After finally arriving in NZ we collected our sleeper van and headed north of Auckland to the aptly named Northland region. What followed were a very intense 4 days, driving like maniacs from one point to the next, determined not to miss out. By day four we had learned the valuable lesson that it is impossible to see everything. The good news is it doesn’t matter if you don’t see it all because everything that you do see is utterly breathtaking.
Driving in New Zealand is in itself an enjoyable experience. The main roads on the way north are well kept, single carriage serpents that take you on a meandering journey through continuosly shifting landscapes. One minute you’re flying past sheep strewn pastoral hills, the next you’re winding through a thick verdant forest, then, somehow you find yourself high above the ocean surrounded by hostile red volcanic soil. Just check out the four photos below which were taken within a three hour drive of each other!
There are numerous Department of Conservation (DOC) sites in the Northlands including wildlife reserves, marine reserves, waterfalls, beaches, sand dunes, the famous 90 mile beach, mountains and forest reserves. These were our favourites.
Tawharanui Regional Park
Entering Tawharanui through the sliding steel gates is redolent of driving into Jurassic Park. This sensation is only strengthened by the iridescent pukeko birds running around like miniature, feathered velociraptors. The park is New Zealand’s first open sanctuary, focussed on the conversation/regeneration of pest-free habitat for native species. We arrived early on a Friday to find that we essentially had the entire place to ourselves. Tawharanui has everything you could dream of for a nice day out in nature. Walk through the forest tracks and, if you’re quiet enough, you’ll hear a symphony of bird calls over the omnipresent whirring of the cicadas. We took the long route that took us around the edge of the entire headland, through farm land and back to the respite of golden sand beaches. If you’re hoping to spot the elusive kiwi bird, as we were, don’t hold your breath because it turns out they are nocturnal.
Cape Reinga and the Giant Sand Dunes
It’s a long drive to get to New Zealand’s northern most point, but it’s well worth the effort. We were completely awestruck, staring out at the horizon from Cape Reinga. You could honestly sit and watch the clouds pass in total peace for hours. The Cape is significant in Māori lore, believed to be the passage way along which the spirits of the deceased travel back to their homeland, Hawaiiki-A-Nui. There are signs all along the pathway to teach you everything you need to know.
About 20 minutes down the road you’ll find the enourmous sand dunes of the Te Paki recreational reserve. The dunes seem completely out of place on a South Pacific island, making you feel like you’ve been teleported to Saudi Arabia. It was seriously hard work climbing up the otherworldly hills, and the sand is super fine, so expect to find it everywhere afterwards. Yes, everywhere. We rented sand boards for 15NZD so we could ride down in style. It was epic!
On the recommendation of a local, we headed to Paihia and the Bay of Islands on our second night in the van. The bay was certainly beautiful, but Paihia really wasn’t to our tastes. It’s a bustling coastal tourist strip with bars and restaurants – great for some, just not our thing. On the other hand, the breakfast we had at El Cafe was top notch. It was also fascinating to learn about the Waitangi Treaty, the declaration which brought together the Māori tribes and British settlers under one nation. As we headed north out of Paihia we took a chance and followed the signage to Rainbow Falls. After a disappointing night, the peace of the waterfall raised our spirits. It was considerably bigger than expected and another great spot to chill out and appreciate nature.
Kauri trees are native giants of New Zealand, and in the Waipoua forest reserve lies the biggest of them all. We couldn’t possibly drive past without stopping for a gander and despite the pissing rain, it did not disappoint. These behemoths are hard to date exactly, but it’s likely to be around 2000 years old. Go check it out if you want to feel really, really small – not that Tara needs help on that front.
We had a blast in Northland, and were generally impressed with the reverence the Kiwis seem to have for their outdoor spaces. All the DOC sites were remarkably well preserved, not a single piece of litter in sight, which speaks to the effectiveness of the no bins = no litter policy. We hope this trend continues as we head south to explore the rest of North Island, albeit at a more relaxed pace!