Northland is the proverbial fishermen's basket.
Northland reminds me so much of Gisborne that it often feels like a home away from home. Deserted white sandy beaches, neglected roads and single-lane Simon Bridges. A place in touch with its Maori heritage, its outdoors and containing more than a proper pavlova slice of how NZ used to be.
There are not many areas in this country where you can find yourself swerving on a sandy beach highway to avoid a sunbathing seal that has hauled itself out of the wild surf for a snooze. From seals on sand to driving on seal, where you are commonly confronted by herds of steaming-nose wild horses.
The wild winterless north is a great place to go if you are looking to strip life back to basics. Plenty do. Like the seaweed pickers who live in wind-assaulted huts around the rocks from Ahipara beach. No power, no road, no internet, no shops, no bloody worries. A lifestyle that grows increasingly removed from today's hyper-connected existence. Yet a lifestyle far richer in experiences than any 4-inch screen stuck 12 inches in front of your nose.
Travel further around these rocks and you'll find magic surf breaks and rocky guts to surfcast for your dinner. Here, inshore fish such as kahawai and snapper snuffle along sand edges on incoming tides looking for dislodged crustaceans to complement their diets. Or they may just be looking for shellfish, the beds of which are prevalent up and down Ninety Mile Beach. Not just skinny little pipi either but proper big beds of their larger cousin, tuatua, often spotted in the distance on a low tide, poking out of the sand.
If the reflecting sunlight doesn't give them away, gathered seagulls certainly do. Ninety Mile Beach is also home to the protected toheroa, an endangered shellfish that dwarfs even the tuatua in size. Their numbers crashed due to over-collecting and commercial canning many years ago. Despite strict protections, there seems little sign of improvement, emphasising the dangers of over-fishing that can collapse a vulnerable species such as this.
The whole tip of the North Island is the proverbial fishermen's basket. Such is the abundance and variety of this place. You can spear flounder in the lagoons, catch John Dory off the Houhora wharf, gather cockles from the estuaries and even nab yourself a squid in winter around any structure at night with a bit of light.
Get yourself a boat however, and the opportunities then blow wide open. From the Three Kings Islands off Cape Reinga for the extreme, to areas like the Garden Patch and coastal fishing, where the fish are typically bigger and angrier than everywhere else.
But much like coastal Gisborne and Mahia, where I grew up, you can tell this is an area where the sea is still relied upon like a local supermarket. Outside almost every home you drive past, you can spot boats small and large, new and old. Houses surrounded with boxed fishing nets, cray-pots, buoys, surfcasters on utes, set-net hook trays, flounder spears and filleting stations made out of old stainless steel benches, all out back, out front and down driveways of the houses driven past.
Here people live closer to the land and sea and all it has to offer, for a simpler way of life. My idea of paradise.
● Clarke Gayford hosts Fish of the Day, Wednesdays, 8pm, Prime