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    Tuesday, 20 April 2010

    Laid-back Northland, New Zealand

    One of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand for me was our visit to Northland. Having spent part of my childhood growing up in the far north of New Zealand’s North Island, I feel I have a connection with the place – as one does with the places they spend their childhood in. We were planning to go up for a few days, and we were taking Jo (my sister) with us for the ride. Or, perhaps, she was taking us as she knows quite a bit about the area!

    After a lovely stop for lunch on a beach not too far north of Auckland, we carried on up State Highway 1 towards Whangarei. Whangarei is a medium to large sized town (by NZ standards), and serves as a central base for the northern tip of the country. We didn’t do much here besides food shopping, but we did visit the local Kiwi House in the hopes of spotting the elusive and rare kiwi in captivity. No such luck! The crafty bird was tucked away in his burrow, probably having a good laugh at the three of us trying to peer through the dim light and the glass into the small area he called home. We didn’t see him, but we were promised that on our way back we’d be allowed to pop back in for free for another try. We did, however, discover the “Weird and Wonderful” exhibition in the nearby museum which was interesting, and we also found a restored women’s jail – a shed consisting of two cells. Jo happily posed through the feeding hole.

    Oke Beach, New Zealand [Enlarge]

    Second favourite activity – we went fishing! Giles’ stepdad, Malcolm, had a small boat which we were able to go out in and do a bit of fishing from. I started off well, catching a snapper and a mackerel, but the snapper was small and had to be thrown back, and the mackerel ended up being used as bait! After my early luck, Mahmoud caught most of the rest of the fish – we ended up cooking them up in a fish curry and having them for dinner – delicious and fresh!

    Getting further away from the peninsula, we visited the towns of Rawhiti and Russell. Rawhiti was cute and small, with a marae at the centre of it. We climbed up a nearby hill to a cemetery, and then over to the other side where there was Oke Bay which was – to quote Mahmoud – “just stunning!”

    Old church, Russell [Enlarge]

    Russell, meanwhile, was cute and bigger. The original capital city of New Zealand, it retains a lot of colonial charm in it’s sweet little buildings and tree-lined streets. We enjoyed wandering around for a while, before climbing up a nearby hill to a famous flagpole, which a Maori chief, Hongi Heke famously chopped down (several times I believe) as a slap in the face to British land claims. We took in the views before descending for a bit of lunch and a wander around the graveyard in the character-filled church – the burial grounds contained a number of famous Maori chiefs and British governors. Russell was, overall, a very interesting place to spend a morning in.

    The Stone House, KeriKeri [Enlarge]

    Alas, we had to leave the life of luxury behind us and move on in our explorations of Northland. We carried on up the coast through the dull town of Paihia and on to Kerikeri. Kerikeri was a nice place, full of colour and life. While there we visited a friend of the family, Gill, who kindly made us lunch. Thanks Gill! I especially liked the chocolate cake!! We also visited the Stone House, a beautiful old stone house on the banks of the river that runs through town – full of everything “kiwi”. It was also a beautiful place to do my favourite thing and have something to eat next to the river.

    We carried on further, our aim being a place near Kaitaia called the Karikari Peninsula. Along the way, we went through several small seaside places, my favourite being the small town/village of Mangonui – famous for it’s yummy fish and chips. Sadly, we’d eaten too much that day and weren’t hungry enough for that dish, but we did enjoy a stroll along the waterfront and watched the fishermen pulling in their fish on the wharf. We stopped for the night at a beachside motel in Rangiputa on the Karikari Peninsula which Jo and I had been to once before about ten years ago. We went for a swim, despite strange stories about a shark which apparently eats dogs in the waters nearby! Being not of the dog species, we decided to try our luck, resulting in a very enjoyable swim!

    Cape Reinga [Enlarge]

    After a stay overnight we got up and left at 5am, our goal being to drive to Cape Reinga, the northern-most point of mainland New Zealand. I took the morning shift and drove the two hour drive north, in the dark the whole way! We arrived just as there was enough light to see by without a torch, and walked down to the small lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula.

    Our persistence paid off nicely, and we were rewarded with a not perfect and yet still lovely sunrise to the east, and a pretty and soft light all around us. We took a few photos of us being silly, and also us being normal, and then headed back up the hill to the carpark. In the hour and a half we spent there, we only saw one other person – go there for sunrise to beat the crowds, it’s worth it!

    Washed up, San Dune Te Paki [Enlarge]

    Back south by about 15 minutes, we visited the Te Paki Sand Dunes, massive hills of sand which apparently have been blown in all the way from the central North Island, courtesy of the volcanic eruptions which have taken place over the last few thousand years. We did a bit of walking around in the sand, and had some fun. We attempted to body board on the sand – unsuccessfully. I’m not sure what it was – whether the sand was a bit dewy and cold, or whether our boards were just no good, but we couldn’t get moving! Still, it was fun to try (fortunately).

    Wharf, KohuKohu [Enlarge]

    Heading further south, we stopped on 90 mile beach to have a look at what all the fuss was about regarding this place. It was interesting – a lot of sand dunes and a lot of beach which rolled off into the distance like a never-ending, well, beach. There was a lot of foam on it which I found odd, but then the sea on the west coast of New Zealand is pretty rough, so I guess that’s why!

    We went on our way again with the intention of stopping in Kaitaia for lunch. However, when we got to Kaitaia we saw a strange looking man with green hair playing music in a café and decided not to stop (it turned out later that it was actually St. Patrick’s Day, hence the green hair). Instead we went to Ahipara, a really sweet little place not far from Kaitaia. We enjoyed lunch at a really cute little café with friendly owners, and then went to the beach to have a look at the bottom end of 90 Mile Beach. It was really cold, but Jo still went for a swim… brrrr!

    Marching onwards, we headed south towards the ferry at Kohukohu. As we had a bit of time to wait for the ferry, we had a look around the little village of Kohukohu, and I found myself falling hopelessly for the charm of the place. It was really lovely! It was obviously a place which was just getting “discovered” – situated at the edge of the Hokianga Harbour, it was tiny with just a few shops and a wharf, along with a number of run-down and also character-filled houses. There were a couple of random art studios there, including a ukulele exhibition… which was odd. As in, it was just an odd place to have a ukulele exhibition – in such a tiny place! Obviously there are a few artists who have conglomerated there.

    Opononi, Hokianga Bay, New Zealand [Enlarge]

    We crossed the harbour on the ferry and arrived in Rawene. We couldn’t decide whether to stay there or Opononi, so we had a look around the place. It was interesting to walk around, but we didn’t stay there in the end. We drove on, finding the Lighthouse Motel in Opononi. It was a really nice motel, but a bit odd – we’d assumed the lighthouse was real, but it was only a miniature one! Not that it mattered in the end, but I was kind of hoping we’d end up staying in a lighthouse!! Never mind. Across the water at the mouth of the Hokianga Harbour were some impressive sand dunes. More than sand dunes, actually. They were like more like mountains! The light shining on them at sunset was beautiful. That evening, we went for a swim in the warm water in the harbour. While swimming we were flashed by a man who decided to get completely naked while he changed on the beach – none of us knew quite where to look, but I’m sure he must have heard us laughing!

    Tane Mahuta, Waipoua Forest [Enlarge]

    The following day, we travelled on, our aim being the giant kauri tree, Tane Mahuta, not far south of where we’d stayed. We left early, and arrived there after around half an hour. The kauri tree was absolutely immense! I’d always known that kauri could get big, but I admit I’d wondered if it was really bigger than some of the trees we’d seen in Western Australia and places like Borneo. I was wrong to be sceptical – it was huge. It was like a building, it looked like you could live in it! Apparently it’s more than 2000 years old – something that old must have seen a lot in it’s years. It would have been around long before humans even got to New Zealand.

    Ngawha Springs, New Zealand [Enlarge]

    Travelling on, we went to some hot springs not far from Kohukohu. These were not your classic bathe-in-a-nice-clean-pool hot springs, but they were grey in colour, and had mud in them. My shorts still smell despite three washes! They were a lot of fun, ranging from chilly to far too hot for me at around 50 degrees celcius. With an entrance fee of just $4, we were laughing the whole way – that’s cheap!

    Famous toilets, New Zealand [Enlarge]

    In Kohukohu itself we had a look at some very famous toilets – they were definitely unique and I was impressed with the way they’d been designed. Basically, they were normal toilets, but the whole place was built by an artist with quite a flair for design. They were built with a combination of clay-like material and coloured glass. The end result was a wacky but unique work of artistry. I just felt a bit strange standing there in the toilet admiring the place!

    Lava Flow Rocks, Rangitoto [Enlarge ]

    After visiting the loo, we were back on our way down to Auckland. This involved going via Whangarei again, where we still did not see a kiwi! The drive was pretty and we went the back way to Jo’s house at Kumeu..

    A few days later, we visited Rangitoto Island, a volcano just out of Auckland – this time with both Jo and Giles. We’d all been given a gift of a tour of the island from my Grandma, and it was a really good present! We started at the Auckland Ferry Terminal at 9:15am, from where we caught the ferry to Rangitoto Island. We were surprised to find that the ferry was absolutely packed with other people, something we’d not been expecting so early on a Sunday morning! It took about half an hour to get out to the island.

    Once we arrived, I was surprised to see that the island was not just bush as I had previously thought, but was in fact covered in volcanic rock and lava flows, with trees interspersed between the black rocks. After getting off the ferry, we joined our designated tour vehicle – a tractor with a trailer attached! This was the start of a rather bumpy but entertaining drive up the side of the volcano, stopping to look at various sights along the way, including the black rock which makes up most of the island.

    Rangitoto Summit, New Zealand [Enlarge]

    As we neared the summit, the tractor pulled to a stop and we had to walk the last 15 minutes or so ourselves. Once we reached the top, the 360 degree view was spectacular. We could see back to Auckland, with a full view of the city. We could also see the surrounding islands and the Coromandel. As it was a very clear day, it was a wonderful sight.

    On the way down we visited the island’s only sandy beach – covered in black sand and black rocks, I didn’t particularly fancy a sunbathe, but I did enjoy looking at the black glossy formations which marked where lava had once hit the sea. On the way back to our starting point where we’d catch the next ferry, we saw many Bach’s (holiday homes). It turned out that there were once a great number of Bach’s on the island, but over time the government had dismantled them. As a protected area, the Bach’s could not be sold and were deconstructed when their owners passed away.

    We came away from both Rangitoto and the far north having learned a lot. I learned that some of the friendliest people in New Zealand live in Northland, and I also learned that it has some of the most beautiful and gentle scenery. I would visit again in a heartbeat – and if I were an artist, I might even move to Kohukohu!

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