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.