North-West

The western side of Northland.

The Hokianga

It's ok - unlike the old one, the new Pak'n Save doesn't look like it's been hit by a cyclone.
It’s ok – unlike the old one, the new Pak’n Save doesn’t look like it’s been hit by a cyclone.
There’s something strangely satisfying about Kaitaia. It’s the northern-most town in New Zealand and it’s big enough to have a Farmers and a Warehouse. The Far North is about the least prosperous part of New Zealand, but it never really gets cold there and it’s really pretty.

When I left Kaitaia, it was a grey, cloudy day, doing that misty Far North thing I’d come to expect. I avoided State Highway One (so mainstream) and headed south on a road that went from Ahipara to Kohukohu, via the pleasant valley town of Broadwood.

Kohukohu was on the itinerary because that’s where my gran was born and where she met my grandfather, a cool dude rocking into town on his motorcycle, with stories of Chicago. Kohukohu is now a chilled out little settlement on the shores of the Hokianga. There’s nothing to do there, which is why people go there.

Let's call this "the old wharf" and get a far-off look in our eyes.
Let’s call this “the old wharf” and get a far-off look in our eyes.
From Kohukohu I got the car ferry over to Rawene. It’s not like those boganny Auckland passenger ferries, hooning across the harbour. The Rawene car ferry is smooth and slower. And it comes with the added sensation of being seated in one’s car, watching the landscape move, but not having to actually do any driving.

Rawene is another sweet little harbourside town. As the guide at the historic Clendon House said, living in the Hokianga is like living in the 1950s, except they’ve got the internet. Even the local diary still has “MILK BAR” written on its window, as if a car full of those newfangled teen-agers is going to pull up and slurp milkshakes while listening to Johnny Devlin.

Towards the west coast is the town of Opononi, best known for being the home of Opo the happy/gay/friendly dolpin. Opo’s fame only lasted for nine months before her tragic death in March 1956, but that summer of ’55/’56 must have been the most golden summer ever for Opononi – a celebrity dolphin that drew thousands of tourists to the area.

Opo was buried in front of the War Memorial Hall. And even though it happened almost 60 years ago, the village is still full of dolphin icons. Opononi’s identity is very much “dolphin woz here in ’55”.

The Kauri Coast

A random German tourist gives Tane Manuta the thumbs up. New Zealanders relax, knowing that an international visitor approves.
A random German tourist gives Tane Manuta the thumbs up. New Zealanders relax, knowing that an international visitor approves.
The area between the Hokianga and Kaipara harbours is called the Kauri Coast. I discovered that it has this nickname because there is literally nothing else in the area. It’s either kauri trees, shops selling products made from swamp kauri and museums filled with shovels and gum. There is nothing else.

Oh, actually – there was the Waimamaku Wild West Festival. Wamamaki is a tiny settlement just south of Opononi and I was passing through on the day of their annual Wild West Festival. Must of the festival actually seemed to be happening on State Highway 12 itself (there was no way for traffic to bypass), so I was driving along at about 10km/h while ladies did linedancing just centimetres away from my window and crowds cheered on the other side. Horrifyingly, there were children running around on the road. And even though I wasn’t going fast, it’s still really unpleasant to have to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a hyperactive 10-year-old. But these incidents were accompanied by a man on a loudhailer yelled at the kids to bloody stop running around, ya mongrels, which probably counts as effective crowd control in the wild west.

Further along State Highway 12 is the star attraction of the kauri coast – Tane Mahutu aka Giant Kauri Tree. It’s a short walk from the main road, and suddenly there it is – this giant tree. It was like Cape Reinga – I was expecting it to be a deeply spiritual experience, but it was just a big tree. I prefer the Tane Mahuta that I imagined before I got there, with naked hippies leaping over the fence to hump the trunk. It’s less thrilling when the reality is busloads of European tourists all lining up to have their photo taken in front of the really big tree in New Zealand.

Dargaville

It matches the sky.
It matches the sky.
The road between the Tane Mahuta and Dargaville is bleak and boring. There’s the ever-twisting roads of Waipoua Forest, and then that flattens out into dull farmland. There’s nothing there. There aren’t even towns. Occasionally there’ll be a pub or a war memorial hall or a general store, but it’s mainly all swampy farms.

Dargaville was a welcome relief, which surprised me. It’s quite a pleasant riverside town, though it does have a really hardcore bogan vibe to it. I would not be surprised if it had the highest goatee ratio per head of popular.

Dargaville Museum had three highlights. The first was the introductory video about swamp kauri. It looked homemade and involved a couple of codgers talking about the “tsunamu” that probably made all the trees falls over. The video concluded with an artisan turning a gnarled log of swamp kauri into a highly varnished, shiny orange gnarled log coffee table. The second highlight was the hall commemorating the gumdiggers of the region, including a the spades of mostly Dalmatian gumdiggers. The hall was dedicated in memory to one of the locals who’d been fundamental in getting it organised, borrowing Christopher Wren’s memorial at St Paul’s Cathedral: “Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”

A handsome fellow in Spanish national costume, one of the many national costumes of the world.
A handsome fellow in Spanish national costume, one of the many national costumes of the world.
The third highlight was what I called the Hall of Crap. It was full of collections of odd items, the sort of thing that people collect and their bewildered family donate to the local museum upon passing. So there’s a giant wall display of souvenir boomerangs, a cabinet of thimbles, a selection of dolls wearing national costumes. This is why all museums need a clear acquisition policy. Though perhaps Dargaville Museum is quite happy to say yes to old Doris’ collection of irons.

The last stop on the Kauri Coast was the Kauri Museum in Matakohe. I don’t even know where Matakohe is.

If you like kauri wood and kauri gum and the history or kauri gum digging and milling and swamp kauri, then the Kauri Museum will be a real treat for you. But by this stage, I was sick of all things Kauri. It was a novelty when I saw some stuff about it in the Kataia museum, but when that’s all there is, it gets tiresome fast.

Kauri gum. Woteva.
Kauri gum. Woteva.

I found myself wandering around the different halls, totally numb to the apparent allure of kauri. The highlight was a giant, kitschy table, originally made by Lion for their boardroom, later donated to the Governor General, and now taking pride of place in the Kauri Museum. No wonder the GG didn’t want it – it had a crack in it.

I started to fantasise about being in a room with all white walls. No kauri. No glowing orange gum. No rich orange wood panels.

So obviously by this stage I needed to go home. By the time I reached West Auckland, I was thrilled by the novelty of roads with things – buildings, people, other cars. The further south I drove, the cooler the weather came. Back into the Waikato where the land is criss-crossed with roads and villages, back along a boring-as road where nothing happens.

North-East

The eastern side of Northland

Warkworth

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.

matakana

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.

stone-store

Cape Reinga

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.

cape-reinga