Auckland (my home region) can be a pretty raucous place, especially over periods of celebration. With plenty of public holidays surrounding Christmas and the New Year, my partner and I decided to head out of Auckland to escape the condensed chaos for a few days. New Zealand is an incredibly beautiful country, but as I’ve been more focused on overseas wildlife projects of late I haven’t actually dedicated a lot of time to exploring my own homeland. To mark the transition of 2016 into 2017 we planned to travel as far north as we possible could – to the very tip of New Zealand’s North Island.
We started our little journey on a gorgeous island in the Hauraki Gulf (north of Auckland) with some of my partner’s family for a post-Christmas meetup. I had been to Kawau Island a few times in my youth – but don’t have many vivid memories of it. It is a beautiful place, with some historical features that draw small crowds, and is home to some of NZ’s unique native wildlife such as flightless kiwi and weka birds. As with much of New Zealand, introduced flora and fauna has taken a great toll on the island’s ecosystem, and the effects of these invasive species is observable. Wallabies, for example, were brought to Kawau Island from Australia in the late 1800’s and continue to impact on the native animals and plants. These mammals compete with flightless birds and other animals for food, and browse heavily on young vegetation, hampering the regeneration of native forest.
Kawau Island has no road access, so getting around by car is not an option. Boats are the transportation method of choice, and walking to destinations allows you to take advantage of the beautiful scenery (while keeping active!). Kawau is a stunning place, easily accessible from the mainland while still allowing you to feel far removed from its hustle and bustle.
After our short stay on Kawau Island we headed up to Hokianga, a region along the west coast of New Zealand’s Northland. We drove through the small town of Kohukohu, which is a very cute little place that boasts of its local creative talent and attractions such as fishing, beautiful walks, nights of music and dancing, and several small art galleries. There is a car ferry that departs from Kohukohu, and takes passengers across the Hokianga Harbour to a town called Rawene, another Hokianga village steeped in pre-European Maori and early NZ European settlement history.
After passing through the town of Kohukohu, we turned off onto a gravel road used by logging trucks and residents and arrived at our first accommodation – a gorgeous little place that we found on AirBnB called “Cabin in the Skye”. This cabin was built by hand and reminded me of a beautiful, modest chalet I spent three months living in when I first visited Oregon to work with wolves. The cabin is eco-conscious with a small gas stove-top for cooking, compost toilet and gravity-fed water from a tank. The view of the surrounding forest and harbour in the distance is spectacular, and the experience here was calmingly serene and peaceful. As it is so rural it is not ideal if you are hoping for a central location close to popular tourist destinations, but it is perfect for those wishing to feel instantly separated from the commotion of a busy life. I would definitely spend more time there in the future.
We were based at this little site for a few days, and spent our time exploring nearby beaches and forests. On our first morning we took the car ferry across to Rawene and headed out to find the Koutu Boulders – spherical concretions up to several metres in diameter. I was navigating, and as I was not familiar with the area at all I guessed as to where we should drive. We found a car park and had a wander down to the beach track. It was high tide, and unfortunately we discovered that the hiking track to the largest boulders is only available at low tide from this point. We had a short wander around and saw some small boulders but decided to move on.
From Koutu we travelled down State Highway 12 to Omapere, and relaxed on the beach here for a while. Then, we continued down the Highway for a quick look at the Waipoua Forest. Waipoua is part of the largest remaining native forest in Northland, and is home to plenty of flora and fauna endemic to New Zealand including ancient kauri trees. There are many beautiful hiking tracks through the forest, and we stopped off to quickly visit Tane Mahuta – ‘Lord of the Forest’ – the largest known living kauri tree. It is over 50 metres high, with a girth of over 13 metres. The little track to Tane Mahuta is a popular tourist spot, and there were plenty of people around when we visited. Crowds don’t really hamper this experience in my opinion though, and I would recommend it. It is quite a breath-taking being able to observe a living thing that has been standing for over a thousand years. The dampness of the forest contrasts heavily with the hot, dry sand of the beach only minutes away, and the ability to be so close to the salty ocean as well as native forest is one of the things that I love most about these regions of New Zealand.
The following day we went for another little explore, this time to the beach of Mitimiti which was an hour or so away. Mitimiti has to be one of the most beautiful beaches I have visited to date. Because of its rural, gravel road location, it remains greatly untouched by tourists. There isn’t a proper car park per se, so we stopped at a place with a small handful of other cars and found a few locals enjoying themselves. The beach extends so far in either direction from this spot that we only had to climb around one rocky point to find a wide expanse of beach with absolutely no other people in sight. We spent the day here, only sharing the area with cows, horses and birds. While there is plenty of cattle in New Zealand, this is the first time I have seen cows on a beach, so I was enjoying watching them lie around in the sand, licking salt off the rocks.
At the very top of New Zealand lies Cape Reinga, a powerful place that draws 150,000 visitors every year. This steep headland marks a meeting point for the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and a lighthouse perched 165 metres above sea level acts as guide for passing boats. Cape Reinga is a truly spiritual place – for the Maori people, it is believed that departed spirits travel up the whole of Aotearoa to reach this place. There is a lone pohutakawa tree that snakes it roots down under the ocean, and it is through one of this tree’s tendrils that Maori spirits slide to reach the underworld.
I have always wanted to see Cape Regina – for its beauty, geographical position, and to stand in awe of this spiritual place and pay my respects. On the eve of the New Year, my partner and I drove further north to a small town called Te Kao, about 40 minutes away from Cape Reinga. We dropped our bags off at another AirBnB find, “Mother Jimmies Bach”, where we would be spending the night. I felt a bit spoilt after our Kohukohu accommodation, and Mother Jimmies’ holiday house was not, in my mind, comparable – a typical ‘kiwi’ bach, it had everything you would expect from standard accommodation, room for several more guests, and was comfortable enough but had none of the little quirks and details that made Cabin in the Skye such a beautiful delight. Mother Jimmies is also incredibly rural and quiet though – we could only see one other house in the distance; pasture and waterways were our neighbours.
After getting our bearings with our new accommodation, we then packed some food and did a quick Google search for some inspiration on any recommended stops along the way to Cape Reinga (this was quite tricky as reception was very limited – another bonus if you are wanting to feel far away from things). We stumbled across some commentary about a place called Spirits Bay, and thought we would adventure off to find it. The further north we drove, the drier the surrounding landscapes became. Cattle grazed on yellow grass. The wind whipped thinned and dusty trees. Signs calling for water restrictions and fire hazards dotted our path. Sand dunes, white as snow, crashed near the shores weaving in and out of view.
We did not regret our decision to find this recommended spot. Spirits Bay is yet another beautiful piece of swimmable coast surrounded by rural landscape. The Bay lies east of Cape Reinga, and there is actually a walking track that connects the two via Pandora, another stunning inlet that holds a campsite only accessible by foot. Time didn’t permit us to make the hike to Pandora, but we spent some time soaking in the picturesque Spirits Bay, another area of spiritual significance. Its shimmering blue waters, white sand and inhabited rock pools were a dazzling place to spend the day. There is a campground right next to the bay, and there were plenty of others enjoying the site. If you are to stay here, organisation is a must because of its rural location.
Cape Reinga was the next, and final, stop for the day. A beautiful, winding drive from Spirits Bay brought us to the tip of New Zealand. The Cape can be incredibly blustery, but we had great luck with the weather and found ourselves immersed in this breath-taking spot, bathed only with hot sun in a clear, blue sky and a gentle breeze. The feeling of being on the top of the world, in such a spiritual place, surrounded by oceans is impossible to describe. Hopefully my photos can illustrate some of the attraction the Cape holds.
After the Cape, we headed back to the bach and chatted under incredibly bright stars as the New Year emerged. Fireworks sounded somewhere in the distance, but none were to be seen from this hidden house nestled in dry, rural New Zealand.
Trounson Kauri Park & Kai Iwi Lakes
We wound our way south the following day. It would have taken over six hours to get back home from Mother Jimmies Bach, so we had made a plan to stop roughly halfway and spend a bit more time in Northland before getting back to routine. Trounson Kauri Park was our next stop, the “Birdsnest Holiday Home” our temporary dwelling. This gorgeous AirBnB rental was stunning. Attached to the hosts’ own home, this little chalet contained two beautiful bedrooms, a French-inspired bathroom, its own little kitchenette, and the surrounding gardens were gorgeous. Jasmine flowers waved in the breeze outside the kitchen window, creating a soft perfume. A creek trickled near an outside eating area. Native bird song could be heard from all directions. If I had to choose a favourite between Cabin in the Skye and this treasure, I don’t know if I could.
To satisfy my partner’s quest to go for a daily swim, we decided to have a look at the Kai Iwi Lakes – a group of three freshwater lakes located in a recreational reserve. I had heard about this group of lakes as a spectacular place to visit, and was quite excited to finally get there. New Zealand spoils us for choice with its very many options of forests, mountains, beaches and more to discover, and when we arrived at the Lakes I decided that we had already found my favourite parts of the trip at Mitimiti, Spirits Bay and Cape Reinga. An overflowing campground next to the most popular lake bustled with people dragging kayaks and pool toys over to the water, there was a kids’ activity corner with loud music and many little dancing bodies, and smoke from contained camp fires curling around a throng of vehicles. The wind must have decided to hold off only for our trip to the Cape, because it was in full force at the Lakes. Sand was blowing in all directions, and the surface of the water was very choppy.
The water at the Lakes is far warmer of that of the ocean, and I’m sure I would have been content spending more time there had the wind not been so assertive – it’s a great spot if you enjoy kite surfing, kayaking, jet skiing, etc. but it can be a very busy place.
After the daily swim had been achieved, we decided to stop off at the Trounson Kauri Park, which was a mere ten minutes away from our AirBnB homestead. The Trounson Kauri Park is a restoration project for native forest and wildlife, and as a conservation site dogs are not allowed. There are strict notices instructing people to stay on the pathways because walking off the track can damage fragile kauri roots close to the topsoil. We enjoyed a beautiful 40 minute walk through the Kauri Park, appreciating the sounds, sights and smells of native NZ forest. Pest control is a massive issue in New Zealand, and it takes a lot of work to keep such ecosystems as free of invasive species as possible.
We saw no sign of kiwi that day, but as they are nocturnal animals we decided to head back that night. The Park allows people to come and go as they please, and our wonderful hosts at Birdsnest armed us with a special red lamp attached to a large battery in a backpack. This lamp would allow us to spot the kiwi without upsetting them like a normal torch would.
It was a drizzly night with heavy cloud in the sky. Despite the walk only taking 40 minutes, it occurred to me that we were heavily reliant on this red lamp. We had left our cellphones at the house, and had no other source of light. Stumbling around in the dark there wouldn’t have been ideal, especially with the fragile wildlife around! Thankfully the red lamp did not fail us, and we took our time gazing through shrubs on the ground, listening for sounds of kiwi. The first flash of movement we detected led us to sight a rat racing up a tree. Rats are one of New Zealand’s most notorious pests. Every now and then we would switch off the lamp and tiny blue star-like lights would shine out from around us; glow worms. I had never seen glow worms before that night, and was pretty delighted about it! We found condensed patches of them every time we came across a tree that had toppled over, soil clinging to its roots, glow worms dotted throughout the darkness.
We saw no kiwi, but heard a male and a female calling to each other. I had never heard kiwi call in the wild, and in the heavy darkness of the forest it was incredibly eerie. I can guarantee they sound nothing like you think they might! Females, especially, sound like some kind of strangled animal. Have a listen to the male and female’s call here.
New Zealand’s Northland is a beautiful place. Far less busy and untouched than the widespread region of Auckland, there is much to discover – especially for a quiet-loving, nature enthusiast like myself.