There's more of the Far North to see on a gravel-loving bike off the main highways, writes Michael Lamb
I'm halfway down an old shark fisherman's track on the Karikari Peninsula when the back wheel of my motorbike digs into a muddy rut and I'm tossed sideways into a gorse bush.
I stand up. The sun is oven hot. The birds are singing and everything is still. A trickle of petrol runs out of my BMW G650GS. I have only a scant idea of where I am. Now, this is what I call a good holiday.
When my friend Martin proposes a 1250km motorbike trip through Northland and the Far North, I can't think of a reason to resist. Okay, I'm still a relative novice on motorbikes. I gave up camping years ago. But autumn is made for adventures and recent lockdown memories are nothing if not inspirational for getting out and about.
Everyone knows there's more of New Zealand to see away from the main highways but we have an extra resource to help guide our way. Ray Stone's book Stories from our Back Roads (North Island edition) came out last year. Ray's done the hard yards and come up with the tales to go with the roads. (There's a companion South Island edition too.)
His books are written for the 4WD set but easily applied to motorbikes. In New Zealand, you can grab a learner's licence, a motorbike up to 660cc and head for the hills. That's a pretty generous-sized engine. Our BMWs are what they call dual purpose or adventure bikes - clue's in the name. Instead of road bikes that are really only built for tarmac, these can tackle just about any surface and are equally happy on the open road or the deep gravel.
We set off from Auckland one early autumn afternoon and head north through Helensville before getting off the main drag and on to a metal road that cuts across towards Port Albert through Wharehine.
I love the eeriness of this part of the Kaipara. It has a rich settler history, led by a character called William Brame, who had dreams of a grand colony here in the 1850s, imagining it would rival Auckland. The effort literally killed him - he dropped dead at the age of just 30.
The back roads heading north are not just empty, they're deserted. I quickly develop a theory that these secondary roads are maybe quieter than ever. The thing is, people typically turn to online maps these days so they automatically get routed away from some of our most interesting roads. Ridiculously, you can't even see them unless you're zoomed right in on your device.
Who's going to bother cutting around the back way from Maungatūroto to Taipuha on a golden road called The Golden Stairs? Nobody except the locals - and us.
We weave our way around the back of Whangārei and head out to Ngunguru, chowing down some fish and chips by the water as the sun sets on the sandbank. Then we cut back over the hill to Otamure.
It's dark by the time we get to the DoC campsite. There's not a soul to be seen, so we nip past the barrier arm, figuring we'll sort the admin in the morning. A woman appears. She's very upset that we have failed to follow correct procedure. Once diplomatic relations are restored she exiles us to a far corner of the campsite to pitch our tents.
One upside of arriving in the dark is the revelation of where you actually are that comes with the dawn. Otamure Bay is a lovely, raw Northland beach with slow, heavy waves rolling in, framed by islets.
The next day we are forced to head inland before getting back on to the secondaries, taking the Kaiikanui Rd from Opuawhanga and detouring out to Helena Bay for a swim. On the way, we pass a guy in a lowered car scraping his way along the gravel in misery. It's hard not to feel a tad superior on the gravel-loving bikes.
The beach at Helena Bay is deserted, of course. We spare a thought, like so many New Zealanders have done over summer, for those in other places. Fred Dagg used to sing We Don't Know How Lucky We Are. But we do understand that now more than ever.
We drift along the coast, full of small beach settlements tucked beneath forested hills, then it's up towards Russell via the old Whakapara Rd. These days everyone takes the main route around the coast, so this old gravel hump road is emptier than a video store and cloaked in thick, beautiful native bush.
We temporarily abandon lo-fi travel mode and stop, as you must do, at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell for lunch. Debatably New Zealand's oldest pub, it was originally called Johnny Johnston's Grog Shop after its ex-convict owner. Perhaps the most interesting thing about its history is that Johnston spoke fluent te reo and assisted in the translation of the Treaty of Waitangi to the Māori, supposedly because he was concerned the Māori version did not quite equate to the English version.
With the Matauri Bay campground in our sights for the night, we do a shift on the asphalt of State Highway 10, skipping the bright lights of Kerikeri. The campground is on a small headland, framed by sea on two sides. It's proper old-school NZ, with rough but ready facilities and a general air of long, lazy summers.
The next day we get into the real deal, following the road to Whangaroa Harbour then exiting into the deep, hostile gravel of Otangaroa Rd. We do a big inland loop sampling the delights of the area east of Pēria - hardcore routes like Fern Flat Rd and Kohumaru Rd (all you have to worry about is the odd logging truck belting around a blind corner).
This area is steeped in tōtara and history. It was heavily populated by Māori, then opened up even more by the settlers. Fern Flat Rd twists and turns betraying its origins as a bridle track. They say it was made with no regard for topography - and they're right. A few hours later we pop back out south of Mangōnui and kick the metal from our tyres.
The Karikari Peninsula is like an upside-down boot poking out north of Mangōnui and Taipa, one of those places that catch your eye on the map. I've never been there before. The drive up is startlingly bleak. Then you arrive at Maitai Bay and all is forgiven; it's a gorgeous horseshoe bay with bleached white sand - the kind of place Instagrammers drive for hours to, take a photo and leave. We don't. We swim and then watch in amusement as a stray local pig trots around the beach trying to make friends.
We stop at the gas station heading back and a local confirms it: there's an old road on the northern side of the peninsula, running west from Wallace Rd. Well, it starts as a road. Then becomes a rock-strewn track, then deep sand, then mud, then virtually nothing, just weeds. The BMWs do their best but we both manage to fall off. Nothing like a little rest in the toetoe and gorse.
We're a stone's throw from the Rangaunu Harbour, once a busy shark fishing location for local Māori. Back then the fishing was restricted to just two days a year and anyone who broke the rule had their property taken off them. But when the time came, they didn't muck about. An 1855 report by one Richard Matthews, who was invited on a hunt, reports 7000 sharks being taken by the Māori fleet.
We emerge from the shark track unscathed and head south. Martin, who can cover ground faster than me, heads off to do the Diggers Valley Rd, while I head out west to Ahipara, then south via Herekino. We've decided to check out the Horeke Hotel for our last night on the trail - a slightly down-at-heel old joint on the Hokianga Harbour. It has a certain Fawlty Towers aspect to it. The sign on the door reads: "We are a private boutique hotel … if you haven't booked, there is nothing for you here."
Luckily we have booked - and the fish supper they produce is brilliant. Then the proprietors vanish, asking if we can lock up the deck doors. Only in New Zealand - in fact, maybe only in the Hokianga.
The next day, after a pleasant ride through the area around Lake Ōmāpere, we have to face the main road trudge back to Auckland. But that's okay, exploring the north on adventure bikes has been a helluva ride.