New Zealand's Far North

March 27, 2004

Westhaven Marina, Auckland NZ

New Zealand Map

Dear Friends and Family:

We just returned from a four day car trip to the northern tip of New Zealand. Even after having been in the southern hemisphere for nearly a year, I still can’t get used to the idea that "north" means "warmer." We were in some mighty windy places in the last few days, but it was always warm enough that you didn’t really need a jacket. The vegetation is constantly changing as you drive north – in part because of the climate change, but also because of the varied land uses made possible by the warming environment. We saw orange groves near Kerikeri, sugar cane near Waipapakauri, and great expanses of cattle range on the Cape Reinga penninsula. As we have seen everywhere in New Zealand, there were great forest plantations, mostly of radiata pine. The trees are planted in rows, and as they grow uniformly it almost gives the impression of a computer-generated forest. We met scores of logging trucks, carrying eight-foot sections of pine log south on winding roads, out of the forest plantations.

Radiata pine plantation


Cape Reinga direction post

At the Northern tip of New Zealand -- by the Cape Reinga lighthouse.

(We learned, to our amazement, that radiata pine, which grows tall and straight, is actually Monterey pine. The Monterey pines we’ve seen in Monterey, California have been gnarled, twisted and windblown – definitely not something you’d want to try to get building lumber from.)

Steve & Iretta with Rigo on the hard in Whangarei Our first stop on our tour of the far north was in Whangarei. We’d previously been there on a couple of initial scouting trips when we first arrived in New Zealand. Many of our yachtie friends are staying there for the season. Most are single-mindedly devoting themselves to boat projects. (Nearly all our Pacific-crossing friends seem to be doing a lot less traveling than they originally anticipated.) We caught up with Steve and Iretta on Rigo, and admired their newly refinished decks and new upholstery, and then went to dinner at a local Thai restaurant. (We observed that Whangarei, despite the urban renewal efforts downtown, really rolls up its sidewalks after 6:00 p.m.) We also saw Richard and Anita (whom we last met at a Sauvie Island Yacht Club meeting in Portland.) Richard and Kelly of Amazing Grace were there, as were Tony and Serena of Fortuna, and Neil and Brycea of Windchime.
We continued the next day up the east coast of the North Island, stopping to have a look at the Whangaparoa harbor – beautiful but almost deserted. We ate lunch at a fish and chips shop in Mangonui, Doubtless Bay (named by Cook, who wrote in his log that the body of water was, "doubtless a bay…") Most of the names we run across are Maori – probably only 5% are European in derivation. The names seem hard for us to remember, and sometimes hard to pronounce – particularly since "Wh" is usually (but not always) pronounded "F".

We spent the night in a "holiday park" in Waipapakauri, at the southern end of the Ninety Mile Beach. The holiday park is just adjacent to where the tour buses waddle onto the beach, and then drive on the sand nearly all the way to Cape Reinga. It isn’t actually ninety miles – it’s more like sixty – but still a mind-numbingly long distance on a beach that all looks the same. We watched as the buses came back from the trek, disgorged their passengers into the little café, and then took advantage of the holiday park’s car wash facilities. Geysers of water shot up out of the pavement, dislodging the encrusted sand from the bottom of the buses.



Boys and Dad on 90 mile beach Ninety mile beach disappearing in the mists to the north

We walked down on the beach, which stretched off into the mists to the north. The wind blew north at a good clip, carrying bits of human garbage with it. We watched as the core from a roll of packing tape rolled and skipped along the sand, never stopping, disappearing in the distance. We talked with a young man and his twin toddler sons, who were digging a hole in the sand to get out of the wind. The boys were eating their fill of sand, and looked quite happy with themselves.

The next day we drove out to Cape Reinga – the very northernmost point of the North Island. We met those tour buses again on the road, but thank heavens they weren’t at the Cape Reinga parking lot at the same time. We met tourists from Germany, India and Australia. We talked with an Australian man who was on day 3 of his 160 day trip around the world. His wife was in a wheelchair, and they planned to rent a houseboat at Lake Mead in Arizona, drive over the Tioga Pass into Yosemite, and visit Zion National Park. He told us that he had visited all the US National Parks in the lower 48 states, and he was going back to see his favorites.

The Cape Reinga lighthouse is lonely, forlorn and windswept, with a 270 degree view of the ocean. The currents from the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific meet here, and the waters boiled up around the Cape. Someone had placed a distance sign, showing that it was more than 6000 nautical miles to Vancouver, B.C.


Cape Reinga lighthouse
Te Paki stream and surrounding dunes On the way back down the Cape Reinga penninsula, we stopped to see the sand dunes which are a "sandboarding" destination for backpackers. The road drops down to the sand dunes, and then enters the bed of the Te Paki stream. This is where the tour buses leave the Ninety Mile Beach, but we elected not to drive in the apparently hard sand of the streambed. We took off our shoes and walked out toward the beach, but we ran out of time before we reached the beach.
Hokianga Harbor from our B & B

The view north, across Hokianga Harbor, from our B&B

Our destination that day was the Hokianga Harbor – an inlet on the west side of the North Island with a narrow entrance and a nasty looking bar. Legend has it that the first Polynesian explorer, Kupe, made his first landfall here in about 900 A.D., and that his canoe is buried in the sand dunes on the north side of the harbor. When he came, the harbor was surrounded with giant Kauri trees. According to the legend, when he left, he set the forest on the north side of the harbor ablaze, to provide a beacon for those who would come after. But they were nine generations in returning, so the blaze had gone out, and the sand dunes had replaced the Kauri trees.
The Maori burned down about half the Kauri forests in the 900 years before the Europeans came. When the Europeans came they very nearly finished off all the remaining Kauri trees. The trees grow tall and straight, and have massive amounts of lumber in each tree. The early settlers found them ideal for masts and spars. Most of the older boats in New Zealand are made of Kauri. The pioneer houses are made of Kauri. Now, much like the redwoods in California, the only remaining Kauri trees are in protected reserves. We visited one of these reserves on our trip south. A trail leads through the thick forest to Tane Mahuta, the god of the forests (now the largest Kauri tree in New Zealand). The trail turns a corner, and everyone who comes around that corner says "Oh, Wow!" There were quite a few people looking up at the tree, and everyone was whispering.


In the photo to the right, notice the human figure in the foreground, compared with the trunk of the kauri tree, about 50 feet beyond.

Tane Mahuta kauri tree
Kauri museum We topped off the trip with a visit to the Kauri Museum in Matakohe, where you can see examples of slabs cut from the huge trees, Kauri furniture, reassembled sawmills, and a whole room full of Kauri gum – globs of resin that aren’t quite petrified, but if they were, they would be amber. Fortune seekers dug the resin out of the ground, and sold it to entrepreneurs for use in manufacturing varnish, linoleum and a variety of other products. We also saw numerous examples of swamp Kauri – trees that were buried in swamps thousands of years ago, and perfectly preserved. Today the swamp Kauri is the only "new" source of Kauri lumber – and some of it has been carbon dated as being 50,000 years old!
Well, you thought these emails were going to be about sailing, and I’m so sorry to have disappointed you with this one. Just to add a little bit of nautical interest, right at the end, I will tell you that we participated in a liferaft "experience" where we had the opportunity to go into a swimming pool, with our foul weather gear on, and attempt to turn over an upside down life raft and then climb inside. It was very tiring to try to swim in foul weather gear, and we were glad to have had the experience. Better to have tried it in a calm swimming pool before the need arises (hopefully never) on a rough ocean.

Tomorrow we’re off to Dunedin in the South Island – this time by plane. We’ll rent a car and explore the area. Friends have told us, "take your warm clothes and your rain gear!"

Best wishes to all.

Craig & Barbara Johnston

More photos of the Far North

Liferaft class

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