The fabulous Far North will always lighten your mood


I’ve had some fabulous times in Northland.

My first ride up was in the mid-1980s in an old bus that allowed me to explore almost every nook and cranny for three months. Freedom camping wasn’t even a household name back then, it just seemed my god-given right as a kiwi to park in public places.

Common sense prevailed, I was careful not to look anyone in the face, always cleaned up and never challenged.

Some of my memorable moments were being impressed by the immensity of the largest tree in the country, Tāne Mahuta, taking the car ferry across the port of Hokianga to Rawene, and eating juicy rock oysters whenever I felt like it.

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The Trustee of the Te Ruapekapeka Trust, Pita Tipene, explains in Te reo Māori and English why the Ruapekapeka pā site is important.

In Kohukohu, I remember breaking the gate at the local dance, only to be promptly kicked out by one of the city’s superiors, who immediately discovered me as a non-local.

A big highlight was driving the rough vehicle track to the old rubber fields near Ahipara, a very barren Pakihi-like wasteland where I felt at home.

A resident gum digger came over to introduce himself as Joe and refer to himself as “the very last gum digger.” He took me back to his rough shack and showed me the spade-handled spears he used to locate chewing gum underground, along with the Skelton spades he used to dig it up.

I remember being impressed when he told me he was still sending away a sack or two.

On every side street I spotted small estuaries and beaches that I still suspect hardly see any tourists, just a few locals who like to hike or feed flounder. I hardly ever put on a jersey, ‘The Winterless North’ they called Northland in geography class in high school. That made me go there.

I’ve come back a few times over the years, most recently a five day visit just before this final lockdown.

We spent the first night in Whangārei exploring the rehabilitated city basin that envelops the lower reaches of the Hātea River.

Here it is easy to understand how Whangārei would have developed around its original port, where shiploads of kauri gum and wood were exported. Don’t forget the coal either – from the mines in Whau Valley, Kamo and Hikurangi.

The city basin of Whangārei with the almost completed Hundertwasser Arts Center in the background.

Steve Sharpe / SUPPLIED

The city basin of Whangārei with the almost completed Hundertwasser Arts Center in the background.

In recent years, Whangārei’s Town Basin Marina has attracted many international yachts. This natural meeting place has now grown into a very appealing plethora of bars and restaurants, art galleries, and colonial-style specialty shops. Such a great vision.

At the end we made plates together in one of the restaurants by the water, Locos, which advertise the most authentic South American cuisine this side of Buenos Aires. Exciting food, innovative and well done, some provincial places just hit it off and this is one of them.

The star of the city basin, when it is completed at the end of this year, will be the iconic Hundertwasser art center with a dome.

It is obvious that this farewell to the great Austrian-born visual artist and architect who made Northland his home will undoubtedly be the last of his great buildings in the world.


The far north is home to a fairytale lava valley that developed 2.8 million years ago, where a series of bridges lead deep into a forest and snake through Jurassic fissures.

It will include a state-of-the-art main gallery of Hundertwasser’s work along with a contemporary Māori fine arts gallery, the latter being Hundertwasser’s vision; a gift to the people for whom he had a deep and lasting respect.

Northland is so special, a true mix of people and good vibes. Its strong Māori roots and the earliest European settlement in the country make it the cradle of our nation.

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are surrounded by beautiful coastline of beaches, tidal estuaries, mangroves, and native bush, all teeming with bird life. Several exciting hours can be spent in the museum alone, where every half hour a play plays a wait-and-all film that recreates the events surrounding the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

The contract house you can wander through was the residence of the first British resident, James Busby.

The waka shed on the Waitangi Treaty site.

Gerard Hindmarsh / stuff

The waka shed on the Waitangi Treaty site.

Aided by the best Wi-Fi clip-around ear speakers I’ve ever worn, our Māori guide in Waitangi took us on an extremely engaging tour.

The highlight for me was the 35 m long war canoe called Ngātokimatawhaorua, named after Kupe’s great canoe that is launched every Waitangi Day. Thousands of locals and visitors come with picnics to see the grand start of 120 warriors.

From the news you might think that there is conflict here, but the reality is that this canoe is the main event.

It is true, however, that Te Tai Tokerau / Nordland has seen many conflicts.

French explorer Marion du Fresne was killed along with 24 crew members in the Bay of Islands in mid-1772, a week after they were greeted by the Ngare Raumati tribe.

Brook Sabin / stuff

Kokohuia Lodge, Northland: The luxurious bush escape for just one couple.

Retaliation by the remaining French occupation caused an estimated 250 Māori deaths and convinced French authorities that New Zealand was inhabited by hostile natives who could never be colonized.

Ironically, the most successful religious mission in the north was to come from France, a group of Marist brothers led by Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier. They first settled in Hokianga around 1838 and two years later moved to Russell on the southeast coast of the Bay of Islands.

This beautifully protected coastal city began as Okiato, which Hobson proclaimed our first capital. After the fire destroyed the city and the capital; Moved to Auckland, a new settlement rose from the ashes called Kororāreka, the most notorious hellhole in the Pacific, known for its drunken whalers, bar maids and noisy behavior.

Along the waterfront, the Marists built their Pompallier Mission House here in 1842, which housed their printing works, where church texts were translated from Latin into Te reo Māori, then printed, bound and distributed free of charge.

An original Te Reo text by the French missionaries.

Gerard Hindmarsh / stuff

An original Te Reo text by the French missionaries.

Today the completely restored printing house is New Zealand’s oldest industrial building, also our oldest in rammed earth construction, completely in the style of the French countryside.

The tour through here is endlessly praised and well deserved. Like Waitangi, it’s a level of cultural interpretation and understanding that I believe sets new standards for information.

A great excerpt from the ace guide Julie Todd was how Māori asked while visiting whether the French laypeople were slaves so hard that they toiled from morning to night.

Pompallier Mission tour guide Julie Todd with the French missionaries' original printing press.

Gerard Hindmarsh / stuff

Pompallier Mission tour guide Julie Todd with the French missionaries’ original printing press.

I found it fascinating to learn how many expressions we use from this early printing period: “Take care of your PS and qs”, “Have a good hand”, “Make a good first impression”; even “knocking into shape” – the last phase in which a soft hammer ensured that the book set itself in shape.

Unlike the sullen, black-clad ministers who preached hellfire and damnation, the Māori were impressed not only by the large, dashing pompallier with purple satin cape, but also by all the French generosity, tolerance, and flair they wore in spades laid the day.

So much so that after the battle of Kororāreka on March 11, 1845, when Hone Heke and his allies attacked the city, only the buildings of the French mission remained.

Brook Sabin / stuff

From an old lava valley to a fairytale tree house, Northands are best hidden away here

The Bay of Islands is a subtropical enclave of around 140 islands and islets, and it’s amazing how far this place feels. One interpretation of his Māori name, Ipipiri, means “many hiding places”.

Urupukapuka Island is just over 7 km from Paihia by boat and is a popular day trip. I have never seen so many lush and shiny puka trees as there are on this island.

No trip to Northland is complete without visiting Cape Reinga over 90 Mile Beach. Fullers has always been taking this bus ride, and we step onto the beach on Ahipara Stream at the south end for a free ride to the very top.

The headland of Te Rerenga Wairua at Cape Reinga, where Māori spirits departed from the lonely Pohutukawa tree that has never bloomed in living memory.

Gerard Hindmarsh / stuff

The headland of Te Rerenga Wairua at Cape Reinga, where Māori spirits departed from the lonely Pohutukawa tree that has never bloomed in living memory.

The beach takes its name from the three days it took the horses to walk it with an average horse progress of 30 miles per day. The problem was that the horses were slow in the sand so it’s not much more than 55 miles long.

The incoming tide means that we have to drive through the waves in places to finally get off at the Te Paki Stream.

Here we stop on the sandy riverbed beneath the highest dunes in the country so everyone can sand surf at extremely high speed on boogie boards. There are many buyers, the bus is full of tourism students on our day. I just hope they all get jobs when they graduate.

The way to the Cape Reinga lighthouse always takes my breath away, the sheer majesty of Land’s End as well as the energy of two colliding oceans. The lonely and gnarled pohutukawa tree that grows on the outermost headland of Te Rerenga Wairua was the place the Māori spirits departed from after traveling up the coast to get here.

The drive back to Paihia makes it a very long day, but I didn’t mind. It gave me time to ponder that lonely Pohutukawa tree as it never bloomed, not once in living memory.

Thank you again Te Tai Tokerau.

The sand dunes on Te Paki Stream are the highest in the country and very popular with boogie boarding.

Gerard Hindmarsh / stuff

The sand dunes on Te Paki Stream are the highest in the country and very popular with boogie boarding.

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