Deep within the Hokianga is a quiet settlement adrift from the rat race, writes Hannah Sperber.
We've lost track of time on the drive north, but the kids perk up when the car enters Waipoua Forest. They know it means we've nearly reached the Hokianga Harbour and they spot their first giant kauri trees - lots of them - the smooth trunks rising high above the road on both sides. We open the windows and breathe in the pure cold air.
The downhill run into Omapere gives us our first view of the ancient and misty Hokianga, dotted with tiny settlements and long stretches of uninterrupted land and sea - Maori heartland.
The nest of the north.
We follow the harbour's curves to Rawene and find our campground cabin, with its view through tropical gardens to the water - a great spot for adjusting to rural Northland time with cups of tea, watching the currents moving.
Tonight we'll experience the Twilight Encounter in the Waipoua forest: a moonlit bushwalk among the kauri, guided by local iwi. Mere and Bill greet us with "Kia ora whanau!" and share the mythological history of the forest as we walk together in fading light. We're in another world, singing karakia in the darkness to Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest) with his phenomenal 16m girth.
Four tall and graceful kauri sisters that grow together in a circle are my highlight, while the children (aged 4, 6 and 8) discover a hollow tree, a toxic tupakihi plant, a kiwi hiding place and a handful of male and female kauri seeds to touch. Our three-hour adventure ends with a magical minute's silence at the foot of 51m Tane Mahuta (God of the Forest) under vivid Northland stars.
Giant kauri Tane Mahuta is the pride of Waipoua Forest.
Waking up in Rawene with no fixed plans is bliss, and dawdling down the hill to the Boatshed Cafe - built on poles over the water - we kick start the new day with some good strong coffee. One of New Zealand's earliest colonial settlements, Rawene has historic architecture dating back to the 1860s. The children are intrigued by the tiny jail, tucked behind the library, with its massive bolt.
We catch the ferry to the other side of the harbour and back, to catch a different view of the town and the picturesque hundred-year-old church across the water at Motukaraka Point.
Walking back to our cabin we discover Wardy's on the main street: a greengrocer and deli selling fresh organic fruit, vegetables and meats, hot home-made pies and big loaves of the local specialty, rewena paraoa - traditional Maori sourdough potato bread. We eat the rewena bread in chunks for lunch with peanut butter (the children of course rename it Rawene bread), then lie around reading the local real estate pages just for fun, pretending to choose ourselves a new home in the Hokianga.
It's cold and worth the 40 minute drive for a soak in the iwi-run hot springs at Ngawha. The anticipation peaks when we pull up to see the muddy puddles in the carpark bubbling wildly.
We were here 12 years ago and it's exactly the same. Newspaper articles from the 1930s show it was the same then, too. Eight natural hot pools are dug roughly and lined with planks, each a different temperature and colour, from oily black to milky pale. If your feet slide off the planks they find extra-hot mud. The children take the mud and rub it over their bodies. The smell of sulphur is potent and there are no showers. I would drive the length of the country for a soak here. Note to iwi: don't go changin'.
Back in Rawene, it's fish and chips, a beautiful sunset and bed - aren't those all compulsory after a hot soak?
Heading home on State Highway 12 we stop at Labyrinth Woodworks at Waiotemarama. Hidden in the forest, this tiny shop is packed with handmade puzzles and games from around the world.
We're lucky to meet owners Sue and Louis Toorenburg because they're off to England any day; Louis is a puzzle inventor whose latest is a finalist in the worldwide puzzle competition.
He invites us into a room of locked cabinets - a museum of 2000-plus puzzles.
Some are hand-carved, others from Mongolia, one is near-microscopic, made by a microengineer friend. It actually comes apart but you probably need a working knowledge of nanotechnology to complete it.
The kids become absorbed and disappear into various corners. A pet peacock coos in the corner. Once again we've lost track of time - Northland's special gift.
NEED TO KNOW
Rawene Holiday Park: Our family cabin was basic and bright, with a crisp tablecloth and sun pouring in. Ph (09) 4057720.
Footprints Waipoua: Guided forest walks of differing lengths available: some during the day, others at night. Twilight Encounter $95 an adult $35 a child. Ph (09) 4058207.
Maori Magic: Traditional Maori balms and oils using New Zealand native kawakawa and tupakihi plants and locally sourced beeswax are newly available at the Copthorne Omapere. Ph (09) 4058737.
Wardy's: The destination for great local food and chit-chat in Parnell St, Rawene. Ph (09) 4057722.
Ngawha Springs: Ph (09) 4052245.
Boatshed Cafe: 8 Clendon Place, Rawene. Ph (09) 4057728.