There's a very peaceful spot at the innermost part of the Hokianga Harbour where you can pause a while atop a gentle hill, and look down at the place where, on February 12, 1840, 3000 Maori arrived by water and land for the biggest signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
The harbour was awash with waka; the grounds of the Mangungu Wesleyan Mission, est. 1827, full of people. Both are empty today, a sleepy Sunday in early November. In November this year, when the Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail is complete and delivers cyclists almost to the property's doorstep, this historic area will be regularly busy with people once again.
Mangungu and neighbouring Horeke, one of the first European settlements in New Zealand and the site of the first shipbuilding yard in the country, are at one end of the cycle trail; at the other is Opua, a few minutes' drive south of Paihia. When it's done, the trail will link the Bay of Islands and the Hokianga, and will total 84km. It will be rideable over two days, or you can do what we did over a weekend and cycle a couple of sections.
Travelling from our base at Paihia's Waterfront Suites, we met Ray Clarke from Top Trail Cycle and Tours to collect our bikes and helmets to tackle the first leg of the track, Opua to Kawakawa, about 12km. If you don't have your own bikes - or even if you do - Ray provides a cycle hire and transfer service all over the area.
We kitted up at the start of the trail behind the boatsheds at the Opua Marina and cycled past dozens and dozens of boats as we pointed our bikes south.
Much of the trail follows the former Northland Rail Corridor except for the final section from the very cute Taumarere Station just north of Kawakawa. Here it veers off to the side of the existing train track, used by the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway as a tourist attraction.
This means in parts, despite the track itself being flat although narrow, there are sloping drops to each side, so it may not be suitable for younger riders if they're not too confident on a bike.
The Opua to Kawakawa leg is an easy ride along the Waikare Estuary to the Kawakawa River, through mangroves, scrubby bush and forest, past broken wooden power poles, punga trees in various states of health, through a dark and damp tunnel, over wooden bridges and alongside farmland. Just before Kawakawa, as Timmy the vintage diesel train sailed past with a handful of passengers, we passed a pretty field ablaze with yellow buttercups.
Kawakawa was buzzing with people and we had a look at the famous Hundertwasser loos and a few local shops before Ray picked us up again and dropped us back in Paihia.
The next morning we headed west to the small settlement of Okaihau, where we picked up the trail again for its final leg, said to be the most scenic part of the journey, to a crossroad near Horeke and Mangungu. By the time the trail opens, riders will be able to cruise along a 3km boardwalk over the wetlands almost right to the gate of the Mission House.
It was clear straight away that this part of the trail was a different beast, with the first hurdle of the day's 17km being a 1.6km very steep, hairpin track down into the picturesque Utakura Valley. Some parts are so hairy that signs warn riders to get off their bikes and walk.
All that downhill had to come up again, although thankfully not at the same gradient.
Much of this leg follows a bubbling river; at one point a duck was leading her dozen or so ducklings downstream and when I raced ahead and jumped off the bike to try to take a photo, they all clumsily tried to swim away from me back upstream. Goats, cattle, horses, sheep, even a couple of rabbits all stopped and stared as we zipped past, and a family of turkeys we startled ran off, but in front of us down the trail. After a bit of furious bell-ringing, they eventually peeled off into the bush.
On this journey we arrived at the Mission House on four wheels in Ray's van; pretty soon people will travel on two wheels almost to its front door. This beautiful and historically significant spot will be more accessible than it's ever been, and alive with people once more.
A local recommended Charlotte's Kitchen as one of the best places to eat in Paihia and he was spot on. Situated on the wharf, the eatery is named for Charlotte Badger, thought to be the first Pakeha woman settler in New Zealand, who was a bit of a ratbag. Cool decor, great service and excellent food designed to share, with options for those who prefer not to.
Paihia is a 3.5 hour drive from Auckland.
Heritage Collection Waterfront Suites are at 100 Marsden Rd, Paihia. heritagehotels.co.nz