Exploring New Zealand's Northland

I was feeling a little down about the Northland at first.  The Northland is the subtropical, forested region north of Auckland (where I had planned on being for a while, starting my trip with a WWOOF host, but things didn’t going exactly as planned).  I made a last minute decision to do just a quick tour of the Northland before heading south again.  

I drove a few hours east of my WWOOF residence in Paparoa and decided to recharge for a few nights in Whangarei.  I wasn’t really expecting much from this tiny town other than a place to have a hot shower and maybe do some laundry, but it turned out to be a cool little town with its own hidden gems.  The hostel I stayed at was actually a “Holiday Park.”  I’m still not sure what this means.  From what I can glean, it means it’s open to any and everyone (old, young, families, etc.) and offers more private rooms than a traditional hostel?  I don’t know.  I went for the cheapest room, per usual.

The hostel was a five-minute walk to the Whangarei Falls, a nice tall and peaceful waterfall.  Tourist frequented this area throughout the day, but I’m coming to realize “crowds” in New Zealand are still far less crowded than what I’m used to back home.  They keep telling me summer will be crazy busy, but I’m not holding my breath.  

Whangarei Falls, New Zealand.  Pro tip: "wh" is pronounce as "f" so this town is pronounce like FAIN-gah-ray.

Whangarei Falls, New Zealand.  Pro tip: "wh" is pronounce as "f" so this town is pronounce like FAIN-gah-ray.

Whangarei also boasts a trio of caves home to the ever famous glowworm.  I didn’t really know what a glowworm was before coming here.  I mean, yeah, sure, I could have put two and two together to figure it out, but I had never heard of them before.  They are as common here as fireflies are in the USA but instead of flying, they hunker down in damp, slimy caves and light up the cave ceilings with their glowing blue butts.  (It’s hard to capture in a picture but use your imagination or google search it for a better image.)

Glowworms in Abbey Caves pretending to be the Milky Way.

Glowworms in Abbey Caves pretending to be the Milky Way.

The glowworm caves are completely free (awesome) and our impromptu group of hostel occupants only met two other people in the caves.  Another day in New Zealand, another amazing natural existence with hardly anyone around.  Where is everyone?!

I stayed for two nights in Whangarei then headed north Paihia for a night.  Paihia is a touristy beach town and I hadn’t intended on going there at all but found a few people to travel with and wanted to head up north to the cape anyway.  

The hostel was run by a jaded Kiwi guy who gave us a scornful lesson on how the kayaks are only made for one, not two, people.   He agreed to loan us his two kayaks to take out into the bay but since we were a party of three, we rented another Kayak from a few guys on the beach.  One of the guys was Maori and had a 23 letter name.  He spelled it out in the sand.  He goes by “T” for short, which seems very sensible.

Kayaking in Paihia.

Kayaking in Paihia.

We only kayaked to the closest island because we're lazy.

We only kayaked to the closest island because we're lazy.

This is my German friend Pauline.  If you want to learn German, come to NZ.  Seriously, when I meet someone knew, there's a 90% chance they are German.

This is my German friend Pauline.  If you want to learn German, come to NZ.  Seriously, when I meet someone knew, there's a 90% chance they are German.

That night, the hostel was completely taken over by a group of young Americans who piled off the elephantine, neon-green charter bus.  They couldn’t have been more obtrusive if they tried.  I trailed off to sleep that night to conversation snippets such as, “Tanner, do you have the key?”  “No, Brendan has the key.”  “Brendan do you have the key?”  “Caitlin has the key and she’s watching American Pie in the common room.” You couldn't pay me enough money to be 18 again.  

One of my traveler partners who I joined in Paihia wanted to go north to the farthest point in New Zealand to camp so I left my beloved car behind and hitched a ride with him.  This was really a turning point for me on the trip.  The weather had been overcast and cloudy for the first few weeks and it wasn’t showing signs of letting up anytime soon.  For some reason, the day we decided to camp the weather was on its best behavior with 60-degree temperatures and full sun.  It was still a bit chilly for my travel partner Derek who hails from the exotic land of Orlando, but it was just right for me.  

The drive north was really a sight to see, although in hindsight, I’m realizing almost every drive here is incredible.  The Northland is sparsely populated and the far north is mostly all agriculture and is punctuated with little honesty boxes along the road.  I had to do a double take when we first passed an honesty box but it is real and it’s amazing.  I guess when farmers have an abundance of crop, they will bag up some of their fruit and set it on a little shelf aside the road with a tiny box to drop in your money.  The box we stopped at was a bag of avocados for $2.  This was like the holy grail for me since food (especially produce) is horrendously priced here.  

We stopped at a coffee truck stationed on the side of the road and I tried my first flat white.  It was delicious, as are most basic coffee drinks.  The owner is a Kiwi who dreams of going to Las Vegas one day.  He would really enjoy going to an all you can eat buffet and also (separately) eating spare ribs.  Apparently this is quintessentially American.  Come to think of it, this is the second time I’ve heard a Kiwi rant about spare ribs.  Should I be eating more spare ribs in the U.S.?

We made a stop at the Sand Dunes which were larger than I had anticipated.  The sand dunes in Colorado are a sight to see, but the sand dunes in North New Zealand are seriously monstrous.  Derek wanted to rent boogie boards to slide down the dunes and I was hesitant since I’m trying to be frugal and I’ve heard the boogie boards in Colorado are more work than they are worth, but I decided to go for it anyway.  The hike up the dunes was no joke.  It was at about a 45-degree angle and probably 200 feet tall.  A group of foreigners saw me stopping to catch my breath and asked if I needed help, which royally pissed me off because no, of course I don’t and also, how would you even be able to help me?  Carry me?  Didn’t think so.  

You can't help me up this shit.  Sorry.

You can't help me up this shit.  Sorry.

The views from the top were cool, but the wind was persistent in pelting sand into our eyeballs so we didn’t stick around the summit for long.  Derek went first and displayed some serious grace, gliding smoothly to the bottom. I was feeling uneasy about my inability to keep my board straight (which I discovered on a trial run on a baby hill) but was ready to give it a go.  I strapped all my valuables down tight and hopped on the board.  I made it down about 2/3 of the way without any problem but inevitably, my board started to turn and the edge got stuck in the sand sending my flying down the hill sans board.  It was a gnarly, but painless fall.  A week later and I’m still picking sand out of my ears and under my nails.  

Take one step up, fall back two feet.  Repeat, forever.

Take one step up, fall back two feet.  Repeat, forever.

Very graceful.  I give it a solid 10/10.

Very graceful.  I give it a solid 10/10.

Very entertaining.  Giving myself 10/10 in the pizzazz category.

Very entertaining.  Giving myself 10/10 in the pizzazz category.

We had hoped to complete more than one run to get our money’s worth but the hike up was so demanding, we decided one was sufficient.  We continued north up to Cape Reinga, the point where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean.  It’s a sacred place for the Maori who believe this is the jumping off point for the dead to join their ancestors.  The views were remarkable and perfectly clear, though a bit windy.  Again, only a handful of people were there at the cape.  We were able to catch the sunset before heading back down the road 10 minutes to the campground, which also proved to be incredibly bare considering the jaw-dropping scenery.  I guess it’s not quite summer here, but I’m still amazed things are crowded with tourists yet.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely happy with the isolation and remoteness I’ve seen so far.  The fewer the crowds, the peaceful the experience (and the less anxious I become while driving!)

Still slightly terrified of the ocean but it's undeniably beautiful.

Still slightly terrified of the ocean but it's undeniably beautiful.

This is where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean.  Can you see it?  No?  Me either.

This is where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean.  Can you see it?  No?  Me either.

A room with a view.

A room with a view.

Cape Reinga, New Zealand
Cape Reinga, New Zealand

We left the campsite the next morning and Derek and I parted ways.  I headed to west Auckland to stay with a nice host family I met in the Northland who I had met at my first WWOOFing residence.  They showed me some sincere Kiwi hospitality and I ended up staying with them for two nights.  The oldest daughter, who is three, latched on to me very quickly which is odd since most children are (rightfully) very skeptical of me.  The mom stays at home with the kids so she was happy to have an extra hand to help out.  We drove to the beaches west of Auckland which were not on my radar at all.  The beaches have black sand which I guess is attributed to the iron content or something (someone should fact check that).  The weather was windy and overcast so a bit too cold to swim, but it also granted us access to a completely empty beach.  I’m amazed these beaches are only a short drive away from New Zealand’s largest city and not one person was on the beach that day.  

White shells and black sand at Karekare Beach.

White shells and black sand at Karekare Beach.

Karekare Beach

In all, I’m glad I was able to see the Northland but I understand why a lot of travelers skip it.  I think experiences there are totally dependent on the weather and if it’s sunny and warm, it seems like it’d be an incredible place to swim, camp, kayak, snorkel, etc.  I’m thankful for my one day of sunshine, but I’m ready to get further south.  Off to Coromandel!

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