A real silver lining

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Oceania » New Zealand » North Island » Northland
April 21st 2017
Published: June 8th 2017
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New Zealand wasn’t on The List, at least not in the then-immediate future. It’s no criticism of NZ in the slightest: I’d had a wonderful time there in ’93 and was tentatively planning a return in 2018. But then breaking my collarbone wasn’t on The List either – in fact, it wasn’t on any list. By a curious quirk of fate, the one led to the other. And so, needing to leave Australia briefly for visa reasons ahead of an operation to fix the break which had steadfastly refused to repair itself since a car accident in December, I took myself off to Northland, the northern-most region of New Zealand’s North Island (with all those ‘north’s, you’d think it might be somewhere further up the planet than on a level with the tip of South Africa), the latest in a surprising profusion of silver linings I’d found on Cloud Clavicle. And when my shoulder ached with way too many gear changes on the winding roads, I tried to remember that I had it to thank for my being here in the first place. Besides, it was going to feel a whole lot worse in the coming weeks…

The advice to stay on in Australia for the operation had come less than a week before I was due to fly home at the end of my annual escape-the-northern-hemisphere-winter sojourn Down Under, and ten days before my then-current right to remain in Australia was due to expire. Greedily I’d started looking at a range of destinations to fulfil my need to leave the country – Tonga, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia… – but I realised that my timing wasn’t great. My must-leave-the-country date unhelpfully coincided with the Easter weekend, so prices were going through the roof, and the back end of the cyclone season promised soggy-fying levels of humidity. I’ve “done” monsoon season once – in Kerala in 2011 – and that was quite enough for the time being, even without spending literally thousands of dollars for the experience. Towels and clothes that smelled perpetually mouldy, and technology waving the white flag: not my idea of fun. So New Zealand it would be, and for a couple of days I pored over the Northland chapter in the Lonely Planet and the internet. Airbnb saved me wrestling with last minute (non-)availability, and came up with reasonably priced options halfway up the east coast, near the northern tip and halfway down the west coast of Northland, as well as an overnight place near Auckland airport in anticipation of a 6.50am return flight. I was set.

I’m tempted to leave the photographs to speak for themselves. It was a trip packed full of beaches, fabulous vegetation, tranquillity, friendliness and occasional new bird species. It was my first DIY driving trip, an option I usually avoid when travelling on my own because it can be expensive and challenging, with the combination of an unknown car, a new country’s driving habits, and the need to navigate. But technology – at least in a place as well mobile-ly connected as New Zealand – has made this a positive pleasure. With ‘Geoff-the-GPS’ on my iPhone shouting instructions to me over the music and podcasts, ‘JMP-the-Toyota-Yaris’ and I got ourselves around a little over 1,800 km in pretty much one piece, though Geoff did struggle with place names. How was his plummy English accent to cope with the likes of Whangerei, Ngunguru, Kaitaia, Herekino, Opononi or Ruawai? But we muddled along. Even the first day’s drive, culminating in an hour of pitch darkness in which to find my out-of-the-way accommodation, went smoothly.

There was something liberating about being behind the wheel in the late afternoon sunshine as I left the mess of Auckland’s dual- and triple-carriageways behind. The road stretched out before me, glorious green rolling hills on either side, occasional tantalising hints of the distant sea. The world – or at least Northland – was my oyster for the next ten days.

Northland has a special place in New Zealand’s history. It is believed to have been the first place to be settled, both by the Polynesians at the end of the first millennium, and then by European colonialists in the eighteenth century. In area, it’s a little larger than Yorkshire, a little smaller than Connecticut, though with its rugged coastline and hilly landscape, distances can be deceptive. By my reckoning, it would take about six hours, with a following wind, to drive from Auckland to the region’s tip, Cape Reinga, a distance of 422 km (262 miles) – always assuming you weren’t tempted to stop to imbibe any of the fabulous views en route. And that’s nowadays. When my brother and his friend visited in the early ’90s, the Tarmac ran out only a few kilometres north of Auckland. Their perseverance got them all the way up to Cape Reinga where they were rewarded with having its staggering views all to themselves – hard to imagine amongst today’s crowds.

New Zealand’s wildlife bemused me. For somewhere so close to Australia – and which indeed was at one point part of Gondwana together with its giant neighbour – how come it has practically no native land mammals (only a few species of bat), and so many endemic birds (approximately 70)? I consulted the internet and, in an impressively comprehensive article on the country’s geology, I found the beginnings of an answer. The country is part of the continent of Zealandia, most of which still lies under the ocean. As Zealandia moved away from Australia 85 million years ago – before the evolution of kangaroos – most of it sank beneath the waves. 25 million years ago, Zealandia began to split apart. Still largely underwater, it now lay at the junction between the Australian and Pacific plates, and the country we know today is the product of those plates’ activity, and, as we’re all too well aware, still very much influenced by tectonic movements. So no flat-accented kangaroos.

My first base was on the delightfully-named Tutukaka coast. Less well known than its neighbour to the north, the Bay of Islands, and to my mind infinitely prettier, the coastline is littered with near-empty beaches and impressive backdrops. The jagged outline of Mount Manaia dominates Whangarei Heads and any headland further up the coast with a southward view. I’d have loved to climb it – tempted, rather than put off, by the Book’s description of “a lung- and leg-busting 1½-hour climb” – but my shoulder wasn’t good over rough ground, so I reluctantly focussed on the plaques commemorating its history. One, dated 1956, described how “One hundred years ago, staunch men brought their families across the ocean to found abiding homes in the freedom of this gracious land”. These “staunch men” knew their stuff. They had come from Nova Scotia – as if conquering one harsh new land wasn’t enough – and were the product of the Scottish Highland clearances. Led by the Rev Norman McLeod, their memory lives on in a panoply of local place and road names echoing their Scottish roots – Urquharts Bay, Stuart Road and McLeod Bay, to name but a few. The area’s more recent history is also evident, the remains of a gun battery established in 1942 to defend the port of Whangarei against the Japanese, though fortunately it never saw live action. Nowadays it is simply one sight on the stunning walk through Bream Head Scenic Reserve, along with the lovely, and far more romantic-sounding Smugglers Bay (I wonder how many of those there are in the world?).

I could have spent the rest of my ten days here. So many beaches and coastal walks to explore. But I’d set my sights on completing a circuit of the region, so JMP, Geoff and I hit the road again, heading north to the Bay of Islands. A short ferry crossing took us to Russell, the first permanent British settlement in New Zealand. Once known for its lawlessness as “the hellhole of the Pacific”, it is now a quaint, charming waterfront town, edged with pohutukawa trees (also known as New Zealand Christmas trees). But the locals aren’t likely to let this improvement in its fortunes detract from its history and, predictably enough, there’s a café called “Hell Hole”.

Back on the other side of the bay, I’m afraid I declined the chance to explore the history of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, this is the formal agreement between the British government and Māori chiefs for New Zealand to become a British colony. Had it been raining, I would have forked out the NZ$40 entrance fee for the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, but I’m too much of a Pom, unaccustomed to sunlight, to want to forego nice weather in pursuit of knowledge. Besides, I still had a fair amount of distance to cover. I sent a silent apology up to my prodigiously well-read mother, who would in all likelihood have made a different decision, and got back on the road. The other main draw of the Bay of Islands, its opportunity for watersports, would also have to wait another day. I’m a wimp in cold water – despite my Highland summer upbringing – and my shoulder wasn’t up to swimming any distance.

Instead, I meandered up the road to Kaitaia, the jumping-off point for Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach. (My hosts later in the week were keen to point out that the stunning Ripiro Beach on their doorstep is two miles longer than its erroneously-named but better-known northern cousin.) I was staying outside Kaitaia, though the address – with a street name and number – suggested otherwise. Again, it was dark by the time I was in the vicinity, and Geoff proudly announced “You have reached your destination” at a point midway between nowhere. Having re-driven that stretch of road a couple of times to no avail – no matter how many times Geoff repeated himself – I parked at the side of the road, and took out my torch. Sure enough, fifty metres away was a collection of mailboxes set back from the road, one of which was labelled with the right number, though there were no houses in sight. JMP and I crept up the track, made an accidentally correct decision at a fork, and found ourselves being greeted by an overexcited young sheepdog and a delightful couple of middle-aged locals.

I am told by a South Island friend that the classic or cliché-ed Kiwi accent is a North Island specialty, and, however much I hear it being mimicked abroad, there’s something warming, friendly and honest about hearing the accent in the flesh, as it were. The influx of foreigners meant that even in Northland I hadn’t yet heard it very often. My first hosts had hailed from ridiculously close to home: Brighton, on England’s south coast. But here were Darryl and Debra, their 40-plus five-star reviews on Airbnb testament to the generous and effusive welcome they give their guests.

Cape Reinga was easily the most tourist-ful place of my trip. Clearly the standard NZ tour of Northland takes in the Bay of Islands and this not-quite-but-nearly northernmost tip of the country, and very little in between. Here were the tour buses, the inappropriately shod, the selfie-sticks. I scuttled down to the lighthouse, admired the watery maelstrom of the reputed clash of oceans, and then scampered off, ducking down the hillside to the nearby Te Werahi Beach, reasonably confident that I’d leave the masses behind me. And I did. It was me and a pied cormorant and a couple of miles of beach, all to ourselves. Paradise.

(As an aside for the sharp-eyed, Surville Cliffs are the northernmost point of New Zealand. At 25-30 km east of Cape Reinga as the seagull flies, or a multi-day trek for the human species, they are well off the beaten track. I had to be content with distant views.)

My rental car agreement didn’t allow me to join the flow of tourists driving down the 64-mile-long Ninety Mile Beach, but I wasn’t going to lose sleep over it. I’ve had my fair share of driving in sand and didn’t really fancy it on my own and in a two-wheel drive, no matter how many others were taking that chance. At a couple of points on the main road back to Kaitaia, I dipped down side roads to take a look. It reminded me of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, its monochromaticity and all-too-similar dunes a recipe for confusion and losing the way. My hosts recommended the viewpoint beyond Ahipara at the southern end of the beach, and from here its lurking threat fades into the drama of its setting, softened too by the waving toetoe flowers in the foreground.

On the way south from Kaitaia, I left the main road to wind through the hills of the Hokianga area, and took the ferry across its tranquil harbour. At Kohukohu, I stopped for a coffee and sipped it in the company of a couple of red-billed gulls, their attention focused on my scone, mine on the mirror calm of the water and the glorious cloud reflections.

A little further south, I encountered the region’s other great claim to fame: a few of the remaining kauris, enormous trees that once populated much of northern New Zealand. The main road winds through Waipoua Forest, with signposts directing you to the short forest walks to meet particular giants. There’s no entry fee, no attendant tourist paraphernalia such as souvenir shops or guides or cafés; simply an abundance of notices urging you to keep to the path (oddly, given their size, kauris have a fragile feeding-root system that runs near the surface and is easily harmed by trampling), and a carefully designed boot-cleaning system on the way in and out to prevent the transmission of alien seeds and disease. Thereafter, you’re on your own. Walking through the temperate rainforest was a privilege. Although this is on the tourist circuit, I was there relatively late in the day and spent much of the time on my own. There’s a hush and timelessness to the trees. The colossus of them all, Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) is reputedly 2,000 years old, with a total height of 51.5m and wood mass of 244.5m3. Although a relative tadpole by the standards of Californian redwoods whose corresponding measurements can reach 84m and 1,487m3, he nevertheless looms most impressively through the tangle of green around him. He seemed a benign giant, delicately hosting his own verdant gardens in his upper branches.

I shook myself. Time to leave the myths and mystery of the forest and return to the ocean. I reset Geoff for Baylys Beach and left the forests behind.

Baylys Beach is one of the settlements along the lesser known Ripiro Beach. By contrast with its northern cousin, Ripiro Beach seemed much more agreeable, its sand a warmer colour, and its backcloth of reddish sandstone cliffs a little more permanent and distinctive than the shiftingness – even shiftiness – of dunes. Occasional islands of broken-off rock dotted the beach and a couple of villages leaked down the hillsides, making for landmarks along its 66-mile length. There were vehicles here too, but these contained locals off to set their longlines or exercise their dogs or buzz their off-road bikes along the beach. It was an odd sensation, walking along a beach that appeared endless in each direction, and the deceptiveness of distance meant that it was curiously easy to escape all sight and sound of my fellow beachgoers.

By the Sunday afternoon, my remarkable run of luck with the weather was turning and it was time to reset Geoff for Papatoetoe, a suburb of Auckland that promised to be only minutes away from the airport. I bade JMP a fond farewell in the rental company’s out-of-hours car park the next morning, and turned my attention back to Australia and my forthcoming operation.

Additional photos below
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2nd May 2018

Great Blog!
I love the photos of your story! Especially the one of the Whangaumu Bay :) Best wishes!

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