Four days spent exploring New Zealand’s ‘Winterless North’ – sand boarding, spotting kiwis and lounging in sulphurous hot pools.
It was Easter Bank Holiday in New Zealand and that can only mean one thing – road trip time! We had four solid days off work so, armed with a travel guide, a campervan and a cool box full of cider we set off. The seasons are just starting to turn here (it feels strange to be going the other way to back home) so we decided to grab the last few days of summer and head to New Zealand’s Northland, aka the ‘Winterless North’ (I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of false advertising going on there). The itinerary:
Day One: Auckland to Kerikeri
Day Two: Kerikeri to Cape Reinga
Day Three: Cape Reinga to Waipoua Kauri Forest
Day Four: Waipoua Kauri Forest to Auckland
That’s a lot of driving! More than I even realised. We had been debating between going South to Taranaki and then on to Turangi to do the Tongariro Crossing, only deciding to head North an hour before we actually left. It was a good call. We spent the days in the sun, sand boarding and jumping in the waves as opposed to dealing with the miserable weather that was forecast down South. And it gave us chance to catch up with a couple of friends who were living up in Kerikeri.
I’m not going to write a full blog post on this trip just yet but here are a few of the highlights (I’d better not mention the fact that we didn’t really shower for the last three days – although swimming in the sea counts as a shower right?)…
We saw a kiwi! No…not the fruit. The bird!
The kiwis are so elusive that my flatmate previously decided they must have been a huge elaborate hoax. The reason no one had ever actually seen one in real life was because they don’t actually exist. I couldn’t argue with that logic. That was until she saw one of course. And then we saw one. So we can confirm that they do in fact exist.
This kiwi was in Kiwi North, a sanctuary on the outskirts of Whangarei. When I say sanctuary, its more of an enclosure and perhaps a bit smaller than I was expecting. The enclosure is climate controlled (it even gets its own rainfall twice a week) and the habitat is made to reflect their natural conditions. Kiwis are nocturnal animals so, for the benefit of tourists, night and day is reversed. The kiwis won’t spend their entire life there, after a few years being released into the wild to live their life in peace away from the prying eyes of people like us.
The first time we walked in we couldn’t see anything. Squinting through the darkness, we searched the ‘forest’ floor for signs of movement, and found none. The two resident kiwis were inside their burrow and showing no signs of budging.
The second time, we walked in just as one of the kiwis decided to venture out. It was bigger and more robust than I was expecting. Fatter, with strong thick legs and a long beak which it used to burrow into the ground for food. We sat mesmerized for a good ten minutes, both more excited than we thought we would be about seeing that bird.
(Note: I would have loved to have gotten some photos but unfortunately the room was too dark).
After stopping at Paihia (the gateway to the Bay of Islands) we spent the night in Kerikeri eating Mexican food and drinking Sangria with friends before making our way the next day to Cape Reinga.
Cape Reinga is situated at the very tip of New Zealand, a good two and a half hours drive North of Kerikeri through some pretty remote countryside. I managed to sell it to Dom on the basis that it was the Northernmost tip of the country and the meeting point of two oceans – the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
In reality, we later found out it is not the Northernmost tip – that honour goes to the Surville Cliffs a little further to the East – and the meeting of the two seas was not quite as dramatic as we thought. Instead of the 10 metre high waves we had read about, the meeting point had a few small waves with slight, almost imperceptible changes in colour. But – it was still a cool place to visit.
We had tried to arrive for sunset the night before but after a very tense and stressful petrol search we were too late. We drove along the hills as the sky in front of us turned from yellow, to orange to bright red. Every few hundred metres Dom would have to listen to my complaints of “Oh this sunset would have been beautiful if we were at Cape Reinga”.
We eventually pulled up in the dark at Tapotupotu campsite, a surprisingly busy campsite where the only space left to camp was on slant meaning that I spent the entire night rolling into Dom as he tried to sleep, with him repeatedly head-butting the car every time he tried to move. All good fun!
Ninety Mile Beach and the Te Paki Sand Dunes
Ninety Mile Beach is a long flat beach that runs for, um, 90 miles along New Zealand’s Northwest Coast. Well actually its 90 kilometres but eh, who’s counting?
We stopped there for a while, eating lunch and watching the cars race up and down. Because, perhaps unsurprisingly by New Zealand’s standards, Ninety Mile Beach is actually considered a road and you are able to drive the full length of it should you so desire. And Dom did so desire! Unfortunately I was being my usual nervous self (our insurance specifically excluded driving on that beach) and so banned us from driving on it for too long. Dom had to make do with a few speedy drives up and down (sorry Dom!)
At the Northernmost tip of Ninety Mile Beach sit the ‘Giant Te Paki Sand Dunes’. And they certainly are giant. They are pretty impressive to look at on there own but the main attraction is the sand boarding.
It all sounded like excellent fun to me whilst I was planning it. What I had not considered the prospect of hauling myself and my board to the top of these giant dunes in the searing midday heat…after forgetting to put on any sunscreen. For every two steps up I slid another one back down whilst, true to form, Dom just appeared to bounce up there with no problems at all.
Eventually, after a lot of complaining, I got to the top, sweating and feeling like my lungs may explode. And then came the real challenge. Throwing myself back down the dunes. As someone with a fear of heights, this went against all my better instincts. It was a hell of a lot taller and steeper than it looked from the bottom. I stood paralysed on the tip of a giant dune with Dom coaxing me to get on the board and go. I tried to get the two people stood behind me to go first, only to be met with their response of “nope – you’ve just got to go for it.”
There was nothing else for it. I put my board down, lowered myself on to it and, with a bit of gentle persuasion from Dom, let myself go. Well – kind of. I slid for a couple of metres before the speed started to scare me and I dug my feet into the ground trying to slow myself down. I was gripping the edge of the board so tightly that my knuckles turned white, sand was flying into my face and getting into all my clothes and by digging my feet into the ground I was making myself swerve from side to side. I certainly wasn’t looking graceful! I managed to let go for a few metres at the end, just enough to let my speed build to a level that was less embarrassing in front of the people stood watching at the bottom.
Despite the fact that I was absolutely TERRIFIED, I loved it. Really loved it. What I didn’t love was the unavoidable climb back up after we had gone down. We managed about 5 or 6 goes because we decided to give it up. A combination of sunburn, exhaustion and the feeling of having about half a sand dune inside our clothes prompting us to move on.
My favourite moment of the day was when Dom decided to attempt to surf down the dunes whilst stood up, the result of which was him flipping off the sandboard, face planting the sand and rolling over. Much to the amusement of me and the entire crowd who were now stood chuckling behind me. (Note: I of course waited to make sure he was not hurt before starting to laugh).
The Waiariki Pools
A weekend away would not be complete without some form of hot pool action. So I tracked down the only ones I could find in Northland – the Waiariki Pools in Ngawha Springs.
Its no secret that me and Dom are more than a little obsessed with hot pools. We lounged for hours in the Wairakei Terraces in Taupo and visited the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools every night that we were there. These ones were different though. The others were fancy and well maintained. These ones cost just $4 to enter and were much more rustic. There were about 12 pools dug roughly into the mud with makeshift paths connecting them, wooden benches to sit on and the smell of sulphur permeating all around. Each one was a different temperature and chemical composition. Some were cold, some were just right and others (one of which was aptly named The Bulldog) were absolutely boiling to the point that I could barely dip a toe in.
Despite the fact that these weren’t the most aesthetically pleasing to the eye, we loved them. They were the most authentic of all – a meeting place for locals who started turning up in droves as the sun went down. And certainly a great place to relax after a long day of driving.
So that’s it from New Zealand for now! Stay tuned for more stories from Down Under, including our one day Pinnacles climb and our weekend drinking rum at the Cuba Dupa Festival in Wellington.