THE FAR NORTH TO CAPE REINGA
Most people planning to visit the Far North think of the coach ride up to Cape Reinga, followed by driving back down the Ninety Mile beach to home base in the Bay of Islands. Fortunately, motor caravanners have many more options for exploring this beautiful part of our country.
I grew up listening to the stories told by my grandmother of life in the kauri gumfields, when there were only horse and buggy tracks for roads. The ninety mile beach was the highway back down to civilisation in Kaitaia, and that involved crossing boggy swamps and carefully avoiding areas of quick sand.
There is none of that today. Tarsealed roads. Manicured farmland. Stunning beaches. And the occassional hint of what once was. To really enjoy the Far North, you've got to take time to look under the surface.
There are two main roads to the Far North, and you should plan to go up one and return down the other. We chose to drive up State Highway 1 through the Mangamuka Gorge, then onwards through Kaitaia and Awanui, and up to Cape Reinga, exploring all the interesting locations on the way. On returning, we turned left onto Highway 10 at Awanui and continued on to the Bay of Islands.
Parking area at the summit of Mangamuka Gorge
Driving north up State Highway 1, you know you are entering the Far North when you come to Mangamuka Gorge. I've always enjoyed the winding road to the top and then back down again, but I know others who find it a bit daunting. The sealed road is good. Just take your time.
The parking area at the top used to be an essential stop for drivers of the early model motor cars - needing to give their boiling radiators time to cool down before topping them up with fresh water. Of course, no one needs to do that now, but it's still nice to get out and stretch your legs before continuing the journey down the gorge road and on to Kaitaia.
As you might imagine, building the road through the gorge was a challenging project, and there is a memorial at the top for the engineer responsible.
The Te Ahu Centre in Kaitaia
Kaitaia is the commercial hub of the Far North. It's worth spending some time in the new Te Ahu Centre to learn about the early history of the European settlers, Dalmation gum diggers and local Maori. There is a dump station at the back of their car park, and you are also able to stay overnight in the adjacent reserve for a small fee per van.
If you need fresh water, it is available if you ask nicely at the Kaitaia Mobil service station across the road.
There are no campsites in Kaitaia, but you have plenty of choice for free overnight parking. The Warehouse carpark is central to the main street shopping, or you can top up on groceries at the new Pak n Save at the northen end of the town where a large new shopping complex has been set up.
Low cost overnight parking is available in the Kaitaia Returned Servicemans Association (RSA), and fresh water is available there if you ask at the reception. This is our preferred choice if staying over in Kaitaia, and meals are available most evenings.
The local restaurants are pretty good as well - just in case you want to take a break from cooking. You can see more on the Kaitaia community website.
Beach access at Ahipara
Ahipara is a small community on the west coast at the very base of the Ninety Mile Beach.
Only a 15 minutes drive from Kaitaia, it's a popular fishing location, has a beach front golf course, and a very nice campsite at the Ahipara Holiday Park.
While staying at the holiday park, we met a semi-retired Swedish businessman who flies to New Zealand for 2 months every year just to play golf in Ahipara. I sometimes think that we don't really appreciate what we have until we see it through the eyes of others.
Far North Information Centre in Awanui
Kaimaumau Reserve parking area
Five minutes north of Kaitaia is the junction town of Awanui. The Far North Information Centre is next to a large reserve, and is a useful source of local information.
The Norfolk Motel & Campervan Park is right next door, and there is a cafe across the road. This is quite a good home base for a quick trip up to Cape Reinga, before heading off down Highway 10 to the Karikari Peninsula and Doubtless Bay.
However, just like in Kaitaia, you are spoilt for choice for interesting places to stay. You can overnight for free in the Awanui Reserve carpark right in the village centre, or continue up the Far North Road (SH1) to Waipapakauri, where you can overnight in the Waipapakauri Hotel carpark.
Only a few minutes further north, and you can turn off down the West Coast Road and drive down past Lake Ngatu and on to the Ninety Mile Beach Holiday Park - a large spacious campsite that is well worth checking out.
If you prefer the east coast, continue just a little further north and turn right into Kaimaumau Road. Follow the sealed road for 10 minutes and you'll arrive at the Kaimaumau Recreation Reserve. This is a stunning location that is well worth the extra time driving. You can't stay overnight, but it is a great spot for a picnic, do some fishing, or to just chill out for a few hours.
Fishing from the Pukenui wharf
100,000 year old kauri log at the
Historic Houhora Tavern
One hundred years ago, Houhora harbour was the centre of the thriving Kauri Gum industry, where Croatian and Polish immigrants cleared the land and drained the swamps while digging for the 'amber gold' that was used for making high quality varnish at the time.
Today, the 'winterless north' is home to farming and horticulture where most crops can be harvested one or two months earlier than the rest of New Zealand.
The harbour is also a very popular fishing location, where large fish can even be caught from the wharf. You can also gather a variety of shellfish along the beaches.
Other activities include playing golf, exploring the DOC walks, or checking out the Emu and Ostrich farm.
If you are interested in seeing what life was like for the early gumdiggers, the Kauri Gumdiggers Park is a completely different experience from what you would have seen in the Te Ahu Centre, or in the Matakahoe Kauri Museum. This is an original gum field that has been restored so that you can walk through it as if you were there at the time. Only, everything is signposted so that you know what you are looking at.
They have recently uncovered a massive kauri log that is over 100,000 years old - levelled by a massive tsunami that swept over the peninsua. There are few places in the world where you can see a tree of that age.
If you ask at the reception, you can stay overnight in their carpark.
There are two campsites in the area. The Wagner Holiday Park is at the mouth of the harbour with direct access to the beach, and the Pukenui Holiday Park is within walking distance of the Pukenui Wharf and the local shops and restaurant.
You can also continue on a few more minutes up the Far North Road to the Houhora Tavern. They have a large grassed parking area beside the tavern, with low cost powered sites and hot showers right on the harbour edge.
Henderson and Rawarawa Bays
Taking some quiet time at Henderson Bay
These two bays are a little out of the way, but have been home to family picnics and fishing enthusiasts since the time of the early gumdiggers. You can stay overnight at both bays, although not directly by the beach.
The Henderson Bay parking area is signposted 'No Camping, and is too small for that anyway. However, there is excellent low cost parking available just a few minutes up the road. There are only two parking sites, and they might not always be available, so you should check ahead of time if you want to stay. There are hot showers available, but no power.
The same is true for the Rawarawa Beach parking area. However, there is a large DOC campsite set back from the beach. Like most of the DOC campsites, there is no power and only cold showers, but there is plenty of room and you can park right alongside the river flowing down into the bay.
Cape Reinga and Spirits Bay
The Cape Reinga Lighthouse
The pink sand at Spirits Bay
This is really why you would drive up to the top of the island, right!
Cape Reinga is just stunning. Forget the tour buses. It's not commercial. Just pick a sunny day and plan to spend at least a couple of hours - allowing time to walk down to the lighthouse, and to just enjoy a very special place.
While you can't overnight at Cape Reinga, there is an excellent DOC campsite in Taputaputa Bay, just a short drive away. You don't want to stay around all the tour buses anyway.
There's not much to say about Taputaputa Bay, except that, if you've driven up to see the lighthouse in a motorhome, and you don't choose to stay over at this campsite, then you've just robbed yourself.
The alternative, of course, to to drive further back down the main road, and take the turnoff to Spirits Bay. There is a DOC campsite there as well, and the bay, freshwater lake, and the hills in the background make it an even more visually stunning location.
But you've got a long winding drive down a metal road, and you're not parked right by the beach. You should go there as well. But if you can only take to the time to go to one of them, go to Taputaputa.