A campervan road trip through Northland NZ

A pilgrimage to the very northern tip of NZ is a must do for guests to NZ and Kiwis alike. Here are some highlights of a recent campervan holiday.

The kids had been saying for years “Dad when are you going to take us up to where the two oceans meet?” They were referring of course to Cape Reinga, the very northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. Finally the stars lined up, plans were made and we picked up a styly Base Jumper 4 from Wilderness Motorhomes.  Cape Reinga was our destination and we were going to do some road tripping through Northland on the way there and back. 

Over the Auckland Harbour Bridge we travelled with Goat Island and the Leigh Marine Reserve as our first destination on the map.  You can’t go through Leigh without stopping at the Leigh Sawmill Café, a 19th century Kauri sawmill lovingly restored into a restaurant, music venue and brewery. We ate like kings, stocking up on some energy for the big trip ahead. 

Next stop - Goat Island - New Zealand’s oldest marine reserve and the marine environment there is now flourishing and reminiscent of what things might have been like before man made it to New Zealand. We  wandered to the water's edge, where the Pacific Ocean laps at the coastline, and found huge schools of blue maomao greeting as at our feet. A quick snorkel out from shore and huge crayfish (lobster), big snapper and stingrays are all there to greet you on one of the best snorkel trips you will ever do in your life!

We took the scenic route further north past Pakiri, Mangawhai and the simply beautiful Langs Beach.  You could spend a few days at each of these spots just cruising, but our time was unfortunately limited and further north we travelled. Our destination for the night was Oakura Bay and Whangaruru Harbour, an idyllic harbour which has historically been a safe stopping point for sailors travelling between the Bay of Islands and Whangarei.  This little neck of the woods is a haven for Kiwi campers in summer holidays, the rest of the year it is a sleepy, quiet little haven for some coastal relaxation. We camped on the waters edge at the Whangaruru Beachfront camp, and woke up to a mirror calm sea.  To me, these wonderful places you wake up to is one of the great things about a motorhome vacation! 

Oscar and I went hunting around the rocks and scouted some good fishing spots for our return in summer, before a hearty breakfast and we carried on our way to historic Russell. Russell (originally called Kororareka) was the first European settlement and port in New Zealand.  It is a beautiful historic village, and some time soaking up the rich tales and stories from New Zealand’s early European history in Russell is something you have to do on a Northland road trip.   I’ve spent many a lazy afternoon at The Duke of Malborough lodge over the years and it is well worth stopping for a meal and drink overlooking the busy wharf, where game fishing charter boats will often be returning with their catch of the day.

From Russell we caught the car ferry across to Opua and travelled on to historic Waitangi.

This was the kids' first visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where a treaty was signed on 6 February 1840 between various Maori chiefs  from the North Island of New Zealand and representatives of the British Crown. 

Waitangi is the symbolic landmark of two cultures joining together and every year celebrations take place here, marked by a public holiday on 6 February. A fantastic information and interpretation centre now exists, showcasing both early Europen and traditional Maori culture, including the original restored buildings of various representatives responsible for pulling the treaty together. I’d highly recommend booking in for the Maori cultural peformance, including a spine tingling challenge outside, followed by a full performance including waiata, poi, and haka inside a beautifully carved meeting house.

At just $10 (on top of grounds entry), the show was one of the best I’ve seen in the country, the kids loved it and I think a lot more authentic than the more expensive shows you will find in the likes of Rotorua.

Our next stop on our road trip was Mangonui. You simply cannot go past Mangonui without stopping at the famous Mangonui Fish Shop.  There are not a great deal of places in NZ where you can see fresh Bluenose, Hapuku, Swordfish, Snapper and more being unloaded at the wharf, then go inside and feast on freshly cooked fish, but Mangonui is one of them.  If you are coming from overseas then a classic Kiwi meal of Fish and chips is a meal you must have while you are here and you are spoilt for choice as to which fresh fish you get battered up at Mangonui.  If there is fresh bluenose there – go for that – it is superb!

Between the Bay of Islands and Doubtless Bay there are so many secluded coves and beaches you could spend a whole season just beach hopping from one nice beach to the other.  Matauri Bay, Whangaroa Harbour, Taupo Bay, Cable Bay and Hihi Beach just to name a few.  With kids in tow, we chose to stay the next night at Whatuwhiwhi Top 10 Holiday park, which has some awesome facilities for the family (oh and did I mention a couple of great little fishing spots within a short walk :-)  )

Oscar and I took off around the rocks with fishing rods in hand and walked around the corner, over a deserted beach and found a nice little rocky outcrop to throw some fresh mackeral in as baits, just as the sun was setting. A stingray came and poked his nose up at our feet, feeding on our little burley trail, and our first cast netted Oscar a nice snapper. I was teaching Oscar how to fish ‘straylined’ baits, where you cast an unweighted bait out, let the fish run off with the bait for a while and then apply drag to set the hook.  He had the knack in no time. So much for me getting a fish in!  Seven year old Oscar was winding them in one after the other, all I had time for was baiting up hooks and taking off snapper.

Pretty soon we had enough for our dinner and breakfast, not to mention a few fillets to give to some other campers.  We came back under torch light and cooked up a well earned feed of fresh fish in the Base Jumper! We slept very well that night!

A hearty feed of fresh fish and eggs at campsite, does not get much better!

Time to head north to Cape Reinga!  Oh, so many cool places I have to go back and explore, especially the sand flats of Parengarenga Harbour, I am sure I could see the green and gold fins of the monster yellowtail kingfish that live there slicing through the crystal clear water as we drove past! One other spot that I definitely want to go and stay is Tapotupotu Bay, a DoC campspot underneath Cape Reinga. It just looks wild!

And after an epic drive, we had made it! Stunning views of Cape Maria van Diemen and the Pandora Bank, where the two seas, the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman sea meet. Compulsory tourist shot at The Cape Reinga Light house!

Of course no trip to Cape Reinga is complete without stopping at the Te Paki Sand Dunes and doing some sand dune surfing!!  We had a ball! We were back to Doubtless Bay that night, and the next morning was spent at the simply superb Matai Bay, I think this spot goes right up there as one of my favourite beaches straight away!  Once again, I could easily camp up here for a week or two a very happy man.  You would not go hungry!  I took the kids for a swim, and as we dug away in the sand found some tuatua (a bit like a clam) in the sand, and quickly had a pot filled up. 

I swum over to a rock in the middle of the beach to look for some mussels, and finding a few crevasses, soon had a nice sized lobster for lunch.  Catching a feed of fresh shellfish and seafood is very much a part of the Kiwi culture, just check your size regulations before you go taking anything, and of course take only what you need for a meal.

It was back to the motorhome for a cook up of lime crayfish and tuatua fritters on the beach in the Wilderness outdoor furniture - does it get any better? If only we could stay, but work called and so it was back south we ventured.  Our journey home, we decided would be down the west coast, taking in the Hokianga Harbour, and some of the Kauri history on our return.

I had heard good things about the Footprints Waipoua guided cultural tour and so booked that in, and so we had a drink in the Copthorne Hokianga while we waited to be picked up by our guide for the night, Bill.

Bill took us on a two hour trip we will never forget, visiting the giants of the forest by twilight.   Te Matua Ngahere (Maori for father of the forest) is a giant kauri tree estimated to be between 2,500 and 3,000 years old, well before man arrived in New Zealand.   While you can walk in and see this living statue during the day yourself, a guided tour with Footprints Waipoua is well worth the money spent, voted in the top 3 New Zealand life changing experiences by the Lonely Planet. Bill engaged of our senses, telling us of Maori legends, chanting Maori songs and hymns, playing a traditional Maori flute, burning Kauri gum and getting us to hug the mighty trees as we went along on our journey.  Visiting Tane Mahuta, New Zealand’s largest living statue sent chills down your spine as Bill wailed a prayer and waiata and then we honoured with our own silence. We visited other unique Kauri stands like the Four Sisters as well

We just had to go back and get our photos with Tane Mahuta during the day, this time with flocks of tourists in attendance, we felt privileged to have been there the night before with Bill and hear his stories. Bill had told us about the Kauri Museum at Matakohe, further south (past Dargaville) and so we stopped in there on the way home to see the kauri gum room he had told us about. 

Not quite knowing what to expect, we ended up spending hours there looking at the regions history, not just kauri logging, but pioneering and seafaring history as well, and this would have to be one of the best local museums I’ve visited in New Zealand.

There it is, a pilgrimage to Cape Reinga.  Mixing up epic landscapes, sea scapes, NZ wilderness and some damn fine food along the way. What a great little family holiday. It has certainly wet my appetite to get back and visit more of what Northland has to offer!

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