After leaving Auckland, we spent our first night in a beautiful freedom camping site near Port Albert. This place was the perfect introduction to free camping because, along with a beautiful lakeside location, it had fresh drinking water and flushing toilets (with lighting)!
I’d only ever camped with a tent before, so making our first dinner inside the comfort of our van with the radio playing and all the doors open to the balmy spring sunset felt like luxury. I was practically skipping around the camp with a huge grin on my face as we set up for the night.
In the morning we were up bright and early to get back out on the road and see more of what Northland has to offer.
Our first stop was the Kauri Museum in Matakohe – a place full of exhibits about the giant Kauri trees that powered Northland’s logging industries and sustained the settling communities here.
These trees really were huge and once grew in vast ancient Kauri forests across the North of New Zealand. When European settlers arrived they used the trees to build houses, boats and furniture. Before long, Kauri wood became the first of New Zealand’s exports – prized for its quality – and by the early 1900s around 75% of the forests had been cut down.
Now these trees are protected and, although they don’t reach the gigantic sizes that they used to, you can still see some of the biggest in existence at nearby Waipoua Forest. On our way through, we stopped off to see Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) – a Kauri that stands more than 50 metres high and 14 metres across.
By the end of the day, we had followed the Twin Coast Discovery Highway all the way up to Kaitaia, where we would stay for the night before catching a special bus tour to the northernmost point of New Zealand – Cape Reinga.
This tour was packed with information. On the way to the Cape, we got to see a lot more about the ancient Kauri Forests and the gum diggers that made their fortune by searching for the fossilised sap (like amber) from the trees by digging in boggy pits.
By midday we’d arrived at Cape Reinga, where the guide explained how the Maori’s believed that this is where the souls of their dead would make their final journey to their ‘homeland’ Hawaiki.
It was all very interesting, and the scenery was beautiful, but the best part of this tour was when the bus turned off the road and onto the famous 90 Mile Beach for much of the journey home. It was quite surreal to be driving along on the sand, with the waves lapping up the shore towards us as we sped along.
We even got to stop a few times – firstly to experience sand boarding on a truly huge sand dune…
…and secondly to dig in the shallows for tuatua (a New Zealand shellfish). There were loads to find and you knew you’d struck gold when you dug your hands in and felt something like rocks hiding under the sand.
Our next stop was the famous Waitangi Treaty Grounds – where the Maori people and the European settlers signed a contract agreeing to live in peace together. On the way, we stopped off at Kemp House (New Zealand’s oldest surviving building) and Haruru Falls (a rare horse-shoe shaped waterfall).
When we arrived at Waitangi, we passed up the offer of a tour and cultural performance and instead guided ourselves around the grounds, which is made up of a small museum, forest walk, Treaty House (where the treaty was signed), a beautifully carved Maori meeting house and the world’s largest single-hulled canoe (waka).
While we were in the area we wanted to see the Bay of Islands, which we’d heard was one of the highlights of Northland. We had been expecting something like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, which is full of strange and beautiful limestone rock formations rising from the water. But, although the bay was very pretty, there didn’t seem to be any islands in the Bay at all!
That afternoon, we made it to our next stop for the night – another beautiful free camping location– which a short drive from Kawakawa and its unique public toilets, which were created by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
In the morning we decided to try out the Whangarei Falls loop – a walking track around a 26 metre high waterfall.
The loop itself turned out to be only 1km long so it didn’t take long, but it was peaceful and offered lots of very nice views of the waterfall.
We were then due to visit the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre – a place where sick and injured native birds are nursed back to health and re-released into the wild – but when we eventually found it, it was closed!
Despite that setback, we went on to what turned out to be one of the highlights of Northland – Waipu Caves. 40 minutes down a bumpy and dusty gravel track, we found the turn off, stepped into the caves and found ourselves in another world.
Now we’d been warned to bring ‘good sturdy shoes’ and torches for our visit, so we had confidently taken our solid walking boots, headlamp and torch. The torch and the headlamp were next to useless in the pitch black darkness of the caves and so were our walking boots! We were expecting damp, uneven and rocky terrain (which our walking boots are perfect for), but what we found was that the path (which is unmarked and very unclear in the dark!) was actually more like a murky river. While we were dithering around the edge of the river, looking for an obvious crossing point or little bridge, some locals appeared (in wellington boots) and just strode straight through the water and into the darkness! We couldn’t help but feel like stupid tourists at that point, but all of our embarrassment gave way to amazement when we got through the river and into the cave proper.
In the darkness, tiny pinpricks of light appeared above us and stretched out in front of us like shining stars in an inky night sky. These were glow worms, and there were thousands of them hiding in crevices in the cave ceiling – giving off their bright bluish-green glow.
It was both amazing and surreal to hear the steady drips of water echoing around the cave and feeling enclosed by its walls, but seeing what looked like the Milky Way in the sky right over your head.
On closer look we could see the worms, which are really a type of fly larvae, with long sticky filaments hanging down. All manner of bugs and flying insects (including the flies they eventually become) get caught in these strings while being drawn to the light. They get stuck, and pulled up into the waiting jaws of the glow worm. Yum.
After our whirlwind tour of Northland, we headed back towards Auckland and on to the famously beautiful Coromandel Peninsular.