Safe harbour from the storm at Whangaroa

By Jim Eagles

If you're going to be blown off course by 100-knot winds there are much worse places to wash up than the fabled Kingfish Lodge on Whangaroa Harbour.

And there are worse ways to spend a stormy night than gazing at the white horses riding the harbour, watching dark clouds scudding past the Duke of Wellington's nose - that's a rock formation, by the way - and dining on oysters and crayfish.

I was supposed to be spending a weekend exploring the harbour, living on a houseboat, paddling a kayak, and doing guided walks. But as we drove north on Friday afternoon the weather forecasts got worse. By the time we reached the wharf at Totara North, violent winds were rocking the car and the weather service was talking of bigger blows to come.

It was a relief when houseboat operator Neil Deverell suggested it was a bit rough to be venturing out for a night on the water and said Kingfish Lodge had offered to put us up.

"We've never had to cancel before," he said, "and you'd probably be okay because there's plenty of sheltered anchorages round the harbour. But it could be a bit bumpy getting there and we don't want to take any risks."

Moments before, a gust of wind had sent pebbles the size of marbles smacking into my legs so there was no argument from me.

Once we reached the lodge all was peaceful and relaxed.

It occupies a beautiful site on the edge of a bay just inside the entrance to Whangaroa Harbour, looking straight across to the steep bushclad hills, amazing rock formations - including the Iron Duke's nose - and the deep blue waters of the harbour's West Arm.

It is the oldest coastal lodge in New Zealand, dating back a century to when the bay was used as a base for big-game fishing by the legendary Zane Grey, but it has had a chequered history since then.

I've been there a few times over the years and the ambience, decor and facilities have not always matched the glorious surroundings.

But new proprietors Roger and Pam Cairns have put a lot of effort into tidying things up. The 12 double units are neat and comfortable. The bar is still a great place for a drink and a chat while watching the sun set behind the duke. And the restaurant has food to match the view.

Next morning the winds had dropped, the sea had flattened out and there was our houseboat puttering up to the wharf.

The houseboat, Maple Leaf, is a roomy, stable craft, able to sleep eight, with gas stove, fridge, hot shower and comfortable beds - just like a big caravan afloat.

After a course of instruction from Neil, I was soon doing a competent job as skipper, calling my course into Whangaroa Marine Radio, motoring into the West Arm, dropping anchor, and brewing a cup of tea.

This is a lovely way to see Whangaroa Harbour, with its many isolated bays and peaceful anchorages, towering stone cliffs and sandy beaches fringed by untouched bush.

It's hard to think of anything nicer than anchoring in some bay, tossing over a line, hauling in a pan-sized snapper, cleaning and cooking it, and savouring the meal on the deck, with a nice, cool, sauvignon blanc from the fridge.

And it's great to be able to spend each night in a different inlet, where only birds and dolphins disturb the tranquillity, knowing you can row ashore to a beach accessible only by water where yours will be the only footprints in the sand.

We rowed ashore to Lane Cove, where the Department of Conservation maintains a hut for trampers (you have to book) plus a shelter for day walkers, and where a track leads up the Wairakau Stream back to Totara North.

Here we linked up with Tony Foster, a former school science teacher who puts his botanic knowledge to use through Bushman's Friend, a company that specialises in guided walks along the track.

You could do the walk on your own, but you'd probably miss curiosities such as the world's tallest moss, the biggest and smallest treeferns, the native hydrangea, the Dr Seuss tree and gumdigger's soap, the bushman's friend which gives Tony's operation its name, plus lots more.

There are about 2200 different species of plants in New Zealand and Tony reckons about half of them are in Whangaroa - during the walk he seemed to spot most of them - including several plants found nowhere else.

Whangaroa is, for instance, home to a three-fingered five-finger (isn't that great?), a new coprosma, called Coprosma neglecta because it neglected to be found until 1979, and a lovely little white-flowered hebe which Tony says has yet to be formally named.

"This area," he said proudly, "is a biodiversity hot-spot."

Then there are the secret places just off the track, such as the beautiful little swimming hole with its own waterfall, the dome rock where you can sit in the sun and look down on the forest canopy, the Maori gardens with their mysterious piles of stones; and the trails and stories of the earliest European settlers.

Back at Totara North, Tony took us round Lanes Mill. Here, from 1876 to 1929, 86 boats were built and from 1920 to 2003 much of the region's kauri timber was milled.

The mill is now used as a base by Te Runanga O Whaingaroa but the old buildings are a reminder of the days when timber, especially kauri, was the mainstay of the area's economy. Because of its superb water access, Whangaroa was one of the first places in New Zealand to be settled by Europeans.

It is still a great place to explore by sea, especially by kayak, which allows you to nose into all sorts of little inlets, creeks and caves.

It's hard to think of anyone who would know these nooks and crannies better than Hawaiian-born Richard Israel, who lives at Orua Bay. He has been running sea-kayaking trips for 17 years.

Since we had already explored the harbour in our houseboat, he took us instead along the ocean coast, a slightly scary thought given the waves that had been smashing in the previous day, but which had quietened a lot.

Richard's paddling instructions were quite effective - although for some reason my wife and I had difficulty co-ordinating our strokes - and our double kayak was remarkably stable despite our clumsiness.

So we moseyed up the coast, riding the waves, looking into some of the bays, landing to wander up to a viewing point which offered magnificent views from Cape Karekare to the Cavalli Islands, admiring the rich sea life visible in the clear waters, and circling imposing outcrops of rock.

One of these is the Arrow Rocks, an island of sedimentary rock much loved by scientists for the rare picture it paints of life on earth 250 million years ago, and interesting even to amateurs for the multicoloured layers of stone with their countless fossils.

Often on these trips you can catch fish or paddle among dolphins - Richard has photos to prove it - and there are plenty of caves you can enter when the sea is calm.

Even if you don't bring back a feed of fish you can always head for Kingfish Lodge and enjoy a seafood bonanza while admiring the size of the duke's nose ... which Tony can take you to if you don't mind heights.

* Jim Eagles was hosted by Destination Northland and Whangaroa tourism operators.

Whangaroa Kingfish Lodge
Kingfish Lodge is on the web at www.kingfishlodge.co.nz (see link below) or phone 0800 100 546. The lodge offers packages of $357.50 each, including dinner, bed, breakfast and launch transfers. It also offers casual dining.

Houseboats
Whangaroa Houseboats is on the web at www.houseboatrentals.co.nz (link below) or phone 0274 587 753. The cost is from $1000 for the first two nights and $350 a night after that.

Guided walks
Tony Foster's Bushman's Friend guided walks are on the web at www.bushmansfriend.co.nz (link below) or phone 0800 266 685. The basic cost for a guided walk of the Wairakau Stream Track and a boat trip from Lane Cove back to Totara North is $85 each.

Lane Cove hut
To book the Lane Cove hut contact the Department of Conservation's Kerikeri office at (09) 407 8474 or see www.doc.govt.nz (link below).

Sea kayaks
Northland Sea Kayaking is on the web at www.northlandseakayaking.co.nz (link below) or phone (09) 405 0381. The basic cost is $80 a day.

Further information
See Destination Northland at www.northlandnz.com or the Whangaroa website at www.whangaroa.co.nz (links below).

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