Waipu: Half a world away

By Glenys Bean

When Scottish settlers arrived in Waipu, they found a land with long, white sandy beaches, blue skies, and a seductive nature, writes Glenys Bean.

Waipu, with its blue skies and long white beaches, must have seemed like seventh heaven to the Scottish settlers. Photo / Northland Naturally
Waipu, with its blue skies and long white beaches, must have seemed like seventh heaven to the Scottish settlers. Photo / Northland Naturally

There's a picture of Reverend Norman McLeod hanging in a prominent place at the Waipu Heritage Centre that gives you some idea of what the charismatic preacher was like.

This isn't the kind of portrait you walk past and forget. McLeod's grey eyes bore into you and you feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

McLeod left Scotland in 1817 to lead a group of his followers around the world, via Nova Scotia, to found the tiny settlement of Waipu in 1853.

In Fiona Kidman's novel The Book of Secrets McLeod is described as a man with "a cruel mouth ... a lean hard mouth ... a thin face and eyes that looked like cool slate".

Others say he was a caring man who did what he believed was right for his people.

Either way, I wanted to explore the area where McLeod took his people. But first a little history.

After winning the battle of Culloden in 1746 the Hanoverian regime began confiscating land and destroying the clan system. With the social infrastructure in tatters by the early 1800s mass emigration was at its peak.

McLeod, fearing for his followers, led a group to Canada, where they endured the harsh winters for nearly 20 years. Hoping for a gentler climate, McLeod corresponded with Governor Sir George Grey about buying land in New Zealand and reached agreement to buy some 50,000 acres (20,230ha) north of the Brynderwyns, inland from Bream Bay, in the area now known as Waipu. Around 900 emigrated to Waipu.

Back to the present, I drove from Auckland through Warkworth and Wellsford before arriving at Kaiwaka, where I discovered Cafe Eutopia, which serves some of the best organic food in the north.

Staff can whip you up the lightest corn waffles or poached free-range eggs. To follow I decided on macadamia cake served with whipped cream. If you're an edgy cosmopolitan type you might blanch at the sandy floor and the earthy ferro cement architecture, but if you like something a bit different then check it out.

Just south of Waipu I stayed at Waihoihoi Lodge, which specialises in country living for women. There is a growing international market in women's tourism and owners Rosemary and Ngaire saw a gap locally.

Rosemary told me that the lodge could command higher room rates but, as she explained, "Charging a lot is a double-edged sword and it's good to be able to say yes to women who are students or women who travel alone. We're happy to cater for family groups, including men and children, but only if the group books the entire lodge."

Visitors can be forgiven for thinking Waipu is just like any other coastal town. There's a scattering of shops, two real estate agents, a stationer-come-post-office, a hairdresser and a butcher. But the heart of Waipu is the Heritage Centre and Caledonian Park. The centre is a treasure trove of documents, photographs and exhibits about the Scottish diaspora.

The big day out on Waipu's calendar is January 1 when the town comes alive to the swirl of the bagpipes for the annual Caledonian Games. If you've a wee drop of Scots blood, you might like to join the thousands who come to enjoy the pipers, drummers and the big attraction - the tossing of the caber.

I'm not sure how the town's eateries cope on games day because there aren't many of them. Apart from the pizza bar and the Chinese takeaway there are just a couple of cafes.

I chose to brunch at the Waipu Thyme, which serves homemade brioche and the tastiest cheese scones. I couldn't resist buying some courgettes, from the owner's organic garden, nor could I resist sampling the extra virgin olive oil from nearby Narbey estate.

If you have a more sophisticated palate, there are good restaurants and cafes further down the highway - one at Mangawhai about 40 minutes away.

The local beach, Uretiti, is a well-kept secret. Access is through Department of Conservation land and once you clamber over the sand hills, you can walk part of the beach that stretches from Waipu Cove in the south to Marsden Point in the north.

If you're a body surfer or boogie boarder then you'll enjoy swimming anywhere on this safe 22km white, sandy beach. I'm told there's good surf at the rocky headland near Waipu Cove, especially if there's a moderate swell.

Apart from experiencing some of the warmest weather in the country there's plenty to do in this delightful part of New Zealand.

If it's diving or fishing you are after, then check with Bream Head Charters for trips to the Hen and Chicken Islands. The company also does dolphin and whale-watching trips.

You'll discover Bream Head Reserve, a coastal forest, if you drive to the Whangerei Heads. During daylight hours you can see and hear many native birds, but if you're lucky enough to stay until evening there's a good chance you'll hear kiwi. There are three walks at the heads but it's advisable to call the DoC office in Whangarei to check on conditions or to book huts.

Waipu, with its blue skies and long white beaches, must have seemed like seventh heaven to those new arrivals all that time ago. True, relaxing in the sun or bathing in the sea wasn't a lifestyle choice and there was a lot of hard work to be done.

But I do hope Reverend McLeod was a happier man when he settled in Waipu than his portrait suggests.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Waipu is 1.5 hours north of Auckland on State Highway One.

Diving: For diving in and around the Hen and Chickens islands see Dive New Zealand or ring Bream Head Charters on (09) 432 7484.

Walks: Contact the Department of Conservation, Whangarei on (09) 430 2133.

- Herald on Sunday

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