The tail of the fish
The enigma of the Far North has finally been dispelled from my mind. It is now solid rock, temperate water and flowing warm sands of white, orange, yellow and grey. In my youth and in later excursions, I had never gone further north than Kerikeri; perhaps, at times, I even had doubts of the worth of a trip up that far: what would there be but metal roads, sand, marijuana and farmland? Inspired by the tales of my students, however, the Far North became the second of three destinations I vowed to visit this year. An Auckland Anniversary day plan foundered early, but fate dealt me a second chance: the internet meet-up group I had joined had proposed an Easter trip to Cape Reinga and around, and that was something I couldn’t possibly turn down.
Our first day, after escaping the greater Auckland area, had two major sights: a crag at Tokatoka and the Waipoua forest. The crag, the first walking of the trip, surpassed all my expectations: a steep climb and a stunning view over the Kaipara harbour and the Wairoa river. Night fell after our visit of the Waipoua forest and we car-ferried across the Hokianga harbour and eventually found our first camping site: Raetea forest park. For a free camp-site it was quite pleasant with a river flowing by and a well-maintained loo.
The next day, I rose early but not the earliest: our organiser is the first person to comprehensively beat me out of bed on a camping trip (and he did so on every single day). He’d already gone on several short walks by the time I emerged to cook my porridge! Day two was to be a big day: driving to the northernmost stretch of mainland New Zealand, the Aupouri Peninsula, tramping to Pandora’s Beach (near Spirits Bay), driving to Cape Reinga for sunset and then camping down in Tapotupotu Bay.
On the Abel Tasman track I had swum for what I thought was to be the last time of this warm patch at Awaroa. I was wrong: I swam four times this trip! I swam at Pandora’s beach with joy. Two others joined me. Large fish were swimming through each huge wave that crashed. You could body surf from the strength of the Pacific tide. I loved it! The sandy beach itself was utterly spectacular in its own right. Tramping in and out wasn’t anything special though, except for the effort that it required. Three of us enjoyed a run-tramp side-trip out to a summit, but otherwise it was just hard grind on a wide, unsheltered gradient.
Cape Reinga was different to how I expected, and it had apparently been very recently developed with a nice carpark, modern but befouled toilets, and a track leading to the lighthouse with plaques describing the significance. They have started to seal the road there too. This probably counts as a necessary development in view of the sheer number of people who go there and with a mind to prevent erosion and enable accessibility, even though it felt a China Tourism Board job, especially with recorded music playing as you went through the arches after the carpark. But have I yet said it was stunning? The view was special. The waters churned beneath us; North Cape and Spirit’s Bay stretched to the East, and the Three Kings Islands stood beneath the setting sun. Our group bonded at this Point.
Tapotupotu campsite is apparently the northernmost in the country and is famed for its biting insects, and this may be where Tramping Luck again shined on me. Although the weather was outstanding for the whole time we were there, there had been a cold snap mid-last week which may have killed all the nasties off. I was bitten once (I think) in the whole weekend and never had the need to use repellent. And the campsite, despite the numbers there, was very pleasant.
The next day got off to a slow start due to communication issues (I'll mention these later) but once we were off, it was grand. We launched into our biggest tramp, the Te Werahi Gate circuit. This covered a lot of the unique landscapes that Northland is famous for. We went through sandy, rocky areas, around capes and through the dramatic borderlines of desert-like areas and then thick bush and swamp. I swam at Twilight Beach, but the surf was a bit too timid for my liking. It was pleasantly exhausting with my joints filling with a pleasurable weariness.
In the late afternoon, we continued down the west coast to Te Paki stream, a gateway to Ninety-Mile beach. I’ve never been on the famous beach before and three of us indulged our tired bodies in the masochistic act of running up sand mountains. The sand cascaded down the sides like water with every stride. The top of the dune had a fine ridge: one side shaded and cool, the other side warm. The sand was the finest milled sort possible and you could bath in it with pleasure. We all charged down the sunny face of the dune. Someone even forward-rolled most of the way! After using the stream as a carwash, we headed further down to Rarawa beach, and oh, in the dusk cool, and with your knees getting swished by the warm Pacific water, it was bliss. Did it have the whitest sand ever? And how could New Zealand have such crystal clear ocean water?
Our final night was spent camping on the Karikari peninsula, just to the south-east of Aupouri peninsula, at a campsite called Maitai Beach. We arrived in the dark and after erecting our tents and feeding our stomachs went off to bed. The spells of these places are cast with the rising sun. I rose at 6:30am and had an Up&Go before donning my togs and heading for the shore. This was a plan I had had for the last few days: to have a morning swim. The breeze may have been cool but the water was the same temperature as it was during the day, a pleasant, tepid warm as I stepped my way deeper and deeper, passing the usual temperature-sensitive threshold points on my body with ease. I wore my goggles but could only spot evasive crabs sidestepping my potential onslaught. A fisherman patiently stood on the rocks nearby with a rod in hand. The morning sun was on me as I eventually emerged, and silhouettes along the beach approached: two of my companions were also out in the early morn. I pulled on a shirt and walked barefoot with them up the ridge that divided the bays and onto a knoll that looks out upon the whole harbour. It was the fourth day and I was now locked in a bodily ease that could last a lifetime. We descended and continued into the next bay.
One of my adventurous companions mentioned his desire to talk with the locals so I accompanied him up the hill to the baches. As we approached a gate, a Maori man waved at us, we waved back, and in turn he put his big dog in the house and shut the door. As we walked up the drive, he introduced himself as Henry and he happily chatted with us with his neighbour’s girl lurking at the side sipping tea and eavesdropping on the adults’ conversation. He said that he was always keen to build the personal connection with people, as without people, the world would be meaningless. He talked about his wariness of the Maori language resurgence - he didn’t put his children into kura kaupapa schools as he had a deep suspicion of the tradition that comes with it. (He spoke later of his grandfather as a hard man who may have contributed to the death of his wife, and thus denying his father the female nurturing of a mother figure. This may have been the tradition he feared.) He spoke of his fear of the gentrification of the peninsula and the stifling that multi-ownership (i.e., tribal collective ownership) can create. The land that his shack was on had been in his family’s hands for a very long time, mainly for dairy since who knows when. We left him to see whether our friends were ready to move on but I was left with the recurring thought that without a knowledge of the people, the land is just form.
After going to yet Another Breath-taking Beach (ABB), we headed for Coca-Cola Spring, which one of our car mates talked endlessly about. It is the name often used to refer to a popular freshwater lake on the Karikari peninsula. It’s name may say something of the namers because for me it was the colour of black tea; and it tasted like it too; or as one tester more specifically described it: Assam black tea. Three of us dove in completely. Fresh water is much colder than the ocean water and the initial wading was shiver-inducing. Three of us (each time I refer to three of us, interestingly it was a different three each time, me being the only common variable) lolled around in the water with a ball game called Commitment. The rest just sat and watched.
Diving under the surface was a surreal experience: you couldn’t see far at all. With your head under and eyes open you course through the brown darkness without any idea what is ahead.
From Karikari Peninsula we shot around Doubtless Bay. Fading small communities were bracketed by residential developments. In Taipa, a brick fireplace stands bereft of its house, alone and without comfort amidst a dairy paddock. The cows low and graze around it in the meadow of the present. It all acts as a reminder of the forces of change.
The main organiser was one of the more earnest people I’ve met, and it was saddening to disappoint him at times with our carefree attitudes. Like me, he was a time man; but I didn’t carry the burden of the planning and was mainly oblivious to what was left to do and what amount of time remained. Each one of us would take our time or do what fancied us despite his apparent urgency. The final slap in the face for him was on the trip home, when, at Mangonui, our vehicle predominantly wanted to “break from the convoy” and follow our own schedule to get back to Auckland. He still had two other sights he wanted the group to visit before we parted ways and his disappointment was palpable. There was irony, though, that our vehicle was lured to the first sight (Whangaroa had a crag that stood high and haughty, a temptress, softly drawing the attention of the menfolk in the car to knock the bugger off) and then bumping into them at the second sight, which appeared on our right and we thought it improper to pass by.
A side story for the trip was that of the Couple. They were fairly regular participants in the hiking meet-ups but always sustained an aloofness and desire for privacy that was at times incompatible with a group activity. They started on a bad foot: after arriving at the rendezvous point in Auckland almost an hour late, they nonchalantly stepped out of the car without any embarrassment, apology or explanation. During the weekend, they didn’t communicate or mix beyond the efforts of other group members to chat with them and operated on their own clock despite a tight schedule and rarely let others know what they were going to do when we arrived at each place. This wouldn’t have been too bad if one hadn’t been the driver of one of the two cars we took, carrying three others including the main organiser. The Couple frustrated him in particular to the point of saying: “I don’t care anymore.” He did still care, of course, a lot and bore the responsibility for their failures on himself as an organiser. There was a weird moment of redemption, though, where at Twilight beach they disappeared altogether without us knowing when they’d be back. Everyone was ready to leave, and some of the slower walkers had already left. But they were nowhere to be seen. They had been last spotted near a distant cave, so one of our members walked in that general direction to whistle and yell and, if necessary, go over by the cave to see. They may have fallen in. Eventually, in response, out from the rocks popped the obviously naked white body of the man. We gesticulated that we were moving onward, and we naturally thought they’d got up to some mischief in a pool or in the cave. Once they caught up with us came an interesting story: He’d spotted mussels in the cave, stripped off, dived in and started collecting them off the side of the cave. A stingray (which incidentally had been seen by another member earlier from the shore) had come into the cave freaking him to the point of leaping out of the water. He then broke open the shells and fed it by hand from the safety of the rocks. That evening he gave everyone else a nicely cooked mussel each. (Mine was donated to a lucky soul.)
I enjoyed this trip: I didn’t do any of the work planning it; I didn’t do any of the driving; I could just savour the experiences. There were places still yearning to be visited. I wouldn’t mind spending some time in Matauri Bay, Whangaroa Harbour or find out what is left on the west coast north of the Hokianga. It did open a world of new places that I would like to revisit, or places I’d like to share with others. The South Island sometimes feels like beauty without heart; the Far North felt like it had that heart and the form to match.