My trip to Northland, the vast area north of Auckland, was not on my original New Zealand itinerary. In the pre-trip planning stages, I’d left a few ‘weather’ days set aside on the South Island to make sure I was able to get at least some sun at the destinations I’d wanted most to see, namely the Catlins and my scenic flight over the West Coast Glaciers. I’d been incredibly lucky and had good weather for those experiences, so it had opened up a few days on my schedule. When I realized if I simply stayed only two days in Wellington instead of three, I could fit the trip up to Northland in that I’d been so disappointed to have to cut. I knew it would require a couple very long drives, but something about the north called to me…
I’d gotten one of the long drives in the previous evening, making it all the way to the tiny settlement of Waipa Cove after leaving Waitomo around noon, and making the ill-fated decision to stop off in Auckland briefly before heading north. As a result, I had made it nearly as far north as I needed to, so I woke left before dawn in an effort to make up time. I was heading for Paihia, the main gateway town for boat trips to the Bay of Islands.
I’d hoped to do a day cruise in the Bay of Islands, but the morning turned out to not only rainy, but also windy. When I made it into grey and soggy Paihia, the waves were crashing in from the sea and all the boat companies had cancelled the day’s cruises.
The other main sight in the area is the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. This is perhaps the most significant historical sight in the country, as the treaty that was signed here in February of 1840 is given credit for being the document that founded the modern nation of New Zealand. The treaty is a very contentious issue- it was ignored for many years, both by the citizens of New Zealand, but also buy the country’s lawmakers and court system. In the past couple decades, however, that has changed as the rights protected in the document have begun to be slowly restored to the Maori. Almost everything about the treaty is controversial, and much of the nation remains divided about what it means and what should be done about it today.
The Treaty Grounds is home to Ngatokimatawhaorua, one of the largest Maori War Canoes in the country. The carvings on the nearly 120 foot long vessel are intricate and impressive.
The most impressive building on the grounds by far is the Te Whare Runanga, the meeting house constructed to commemorate the signing of the treaty on it’s 100th anniversary. Carved by members of the local Nga Puhi tribe, the carvings are representative of all the the nation’s Maori tribes.
I also wandered through the residency, home to the local governor and many of the other representatives of the crown. Today the building serves as half reconstruction, with the the other half being given over to a museum, which contains displays and explanations of both the events of the day and what life would have been like in New Zealand during that time period.
It was still raining hard when I left Waitangi. I had hoped it would begin to clear during the day so I could make the drive all the way up to Cape Reinga for the evening. The pleasant gentleman at the tourist information office in Paihia told me that it was supposed to rain all day today and ‘possibly’ clear for a while tomorrow. I stopped at Haruru Falls on the way out of town, and after checking out the falls, I sat in the campervan trying to determine what to do next. After consulting my maps and guidebooks, I decided to spend the day in the Hokianga region, and would hope for better weather tomorrow for a possible trip to Cape Reinga.
A couple of the more obscure sites in the Hokianga region appealed to me. The first was the Mangungu Mission, settled in the late 1820s as a the second Wesleyan Mission in the country. It was appropriate that I was coming from Waitangi, since the mission’s most notable event was a large gathering in mid February of 1840 where a group of 70 chiefs and 3000 people were on hand for a signing of the Treaty of Waitangi as the document made it’s way around the country collecting signatures.
Mangungu is also famous for being the spot where the honey bee was introduced in New Zealand in 1839. The mission house was closed on the day I visited, but I did have a chance to walk around the grounds trying to imagine the scene at the mission on treaty signing day, but also what life would have been like in this remote part of the country in the 1840s. Despite the rain and the overcast skies, it wasn’t difficult to see the beauty of the area, especially the natural setting of the Hokianga inlet.
After Mangangu, I kept heading west to the tiny town of Opononi. I had read a story in on of my guidebooks about Opo, a bottlenose dolphin that, after losing her mother, had begun to swim around the fishing vessels in Hokianga Harbor in the summer of 1955. The dolphin became a local legend, swimming close to the shoreline everyday, interacting with humans and eveing performing tricks with bottles and beach balls. After a year of this, Opo had captured the fancy of the nation, as was attracting large crowds of people who wanted to show up and play with her. In March of 1956, right a legislation was being passed to protect Opo, she was tragically found dead near the mouth of the harbor.
What fascinated me most about this story was how far the Kiwis has come as a nation since Opo’s story became famous. These days New Zealand is at the forefront of protection of the natural environment and the creatures that live in it. The woman at the area’s tourist information center said told me that Opo’s story certainly was one of the catalysts for the attitude of the country toward it’s environmental resources today.
I drove out to the overlook for the Hokianga Heads. I’d read about the beauty of the entrance to this natural harbor in all the tourist literature, but wasn’t able to appreciate the surroundings to it’s fullest as the rain picked up and gale force winds buffeted the harbor.
Since I had a couple of hours before I needed to catch the last ferry of the day across the harbor, I drove south into the great Kauri forest, home to some of New Zealand’s most magnificent and sacred trees. I hiked, in the pouring rain down to the base of Tane Mahuta, one of the oldest surviving Kuari trees, known by the local Maori as ‘The Lord of the Forest”. The tree was impressive, and it was easy to see why local people treated it (and the surrounding forest) with such reverence.
I headed back north to the tiny village of Rawene, where I caught the small vehicle ferry across to the north side of the harbor. I was fascinated by the operation of this ferry. Hokianga Harbor is a very long inlet, stretching some 30 kilometers inland from it’s entrance. While the north and south sides of the harbor are never more than a few kilometers apart, no bridge has ever been built linking the two sides, instead a small vehicular ferry runs a few times a day connecting the two sides. They ferry itself was no frills, but I was very excited to be able to drive my campervan on to this small boat, and ride in peace across the waters of the harbor for about a peaceful half hour. The ferry ended up saving me close to two hours driving time.
Upon driving off the ferry on the north side, I had at least another two hour drive to the town of Kaitia where I intended to stay the night. The road proved to be as winding and slow as it looked on the map, and when I pulled into Kaitia, I was exhausted and still soaked to the bone from the day’s activities. So, for the first (and only) time on the trip, I splurged for a motel room- the only night I would have a private bathroom to myself. I used the evening to repack and clean the campervan for the last few days, did some much needed laundry, and even watched an hout of television, also a first for this trip.
As I watched the weather forecast for the next day on the news, I was deflated by the squalls of rain bearing down on the north. I’d always had these romantic visions of Cape Reinga in my head, and they always included bright sunshine and blue seas. From the looks of this, that wasn’t going to happen. I briefly debated heading back to Auckland instead of making the long drive, but in the end figured I’d come this far, why not see it through.
The next day was nothing like I expected….