NORTHLAND: MY FAVOURITE PART OF NEW ZEALAND
Wherever I go, I get asked where I’m from. Apparently, I have a face like an indistinguishable mongrel dog, so no one can pick what breed I am. When I tell people I’m from New Zealand, I get one of three responses:
- “Awesome, I love New Zealand!” – People who have been or want to go
- “Fuck off, Kiwi” – Australians
- “Where?” – Rest of the world.
Generally, the conversation moves on to where people have been or want to go in New Zealand, and I am always happy to provide my opinion. I have travelled around New Zealand a fair bit. Definitely not all of it, but enough to know my favourite and least favourite places. I know where most of the tourist traps are, a few cool secret spots, and where to find some of the best pies, ice creams and cheese in the country.
One place I recommend is Northland. Yes I am biased. I’m roughly half Maori, give or take a few percent. My iwi (tribe), is Ngāpuhi who settled in Northland after the migration, so I have some strong family ties to the area.
Northland goes by a few names. The Far North. The Winterless North. Te Tai Tokerau, meaning The Northern Tide. It is hopefully unsurprising this is the name given to the northern tip of New Zealand. It is a sub-tropical region and the weather is generally milder than the rest of the country, making it an easy place to travel, even during winter.
The from the tip of the country, the wild west coast stretches along the inaccurately named 90 Mile Beach and the slightly longer Ripiro Beach, before being broken up by the Hokianga and Kaipara Harbours. The east coast has rugged cliffs, islands, bays and harbours. The land, at least the part not covered in farms, still has large patches of native New Zealand rain forest, including the much loved giants, the Kauri trees.
I’ve written this in a rough road trip heading from Auckland, up along the West Coast to the tip of the country, then back down along the east coast.
KAIWAKA CHEESE SHOP
First things first, get some distance between yourself and Auckland. After an 80 minute drive north, just as you are thinking it might be time to stretch your legs, you should get to Kaiwaka. This shop gets a special mention entirely because I love it so much. I stop by every time I’m heading north and ask to taste everything they have before buying way too much cheese for any one person. The clerks, guided by what you want, cut wedges of cheesy goodness with large knives and charge by weight. They also stock a number of other tasty treats and picnic supplies, so you’ll have something to snack on as you continue on your way.
POUTO PENINSULA AND THE POINT
Pouto Peninsula is an interesting place of constantly moving sand dunes and beaches, with fascinating names like Valley of the Wrecks and The Graveyard. During the years when Kauri logs were shipped out of Northland, 150 ships were wrecked along this treacherous coastline and harbour.
An hour drive from Dargaville, at the end of the peninsula, the oldest wooden lighthouse in New Zealand guards the entrance to the Kaipara Harbour. From here you will get panoramic views of the harbour, the dunes, the lakes, and surrounding area. You can hear the thunderous roar from the Tasman Sea as the waves break against the bar and view the remains of a 63,000 year old Kauri forest.
KAI IWI LAKES
A short drive north of Dargaville are the Kai Iwi lakes and they’re a great place to visit and camp. Kai Iwi lakes are a series of dune lakes of crystal clear fresh water and white sand beaches. Though the water isn’t the warmest, you will still enjoy a swim on a hot day. Keep in mind though, this is a local favourite, so during holiday seasons it can get rather busy.
There are trout in the lakes so feel free to try your hand at fishing, on the condition you have a license. You can more information on licenses from here. Depending on whether you are a resident of New Zealand or a visitor, your license type will vary. Please read the license information carefully; the fines are hefty.
The Waipoua Forest is a large native forest, home to the largest tree in New Zealand. Yes. A tree. In Maori mythology, Tāne Mahuta is the Lord of the Forest, eldest son of the Rangi, the sky father and Papa, the earth mother. In the beginning, Rangi and Papa were bound together, and the world was darkness between them. Tāne Mahuta, lay on his back and thrust his legs into the sky and separated his parents, letting in the light of the world.
The kauri, Agathis australis, are the largest trees in New Zealand by volume, though not by height, still reaching a fairly impressive fifty metres tall. They are some of the most ancient forests in the world, with antecedents appearing during the Jurassic period. Tāne Mahuta is estimated to be over 2000 years old, so if you visit, don’t touch it or stand on it. It’s root system is fairly delicate, even for such a huge old tree. There is a boardwalk with places to take photos.
This tree is still alive and still provides seeds to the few people who are permitted to remove them.
Sandboarding isn’t much of a sport, but it is still a lot of fun. Opononi is a great place to do it as the dunes are large enough to get a decent ride. The easiest and probably the best way is to join a tour with Hokianga Express Charters. They’ll arrange to take you over to the dunes, provide you with a board, and teach you what to do. Not that the process is complicated. You basically climb to the top of a sand dune, then do a running leap and slide to the bottom of the dune, while trying to avoid falling off or getting sand in your mouth and eyes. If the tides are right, see how far out into the harbour you can make it.
Just be aware, there is nothing out at the dunes, so take everything along with you; things like sunscreen, water and food.
If you are heading north in a car, you can catch a ferry at Rawene across the Hokianga Harbour.
At the bottom of the South Island are the Moeraki boulders; giant spherical boulders that people love to take photos of. However, the same can be found in the Hokianga Harbour, if you know where to look. While I could try to explain it to you, Google maps has it covered.
The boulders are an example of concretion, a process where a mineral cements particulate matter together and the surrounding sediment erodes. The results are large spherical boulders that men will joke about having as testicles for a few days after seeing them. In fact having a pair of Koutu Boulders might be a new term I can start using when doing something exceptionally stupid, which happens a fair bit.
90 MILE BEACH
While technically not 90 miles long, it is still a good 88 kilometres long. Long enough to find a place to relax and enjoy. At one end is Ahipara, a small township with some handy campsites and cabins.
Other than the usual beach activities of burning yourself to a crisp in the harsh New Zealand sun with the occasional swim or game of frisbee, you should also shuffle through the wet sand shortly before low tide looking for tuatua. They’re a small, edible shellfish perfect for a small feast. They can be steamed until the shells open and eaten as they are, or added to any number of recipes, like fritters.
There is currently a limit of 150 tuatua per person, but check this before you start fishing to ensure the rules haven’t changed.
While not technically the most northern point of New Zealand, it is the most significant for a couple of cool reasons. The Maori name for this place is Te Rerenga Wairua, which means the leaping or flying place of spirits. According to Maori mythology, when people die, the spirits of the dead journey to this place before leaving New Zealand to the underworld. I have no proof this is either true or false.
It is here that the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. On clear days, a visible line can be seen heading north from the point. Dolphins can be often be seen playing in the waters. There is also an 800 year old pohutukawa tree on the point, which you can see from the lighthouse. It would be a mystical and spiritual place, if not for the continuously howling westerly wind and the busloads of tourists who constantly swarm the area. However it is a must see, even for the hipster backpacker who would normally refuse to see anything so mainstream.
The pohutukawa tree at Cape Reinga
TE KAO LOCAL STORE
On your way to or from Cape Reinga, you’ll likely be driving along state highway 1 through the district of Te Kao. Along this road, you will pass Te Kao Local Store. Their claim to fame is they sell the largest ice creams in New Zealand. They have many challengers, but if they’re not the largest, they are definitely a contender. If it is a hot day, a warmish day or you’re like me and will eat ice cream any damn time you want because you’re an adult and can make up your own mind when you should or should not eat ice cream, then stop in and get one.
The Kauri forests, ancient giants of New Zealand’s history, have fallen over in huge numbers during the millennia. No one seems to agree why. Some theorise it was the encroaching sands from the coast, which have since retreated again. Others state there may have been large natural disasters, such as tsunamis or the Oruanui eruption. For those unfamiliar with this, it was a volcanic eruption that created Lake Taupo in the North Island. It had an explosivity index of 8, making it mega-colossal. I really just wanted to use mega-colossal in this article. MEGA-COLOSSAL.
During the 1800’s a boom happened in New Zealand. The fossilised or sub-fossilised gum from the Kauri trees was found to be useful for a few things to Europeans. It was used in jewellery, and furniture, but primarily used to make varnish. Boom. Gum digging became a lucrative occupation, though an extremely difficult one. Pits were dug in the ground and the diggers would cut through the remains of the buried Kauri to find the gum. It was hard, dirty, and back breaking labour.
Gumdiggers Park showcases what life was like for the gum diggers, many of whom migrated to New Zealand from Dalmatia, one of the four historical regions of Croatia. I have family ties back to Korčula, from a gum digger in Northland who got rather friendly with my great great grandmother.
MANGŌNUI FISH AND CHIPS
Fish and Chips. While the kiwi accent may sound ridiculous when saying it, fish and chips have been a standard take away meal in New Zealand for generations. Originally, deep fried fish and chips were wrapped in newspaper, carried to the beach, and consumed along with tomato sauce and sand, while surrounded by obnoxious, screaming sea gulls. Now they’ve removed the toxic newspaper ink, you can sit at a table, but the tomato sauce and obnoxious little assholes have remained the same. While Mangōnui fish and chips may not be the best in New Zealand, it is definitely one of the most famous, and they’re at least pretty decent.
Aroha means love in Maori, so this is literally Love Island and it is one of the few places I have seen wild kiwi. The bird. Not the fruit or the people. Small, mostly blind and flightless, they’re a perfectly ironic national symbol. They are nocturnal, so if you want to see one, you will have to hunt for them at night. They cannot see red light, so cover your torch with red plastic and sneak along the paths. When I say sneak, I mean it. They may be almost blind, but they’re not deaf and they can smell cheap cologne four days after you washed it off.
Aroha Island has a nice campground next to the water and kayaks you can use to drift around the coastline. In the right season, it is a beautifully idyllic spot. In the wrong season, you may be surrounded by holiday makers and their crotch spawn.
Paihia is a small, popular town in the Bay of Islands and where most visitors stay when exploring this area of Northland.
One of the most historically significant sites in New Zealand is Waitangi. This is where the Treaty of Waitangi was initially signed on February 6, 1840 by the Crown and several Maori chiefs, suspending years of warring between English settlers and Maori. While it was far from perfect and is still the basis for much controversy today, it has been one of the foundations of peace in New Zealand.
If you’re at a loss to decide what to eat while wandering around Paihia, try Krumz Bakery who do the best pies in the area, possibly in New Zealand. I miss pies. No one does them the way New Zealand does.
If you enjoy walking, there is a great walk from the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, through an amazing mangrove forest, to Haruru Falls. Haruru means ‘roar’, so you should expect to hear these falls before you see them. The walk is around six kilometres each way, so will take you around 2.5 hours each way. If walking isn’t your thing, you can kayak through the mangrove forest as well. Better yet, get someone else to paddling you through while you fan yourself and enjoy the sunshine.
The waka (canoe) at Waitangi
MATAPOURI BAY, WHALE BAY, AND THE MERMAID POOL
Matapouri Bay is a beautiful stop by itself. White sand beach, perfect for wandering along, or picnicking on. Stop and relax, go for a swim and enjoy. There is also a nice estuary, which is perfect for smaller family members to paddling around in. You’ll often find locals jumping off the bridge, regardless whether they’re allowed to or not. Jumping off things into water is too much fun to let a few jerks ruin it by making it illegal.
If you are looking for a place with a little more privacy, there is also Whale Bay. There is a carpark on Matapouri Road and a short 15 minute walk to the beach or you can wander the 40 minute walk from Matapouri Bay. Yet another great spot for swimming, snorkelling and picnics.
What makes it Matapouri special for me though, is the mermaid pool. Sure, it is basically just a rock pool, but it is beautiful and interesting. Here’s how you get there:
- Wait for low-ish tide.
- Walk to the northern end of Matapouri bay.
- Look up the hill at the tiny path and think to yourself “that doesn’t look all that steep”
- Climb up said path. Regret not wearing proper shoes.
- Wander through the palm grove. Get slightly lost because the path seems to disappears.
- Climb down the other side of hill.
- Find and inspect mermaid pool.
Note: Do not smash your face on the bottom of the mermaid pool while diving into it.
Heading south, before you get to Whangarei proper, there is an easy stop at Whangarei Falls, easy in that there is a nice boarded walk to the falls and they are pretty nice to look at, assuming you think waterfalls are worth any time at all.
There is a description of the Waipu Caves here. This description is probably better than I could do, and the site will give you updated information on the area. You will need a torch, and probably some old clothes and it will likely be muddy and wet. You have been warned.
The walk is an hour and a half return, not including any time you spend check the caves out. The glow worms are not far from the entrance and access is quite wide.
The caves themselves are great, but there are some risks involved. These caves are completely undeveloped, but they’re free. If you are not an experienced caver, then be careful how far into the cave you go. There is water in the cave and it may be muddy. The water can also rise, so check the rainfall and don’t do anything stupid.
Mangawhai Heads, New Zealand
EAST COAST BEACHES
From the Great Exhibition Bay to Omaha Bay, the coast is dotted with small towns of bachs, holiday escapes, and the homes of people embracing the quiet Kiwi lifestyle. Fishing, swimming, surfing and diving. Lazing on the beach, wandering to the shop for an ice cream. If all you want to do is as little as possible, the east coast of Northland is a pretty great place to do it. I loved it so much I bought a house there.
HANGI AND KUMARA
Almost every country has a traditional meal. In New Zealand, nothing is more traditional than hangi. Originally used by maori to cook vegetables, it has now grown to include meat and other foods. Raw food is wrapped, placed in baskets, and laid in a pit, on heated rocks. It is then buried in soil and left for several hours. The resulting food is unique in taste and absolutely delicious. The process has been handed down from generation to generation, including the stones themselves.
You will also get to try kumara. It is a purple sweet potato that tastes like no other I have come across. It is the one food I miss more than any other while I am away, and it is just an average root vegetable. MmMMm mashed kumara is my favourite.
GO TO NORTHLAND!
This is Northland, New Zealand. Often overlooked in favour of other parts of Aotearoa, it is such a massive shame. There is more to do in Northland than people realise, especially if you want to experience the kiwi lifestyle that New Zealand is famous for. I really do recommend it to anyone heading down our way!
Keep travelling! Hope you’re having a great time wherever you are.