I was super excited to visit Northland based on my presumption that it would be a mixture of East Coast culture and Coromandel adventure.
First on the agenda was Kingdom of Zion, which is located just outside of Whangarei. I will be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from this place and it surpassed any expectations I had. Lee, the operations manager of the wildlife park, gave us a private guided tour of the leopard, tiger, cheetah and lion enclosures. His knowledge of each individual animal was spectacular!
We then joined a larger group on the feed tour. The behaviour of the animals changed dramatically as soon as they heard the feeding truck start its engine. They went from lazing around their enclosures to pacing beside the fence in anticipation, with the wild lions becoming rather vocal and aggressive.
The Cheetah Encounter concluded our tour. Feeling slightly nervous, we were guided into the Cheetah enclosure. We were warned that the male would approach us and hiss – which he did. Meat was placed on the rock for him to eat and we each took a turn patting his back. However, we actually hand-fed the female, patting her head as she delicately took meet from us. After being fed the cheetahs just walked away, it was unreal!
The following day was spent with Dive Tutukaka exploring the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve. This location is rated one of the top ten in the world for diving and is a pending World Heritage Site. The Islands are abundantly populated with unique and incredibly varied plant, animal and fish life. The water is a beautiful turquoise blue colour and crystal clear, with visibility to a depth of at least 20 metres.
Because I had never dived before I went for the snorkeling option. I was absolutely blown away when I first jumped into the water. I was surrounded by large schools of different types of fish. Far beneath me I could see people diving, exploring the marine life that inhabit the deeper waters. One of the stand out things about this experience was the staff. The crew were so passionate about what they did and they eagerly shared their knowledge of the area and marine life. They genuinely loved their job.
Hello Paihia and the Bay of Islands! This area has a sub-tropical climate and is made up of 144 different islands, making it the ideal place for beach and water activities.
Thus it was an easy decision to go for an overnight excursion with The Rock Adventure Cruise. It’s the biggest, purpose-built house boat in New Zealand, offering a truly unique experience.
I don’t want to repeat myself but these guys also love their job! The crew were friendly and fun, encouraging everyone on board to mingle and get involved with the scheduled activities, which included target shooting (Matilda the plastic duck), dusk fishing, night kayaking (observing the phosphorescence and star-gazing), snorkeling, island exploring and gathering fresh seafood. OK, I will admit it, the target shooting competition was males vs females and I was feeling pretty competitive (and confident) about this activity. I was so annoyed when Sam and Lisa (the other Bare Kiwi crew members) took out the respective titles!
The cruise really did offer something for everyone; young or old, groups or individuals, travelers or locals, water enthusiasts or even land lovers. Five star rating from me!
Then, as we arrive back to the mainland in Paihia, we spot Flying Kiwi Parasail – New Zealand’s highest parasail. They quickly had us flying at 1200ft enjoying breathtaking aerial views of the Bay of Islands. This activity is perfect for those who want to fly but are not daring enough to try other thrill seeking options.
With the weather forecast deteriorating we decided to head North, towards Cape Reinga, the following day. We left Paihia at 4.30am to make the most of our day in the Far North. Arriving at Cape Reinga before 7am we were greeted by moody clouds – it had rained heavily overnight. This meant we didn’t get the sunrise shots we had anticipated but the journey was still definitely worth it. As I watched the two oceans (the South Pacific and the Tasman Sea) collide, I felt like I was at the top of the world!
Making our way back down the coast we pulled over, just south of the turn off to the giant Te Paki sand dunes, at a sign advertising sand boards for hire from a family home. Priced at $10 per board, it was a steal! Arriving at the sand dunes, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Standing at the bottom of the dunes looking up makes you realise their formidable size, they are massive. The race to the top was on! This is a must do for anyone visiting the Far North.
Continuing down Te Paki Stream lead us on to 90 Mile Beach, which is actually only 55 miles (89 km) long. This stretch of beach is an official highway however, it is recommended for 4WD vehicles and is only safe to drive at specific times of the tides. We are cruising the country in a 2WD vehicle but that wasn’t going to stop us from driving the iconic highway! Sammy couldn’t resist doing donuts in the sand, I think the majority of people driving down the beach can’t resist the temptation to, and we had to deal with the consequences… Don’t get lost in the moment and drift up the beach into the soft sand! Thankfully a German traveler stopped and gave his shovel to Sammy so he could dig the car out – chur Clemens! (You can check out the video clip of this on the Bare Kiwi Facebook Page HERE.)
The tide was noticeably coming in as we neared the southern end of 90 Mile Beach, near Ahipara. Our dramas were not over just yet. It appeared that there was no 2WD access to get off the beach! We were seriously considering racing the tide and driving all the way back up to Te Paki Stream until we saw another car in the same predicament as us. Nervously, we watched him gun it up the soft sand exit… with success! Once we made it back onto the tar seal it was high-fives all around as we laughed about what the outcome could have been.
Feeling exhausted, we arrived back at Sea Beds in Paihia just in time to watch the sunset. What a day! It was a great feeling just to kick back and relax (this means downloading all the video footage from the day on laptops) at this beautiful hostel which overlooks the beach. Sea Bed’s appearance is more like a motel than a backpackers. Definitely drop in and spend a night with Mari and the team while you’re in Paihia and make sure you say hi from me.
Not only is The Bay of Islands renowned for its natural beauty, its history is equally significant. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds, located only 2km from Paihia, is the place where Māori chiefs first signed their accord – the Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti of Waitangi) – with the British Crown. This is New Zealand’s founding document. You can choose to take a guided or unguided tour of the grounds, which are situated right on the waterfront and provide panoramic views of the Bay of Islands.
Features of The Treaty Grounds include the historic Treaty House, which was home to the British government’s representative in New Zealand from 1833 to 1840, the magnificently carved meeting house (Te Whare Rūnanga), the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe (Ngātokimatawhaorua) and the Flagstaff, which marks the spot where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed on 6 February 1840.
I definitely recommend the Cultural Performance experience. The performance group, Te Pitowhenua, provided a special introduction to New Zealand’s unique indigenous culture in the meeting house, Te Whare Rūnanga. The performance begins with a traditional Māori welcome outside the meeting house and features waiata (singing), poi, stick games, Māori weaponry, and the famous haka!
You can’t leave the Bay of Islands without visiting Russel. Russell, formerly known as Kororāreka, was the first permanent European settlement and sea port in New Zealand. Kororāreka developed as a result of this trade but soon earned a very bad reputation, due to the rough behaviour of whalers, traders and sailors who settled there. It was a community without laws and became known as the “Hell Hole of the Pacific”. When the Colony of New Zealand was founded, the European settlers were reluctant to choose Kororāreka as the capital, due to its bad reputation. Land was purchased at Okiato, situated 5km to the south, and it was renamed Russell. Not long after, the move to the Okiato site was considered a mistake, and Auckland was selected as the new capital.
Fast forward to the present and Russel is a beautiful seaside township, with numerous cafes, gift shops and accommodation providers. The only reminder of present conflict here is Flagstaff Hill (Maiki Hill), which is where Hone Heke challenged the authority of the British by cutting down the flagstaff. The easiest way to access Russel is by water. Foot passengers can take a boat directly from Paihia to Russel and there is also a vehicle ferry between Okiato and Opua. There is a land connection too but this requires a substantial detour.
Continuing on the Twin Coast Discovery Highway towards the West Coast we made our way to the Hokianga Harbour. One of the most significant places in New Zealand history as this this the landing site of Maori explorer, Kupe. Kupe is the first man known to discover Aotearoa and he made the journey from Hawaiki to the Hokianga.
The Copthorne Hotel in Hokianga was where our twilight tour with Footprints Waipoua departed. This was my first time visiting the area and I super excited to enter the Waipoua Forest and view some of the largest remaining Kauri trees in the world. Our guide Bill was a Hokianga local. He was genuinely passionate about the forest and making this a memorable journey for us. I got the feeling that Bill and the other Footprints guides would still take you out for a walk in their “office” even if they were not being paid.
I had heard a lot of great things about the tour – it featured in the Lonely Planet publication Code Green as 1 of 2 New Zealand and 82 global ‘Experience of a Lifestime’ – but wasn’t too sure what to expect. I’m going to put it out there and say it is in my top 5 things you must do in New Zealand! Big call I know but it seriously was amazing. I don’t know how to describe it and I think that’s what makes it so special. The whole journey from meeting Bill, driving into the Waipoua Forest, the stories, Maori traditions and culture, mixed with amazing interpretation of the life in the forest under the cover of darkness with no one else around – only our small group – ensured it was a special journey to see the mighty giants, the Kauri trees. Just trust me it’s indescribable and such a positive experience you must have while you’re in New Zealand!
The next morning we headed back into the forest to get sunrise photos of giant Tane Mahuta (‘The Lord of the Forest’) who stands an impressive 52 metres (150ft) tall! It was so different to see Tane Mahuta in daylight and sure enough, not long after the sun rose, the tourists started pulling up and I realised I would now have to share him with thousands of people if I hung around, unlike last night when there was only our small group.
We drove the beautiful Kauri Coast Highway on our last day in Northland, through the giant ancient forest and out onto farmland, which was once dense Kauri forest, before arriving at the Kauri Museum in Matakohe. Only 2% of New Zealand’s Kauri forest remains today so it was important to go to the Museum, which explains the past industries of kauri timber and kauri gum. The museum is a community project dedicated to recording the history of the colonial timber industry which brought early European settlers to Northland to harvest what appeared to be an endless resource. It was integral to the colonising of New Zealand and established an export economy. The museum features outstanding displays, real exhibits, original early photos and fascinating stories of the pioneering settlers.
Haere ra Northland, our journey south must continue.
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