Coastal drives seem to be the thing to do in NZ. All the North Island Kiwis we’ve met up with (some of whom have put us up for the night – thanks Mike and Jodi!) say “South Island has the mountains, but we have the beaches.” This is a claim we are willing to research thoroughly! Between Auckland and Whangarei (pronounce “wh” as “f”), there are so many nice beaches that it is almost torturous to those who have to stay in the car and drive by without stopping…
But we had to reach the Bay of Islands. Paihia is where our cruise departs from but it is more than just a pretty place. It is also home to Waitangi – the birthplace of New Zealand as a nation. Sounds cheesy, and it is. Especially after learning how badly they treated the original founding document (known as the Treaty of Waitangi – it was almost completely eaten by rats). But some insightful person realized just how unique this agreement between the Maori and the British really is. I’ll skip all my contemplation on how Canadian Aboriginal people could have benefited from such an accord.
The treaty grounds are beautifully restored and the Maori maere (meeting house) is awe-inspiring. The inside is covered by intricate wooden carvings and marginally creepy “tiki” dolls with paua shell eyes. We explored until it was time to head down to the wharf for our cruise.
Aboard “The Rock”
It turns out that our cruise is on board a very odd-looking, rust red converted car ferry. We met our dorm mates (assuredly two members of the Russian mafia torn straight from the pages of “Night Watch,” the Russian vampire novel I was reading at the time). Right away we are thrown into the fray and there’s a shooting contest – at which I am truly crap – and fishing off the back – I have photographic evidence that I caught something HUGE! Dinner is a bbq, complete with the fish (snapper) just freshly yanked from the water and some of the most enormous green lipped mussels I have ever seen. Delicious!
After tea, they pull some kayaks down into the water and we paddle into the night. The bay is home to bioluminscent algae. In English? Magic. As our paddles cut the surface, bright sparks of light jump through the water. A fish gliding through the dark looks like a shooting star. I feel like I’ve entered some kind of twilight zone where every movement I make in the water is accompanied by a glow of light.
It’s even better when we go for a swim. The water is cold but it’s hard to resist swimming with the phosphorescence. Underwater looks like a fireworks display. I wish it were possible to photograph the phenomenon, but it’s just something I’m going to have to remember, and talk about to everyone.
The next day, bright and early, we anchor close to a little shelf of rock and dip in the water. It’s here that we are diving for more of those great big green lipped mussels we ate earlier. Well, really it’s the crew that are diving for them – when they bring them up they split them open and hand them to us, so we can feed the fish with the insides. The fish come right up to our hands and chew at the mussel. Some of them end up nipping my fingers but its all in good fun. A couple of us try to dive for mussels ourselves – I can’t get down deep enough in one breath and once when I did, it is impossible to rip those buggers off the rock! Some are successful – not without a few scratches on their hands though.
We landed on one of the islands in the area and are treated to a little history of the area. After spending time kayaking around the coastline exploring caves and relaxing on the beach, we get back on the boat to taste some seafood delicacies – including sea urchin eggs and raw mussel muscle. Not too bad, but I wouldn’t pay $800USD/gram!
The Far Far North
A day in Maitai Bay is the perfect remedy to long drives. Located at the very tip of the karikari peninsula, it is a stunning curved bay with a campsite right on the beach. It is an uber cheap campsite too ($8 for both of us!). After that, we zip up Cape Reinga to the northernmost point in New Zealand. It is rainy and windy but that’s the perfect weather in which to see the Cape in all its wild and untamed glory. The very tip of Cape Reinga is sacred as the entrance to the Maori underworld… spooky.
The West coast of Northland is known as the “Kaori Coast.” Kaori are absolutely massive trees and forests of them used to cover the whole of New Zealand. Now, only a few exist, but the ones that do are absolutely enormous. We go out of our way to see the biggest and second biggest trees in NZ, both around 2000 years old.
The last stop on our beaches tour of Northland is Piha, on the outskirts of Auckland. The sand is dusted with an iron black coat, and the beach looks rugged and forboding. The surfers are amazing, taming the rips and tides we’ve been warned against swimming in. We arrive at sunset and take in the pinks and oranges that dance across the beach. I draw a huge map of the world in the sand.
Unforunately for us, there is no petrol station in Piha. As we pull into the campsite, the fuel light gleams an ominous red. Come on Sunny! When we leave Piha the next morning, its a nerve-wracking 30km drive to the next fuel station, with me at the wheel absolutely petrified of breaking down. Never again!