Visiting Cape Reinga: a tale of sand, sea and spirits

Take a trip through history, a magical mystery tour to the tip of New Zealand, where amid sand, sea and stories you'll find a very special place indeed.

I've been to Cape Reinga once before, as a child. My main recollection is that it was a long day – long enough for me to transform a slightly wiggly baby tooth into a triumphant gappy grin and pocket money for the morning. Now armed with all my molars and a little more perspective, I set off from the sunny Bay of Islands on a bus full of fellow explorers from all over the world.

Our driver Barry is a top bloke. His commentary is full of terrible puns and jokes, mixed in with local knowledge, lively recounting of historic moments, and handy facts. He gives us a quick lesson on Maori words often found in placenames, like wai (water), nui (big), kai (food), maunga (mountain), and motu (island); and tests us on these throughout the day.

As we enter Doubtless Bay, Barry tells us about the exploits of the voyager Kupe, who Maori believe discovered New Zealand. We pass through the settlements of Mangonui ('big shark!'), Coopers Beach and Cable Bay before stopping in Taipa to grab some morning tea and stock up on lunch supplies. Local legend has it Taipa is where Kupe first landed his waka (canoe) when he arrived in Aotearoa, a claim to fame commemorated by a sculpture on the outskirts of town.

Stomachs happily full of local baking and with plenty of goodies to tide us over, we continue north, past the white sands of the Karikari Peninsula. So far the Far North is quiet and sunny, dotted with small towns and settlements.

Barry hangs a left and suddenly we are cruising over the sand dunes and onto famous Ninety Mile Beach. It's actually 55 miles long, or 88 kilometres – early settlers based their estimate on how long it took them to drive cattle along the beach got it wrong, but as you look in either direction it certainly seems endless.

One might think the novelty of driving along a long straight beach might wear off pretty quickly, but it's anything but boring. The experience is almost transcendental. On one side the sand, on the other the sea with endless waves lapping at the wheels. A salt mist hangs in the air before us, and we know we're going somewhere even more amazing.

We stop briefly to take a walk on the beach, paddle in the waves and have an exploratory dig with our toes for pipi (shellfish). Selfies and jumping shots abound. It's the kind of place that makes you want to run and jump – something about the openness of the sky.

Not too far out from the shore, a small island breaks up the endless ocean. Barry tells us how he used to go camping on it, spending days just fishing and swimming. This part of the beach, with its rocky headland, is where the tides can trap unwary tourists. You're hours from anywhere and cellphone reception can be spotty – best to stick with the professionals.

From our beach safari we now drive up wide, shallow Te Paki stream into the massive sand dunes that separate the beach from the mainland. It's time for a spot of sandboarding.

"Here's the baby hill," says Barry waving dismissively at a towering mountain, "but I reckon you guys can handle the big one." A sandy Everest looms before us. After a quick but comprehensive lesson on how to steer and brake, and a warning to watch out for each other, we each grab a body board and start the trudge to the top. Barry's right there alongside us, cheering us on as our thighs burn and we puff our way ever higher. Up top, the dunes continue for ages, the sand starting to heat up under a hot Northland sun. Down below, the bus looks very small.

And then it's time to take off. Like clumsy ducklings, one by one we launch ourselves down the hill with whoops and screams. Some throw themselves down with abandon, others set off in a series of false starts and giggles before momentum takes over and the slide begins in earnest.

At the bottom, you can choose to pull your board up short or keep on coasting into the stream and end with a splash. Go Pros are pulled out and strapped on, iPhones are recording, everyone is laughing and covered in sand. Barry shows us how it's done, hurtling down the dunes with the ease of someone who's been doing this all his life.

Once everyone's had 'one more go' and lunch has been devoured, it's time to brush ourselves off (literally) and get back on the bus. As we begin to approach the Cape, Barry begins to speak. He's not telling jokes now and the bus falls silent. He tells us about the history of the area, how Maori believe Cape Reinga (or Te Rerenga Wairua) is the point at which the souls of the departed leave Aotearoa. The tree at the water's edge below the headland marks the point where they bid farewell to the world they once inhabited, slip into the water and float off to their new home.

Barry tells us how the significance of this place has made it a pilgrimage point for anyone who is feeling loss or grief and needs to find peace. He offers his own deeply personal story. And as we draw nearer to the Cape he begins to chant a karakia or prayer in Maori, his voice building, the words unknown but familiar.

Along the pathway down to the lighthouse, signposts and markers highlight different aspects of the view, the local plants and wildlife. To the west, Cape Maria van Diemen is the westernmost point of the North Island of New Zealand. To the east is Spirits Bay, the last stopping-place for spirits as their journey to the cape nears its end. I hear my fellow travellers exclaiming, “I knew it was meant to be beautiful, but I didn't realise it would be THIS beautiful!” And it's true – how can you put this into words?

The waters around the Cape play host to a remarkable sight: the patch of sea where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet. On the surface, the water is choppy and scarred, jostling back and forth. There is a sense that a great pressure swells underneath the waves as these two giants come swirling together, here where the land ends.

The path ends at the Cape Reinga Lighthouse, another popular spot for selfies along with the signpost showing the distance to faraway places. And there it is, the most important signpost of all, at the bottom of the cliff below. A seemingly insignificant gnarled old pohutukawa tree, its roots grasping the rocks. The place where souls go.

Back on the bus, the mood is quiet. It's only early afternoon but we've experienced so much already today. Another great thing about Barry: he knows when to talk and when to leave us to recharge for a while.

Next stop: Mangonui, for what we are told are the best fish and chips in New Zealand. The location of the fish shop, right out over the water on a ridiculously picturesque harbour, is a promising start. Barry's put in our orders in advance so all we need to do is queue up, grab our order and get stuck in. The fish is fresh and perfectly cooked inside its crispy batter, the chips golden and filling, nestled in their newspaper wrapping.

Our last stop for the day is at the beautiful Puketi Forest, a diverse native rainforest. We take a stroll along a short boardwalk past ancient kauri trees, gazing up at these magnificent giants that have stood here for hundreds of years (over a thousand in some cases).

Back in the Bay, weary travellers shuffle down the aisle of the bus. Every single one stops at the front for a fervent thank you to Barry, our cheerleader, teacher and friend for the day. We've seen some amazing things today – but he's the one who made it truly special.

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