60-million-year-old marine volcanoes. To Maori it’s known as Te Hika o te Ika (“The tail of the fish”), recalling the legend of Maui hauling up the North Island (“the fish”) from the sea while in his canoe (the South Island).
The most northerly accessible point is Cape Reinga, where the spirits of Maori dead depart this world. Beginning their journey by sliding down the roots of an 800-year-old pohutukawa into the ocean, they climb out again on Ohaua, the highest of the Three Kings Islands, to bid a final farewell before returning to their ancestors in Hawaiiki. The spirits reach Cape Reinga along Ninety Mile Beach (actually 64 miles long), which runs straight along the western side of the peninsula. Most visitors follow the spirits, though they do so in modern buses specifically designed for belting along the hard-packed sand at the edge of the surf – officially part of the state highway system – then negotiating the quicksands of Te Paki Stream to return to the road; for many, the highlight is sandboarding on a boogie board (or in a safer but less speedy toboggan) down the huge dunes that flank the stream. The main road runs more or less down the centre of the peninsula, while the western ocean is kept tantalizingly out of sight by the thin pine ribbon of the Aupori Forest. The forests, and the cattle farms that cover most of the rest of the peninsula, were once the preserve of gum diggers, who worked the area intensively early last century.Read More
The last leg to Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairua: the “leaping place of the spirits”) runs high through the hills before revealing magnificent views of the Tasman Sea and the huge dunes that foreshadow it. At road-end there’s just a car park with toilets and a 800m-long interpretive trail to the Cape Reinga lighthouse, dramatically perched on a headland 165m above Colombia Bank, where the waves of the Tasman Sea meet the swirling currents of the Pacific Ocean in a boiling cauldron of surf. On clear days the view from here is stunning: east to the Surville Cliffs of North Cape, west to Cape Maria van Diemen, and north to the rocky Three Kings Islands, 57km offshore, which were named by Abel Tasman, who first came upon them on the eve of Epiphany 1643.
Going it alone on Ninety Mile Beach
Going it alone on Ninety Mile Beach
Rental cars and private vehicles are not insured to drive on Ninety Mile Beach and for good reason. Vehicles frequently get bogged in the sand and abandoned by their occupants. As there are no rescue facilities near enough to get you out before the tide comes in, and mobile phone coverage is almost nil, you could end up with a long walk. Even in your own vehicle, two-wheel-drives aren’t recommended, regardless of weather conditions, which can change rapidly.
If you are determined to take your own vehicle for the 70km spin along the beach, seek local advice and prepare your car by spraying some form of water repellent on the ignition system – CRC is a common brand. Schedule your trip to coincide with a receding tide, starting two hours after high water and preferably going in the same direction as the bus traffic that day; drive on dry but firm sand, avoiding any soft patches, and slow down to cross streams running over the beach – they often have deceptively steep banks. If you do get stuck in soft sand, lowering the tyre pressure will improve traction. There are several access points along the beach, but the only ones realistically available to ordinary vehicles are the two used by the tour buses: the southern access point at Waipapakauri Ramp, 6km north of Awanui, and the more dangerous northern one along Te Paki Stream, which involves negotiating the quicksands of a river – start in low gear and don’t stop, no matter how tempting it might be to ponder the dunes.
Cape Reinga Walks
Cape Reinga Walks
A couple of worthwhile short walks radiate from the Cape Reinga car park: both form part of the much longer Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway. All are described in the DOC leaflet Cape Reinga and Te Paki Walks, containing a useful map of the area, and are available at Kaitaia and elsewhere. Beware of rip tides on all the beaches hereabouts and bear in mind the wild and unpredictable nature of the region’s weather. Arrange with one of the more local bus tours for pick-up.
Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway
(38km one-way; 2 days; constantly undulating). This spectacular and increasingly popular coastal hike starts at Kapowairua (Spirits Bay), heads west to Cape Reinga, continues to Cape Maria van Diemen, swings southeast to the northernmost stretch of Ninety Mile Beach, and then finally past the impressive dunes of Te Paki Stream. You need to be fit and self-sufficient: the only facilities are a couple of DOC campsites, and some ad hoc camping spots with no guaranteed water. Fresh water from streams is limited and you’ll need mosquito repellent.
(3km return; 200m ascent on the way back; 50–90min). Eastbound walk through scrub and young cabbage trees to a pretty cove. You can continue to the lovely Tapotupotu Bay (a further 3km one-way; 1–2hr).
Te Werahi Beach
(2.5km return; 200m ascent on the way back; 40min–1hr). A gradually descending westbound walk that keeps Cape Maria van Diemen in your sights as you go.