There’s an equally popular and persistent myth about New Zealand/Aotearoa: that the South Island is more beautiful than the North Island. Perhaps it’s because of the Lord of the Rings movies. Or it could be because many European immigrants initially settled on the South Island in the 1950s and wrote lyrical letters home about the beauty of their new home.
Not that the South Island isn’t beautiful. But the North Island! And especially the area where I live: Northland Te Tai Tokerau. It’s where the country best expresses its true nature, culture and atmosphere. And call me biased, but the more northerly you travel, the more beauty you will find. Mind you, a love of the rugged and unspoiled is essential. Then you will discover secrets that remain hidden from most other travellers to this faraway land.
In my view, the true Northland (not to be confused with ‘North Island’) starts about 30 kilometres (about 19 miles) north of Auckland. From Orewa, the landscape begins to unmistakably change. State Highway 1 is a lot less busy. The verge vegetation here is rainforest-like, with cabbage palms and slowly unfurling giant wild palm leaves as the most exotic accents. While winding, climbing and descending, the country’s main route presents one new stunning panorama after the other.
The trees and forests are intensely dark green, the valleys fertile and fresh, the sea vistas breathtaking — depending on the weather and her mood, from rippling deep turquoise to wild swirling mint green and grey.
Such images alternate in rapid succession, while the cloud formations would make the painters of the Hague school faint. It gives meaning to the original and much better name of New Zealand; Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud.
It’s easy to zigzag this remote northern area from east to west coast, alternately choosing to drive bits of SH12 or SH1. New Zealanders call this the ‘Twin Coast’.
Suppose you choose to drive west towards Whangarei (pronounced: Fangarei) to the north. In that case, you’ll pass through the area to which pioneering New Zealand owed its original wealth: the Kauri forests (pronounced: cowry) forests. Or what’s left of them. Because the wood of kauris was of superior quality — especially for ship masts — and the resin was equally eagerly harvested. A kauri is between thirty and sixty meters long and can reach an age of two thousand years. These giants only grow in Northland and Coromandel (Agatis australis).
Some of these trees have been given special spiritual meaning and bear names like Tane Mahuta (named after the god of the forest) and Matua Ngahere (father of the forest). It wasn’t until 1952 that the remaining Kauri forest near Waipoua was declared a nature reserve, and the ruthless cutting down of this majestic tree came to an end. Lately, the remaining trees have been under threat from Kauri dieback, a disease caused by a fungus-like eukaryotic microorganism (Phytophthora agathidicida).
If you choose to drive east from Auckland, you’ll first pass the Bay of Islands, popular with Aucklanders to escape the hustle and bustle. “When I was still working in Auckland, I would drive to Waipu after work to surf until the sun went down. And then back in two hours,” says one local, who has since moved to Kerikeri. The influx of city dwellers doesn’t make the bays and beaches any less beautiful.
An ‘end of the world’ feeling and ‘everything was wild and empty’ is strong in the part of the North that is called ‘the Far North’. It splits the ocean from Kaitaia into the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific to the northernmost tip of the mainland, Cape Reinga, like a skinny finger from Hansel and Gretel. In the Māori language, this area is referred to as Te Rerenga Wairua. The ‘Te Rerenga Wairua’ component of the name in Māori language means the leaping-off place of spirits. Here “man-sea” and “woman-sea” come together. It’s the place where dead souls jump off into the ocean, to reunite in Hawaiki (half island, half myth) with the spirits of their ancestors.
Abel Tasman sailed around this cape in search of drinking water, in January 1642. He named the most northwestern tip of Aotearoa after Maria van Diemen, the wife of his boss in Batavia, a name it so far has retained.
The cape offers one of the most spectacular walks you can undertake in this country. Cape Maria van Diemen can only be reached on foot. A starting point is about one kilometre from Te Paki, at the main road SH1. Through a hilly meadow full of young and innocent bulls, the path leads to the coast, with dunes reminiscent of desert landscapes, except in a cooler climate and with dramatic cloudy skies. During and after heavy rain, the path turns waterway, full of excess water from the Te Werahi Stream. Walking turns into wading. Saplings on either side of the temporary creek provide support. They make the journey back to the main road a splashing adventure that’s relatively easy to do.
Back on the road, wandering around corners and along bays, forests and picturesque fishing villages, you quickly lose all sense of time, without getting bored for even a moment. If anything, you could get tired of too much beauty, emptiness and tranquillity.
And well-kept secrets.
Take the Peria Valley, which you find when turning right inland, at the end of Taipa village. (Perhaps after you first visited the Kari-kari Peninsula with its tropical-looking beaches). The Peria Valley houses a hitherto carefully kept secret, the Tushita Mystery School retreat centre, a serene refuge at a clean, wildly flowing stream amidst all the fruit trees that want to grow in New Zealand: from avocado, tamarillo and cherimoya, to orange, lemon and mandarin. Visitors can enjoy the unique atmosphere on the hermitage grounds by booking breathing or meditation retreats or solo rooms outside of formal retreat times.
From the Peria Valley it’s recommended to take a drive to the Kohukohu ferry and hop on board. The historic Hokianga harbour, which cuts deep into the country, is completely deserted, except for the odd solitary Kingfisher on one of the old piers. On clear days the water is smooth like a mirror, reflecting the perfectly rolling surrounding hills, turning the waterscape into a double portrait.
And the ‘Boatshed’, a cafe on stilts, with its terrace half in the water, serves excellent cappuccino, amidst local art.
© Sitara Morgenster