After months of hard work in Wellington and a stopover at Wilderland’s sustainable living community, I decided to buy a campervan to travel around Aotearoa with my close friend, Laila.
The limitations of a national lockdown alongside working in hospitality during this uncertain time had been negatively impacting my finances. I was unable to travel outside of Wellington for the first eight months of living in Aotearoa, therefore the prospect of the open road was liberating.
Having faced the icy winter winds of Wellington for the months previous to buying our van in Auckland, heading up to the warmth of Northland/Te Tai Tokerau seemed like a natural first leg of our road trip. By coincidence, our arrival in Paihia coincided with Laila’s friend Madison from Melbourne visiting his family in the town. In summer the waterfront is lined with blooming pōhutukawa trees, their fallen flowers turn the footpath a deep crimson red.
We settled down on the beachfront looking out to the horizon intercepted by verdant islets and rocky inlets that create a tantalising palette of turquoise waters, sandy yellows and luscious greens. Setting up our stove on a bench we cooked up our dinner, after a brief interruption by a local man introducing us to his pet piglet, it was time for food.
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A spontaneous phone call from my friend from Melbourne, Jimmy, preceded his surprise imminent arrival to our dinner spot. Madison joined us and the rest of the night was spent over in secluded Wairoa Bay, listening to the sound of waves and sharing a bottle of rum.
To wash away the sore heads we went for a swim the next day on an otherwise empty beach. The translucent water revealed an immeasurable bounty of beautifully intricate shells, one footstep startled a stingray, its grey shape flitting away over the crisp white sand. A visit to the Paihia i-Site alerted us to a path that trails around the bay that the town sits in, the Russell to Okiato Walkway.
After a quick ferry trip where my hat was lost to the ocean by means of a quick gust, we found ourselves in Russell.
Russell is filled with handsome white villas, adorned with sun-soaked balconies. We walked up and out of the town through dense native bush, filled with punga trees, towering rimu and trailing vines. After dropping down to sea level, the trail passes through dense mangroves that teem with life, fish splashing out of the water and chirping seabirds fill the otherwise silent summer air. Refreshment was served by many dips into the crystal-clear waters of the bay.
Leaving Paihia the next morning we stopped at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, learning in-depth about New Zealand’s turbulent relationship with its indigenous population. Jimmy decided to tag along for this length of our trip, it was great to have a familiar face as well as someone who knew the local area so well.
On the road north we stopped at the Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri, so-called because when the water hits the pool of water that sits below it, rainbows are formed. Jimmy showed us that you could swim underneath the pummelling waters and enter the deep, moss-covered cave that sits behind the falls. It was unforgettable sitting in the cool shade of the cave looking out to the crashing waterfall, forming rainbows that danced amongst a backdrop of native forest bush.
Continuing in our convoy, we headed to the sparsely populated Karikari peninsula. We stopped off at a beach where we talked with locals who were hauling a netful of kina into their van, life seemed delightfully slow-paced here.
Had it not been for Jimmy’s recommendation, we would’ve never headed down the gravel road to Maitai Bay. Waiting for us at the end was one of the most beautiful beaches I have laid eyes on. A headland festooned with trees jutted out into a glassy ocean, fringed with brilliantly white sand.
Once we drove past the campsite to the beach on the other side of the headland, we were the only people in sight. At sunset, we had a picnic accompanied by drinks and music, taking in the stunning landscape we found ourselves in. The full moon that night added to the magic of the evening, bright moonlight rippled in contrast to the craggy rocks that pierced the ocean.
When morning came the skies were as clear as the night before, a herd of horses galloped down the beach as we made our breakfast. Great grey boulders sat under ancient pōhutukawa trees, one of which was immense and must have been hundreds of years old, its branches creaking in the breeze. Leaving Maitai Bay Jimmy headed back down south again, leaving us to travel up to Cape Reinga.
Making our way up to the northernmost point of mainland Aotearoa, we were struck by how much emptiness there was in this part of the country. Nothing but fields and steep sea cliffs accompanied the road north.
Upon reaching Cape Reinga there was a burst of life, a carpark full of visitors keen to see the iconic lighthouse. Schoolkids brushed past us, the distant calls of a church groups’ haka signalling the end of the footpath. It’s awe-inspiring to look out to the ocean, thinking your gaze wouldn’t hit land until perhaps Japan, or maybe even Russia, thousands of miles over the Pacific Ocean.
Returning south we didn’t really have a plan on where we would end up. Following our noses down the coast as the sun began to go down, we wanted to find a spot to watch the sunset over the ocean. Driving towards the coast with no real idea of where we were we arrived at the sprawling estuary that Oponini sits on.
Standing on a headland looking over to a towering sand-dune that glowed in the late evening sun, we knew we had found an epic sunset spot. From the tip of the headland, we could see back down the estuary, fringed by the soft-glowing lights of small fishing villages and down the shore to sweeping sandy beaches. The warm summer air was tinged fiery shades of orange and red as the sun dipped below the horizon.
Before heading over to meet Jimmy at his house on the estuary near Whāngarei we stopped to look at the gargantuan kauri trees in the Waipoua Forest. These trees are unfathomably huge, standing over 40 metres tall with trunks 15 metres across, they dominate the canopy. This pocket of seemingly untouched forest made it easy to imagine how mystifying Aotearoa was before humans settled here.
The opportunity to travel around the country in a campervan is an immense privilege, it’s important to remember how fortunate we are to have this freedom. An extremely useful app is CamperMate; this app shows, on a map, legal freedom camping spots for self-contained vehicles alongside affordable, locally-run campsites.
It saved us a lot of time searching on our phones and helped us to decide a route that enabled us to stay at the cheapest and most untouched spots. In order to maintain this privilege, we ensured we never littered, kept our noise down and were respectful to the localities in which we spent our nights.
Travelling around Te Tai Tokerau I saw how multi-faceted Aotearoa’s landscapes truly are. Looking over to this country from Australia, my impression was that it was dominated by dramatic mountainous landscapes. Plus I had been pretty spoiled for world-class beaches in places such as Noosa Heads, however, I had no idea there could be beaches here as stunning as Maitai Bay.
A huge bonus was how quiet everywhere was, I don’t know if this was because the borders remained fully closed when we were travelling, or if these are just lesser-known spots. Life in Te Tai Tokerau moves at a relaxed pace, the laid-back nature of the locals was infectious. It’s impossible not to kick back and unwind in the seemingly constant sunshine we experienced during our trip.
It is a hugely diverse region, the stunning natural landscapes range from pristine kauri forest to untouched stretches of coastlines. In addition to this, access to a diverse range of campsites make this region a must-visit road trip destination in New Zealand.
Our time in Te Tai Tokerau came to a close as we arrived at Jimmy’s house. Having spent a while on the road it was a relief to wash our clothes, shower and reflect on the amazing sights we had seen on the first leg of the epic road trip that would take us all around Aotearoa. We spent the next day wakeboarding on the estuary and taking time out to plan our next few days on the road, basking in our gratitude of being fortunate enough to travel around this awe-inspiring country.
Andy is originally from the UK but is travelling around New Zealand as part of a working holiday visa. You can read more about his adventures here.
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