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 Beachand 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.
It’s worth hanging around Whangarei to explore the surrounding area, particularly to the east and north of the town where craggy, weathered remains of ancient volcanoes abut the sea. Southeast of the town, Whangarei Heads is the district’s volcanic heartland where dramatic walks follow the coast to calm harbour beaches and windswept coastal strands; a kayak trip is a great way to get the best views of a landscape built from often-violent activity. To the northeast, Tutukaka acts as the base for dive trips to the undersea wonderland around the Poor Knights Islands.
Boats set out from tiny TUTUKAKA – set on a beautiful, deeply incised harbour 30km northeast of Whangarei – for one of the world’s premier dive locations, the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, 25km offshore.
The warm East Auckland current and the lack of run-off from the land combine to create visibility approaching 30m most of the year, though in spring (roughly Oct–Dec) plankton can reduce it to 10–15m. The clear waters are home to New Zealand’s most diverse and plentiful range of sea life, including a few subtropical species found nowhere else, as well as a striking underwater landscape of near-vertical rock faces and arches that drop almost 100m. One dive at the Poor Knights, the Blue Mao Mao Cave, was rated by Jacques Cousteau as one of the top ten dive sights in the world. The Poor Knights lie along the migratory routes of a number of whale species, so blue, humpback, Bryde’s, sei and minke whales, as well as dolphins, are not uncommon sights on the way to the islands. The waters north and south of Tutukaka are home to two navy wrecks. The survey ship HMNZS Tui was sunk in 1999 to form an artificial reef, and it was so popular with divers and marine life that the obsolete frigate Waikato followed two years later.
THE BAY OF ISLANDS, 240km north of Auckland, lures visitors to its beautiful coastal scenery, scattered islands and clear blue waters. There are other equally stunning spots along the Northland coast, such as the Whangaroa and Hokianga harbours, but what sets the bay apart is the ease with which you can get out among the islands, and its pivotal history. This was the cradle of European settlement in New Zealand, a fact abundantly testified to by the bay’s churches, mission stations and orchards. It’s also a focal point for Maori because of the Treaty of Waitangi, still New Zealand’s most important legal document.
Perhaps surprisingly, much of your time in the Bay of Islands will be spent on the mainland, as there are no settlements on the islands. Most visitors base themselves in beachside Paihia, which is set up to deal with the hordes who come here for the various cruises and excursions, as well as being the closest town to the Treaty House at Waitangi. The compact town of Russell, a couple of kilometres across the bay by passenger ferry, is prettier and almost equally convenient for cruises. To the northwest, away from the bay itself, Kerikeri is intimately entwined with the area’s early missionary history, while Waimate North, inland to the west, was another important mission site and Mission House.
In 1927 American Western writer Zane Grey came here to fish for striped and black marlin, making the area famous with his book The Angler’s El Dorado. Every summer since, the bay has seen game-fishing tournaments and glistening catches strung up on the jetties.
A warm climate, abundant seafood and deep, sheltered harbours contributed to dense pre-European Maori settlement in the Bay of Islands, with many a headland supporting a pa. The bay also appealed to Captain Cook, who anchored here in 1769. Cook landed on Motuarohia Island at what became known as Cook’s Cove, where he forged generally good relations with the inhabitants. Three years later the French sailor Marion du Fresne, en route from Mauritius to Tahiti, became the first European to have sustained contact with Maori, though he fared less well when a misunderstanding, probably over tapu, led to his death, along with 26 of his crew. The French retaliated, destroying a pa and killing hundreds of Maori.
Unless you get out onto the water you’re missing the essence of the Bay of Islands. The majority of yachting, scuba diving, dolphin-watching, kayaking and fishing trips start in Paihia, but all the major cruises and bay excursions also pick up in Russell. From December to March everything should be booked a couple of days in advance. Hotels and motels can book for you; hostels can usually arrange a discount of around ten percent for backpackers.
The two main operators are Fullers Great Sights and Explore NZ/Dolphin Discoveries, both offering sightseeing, sailing and dolphin trips. There are also numerous yachts that usually take fewer than a dozen passengers and go out for around six hours: competition is tight and standards vary. Most operators give you a chance to snorkel, kayak and fish.
The Bay of Islands is excellent for dolphin watching; there’s an eighty percent chance of seeing bottlenose and common dolphins in almost any season, as well as orca from May to October and minke and Bryde’s whales from August to January.
Your chances of swimming with dolphins are about 35–40 percent. Swimming is forbidden when there are juveniles in the pod, and only 18 people are allowed in the water with dolphins at any time. There’s usually a money-back offer if you miss out (check when you book); your best chance is on a cruise with companies licensed to search for and swim with dolphins.
As the main tourist centre in Northland, the Bay of Islands acts as a staging post for forays further north, in particular for day-long bus tours to Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach – arduous affairs lasting eleven hours, most of them spent stuck inside the vehicle. You’re better off making your way up to Mangonui, Kaitaia or Ahipara and taking a trip from there, or saving your dollars and taking Salt Air’s fixed-wing Cape Reinga Flight, which takes in the beach, Bay of Islands and includes a field landing and short run to the cape itself.
Fullers Great Sights also runs Discover Hokianga, another epic tour visiting the Hokianga Harbour, taking a Footprints Waipoua tour to the giant kauri trees, and taking a look at the Wairere Boulders. Again you are better off getting closer and spending more time at the actual attractions.
The Bay is aptly named, with six large, and around 140 small, islands. Many are subject to the DOC-led Project Island Song, which aims to rid many islands of introduced predators and turn them into wildlife havens. Assorted birds have been reintroduced to many islands, notably Urupukapuka Island, which can be explored in a few hours using DOC’s Urupukapuka Island Archeological Walk leaflet highlighting Maori pa and terrace sites.
Of the other large islands, by far the most popular is Motuarohia (Roberton Island), where DOC manages the most dramatic central section, an isthmus almost severed by a pair of perfectly circular blue lagoons. Snorkellers can explore an undersea nature trail waymarked by inscribed stainless-steel plaques.
Other sights that often feature on cruise itineraries include the Black Rocks, bare islets formed from columnar-jointed basalt – these rise only 10m out of the water but plummet a sheer 30m beneath. At the outer limit of the bay is the craggy peninsula of Cape Brett, named by Cook in 1769 after the then Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Piercy Brett. Cruises also regularly pass through the Hole in the Rock, a natural tunnel through Piercy Island, which is even more exciting when there’s a swell running.
The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of modern New Zealand, a touchstone for both Pakeha and Maori, and its implications permeate New Zealand society. Signed in 1840 between what were ostensibly two sovereign states – the United Kingdom and the United Tribes of New Zealand, plus other Maori leaders – the treaty remains central to New Zealand’s race relations. The Maori rights guaranteed by it have seldom been upheld, however, and the constant struggle for recognition continues.
Motivated by a desire to staunch French expansion in the Pacific, and a moral obligation on the Crown to protect Maori from rapacious land-grabbing by settlers, the British instructed naval captain William Hobson to negotiate the transfer of sovereignty with “the free and intelligent consent of the natives”, and to deal fairly with the Maori. Hobson, with the help of James Busby and others, drew up both the English Treaty and a Maori “translation”. On the face of it, the treaty is a straightforward document, but the complications of having two versions (see The Treaty of Waitangi) and the implications of striking a deal between two peoples with widely differing views on land and resource ownership have reverberated down the years.
The treaty was unveiled on February 5, 1840, to a gathering of some 400 representatives of the five northern tribes in front of Busby’s residence in Waitangi. Presented as a contract between the chiefs and Queen Victoria – someone whose role was comprehensible in chiefly terms – the benefits were amplified and the costs downplayed. As most chiefs didn’t understand English, they signed the Maori version of the treaty, which still has mana (authority or status) among Maori today.
The pattern set at Waitangi was repeated up and down the country, as seven copies of the treaty were dispatched to garner signatures and extend Crown authority over parts of the North Island that had not yet been covered, and the South Island. On May 21, before signed treaty copies had been returned, Hobson claimed New Zealand for Britain: the North Island on the grounds of cession by Maori, and the South Island by right of Cook’s “discovery”, as it was considered to be without owners, despite a significant Maori population.
Maori fears were alerted from the start, and as the settler population grew and demand for land increased, successive governments passed laws that gradually stripped Maori of control over their affairs – actions which led to the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. Over the decades, small concessions were made, but nothing significant changed until 1973, when Waitangi Day (February 6) became an official national holiday. Around the same time, Maori groups, supported by a small band of Pakeha, began a campaign of direct action, increasingly disrupting commemorations, thereby alienating many Pakeha and splitting Maori allegiances between angry young urban Maori and the kaumatua (elders), who saw the actions as disrespectful to the ancestors and an affront to tradition. Many strands of Maori society were unified by the hikoi (march) to Waitangi to protest against the celebrations in 1985, a watershed year in which Paul Reeves was appointed New Zealand’s first Maori Governor General and the Waitangi Tribunal for land reform was given some teeth.
Protests have continued since as successive governments have vacillated over whether to attend the commemorations at Waitangi.
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.
If you didn’t know about Opononi’s moment of fame in the summer of 1955–56 when a wild bottlenose dolphin, dubbed “Opo”, started playing with the kids in the shallows and performing tricks with beach balls, you will by the time you leave.
Christmas holidaymakers jammed the narrow dirt roads; film crews were dispatched; protective laws drafted; and Auckland musicians wrote and recorded the novelty song Opo The Crazy Dolphin in a day. Their tape arrived at the radio station for its first airing just as news came in that Opo had been shot under mysterious circumstances. The i-SITE shows a short video in classic 1950s-documentary style, which gives a sense of the frenzied enthusiasm for Opo.
KAITAIA, 40km west of Mangonui, is the Far North’s largest commercial centre, situated near the junction of the two main routes north. It makes a convenient base for some of the best trips to Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach, far preferable to the longer trips from the Bay of Islands. As a farming service town you’d expect there’d be little to detain you, but these days Kaitaia boasts a rather fine museum, built in 2011. If you have your own transport, however, you might want to base yourself at the magnificent beach in nearby Ahipara, to sand-toboggan the giant dunes, surf or explore the old gumfields.
A Maori village already flourished at Kaitaia when the first missionary, Joseph Matthews, came looking for a site in 1832. The protection of the mission encouraged European pastoralists to establish themselves here, but by the 1880s they found themselves swamped by the gum diggers who had come to plunder the underground deposits around Lake Ohia and Ahipara. Many early arrivals were young Croats fleeing tough conditions in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though the only evidence of this is a Serbo-Croat welcome sign at the entrance to town, and a cultural society that holds a traditional dance each year.
Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula were once covered in mixed forest dominated by the mighty kauri, the world’s second-largest tree. By the early twentieth century, rapacious Europeans had nearly felled the lot, the only extensive pockets remaining in the Waipoua and Trounson kauri forests south of the Hokianga Harbour. Though small stands of kauri can be found all over Northland, three-quarters of all the surviving mature trees grow in these two small forests, which between them cover barely 100 square kilometres. Walks provide access to the more celebrated examples, which dwarf the surrounding tataire, kohekohe and towai trees.
Just south of the Trounson forest are the Kai Iwi Lakes, a trio of popular dune lakes that get busy in the summer season.
This area is home to the Te Roroa people who traditionally used the kauri sparingly. Simple tools made felling and working these huge trees a difficult task, and one reserved for major projects such as large war canoes. Once the Europeans arrived with metal tools, bullock trains, wheels and winches, clear felling became easier, and most of the trees had gone by the end of the nineteenth century. The efforts of several campaigning organizations eventually bore fruit in 1952, when much of the remaining forest was designated the Waipoua Sanctuary. It’s now illegal to fell a kauri except in specified circumstances, such as culling a diseased or dying tree, or when constructing a new ceremonial canoe.
The kauri (agathis australis) ranks alongside the sequoias of California as one of the largest trees in existence. Unlike the sequoias, which are useless as furniture timber, kauri produce beautiful wood, a fact that hastened its demise and spawned the industries that dominated New Zealand’s economy in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The kauri is a type of pine that now grows only in New Zealand, though it once also grew in Australia and Southeast Asia, where it still has close relations. Identifiable remains of kauri forests are found all over New Zealand, but by the time humans arrived on the scene its range had contracted to Northland, Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula and northern Waikato. Individual trees can live over 2000 years, reaching 50m in height and 20m in girth, finally toppling over as the rotting core becomes too weak to support its immense weight.
Maori have long used mature kauri for dugout canoes, but it was the “rickers” (young trees) that first drew the attention of European loggers since they formed perfect spars for sailing ships. The bigger trees soon earned an unmatched reputation for their durable, easy-to-work and blemish-free wood, with its straight, fine grain. Loggers’ ingenuity was taxed to the limit by the difficulty of getting such huge logs out of the bush. On easier terrain, bullock wagons with up to twelve teams were lashed together to haul the logs onto primitive roads or tramways. Horse-turned winches were used on steeper ground and, where water could be deployed to transport the timber, dams were constructed from hewn logs. In narrow valleys and gullies all over Northland and the Coromandel, loggers constructed kauri dams up to 20m high and 60m across, with trapdoors at the base. Trees along the sides of the valley were felled while the dam was filling, then the dam was opened to flush the floating trunks down the valley to inlets where the logs were rafted up and towed to the mills.
Once an area had been logged, the gum diggers typically moved in. Like most pines, kauri exudes a thick resin to cover any scars inflicted on it, and huge accretions form on the sides of trunks and in globules around the base. Maori chewed the gum, made torches from it to attract fish at night and burned the powdered resin to form a pigment used for moko (traditional tattoos). Once Pakeha got in on the act, it was exported as a raw material for furniture varnishes, linoleum, denture moulds and the “gilt” edging on books. When it could no longer be found on the ground, diggers – mostly Dalmatian, but also Maori, Chinese and Malaysian – thrust long poles into the earth and hooked out pieces with bent rods; elsewhere, the ground was dug up and sluiced to recover the gum. Almost all New Zealand gum was exported, but by the early twentieth century synthetic resins had captured the gum market. Kauri gum is still considered one of the finest varnishes for musical instruments, and occasional accidental finds supply such specialist needs.
In recent years the kauri have been further threatened by a new disease known as PTA or kauri dieback (w kauridieback.co.nz) with symptoms including yellowed leaves, dead branches and resinous lesions close to the ground, eventually leading to the tree’s death. The disease is transmitted through soil and water, so always keep to the tracks and boardwalks and clean your footwear after visiting a kauri forest.
Trounson Kauri Park is a small but superb stand of kauri where the Trounson Kauri Walk (40min loop) weaves though lovely rainforest. In 1997, Trounson was turned into a “mainland island” in order to foster North Island brown kiwi survival. Numbers are up significantly, and you’ve a good chance of seeing them – along with weta and glowworms – if you stay over. A tour of the kauri stands is easy enough to do on your own, but Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park offers a guided night walk (non-guests $25).
Heading south from the Hokianga Harbour area, you pass through farmland and arrive at Waimamaku, home to the daytime-only Morrell’s Café. The highway then twists and turns through nearly 20km of mature kauri in the WAIPOUA KAURI FOREST. Eight kilometres south of Waimamaku you reach a small car park, from where it’s a three-minute walk to New Zealand’s mightiest tree, the 2000-year-old Tane Mahuta, “God of the Forest”. A vast wall of bark 6m wide rises nearly 18m to the lowest branches, covered in epiphytes. A kilometre or so further south on SH12, a ten-minute track leads to a clearing where three paths split off to notable trees: the shortest (5min return) runs to the Four Sisters, relatively slender kauri all growing close together; a second path (30min return) winds among numerous big trees to Te Matua Ngahere, the “Father of the Forest”, the second-largest tree in New Zealand – shorter than Tane Mahuta but fatter and in some ways more impressive. The third path, the Yakas Track (3km return; 1hr), leads to Cathedral Grove, a dense conglomeration of trees, the largest being the Yakas Kauri, named after veteran bushman Nicholas Yakas.
Around 50km north of central Auckland the city’s influence begins to wane, heralding the Matakana Coast (w matakanacoast.com), a 30km stretch of shallow harbours, beach-strung peninsulas and small islands. Its individual character becomes apparent once you pass pretty Warkworth and head out either to Kawau Island, or up the coast to the village of Matakana and the snorkelling and diving nirvana of Goat Island.
The journey from Auckland to Warkworth has been made quicker, though less scenic, by the introduction of a 7km stretch of toll road ($2.20/car). Sadly, confusing signage means people miss toll pay areas (see Northern Gateway Toll Road) on the way north and south, as well as the great views on the alternative route, via Orewa on the Hibiscus Coast Highway.
Other than the excellent wood carving on display at Te Hana, there’s little to detain you on SH1 between Warkworth and Waipu as it passes the road junction at Brynderwyn, where SH12 loops off to Dargaville, the Waipoua kauri forest and the Hokianga Harbour. If you’re heading north and want a scenic route, it’s better to stay on the coast and follow Bream Bay, named by Cook when he visited in 1770 and his crew hauled in tarakihi, which they mistook for bream. There are no sizeable towns here, only the small beach communities of Mangawhai Heads and Waipu Cove, looking out to the Hen and Chicken Islands, refuges for rare birds such as the wattled saddleback.
The village of LEIGH, 13km northeast of Matakana, holds a picturesque harbour with bobbing wooden fishing boats. Heading a further 4km northeast brings you to the Cape Rodney–Okakari Marine Reserve, usually known simply as Goat Island for the bush-clad islet 300m offshore. In 1975, this became New Zealand’s first marine reserve, with no-take areas stretching 5km along the shoreline and 800m off the coast. Some 35 years on, the undersea life is thriving, with large rock lobster, huge snapper and rays. Feeding has been discouraged since blue maomaos developed a taste for frozen peas and began to mob swimmers and divers. Easy beach access (from the road-end parking area), clear water, rock pools on wave-cut platforms, a variety of undersea terrains and relatively benign currents combine to make this an enormously popular year-round diving spot, as well as a favourite summer destination for families: aim to come midweek if you value tranquillity.
Spread out along either side of SH1 is the small roadside settlement of TE HANA, 4km north of Wellsford. It’s your next chance to turn off towards the coast and a settlement that until recently most people have passed through without pause. This does Te Hana an injustice, as it is home to one of New Zealand’s most adventurous and spectacular wood carvers.
Te Hana is home to the The Arts Factory, where unique and iconic artist Kerry Strongman and his team carve breathtaking “jewellery for giants” – massive pieces of swamp kauri that are thousands of years old. The pieces are innovatively and experimentally carved (sometimes as interpretations of traditional Maori and/or other ancient peoples’ designs) and all are supersized to fill and enhance large spaces. Most of the pieces go to galleries and commissioners in New Zealand and abroad, but other, smaller pieces are on sale in the gallery shop. Best of all, you get to wander round the expansive studio, inside and out, and watch the works being created.
North of the Bay of Islands everything gets a lot quieter. There are few towns of any consequence along the coast and it is the peace and slow pace that attract visitors to an array of glorious beaches and the lovely Whangaroa Harbour. The first stop north of Kerikeri is tiny Matauri Bay, where a hilltop memorial commemorates the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, which now lies off the coast. A sealed but winding back road continues north, offering fabulous sea views and passing gorgeous headlands and beaches before delivering you to Whangaroa Harbour, one of the most beautiful in Northland, and an excellent place to go sailing or kayaking. Further north is the idyllic surfing and fishing hideaway of Taupo Bay.
Continuing north brings you to the huge bite out of the coast called Doubtless Bay, which had two celebrated discoverers: Kupe, said to have first set foot on Aotearoa in Taipa; and Cook, who sailed past in 1769 and pronounced it “doubtless, a bay”. Bounded on the west and north by the sheltering Karikari Peninsula, the bay offers safe boating and is popular with Kiwi vacationers. In January you can barely move here and you’ll struggle to find accommodation, but the shoulder seasons can be surprisingly quiet, and outside December, January and February room prices drop considerably. Most of the bay’s facilities cluster along the southern shore of the peninsula in a string of beachside settlements – Coopers Beach, Cable Bay and Taipa Bay – running west from picturesque Mangonui.
Claiming that nuclear testing was completely safe, the French government for decades conducted tests on the tiny Pacific atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa, a comfortable 15,000km from Paris, but only 4000km northeast of New Zealand.
In 1966 France turned its back on the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which outlawed atmospheric testing, and relocated Pacific islanders away from their ancestral villages to make way for a barrage of tests over the next eight years. The French authorities claimed that “Not a single particle of radioactive fallout will ever reach an inhabited island” – and yet radiation was routinely detected as far away as Samoa, Fiji and even New Zealand. Increasingly antagonistic public opinion forced the French to conduct their tests underground in deep shafts, where another 200 detonations took place, threatening the geological stability of these fragile coral atolls.
In 1985, Greenpeace coordinated a New Zealand-based protest flotilla, headed by its flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, but before the fleet could set sail from Auckland, the French secret service sabotaged the Rainbow Warrior, detonating two bombs below the waterline. As rescuers recovered the body of Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira, two French secret service agents posing as tourists were arrested. Flatly denying all knowledge at first, the French government was finally forced to admit to what then Prime Minister David Lange described as “a sordid act of international state-backed terrorism”. The two captured agents were sentenced to ten years in jail, but France used all its international muscle to have them serve their sentences on a French Pacific island; they both served less than two years before being honoured and returning to France.
In 1995, to worldwide opprobrium, France announced a further series of tests. Greenpeace duly dispatched Rainbow Warrior II, which was impounded by the French navy on the tenth anniversary of the sinking of the original Rainbow Warrior. In early 1996 the French finally agreed to stop nuclear testing in the Pacific.
West of Matauri Bay, the virtually landlocked and sheltered Whangaroa Harbour is the perfect antidote to Bay of Islands’ commercialism. The scenery, albeit on a smaller scale, is easily a match for its southern cousin and, despite the limited facilities, you can still get out on a cruise or to join the big-game fishers. Narrow inlets forge between cliffs and steep hills, most notably the two bald volcanic plugs, St Paul and St Peter, which rise behind the harbour’s two settlements, WHANGAROA on the south side, and TOTARA NORTH opposite.
Whangaroa Harbour was among the first areas in New Zealand to be visited by European pioneers, most famously those aboard the Boyd, which called here in 1809 to load kauri spars for shipping to Britain. A couple of days after its arrival, all 66 crew were killed and the ship burned by local Maori in retribution for the crew’s mistreatment of Tara, a high-born Maori sailor who had apparently transgressed the ship’s rules. A British whaler avenged the incident by burning the entire Maori village, sparking off a series of skirmishes that spread over the north for five years. Later the vast stands of kauri were hacked down and milled, some at Totara North. Even if you’re just passing through, it’s worth driving the 4km along the northern shore of the harbour to Totara North, passing the remains of this historic community’s last sawmills, which ceased operation a few years back.
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.
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.
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.
(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).
(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.
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.
South of the kauri forests are the muddy, mangrove-choked shores of the Kaipara Harbour, New Zealand’s largest. The harbour once unified this quarter of Northland, with sailboats plying its waters and linking the dairy farming and logging towns on its shores. Kauri was shipped out from the largest northern town, Dargaville, though the fragile boats all too often foundered on the unpredictable Kaipara Bar. Many eventually washed up on Ripiro Beach, which just pips Ninety Mile Beach to the title of New Zealand’s longest, running for 108km.
The roads that access the coast around Tutukaka and Matapouri rejoin SH1 at Hikurangi 16km north of Whangarei. About 6km further north you have a choice of routes: both go to the Bay of Islands but approach from different directions: carry straight on and you go direct to Paihia with opportunities for side trips to the Maori redoubt of Ruapekapeka Pa, and the Hundertwasser toilets at Kawakawa; turn right along Old Russell Road and you twist towards the coast on the tar-sealed but narrow and winding back road to Russell. The latter route is the most scenic way to approach the Bay of Islands, along a 70km narrow, winding road that takes about two hours. You can spin the drive out by admiring the wonderful coastline around the Whangaruru Harbour, stopping for swims in numerous gorgeous bays, and perhaps a short walk in the mixed kauri forest of the Ngaiotonga Scenic Reserve.
Northland’s best overnight tramp is the challenging but rewarding Cape Brett Track (20km each way; 6–8hr) which follows the hilly ridge along the centre of the peninsula with sea occasionally visible on both sides: a route outlined in DOC’s Cape Brett leaflet. The former lighthouse keeper’s house at the tip of the peninsula is now a DOC hut (23 beds; $12.20; backcountry hut pass not valid) and the only place to stay on the track itself, in a fabulous location surrounded by sea and views out to the Hole in the Rock. There are gas cooking stoves but no utensils, and camping is not allowed.
The track starts in Rawhiti and crosses private land, so all walkers must pay a track fee ($30; day walkers $10). The Russell Booking & Information Centre is the place to pay your track fee, book the DOC hut and ask about secure parking in Rawhiti. You might also enquire about a water taxi from Russell to Rawhiti (around $170 for up to six people), Deep Water Cove, three-quarters of the way along the track ($190), or Cape Brett ($230; conditions permitting). Secure parking is available at Hartwells in Kaimarama Bay, at the end of Rawhiti Road, for a small fee.
Despite its prime gateway location to Whangarei Heads’ sweeping beaches and world-class diving around the Poor Knights Islands, Northland’s capital, WHANGAREI (pronounced Fahn-ga-ray), has never had the wherewithal to slow down tourists on their mad dash to the Bay of Islands. But things are changing. The newly developed Town Basin, a shopping and restaurant complex, provides a focal point for visitors and overlooks sleek yachts dotted along the river. Now home to an art museum in the new i-SITE visitor centre, which itself is a welcome extension of the i-SITE on the way into town, the complex is to be enhanced further, over the next two years, by the addition of a Hundertwasser Arts Centre, based on designs Hundertwasser offered the local council before his untimely demise. Married with the area’s rewarding arts trail, the scenic track to Whangarei Falls and a handful of new tours and activities, Whangarei should finally be able to persuade tourists to stick around, for a day or so at least.
Whangarei’s most appealing features currently are its state-of-the-art Kiwi House, the peaceful parks, and the easy walks within a few minutes of the town, the best of which are outlined in the free Whangarei Walks leaflet.