Adventures Up North

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February 14th 2008
Published: February 22nd 2008
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Day 103: Forest Giants and Harbour Retreats

I'm not sure what it is about Auckland, but as had been the case when I first arrived here seven weeks ago and stayed at a different YHA, I was again sharing a small dorm with a group of Germans girls, and again they decided to get up ridiculously early to pack very slowly. Rather annoyed, I gave up hope of sleeping at seven and went out for breakfast leaving them to it. Again, I've nothing particular against Germans in general, just one's that I have to share dorms with in Auckland. My mood wasn't helped by the fact that I was soon to be picking up a car and driving on my own in unknown territory in a country where I had no idea what the national speed limit was, let alone the rules of the road. I was starting to get quite anxious about the whole thing and wondering if I was making a big mistake and should have just got on a tourbus and have done with it. After an hour or two procrastinating, packing up my luggage and eating another breakfast, I walked the forty minutes down to the rental agency. Theoretically I could have left my luggage at the hostel, to save myself lugging it all the way through town, but I didn't even trust that I would be able to figure out how to drive to the hostel, so I decided to not take any chances and just carry it with me.

Having completed a bit of paperwork, discovered that insurance isn't required for driving in New Zealand and then opting for the maximum cover and minimum excess anyway, I was given the keys to my car without further ado. It was a bit of a shaky start, but I was soon driving out on to the main road and joining the rest of the Auckland morning traffic. 'Twinkle' (because all inanimate but functional objects need names), a four gear Toyota Starlet, was thankfully quite easy to drive, and five minutes later, I'd made it as far as the local supermarket where I stocked up on lots of food for the journey (and days) ahead.

Getting out onto the local highway, which soon became a motorway, I did realise that I'd been so concerned about driving, I didn't actually have much of a clue where I was going. I took a turnoff into a small town outside Auckland and, on looking at a highways map of New Zealand in a free leaflet from a petrol station, realised that I was taking a rather indirect route up north. Not wanting to attempt to find the more direct roads, I thought I'd just stick with the direction I was headed. It might have been a bit slow, but it'd get me there eventually!

The motorway petered out to become a single lane state highway and I was making good progress up the west coast when I saw a sign for the 'Kauri Museum'. It was approaching lunchtime, so I thought it would be a good place to stop. Leaving the main road, I drove a few kilometres following the signs before pulling up outside the museum.

I'm very glad I took a break from driving when I did. Although quite pricy to go in, the museum was fascinating and discussed the history of Kauri (giant trees), logging in the area, uses of Kauri and it's gum, and had exhibits ranging from old photos, machinery used for logging, and longitudinal sections of ancient trees, thousands of years old, dredged up from peat bogs. It doesn't sound that exciting, but it was really well done with pretty much the whole museum also made out of Kauri timber. Definitely the best museum I've been to in a long time.

My lunchtime stop learning more about the Kauri did take slightly more time than expected and it was three o'clock before I finally got back on the road heading up the coast again. As the road became more winding and hilly, Twinkle and I entered the Waipoua forest, home to lots of native flora and fauna, including kiwis (the birds, not the people) and the giant kauri trees that I'd just learned so much about. With signs directing you to famed giant kauri, I found I couldn't just keep heading north without stopping, and so I pulled into a carpark off the main highway (c.f. very narrow treacherous road) and followed directions for nature walks to see some trees. First off, I went on a short walk to see the four sisters, four giant kauri trees, ten minutes into the forest. It was then a further twenty minutes walk to the extremely impressive Te Matua Ngahere, the second largest tree in New Zealand, only 30 metres high, but with a girth of over 16 metres. It was quite awesome, and probably my favourite tree of the forest, since it was less visited than Tane Mahuta, the biggest tree in the country, standing 20m taller (but having smaller trunk diameter), which I visited half an hour later. I was a bit disappointed that you weren't able to go right up to the trees, but apparently it can damage their roots (which is not meant to be very good for said giant trees), so treehugging was sadly ruled out.

Back in the car and on the road, it was an hour's drive up to Rawene ferry port on the south side of Hokianga harbour. I would have made it in plenty of time for the half-six ferry had I not had to stop several times to get out of the car and admire the awesome view overlooking villages, the giant harbour, and humungous sand dunes on the north side of the inlet. With five minutes to spare, I got to Rawene, and drove straight aboard the car ferry saving me an hour long drive skirting round the water of Hokianga Harbour. Ten minutes and four kilometres later, I was driving off onto the north shore and along the road to 'The Treehouse', a lush wooden lodge set in sub-tropical forest, surrounded by flowers, bushes, sheep, cows, chickens, ducks and a turkey. Away from towns and bars and all mod-cons, it was a perfect place to stay and relax overnight. I soon got chatting to a few other guests, who had had the foresight to bring wine with them and were more than willing to donate a glass or two to a weary Pom passing through.

Day 104: Remote roads and Beautiful beaches

Despite waking up early to the sound of cockrels crowing, I had decided that I quite liked the Treehouse and so was quite reluctant to actually get going and leave, soon deciding that I should probably stay another night. Half the morning was spent sitting on a wooden sunlounger reading a book and listening to the insects and animals. Even when I did finally get going, I wasn't moving very fast. There's something very relaxed about this place, that means you don't really do anything too quickly, and after chatting to a guy from Auckland for a while about the best places to visit in the area, I drove out to the local village of Kohukohu, five minutes down the road.

I think the main beauty of Hokianga has to be that there's nothing much to do but relax here. Kohokohu is a sleepy little settlement, with quite a few pretty wooden houses, a lovely church, a shop, a cafe and a couple of galleries exhibiting a fairly eclectic selection of work. I stopped for a while at one of the galleries and chatted to one of the locals (they're a friendly bunch here). As well as having a large maori population (along with a lot of the northland), Kohukohu and associated towns and villages have been a magnet for artists (and hippies) seeking a bit of peace and quiet from the cities on the rest of the North Island, particularly Auckland. The exhibitions were quite good, particularly some black and white photos of the local area which were for sale in one of the galleries.

After stopping off for a ginger beer at the cafe overlooking the water, I drove back to the treehouse for lunch, before heading out in the opposite direction to explore another little town on the West Coast of the Northland. Since my map showed only the state highways, I wasn't too sure about heading off down the minor roads of the remote north, but it turns out I needn't have worried, since there aren't too many roads up here, and the infrequent towns are generally well signposted, so it's quite hard to get lost. About halfway through the journey, I was off the tarmac and driving down the gravel tracks towards Mitimiti, a settlement in the middle of nowhere.

I had wondered why Twinkle had scratches all over her paintwork, but travelling even at slow speeds along the unsealed roads (avoiding the cows), I soon found out, as stones flew here there and everywhere. After about an hour of driving, I finally found myself driving down towards beautiful golden sand and the beach at Mitimiti. It really was a beautiful place, and apart from the odd quad bike or rangerover, presumably driven along the sand by locals, I had the place to myself, and led out on the sand watching the waves come in. Having seen sheep on cycle paths, cows on roads, and chickens at backpacker lodges, I didn't think I'd be surprised seeing New Zealand's animals anywhere, but I was a bit bemused when three horses came down the beach, walking past across the sand. There was noone around to stop them and they looked happy enough, but it certainly seemed quite unusual. Bit like that Guiness ad (but slower).

Later that evening, I again met my fellow guests (they're a friendly bunch passing through here) and had a pleasant evening eating and talking. Given that I have grand plans to get up early in the morning and hit the open road (I'm not sure where to yet though), I turned down an offer of wine. Now that doesn't happen very often. Twinkle must be having a good influence on me!

Day 105: The Coastal Roadtrip continues

One of the joys of not relying on public transport has to be that I don't have to set my alarm clock for ridiculously early and run according to a schedule. Having had a dorm to myself, I woke up naturally at half-eight after more than nine hours of blissful sleep. Although I had meant to leave slightly earlier, it was quite cloudy and had been raining overnight, so at least I wasn't really missing out on fabulous beach weather, and before long, I was on my way, heading further north along the highway, desperately seeking a petrol station (fortunately encountered 30km later).

First stop was Ahipara, a lovely little seaside town, and the start of the famous ninety mile beach. The weather had brightened up a little, and it proved to be a nice place to stop for lunch, looking out to sea and watching the world go by. I managed to avoid the temptation of taking my car out onto the sand and instead watched other drivers with more suitable vehicles head up the beach towards the most northern point of New Zealand.

From Ahipara, I drove through a couple of other seaside resorts and stopped at the rather lovely but windy Cable Bay, with a long sandy beach, which seemed to be an attraction for tourists and locals alike. I had another stop here, with time for an icecream, before continuing on towards the West Coast and the little harbour town of Whangaroa. I soon found a nice little hostel with vacancies and having ditched my backpack in the dorm, went for a walk around town, which consisted of all of about 20 houses, a shop, and a very popular gamefishing centre, with about 40 cars in the carpark. Shortly after I got back, the communal lounge started to fill up as guests and friends of the owner started to arrive back at the hostel. There followed a very fishy evening of free wine and nibbles, which largely consisted of giant mussels, scallops and crayfish, and stories of incredible catches and escapes from sharks. It was all a bit random, but as long as there was wine, I was content to make small talk, even if I was surrounded by tonnes of shellfish. I tried to sort out a sailing boat to go out in the next day, but with the weather changing and noone else interested in anything but fishing, I didn't have much luck. I'm subsequently just going to stay the one night here and move on tomorrow, probably down to the Bay of Islands just south of here, the Northland's main tourist attraction.

Day 106: Heading back south to the hellhole of the Pacific

So I wan't feeling my best this morning, but sitting down to breakfast it turned out that I was in good company, and after a cup or two of coffee, I was back in my car driving south down the east coast to the town of Kerikeri, where the weekly farmer's market was underway. Following another breakfast, I was feeling a bit better and ready to continue with the journey.

On route to the Bay of Islands, I passed through Waitangi, the town where the famous treaty (of Waitangi) was signed between Maori and Europeans in 1840. I ended up stopping here for a couple of hours to look around the treaty house (now containing exhibits and displays detailing the history of maori and European relations), the marae (maori meeting house), giant kauri wakas (canoes), watch a short film and admire the view. Despite having been a very wet and windy morning, by the time I left Waitangi, it had become unpleasantly hot and really humid. I continued on a little way to the tourist resort of Paihaia where most backpackers base themselves when visiting the Bay. However having heard that the little town 15km across the water used to be known as the 'Hellhole of the Pacific', I was quite intrigued and thought I'd leave the tourist mecca and head over there instead.

Having got across the water on a car ferry, I soon found that there was nothing hellish about the little town of Russell, with it's reputation having improved somewhat over the last hundred and fifty years, it was now a fairly quaint, not-too-touristy seaside town. Although small, there were a couple of backpackers places, and I stopped at the first one I came to. It turned out that I couldn't have picked a better place to stay. 'Sheltered Waters' seemed to be a cross between a homestay and a backpackers, with family, rottweiler, cat and lodgers sharing the lounge and kitchen; and sleeping quarters divided between an adjoining ten-bed dorm and couple of rooms. Although noone from the family was home when I got there, a couple of the other lodgers said I should pick a bed, and make myself a cup of tea while I waited. Well, I didn't need to be told twice, and even managed a quick sleep before the owners got home. I didn't do to much in the evening, but joined everyone else in the hostel sitting around in the lounge, semi-watching television (which I seem to have lost all interest in having not seen it for a couple of months). It's as well I don't have long left in New Zealand, because otherwise I think I could find it quite hard to leave this place!

Day 107: Out on the water

You haven't really experienced the Bay of Islands until you've actually been out on the water and explored the bay (and islands) a little, and so that was the plan for the day. After a hot sticky night, I was up early and head down into town. First stop was the local DOC office to book a hut ticket. With a nearby walk along the peninsula to Cape Brett supposedly one of the most popular tramps in the Northland, I was keen to head out there, and so booked by hut ticket for tomorrow night ready for one last tramp in New Zealand. Although popular, at the time of booking, I seem to be the only person due to stay at the hut tomorrow. That could be quite exciting, having a whole hut to myself in the middle of nowhere. I almost hope noone else books!

Tramping adventures sorted, I went down to the wharf and met Richard and his sailing boat, which already had a name so I didn't have to think of one, Honfleur. After boarding the boat, we crossed the bay to Paihia to pick up two other passengers (both Poms who spoke like Patsy in Ab Fab, but pleasant enough). From there, we motored out into the bay, before picking up a breeze, hoisting the sail and cruising out amongst the islands. First surprise of the day were the dolphins, and friendly dolphins at that, with several of them swimming alongside the boat trying to keep up with us. We sailed with them for a while before leaving heading out to a small bay surrounded by volcanic giants causeway style mini-islands. Not put off by the sighting of a 'harmless' blue shark, we all put on snorkels and flippers and swam around the basalt rocks, looking at starfish, lots of seaweed and a variety of fish.

Next stop was one of the islands. Used as a base and lookout for soldiers in World War Two when a Japanese invasion had been envisaged, there were a few shelters and gun mounts still on the island, which we were free to walk around, looking at these and admiring the views over the bay for an hour whilst lunch was prepared. Remembering that people here eat fush, fush, and more fush, I had prewarned Richard and so back on the boat, got to tuck into an avacado and cheese sandwich instead. It was then a gentle cruise back to terra firma, and lulled by the sound of water lapping around the boat, I managed to fall asleep, waking up as we arrived closer to our destination. Back in town, I head to the local supermarket to stock up on food ready for my two day tramp starting the next day, before walking back up to my accomodation for another evening relaxing on a sofa with food, television and good company.

Day 108: Tropical tramping along the Cape

"Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did." Mark Twain

Having packed up and spent a couple of hours procrastinating, I eventually left the house in Russell and drove to Rawhiti. Although only about 40km away, the drive was mainly down a very bendy unsealed road and therefore took the best part of an hour. By the time I'd left the car (on a local person's front lawn for the sum of five dollars), and walked to the start of the track, it was eleven o'clock and probably about thirty degrees. Although I had them packed, even without a sleeping bag, I was soon quite sure I wouldn't be needing my thermals at any point over the course of the next couple of days.

The track from Rawhiti to Cape Brett was tough. There were no flat bits, not even any gentle slopes. If you weren't ascending a very steep track, then you were descending one, and that's the way it continued for twenty kilometres. The only real saving grace was that the path was largely out of direct sunlight, with welcome patches of shade provided by the surrounding bush. After the first hour and half of steep uphill, I was practically crawling and had already got through a significant volume of the three litres of water I'd brought with me. I'm not really one to turn back and give up, but it did cross my mind once or twice. Luckily, thoughts of quitting were pushed to the back of my mind, when my efforts were rewarded by fantastic views from the first summit out over the islands in the bay below, and with renewed energy (and a short period of downhill), I continued on. Apart from a few stops for food and liquid refreshments, I plodded on for the best part of seven hours, whilst water supplies were soon depleted. In the absence of farm animals in the area, I had assumed that water from the streams marked on the map in the last five kilometres of the walk would be fine to drink from. On close inspection however, I found that there were possom bait signs a little too close to the water than would be ideal and decided not to risk it.

The final hour and a half was possibly the worst bit of the walk, as the track left the bush, and without water, I followed an exposed path in blazing sunlight out towards the cape. Negotiating my way along the ridge past steep drops on either side, the end seemed to be impossibly far away right up until the last ten minutes. I was just about able to appreciate the fantastic views of beautiful isolated little coves below and distant islands beyond, but to be honest, I just wanted to get the end by that point!

Just before six, I finally reached the highest point of Cape Brett, and not far below me I finally saw the gleaming white lighthouse, with the ex-lighthouse keeper's cottage where I would be staying the night another hundred metres or so below, surrounded by the remnants of shelters built in World War Two.

I stumbled down to the lighthouse, circled it and admired it for all of about thirty seconds, before stumbling down the slopes to the cottage. With no marked path down the hill, reaching the building proved to be one final hurdle as I had to lift my legs high to negotiate a route down through tall dry knee deep grass and shrubs. It was a bit of a struggle, but I got there eventually, and remembering the code for the padlock on the door, I let myself into the cottage and finally rested in the shade.

After a few minutes respite, I realised I should probably drink something. I turned on the tap in the kitchen, and a few drops of water dribbled out into the sink. I was worried for a little while, until I found the water tank behind the cottage and switched the valve into the 'on' position. Although the water didn't come thick and fast, at least there was some. Unfortunately, with the water supply coming from rain water, and it having not rained on the cape for over a month, it tasted quite foul. Not usually concerned with water quality (unless there's a blatant high risk of poisoning), I still wasn't going to be drinking from the supply at Cape Brett until it had been boiled for a good ten minutes. There followed the next task, how the hell to turn on the gas supply. I'm quite happy playing around trying to figure out how to turn water on, but gas was a different matter. Normally there's someone else around to sort out stuff like that. Self-sufficiency is good up to a point, but I was starting get rather frustrated (and very dehydrated). Although I found the gas cylinders around the side of the buildng and figured out how to connect them and open the right valve, the strong gas odour in the vicinity was slightly off-putting, but there didn't seem to be the same smell in the kitchen, so I chanced lighting the stove. Incredibly it worked, and I was sitting down rehydrating with cups of hot water in no time.

With the production of a steady supply of drinking water underway, I started on dinner, noodles in spicy sauce, ready to eat in five minutes. Fantastic! All fed and watered, the wind was picking up outside, and so putting on a snuggly fleece and taking a torch, I went out to watch the sun set over the Bay of Islands. I've seen quite a few lovely sunsets, but this one, watched from a windy cliff top with noone else around for miles, was fantastic.

After the sun had gone down, it was almost pitch blackness in the cottage, and I sat at the kitchen table for while, reading by candle and torch light. It was all going well until my torch battery started to go flat, leaving me alone in the hundred year old cottage (with creaky wooden floorboards), with just candlelight to see by. Suddenly, being alone in the middle of nowhere didn't seem quite so fun. I carried the candle into the bunk room where I had left my bag, before hastily checking the other two bunkrooms for new guests and intruders. I didn't have a sleeping bag, but despite it being a very warm night, I was all of a sudden quite keen to have something to hide under. As it was, my luck was in, and I found an old duvet on a bunk in the back room. Not really caring who had used it before, or where it had been, I was soon hiding under it on a bottom bunk in the largest dorm.

It turned out to be a very long night. I had been a bit startled by the light that kept shining in through the window, and with my kidneys finally kicking in, I needed to get up anyway and headed outside to the toilet more than a little scared as to what might be there. Well, it turned out that the lighthouse has to be one of the few left that still actually functions, and therein was my flashing light. With that mystery solved and having negotiated the joys of a compost toilet in pitch blackness, I head back to the cottage to find the front door wide open. Properly spooked, there followed another episode of me going from room to room, bunk to bunk, and checking every possible nook and cranny for intruders. Finding none, I dived back into my bed and hid under the duvet, scared at every little noise, insside and out. By the early hours, I had a pounding headache, but I wasn't about to start on a water boiling mission, and so I sat it out, sleeping intermittently until daylight finally came.

Day 109: The final tramp

It took about ten minutes just to sit up this morning. I was not definitely not a well one! With water as a priority, I took some painkillers and set about sorting out the gas and water again and boiling pans ready for the day ahead. Two hours later, and still moving very slowly, I was heading back up the steep grassy hill towards the lighthouse and the path beyond. My headache had eased a little, and although a bit of a struggle, I managed to get though the exposed stretch of the track, and was soon continuing into the slightly more shady bush. Unlike on the previous day when I had encountered one day walker and two people from DOC doing track maintenance, today I met absolutely noone. Feeling the heat, and having seen more stoats than people, I soon stripped down to my bikini top, shorts and hiking boots. Possibly not the prettiest sight, but a million times better than the cotton t-shirt I had been wearing (the only clean top I'd had left).

Just as hot as it had been on the previous day, the walk was far from easy. Although I was still appreciative of the fabulous views out over the bay, I was really wishing that I had booked a watertaxi for the journey back. Although it had been very slow and painful, six and a half steep hours later, I finally heard voices, as I approached the steps leading down to the beach at Rawhiti. Very relieved, I got dressed again, and leaving the track, struggled up the gravel road, reaching Twinkle twenty minutes later.

With boots off and air conditioning on I started back driving to Russell, where the first stop was for copious water, diet coke and salt and vinegar crisps, which I drank and ate before even leaving the carpark.

After picking up my things from the hostel, I got straight back in the car and continued on down the coast to Whangerei, where I was due at a friend's house for a barbecue.One ferry ride and a seventy kilometre drive later, I arrived, still sweaty, unwashed, and wearing tramping gear, all ready for a shower and some more food and water. It was really good to see Murgs (who I used to play football with) and meet her flatmates, but I was absolutely shattered. I lasted a couple of hours, but was still feeling very tired and quite dehydrated, and with my headache back with avengence, I had to make my excuses and disappear off to bed with another gallon of water.

Mental note to self: carry more water when walking in ridiculously hot weather....or more sensibly, just book a watertaxi.

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