Far North: Nurtured by nature

By Helen van Berkel

A trip to the 'winterless north' is not over until the kiwi sings, finds Helen van Berkel.

The majestic Tane Mahuta is best visited at night and with a local guide. Photo / Supplied
The majestic Tane Mahuta is best visited at night and with a local guide. Photo / Supplied

Our guide, Peter Clark of the Hokianga Express, insisted the best way to enjoy surfing the giant dunes on the shores of Hokianga Harbour was to skid down the sand and keep skating out on to the water. But, on this cloudy afternoon, we'd neglected to bring our togs, meaning it was do it in our underwear or not at all.

Yes, skittering across the harbour on a boogey board was huge fun - the wet underwear afterwards was not. Luckily, there is plenty to see in this lush, sub-tropical part of New Zealand to keep our minds off our sandy, damp nether regions.

Our next stop was the mighty kauri twins Tane Mahuta and Tane Matua Ngahere (by turns, the largest and oldest living kauri trees) nestled in the Waipoua Forest. The trees are an awe-inspiring reminder of New Zealand's pre-settlement, wilderness past - and the best time to visit them is at night.

We entered the forest as dusk settled, accompanied by local guides, Tuwhare and Bill from Footprints Waipoua, both a fount of bushlore and Maori mythology, who led us along the easy paths and boardwalks.

We stopped to listen to tui and other native birds, learning about the lifecycle of kauri and of the forest. Approaching the kauri giants in the dark - with our guides singing songs and prayers - adds to the trees' almost spiritual presence. Then, just when we thought the experience couldn't get any better, a solitary bird call sounded through the dark. We'd had the privilege of hearing a kiwi in the wild.

It's pretty hard to top that but our pilgrimage rolled ever on. Next stop was the history and natural wonders of the Bay of Islands. If you want to have the history of Waitangi brought alive take a guided tour through the Treaty grounds. Walk where Governor Hobson walked as he presented the Treaty to gathered chiefs. Stand where the chiefs stood, and where the ink was scratched on the infamous document.

Next was a visit to the pods of dolphins and whales almost always in these waters.

Unfortunately, winter was catching up with us and we cast a slightly worried eye at the darkening skies and whitecapped waves as we boarded the Explore New Zealand catamaran. The approaching storm had, sadly, driven the dolphins into hiding, but the harbour cruise was a revelation.

Our skipper gave a fascinating commentary on the history of the islands scattered through the bay and as The Explorer offers a free voucher to repeat the trip if you miss the dolphins we'll certainly be back.

By our last day in the "winterless" north, winter was definitely making its presence felt, with high winds and driving rain.

Hoping that if we ignored the weather it would go away, we boarded the impressive Dune Rider - a modified Unimog - bound for Ninety Mile Beach. In fact, the storm added to the drama of this untamed part of the country and our driver Spike insisted, that it was a "great Ninety Mile Beach day".

Seals rested in the sand and a rare New Zealand dotterill scuttled along the shoreline.

Spike steered the Dune Rider up the fast-flowing Te Paki stream, water cascading off the sides of the truck as he negotiated the sandbanks to the Te Paki dunes. We scrambled up the sandy slopes for another slide - this time with clothes on.


Following on from the success of the 101 Must-Dos for Kiwis campaign, the AA has launched another promotion aimed at getting New Zealanders out at the weekend. Get Off Your Bum New Zealand will get Kiwis sharing ideas for the best spots to spend their free time. Visit aatravel.co.nz for activities to keep you busy for many weekends, or send in your own ideas or photos, and go into the draw to win one of eight Kiwi weekend experiences.

- Herald on Sunday

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