The eastern side of Northland
Warkworth seems to have reinvented itself as a service centre for people with holiday homes north of Auckland. The local supermarket is stocked with all the kinds of posh food that central Auckland supermarkets have. The traffic is crazy and I found myself faced with a traffic jam at the rush hour of about 5.30pm on Friday, no doubt repeated on Sunday afternoon.
Towards the coast is the town of Matakana, reinvented from a sleepy inland town to a super fun destination for the aforementioned people with holiday houses. Like, it’s all very well having a bach in a quiet coastal bay, but that can get a bit boring. Matakana comes to the rescue with cafes, a cinema (playing 100% old-people films), a posh food shop, various gift boutiques, and a weekly farmers market.
Bay of Islands
This is historic Northland. It’s also very scenic. It’s possibly the most piratey part of New Zealand, and feels like what tropical islands are like, just without the oppressive heat. When I think about the European settlers coming to the area in the 19th century, they must have been well chuffed with this picturesque new land.
I went to the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi and I remembered what happened when I was last there, in 2006: the introduction video makes me cry. Sitting in a dark theaterette with a random selection of overseas tourists, there I was with something in my eye, feeling all proud at being a New Zealander and the complicated though mighty history of the Treaty.
By the way, the gift shop at the Treaty Grounds is rubbish. They sell high-end tourist crap – decorative kauri bowls with paua shell inlays, weird merino vests, and other things that only exist in tourist shops. Whereas the Historic Places Trust have the coolest stuff in their shops, including custom designed items that captures the spirit of the property. You can buy handmade nails at the Stone Store in Kerikeri – just like the store used to sell in the olden times. Also – moustache wax.
Here’s another weird thing – there aren’t many New Zealanders exploring historic Northland. I always take a look in visitors books and most of the signatures come from exotic locales – Leeds, Melbourne, Glasgow, Unterengstringen (Switzerland) – and there in the middle off it will be a lone Hawera. Ticket people always sound surprised and delighted when I say I’m from Raglan, and they usually take joy in administering the special admission price for New Zealanders.
When I left the Bay of Islands it was sunny. When I arrived in Doubtless Bay, the clouds had rolled in. This is proper Far North weather – a white sky, flat light and a bit of mist just for some extra atmosphere.
I drove to Cape Reinga, purely for completionist reasons. The road (sealed the whole way there, as of 2010) was almost totally devoid of cars. Lots of tourists go by bus along 90 Mile Beach, but I don’t think I could deal with that sort of experience.
So I was driving along this empty road, full of twists and turns, with the sky, the sea and even a bit of landscape turning all an indistinguishable bright grey mass. And then sudden at the end of the road there’s a car park, some eco toilets and a bogan drinking a can of premix bourbon and cola.
From there I walked down to the light house and direction sign. Compared to Bluff, it takes a lot more effort to get there. Bluff has a tearooms and a nearby maritime museum. Cape Reinga is all sacred and holy and every twist and turn of the path to the lighthouse has a story to be told.
I don’t know if I was expecting to have some sort of moment of epiphany. I was just trying not to get a mouthful of hair as the drama wind kept blowing it in my face. It was all full of tourists taking photos next to the direction sign, so they could say they did it. Well, that’s why I was there.