We were asked to keep our heads down, follow the path and walk single file with no talking. The Waipoua Forest was eerie and still; nobody made a sound. You stare at the path and walk in silence. Your senses take over. Soil, moss, bugs, all making themselves known. It felt like I had finally discovered the smell of our forests for the first time.
Hokianga hits you like a rainbow as you climb over its surrounding hillside. The sand dunes across the harbour are like mountains, out of reach but inviting. The small townships along the way reminded me of the New Zealand I remembered as a child. The harbour lies still, the harbour mouth, however, is not so calm. Giant waves roll in over the bar like a blockade.
Our accommodation is the Copthorne Hotel. Nestled on the coastline, not far from the harbour mouth at Omapere.
Its views over the harbour make this one of the best holiday locations my wife and I have ever visited. If you Google 'Hokianga', most of the images you will see are of the gorgeous old pier that runs straight out from the Copthorne into the harbour.
The self-contained rooms are open plan and you walk straight out on to the grass, which slopes down to the water's edge. There are always exciting things to do on holiday but one of my favourite memories will always be just kicking a ball around on the grass at the Copthorne with my kids in the sunshine.
I still kept my head down, still silent. Then our leader starts singing in Maori, a prayer I think, or possibly a warning, to let the forest, or someone, know that we were approaching. I was exhausted, the day (and the kids) had taken its toll on me, but I could have stayed in that forest in the dark listening to our guide sing forever.
Breakfast was 5 minutes back up the harbour at The Landing Cafe in Opononi. Worth a stop if you have an appetite as they have the largest breakfasts of the North, and if there's any room left, an astounding cake and slice selection to try.
The Waipoua Information Centre was our next stop. A charming modern facility with cafe and tourism centre. We had something special planned. On the edge of the forest, under a giant totara tree, my family dug a hole and planted a mingimingi tree. This is a native tree planting project and a fantastic way of reintroducing natives back into our forests. My kids all got stuck in digging and pushing the dirt around.
We named the tree Ngaire, after my mum. We were then given a Maori blessing for the tree. It was beautiful.
The singing stopped, and as it died out into the surrounding trees, I realised we had come to the end of the path; it widened then came to an end. We were all frozen, eyes locked firmly to the floor, just waiting in silence.
Our guide spoke softly but clearly. "You are now standing at the foot of the mighty Te Matua Ngahere, 'The father of the forest'. He is called this, and rightfully so, for he has lived for over 2500 years and he welcomes you now."
I had no idea what I was about to look at. The singing had put me in a trance. I lifted my eyes and what was left of the daylight shone down through the gaps in the forest canopy and poured light on what seemed like a solid wall set in front of me. Te Matua rose up like a giant - everything around seemed to be bowing down in worship at its feet. The tree has a 16m diameter and is so wide that more than 50 species of trees and plants grow from its top above the canopy, so in a way, it kind of has its own ecosystem.
I just stood staring at this monster of the forest. It was humbling and, bizarrely enough, quite an emotional experience. We toasted Te Matua with a local Maori drink made from manuka honey which was warm, slightly earthy and very soothing.
The twilight encounter was my personal highlight. It connected me with Hokianga and it gave me the opportunity to breathe and to open my eyes. I would put this down as a must-see and must-do.
The most special part of Hokianga, however, is the local Maori community. So kind to us, so warm and open with their smiles and hearts.
The Hokianga is about 3hr and 45 minutes northwest of Auckland via SH1 and SH 12.