Saturday, October 14, 2006

The North of the North

Surprisingly, given the amount of other flights that were delayed, our plane to Auckland was on time. The airport in Auckland was heaving with people. At the baggage reclaim we found an information board advertising local hotels. We picked one from the list, BK's Pioneer Lodge, a motel style place, phoned them up and arranged to be picked up from outside the terminal. If anything the scene was more chaotic outside the terminal than inside. Despite signs warning of towing for waiting, there were parked cars everywhere. I'd have liked to have seen them get a tow truck down there. The motel was only a short drive from the airport and when we got there we were told we had the honeymoon suite. The last room because of a cancellation. Honeymoon suite meant that the room had a spa bath. It was a nice room and not too expensive with the added bonus of an Internet connection for the laptop. We set a bunch of photos uploading to Flickr, ordered a pizza and ran the bath. After 3 weeks of driving (well being a passenger) every day, soaking in the spa was a welcome way to work the kinks out of my back. Even if Gemma had run it so hot that I began to turn the colour of a boiled lobster. Not having to assemble the bed for the first time in weeks was a bonus too.

In the morning we rang up Ezy to tell them where we were so they could pick us up and give us another van. The formalities were sorted out very quickly and we'd gotten the same rate as we'd been paying on the South Island for a continuation of hire. We'd been rather spoiled by our van on the South Island. It was the subject of a very recent refit, and given the fact that everything was still wrapped up I think we were the first people to have it afterwards. No such luck on the North Island. The van we were given was obviously well used and just slightly shabbier. Although the vans are the same model, the company has changed the way it does the interior in the newer fit-outs. It's a more sensible layout in some ways. As we pulled away, and for the first 20km a constant stream of complaints poured forth from Gemma about how the van wasn't good enough. She changed her mind though, especially when I pointed out that the wierdness she was feeling in controlling it could be due to the overdrive button being turned on. Once turned off she was much happier.

The first thing we noticed driving north is that Auckland is big. It seemed to take us an age to get out of the city, all on motorway with loads of traffic, something which we hadn't seen on the South Island. We did get out of the city eventually though. Even out into the countryside there was still more traffic and the composition of it was completely different to the South Island. There probably 70% of the other vehicles we saw were camper vans. In the North Island the figure would be less than 1%. We left the highway at Warkworth for a detour to the Goat Island Marine Park. Our timing was way off and we arrived when the tide was too high to properly explore the rockpools. I still managed to see some interesting crabs in the clear pools. There was a wind which made it hard to really get a good look in the larger pools though.

Back on the highway for only a short while, we veered off along the Twin Coast Scenic Route. The scenery was in the main a pastoral backdrop as the road meandered to the coast at Mangawhai Heads. Further along the coast we tried to book into a caravan park, but couldn't find the owner who was, as a sign proclaimed, off mowing the grass somewhere. The only toilet block we could see was roped off and being subject to the attentions of a couple of builders, so we thought better of it and continued up the coast. At Uretiti Beach we found a reasonably large, but fairly empty, Department of Conservation camp ground. We parked up for the night. As the name suggests the camp is right by the beach so we had a walk across the wildflower covered dunes and down onto the very wide expanse of sand.

It rained sporadically during the night and was still going off and on when we got up. We continued north through Whangarei, pausing to have a look at Whangarei Falls. This was a really rather pretty spot. It's not often you see a large waterfall within a reasonably large town. We detoured towards Tutukaka, a centre for fishing and diving. The Poor Knights Islands, apparently New Zealands top, and in the world top 10 diving spots is just off the coast here. We passed lovely small coves with turquoise water which turned crystal clear in the shallows next to the beach. At Tutukaka itself we parked up at the marina and ate lunch looking at all the fine boats.

The road curled back towards the highway, which we followed up to Te Haumi, where we booked into Beachside Holiday Park. They weren't lying with the name as the park stretched right down to the waters edge. Throughout the night we could hear loud bird calls and the lapping of the waves on the beach.

In the morning we took the ferry across to Okiato and then drove to Russell. A town I mean, not a man called Russell. We hopped out there for a coffee and muffin. The town itself is quite historic, but we didn't stay for long. Charles Darwin described it as being full of the 'refuse of society' but I think it may have gentrified since then.

Back in the van we took the loop road back down the coast and toward highway 1. We were looking for beautiful little secluded coves. We found plenty of beautiful spots but no places to stop the van for a look. We did manage to stop in a couple of places. Bland Bay was really rather nice, so we had lunch there. Along from it was a lovely DOC camp site at Whangaruru North. We decided to carry on down the road as my map had more camping symbols printed on it and it was still early. The two that we stopped at though had no camp grounds. I think that many spots have been closed to camping because of campers messing the place up and emptying waste tanks.

The whole coastline was a little more built up than we'd envisaged. Every bend and twist of the road had an estate agents sign on it, most advertising, not properties, but lifestyles. People had told us that the North Island would seem more populous than the South Island, and given that three quarters of the population live here I had sort of expected it. Out of Auckland though, I thought things would be much smaller. I was wrong. Outside of the small towns the scenery was very nice. Still mainly rolling hills and grazing land, but a little bit more forested and wilder looking than we'd been driving through over the past couple of days.

We hit the highway again just at the place that we'd had a coffee the previous day and had to retrace our route back to the Bay of Islands. We drove past the camp site that we' d been in the previous night and continued on to Haruru Falls and the Haruru Falls Resort. We got a spot right by the river with a view of the waterfalls that give the town it's name. As it got dark a tour boat appeared and came up the river to the falls. Lights came on and lit them up. Another lovely spot to park up for the night.

In the morning we backtracked to Waitangi. We picked up a hitcher going to Paihia as we pulled out of the van park. Waitangi is the site of the signing of the Treaty which give birth to New Zealand as a nation. The treaty, which was between the British Crown and the Maori people of the North Island, is still subject to arguments today about the exact wording of the treaty and it's intent. The short film that explains the history of New Zealand leading up to the treaty was quite interesting, but the room was chilly so I was glad to get out into the sunshine. Also around the site are a restoration of the British Resident's house and a Maori war canoe built for the centenary of nationhood. The canoe was very impressive, the more so sitting next to the stump of the giant Kauri tree from which it was carved.

Just on the northern end of the Bay of Islands area is the town of Kerikeri. This town is right in the middle of a large fruit and vegetable growing area. In the town itself every other shop is a cafe. Unsurprisingly, we stopped for a coffee. We mulled over where to have lunch, deciding to treat ourselves at one of the wineries that we'd seen signposted on the way in. We drove to the first one we came to again, the Marsden Estate, and had a lovely lunch and took away the obligatory bottle of wine. We were happy that the area was big on fruit and vegetables, because we needed to get some food. We found an organic vegetable farm and re-stocked. On the way back we happened to pass the area's other winery so popped in so that it didn't feel left out. An American couple who arrived in their yacht and stayed own the Cottle Hill winery. They have a couple of Chardonnays that are really silky and buttery. We took another bottle away with us.

North out of the Bay of Islands is Doubtless Bay, so named because Captain Cook (that fellow again) noted in his journal that it was, 'Doubtless a bay'. The landscape alternated between farmland, pine forest and denuded hills that used to be pine forest. At times we passed close to the sea and would crest a hill and be rewarded with a beautiful view of the sea sparkling in the bay. We continued onto the Karikari peninsular and to the very end, Maitai Bay. At the end of the road we found a DOC camp ground on a hill, a short step over the dunes to the beach. It was lovely and we instantly made up our minds to stay the night. At the end of the beach were rocks and when the tide went out we spent some time poking around in the pools in them.

In the morning we continued along the Twin Coast route, which hooked west. In the town of Awaui the road forks, one way taking you north toward Cape Reinga. This is the northernmost point of New Zealand and is mainly known for 90 mile beach, which can be driven down. Not, unfortunately, in hire cars, so we carried on in search of our main pre-occupation for that day. Trees. Near Awanui is the Ancient Kauri Kingdom. This is basically a furniture shop with a café in it. I found it much more interesting than it may sound. They use Kauri wood. Kauri forests once dominated the north west of the North Island. The wood was highly sought after for various applications, and logged mercilessly. As the trees are very slow growing this was an unsustainable practise and now there aren't many Kauri left, other than in reserves. This shop and it's affiliated craftsmen use Kauri sourced from local peat swamps. These massive trees have been sitting submerged for 45,000 years.

The furniture in the store was amazing. Sofas and tables carved and shaped from single massive blocks of Kauri. The craft gifts were somewhat less amazing. It's a little sad to see a 45,000 majestic tree reduced to a soap dish. The centrepiece of the shop is incredible. The mezzanine floor is reached by means of a spiral staircase carved into a huge section of Kauri trunk. If you like things made of wood, and I do, then this is a must see.

Following the road South we came to Hokianga Harbour which we crossed by ferry from Rangiora. The ferry was on the other side of the harbour so Gemma insisted that we make lunch, the ever popular eggy-wraps. I warned that there may not be time due to the imminent arrival of the ferry, but was shot down by a scathing glance. A hungry Gemma is a not to be messed with so we started cooking with the van sitting in the queue. Of course the ferry turned up, forcing me to virtually inhale my food in a rush to get on it. We'd have been better waiting until we were on it because we sat around waiting to fill the ferry up and the crossing took 15 minutes. We spent this time staring into other peoples vans. We've become obsessed by the interior layout of camper vans and we can't walk or drive past one now without trying to peer inside.

In response to public pressure the Waipoua Forest was given protected national park status in the 1950's. The highway cuts deeply into the forest which is thick on both sides. The two largest living Kauri trees are both within this park, Tane Mahuta, The God of the Forest is the largest. The huge tree towers over the surrounding forest. Further south is Te Matua Ngahere, The Father of the Forest. Not as tall as Tane Mahuta, this tree makes up for it with a massive girth. Both trees are estimated to be more than 2,000 years old.

After spending the night at a reasonably pleasant little van park by a river at Kaihu we set off south again. We stopped at the very interesting Kauri & Pioneer Museum at Matakohe. Unusually for small town museums, this is an excellent place. It's packed with original equipment and goods from the logging industry. Inside is a section from a Kauri tree killed by lightning and subsequently milled. It is huge. As a comparison on the wall are drawn circles to indicate the girths of the currently living largest and recorded largest Kauri trees. This section is dwarfed by them.

Our time in Northland came to an end as we hit the motorway back into Auckland. We had to stop by the city branch of Ezy as the invertor in the van was buggered. I'd arranged for them to take the TV out and swap it with a portable DVD player. I wasn't bothered about the DVD, as I could always watch them on the laptop if the need arose. But getting rid of the TV gave us a lot more storage space to play with. Unfortunately the heated towel rail in this van works from the invertor not 240v, so no warm cosy towels in the mornings!

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