Being an east coast fan, it had been 20 years since I'd ventured over to the Hokianga but, always up for exploring new places, I jumped at the opportunity when some locals kindly extended an invite.
Taking the two-hour route through Kaikohe, the kids and I arrived to the small West Coast settlement of Opononi early Saturday morning when the local markets were still in full swing. As we pulled up to the bustling abode of Lenny and Antoinette Naera, we were warmly welcomed with hugs and handshakes from themselves, their whanau, friends and visitors.
We settled into our flash accommodation – a large, private two-bedroom unit under the house, which had a fully-stocked kitchen, a bowl of chocolates (which the kids soon tucked into) and plenty of games and books for downtime – not that we needed them! Lenny was eager to show us round the area his family hail from dating back 28 generations to Kupe – who Lenny's ancestors believe was the first great Polynesian explorer to set foot on Aotearoa, landing in the Hokianga around 925AD.
Lenny had plenty of adventures in store; first up was jet skiing! We were fitted with life jackets and given a demonstration of how to operate the jet skis, before jumping aboard on back of the trailer and being taken down to the ramp leading into the calm Hokianga Harbour.
The markets across the road were just winding up but plenty of locals were waving out to Lenny.
"Only in New Zealand!" called out one jovially, as he took in the sight before him of us all riding jet skis down the road.
I hadn't driven a jet ski before but my daughter bravely opted to go with me. As it turned out, it was straight-forward and, being large sturdy Seadoo jet skis, (and after I had established they were almost impossible to flip and there was nothing in the harbour I could crash into), I was away!
There's nothing like leaving the stress of your daily life behind and going for a blat out on the water and it wasn't long before I was converted – yes I want a jet ski!
I glanced up at my boys' faces as they shot past me on the backs of their jet skis and their great grins indicated they too were having a blast.
We pulled up at Mahena Island, where Opo the friendly dolphin, who made Opononi famous during the summer of 1955-1956, was found dead upon the rocks. After Lenny explained a bit more about this, we turned round and headed over to Kupe's first landing spot – Te Pouahi – a perfectly wind-swept expanse of golden sand dune. We climbed up the dune here and took in the fabulous vista around us, then we went to an even bigger sand dune where it was time for sand boarding!
I watched my boys bravely zooming down head-first at great speed, quickly gathering momentum, before skimming along the water at the bottom… and chickened out myself… I was quite happy doing the videoing. We had lots of laughs watching everyone hit the water in different style – some more co-ordinated than others!
While we did this, Lenny ducked off around the bay to gather mussels for our barbeque later, before we went for one last blat across the harbour. Lenny pulled up alongside me.
"See that button that says 'Sport'? Push that," he instructed. "Now push it again and give it throttle," he twinkled. We shot off. Turns out we'd been in 'tour-mode' before – who'd have known?!
The 'donuts' had to be done and, after performing a few 360s, I linked them to figure eights with my daughter screaming with delight from the back. But, alas, it was now time to re-board the trailer and head back. I'd read feedback from a previous visitor that their face was aching from grinning so hard and it was at this point, I realised mine was too.
Back at base and once the jet skis were cleaned up, we were called up for some delicious toasties and a slide show of our antics and sand dune wipe outs, before our next adventure: 'Beers and Bombs' at the Opononi Hotel and wharf. While the adults had a drink outside the hotel, Lenny went across the road with the kids and taught them to master the art of the 'manu' – a style of bomb where you form a v-shape with your lower back entering the water first.
After that, they came and joined us for a jug of raspberry lemonade and a bowl of hot chips while we watched the locals go by, before we climbed aboard Lenny's wagon and were taken out to Waimamaku river (Lenny's awa), aka 'White Rock'. Here the kids bombed and practised their manus while us adults lounged on the warm rocks in the sun with the relaxing sounds from the blue tooth speaker someone had thought to bring along. The kids couldn't get enough of the bombs, even when they spotted the chips Antoinette had thoughtfully packed.
On the way home, Lenny pointed out more places of interest and with historical value and it was surprising to learn that he had only moved to the area in recent years. Born and raised in Auckland himself, Lenny's family have always lived in the Hokianga so he has spent a lifetime holidaying in the region. Less than three years ago, he decided to forego the Auckland lifestyle and return home to his roots and, after convincing Antoinette, also a born and bred Aucklander, the couple have never looked back.
During that time, Lenny has delved deep into his ancestry and the history of Hokianga and now relishes the chance to pass on his wealth of knowledge to visitors. He admits it's a lot more fun appreciating the Hokianga's offerings from the luxury of 'big boys toys', and after making the investment, he started the aptly-named Awesome Adventures so he can make a living doing what he loves, where he loves while sharing it with others.
Speaking of which, Lenny has another big toy, great for exploring the sand dunes and beach; when we returned, he swung by on his four-wheel drive side-by-side Polaris Ranger, which we jumped aboard.
He took us down to the end of the beach to Omapere, pointing out the erosional damage to sand banks and water-front bachs by rising sea levels, while waving out to locals spending their evening on the beach.
We returned home where there was quite the gathering as more friends and family had arrived. It was a festive atmosphere and the smell of fresh kaimoana was in the air! Huge succulent mussels and snapper were being grilled over the brazier with more snapper in the smoker and soon it was on our plates, along with roe, homemade sausages, kamokamo (marrow), cheese buns and coleslaw. What a mean spread!
After this, Lenny cranked up the brazier some more and out came the guitars. Lenny and his rele led the way with their smooth, soulful voices and soon had everyone joining in (well not my sons but they were never going to!) My daughter was even taught to play the (dessert) spoons in time to the beat. We whiled away the rest of the evening having a singalong while roasting marshmellows on bamboo sticks from our deck chairs.
What a relaxing, amiable way to end an action-packed day!
The next morning, Lenny, with his boundless energy, was up at the crack of dawn keen to take us on a walk or fishing or both! I was keen too but my kids were knackered from all the fun and slept in till nearly 9am! By then the heavens had opened and it was time to return back to the reality of our busy pre-Christmas lives.
While I waited for the kids to surface, I had a fabulous coffee made by Antoinette while Lenny shared some more of the history he is passionate about.
Awesome Adventures is just that. There are a range of guided jet ski safari options to choose from of various duration, such as historical tours (including Opo's story), which will take you on a journey back in time. These stories are not all in the history books but have been passed down the generations. Safaris can also include kaimoana gathering and jetski fishing.
There are also 'Stay and Play' deals, which include the accommodation and kai and include complimentary kayaks, paddle boards, boogie boards and bikes. Lenny and Antoinette are also more than happy to tailor deals.
The experiences are non-seasonal – I can imagine boosting up the harbour on one of Lenny's jetskis on one of those beautiful clean, crisp winter days and Lenny has photos of customers in the middle of winter having the time of their lives. The secret, he says, is to dress appropriately.
As well as wanting a jet ski, I am now a fan of the tranquil Hokianga and it's warm, hospitable people.
There was so much more Lenny wanted to show us but time and weather had plotted against us. A great reason to return – watch this space…
For more info, go to www.aah.nz