In my eyes, no sightseeing trip to Northland is complete without a visit to the Bay of Islands, Cape Reinga and the ancient Kauri Forest, where the largest kauri tree, Tāne Mahuta, resides. For me, these three places capture the unrefined, innate magic of the far north, whilst also holding plenty of historical and spiritual value. I’m sure others would agree.
Hence, following my sentiment, Daniel and I made plans to visit Russell (a township in the Bay of Islands), being the closest, aforementioned next stop from our current location in Kerikeri.
Russell, or ‘The Hell Hole of the Pacific’ as it was infamously dubbed by early European settlers and traders, is an intriguing township that is shrouded in historical significance and timeless tales. For starters, there was Hone Heke who cut down the British flagpole at Russell on a number of occasions in a passionate attempt to oppose British rule. Well, that’s just one of the famous events that occurred at Russell!
We ferried to Russell from Paihia (a thirty-minute drive away from Kerikeri). The ferry only took about twenty minutes and was an experience in itself as we were able to take in the glistening Bay of Islands’ waters and the surrounding, bustling maritime action mid-ride.
The journey was also intriguing as I listened to one local woman tell her visiting relatives about how, in the early 1800s, Russell had been the ‘go-to’ place for convicts, runaways, and all round troublemakers! Essentially, with Russell’s once-booming whaling industry and trade opportunities a-plenty, came excessive grog, fighting, and brothels.
When we moored, Daniel and I had planned to check out the Pompallier Mission and Printery, and possibly the Russell Museum. Yet, unfortunately for us, a school group also had the same idea and had booked out the sites for much of the day. As disappointing as this was at the time, we found that there were plenty of other amusing activities in Russell.
We picnicked down by the water (conveniently by a fun little tree swing) before perusing the streets, admiring the old colonial cottages. We found ourselves headed for Flagstaff Hill – the very place where Hone Heke cut said flagpole. Atop of this vantage point, Daniel and I were able to take in stunning 360-degree views of Russell, and the other surrounding islands. It was certainly worth the short, sharp hike, and a good alternative to our crushed museum dreams.
With our ambitious schedule, we ticked Russell off the ‘To See’ list and continued our journey north. First, we parked up at Maitai Bay, then, several days later, Tapotupotu Bay (only a five-minute drive away from the tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga).
Tapotupotu Bay is most certainly the place to go if you’re wanting to stay somewhere near Cape Reinga. The DOC camp is tucked in front of hilly terrain and overlooks a brilliant emerald bay. Though, when we went to snap a picture of the bay, the clouds rolled in! Typical.
Cape Reinga, or ‘Te Rerenga Wairua’ (leaping-off place of spirits) as it is known in Māori, is commonly understood to be the departure point for spirits of deceased Māori. When the spirit’s body no longer carries them, it travels to the ancient Pohutukawa tree on the northern-most tip of the cape, and, then, from the ocean, the spirit begins its journey back to the ancestral home of Māori – Hawaiki.
I think it almost goes without saying that Cape Reinga is a special place. Its importance in Māori theology and oral history is unquestionable. Furthermore, its beauty is one of a kind. Daniel and I actually ended up visiting the Cape twice, once to enjoy the views and read the available information at the site and once to complete the hour-long walk to Te Werahi Beach and back. We have no regrets.
Once again, time pushed us along and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves heading south, down Northland’s West Coast, headed for Tāne Mahuta and his kauri tree siblings in the Waipoua Forest, 45km north of Dargaville.
Now, I’m no tree-enthusiast, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to be left mumbling a chorus of “wow” at the sight of one, but Tāne Mahuta, the ‘Lord of the Forest’, made me do just that. Seriously, no picture can do justice to a tree with a girth of 13.77 metres!
Tāne Mahuta commands you to stand in front of him and to feel humbled in his ancient, all-encompassing presence. Really, this seems only natural when you stop to consider that Tāne Mahuta is not just a tree. He is a testament to nature’s prowess, to her resilience and majesty. Furthermore, in Māori mythology, Tāne Mahuta is an important father figure, protecting all the living creatures of the forest. No easy role, I’d imagine.
So, dust off your sneakers and get going, catch that ferry to Russell, stroll the paved paths of Cape Reinga and venture to the Waipoua Forest because you’ll never see another place like Northland.