Winterless camping at Waipu Cove

The beautiful sandy beach stretches for an epic 27 kilometres. It can be walked in a day, but most come here for great swimming, boating and fishing.


Just our luck. As we set off on a short campervan tour of Northland, the forecast is rainy and cold. I know it’s August, but whatever happened to the ‘winterless north?’

Thankfully the forecasters were wrong, and we enjoyed unexpected sunshine and almost t-shirt weather on what was an all-too-short break away from windy Wellington.

Starting in Auckland, our five-day loop took in four different overnight stops around the region, the first of which was Waipu Cove. Situated at the southern end of Bream Bay on Northland’s east coast, this is an area we were largely unfamiliar with. As usual, however, on our trips around New Zealand, it didn’t take long to pick up a trail of historical and natural interest.

As it turns out, Noela and Richard Gunson, managers of the Camp Waipu Coveholiday park, are dyed-in-the-wool locals and champions of their region. We knew we were up for some personal service when Richard insisted on showing us the public toilets, the unlikely place where our trail of discovery began…

Although Waipu Cove campground takes up much of the beachside reserve, a large domain is set aside for day visitors. It is here that some of New Zealand’s best public toilets were created in 2007. Painted right around the exterior walls, murals relay a potted history of the area. The stories are as fascinating as the artwork is fine, designed and painted by acclaimed muralist, Dan Mills. In vivid colour and clever composition, the area’s original European settlers come to life: Scots who migrated via Nova Scotia in Canada, landing here in their own hand-built ships from 1853. The heritage of these 900 migrants and their countless descendants is commemorated in a terrific small museum in Waipu township – the House of Memories– 9 km north of the Cove.

Captain Cook had anchored in Bream Bay just 84 years prior, in 1769, when it is believed he actually caught snapper. The bay stretches from the 495-metre bluff of Bream Head (Te Whara) in the north, to Mangawhai Bluff to the south. Along the ocean horizon are silhouetted the dramatic forms of long-dead volcanoes: Marotiri and Taranga (the Hen and Chickens Islands) and Sail Rock.

Big waves roll into the shore, accounting for the bay’s popularity with surfers: it’s reputed as one of the top three left-hand breaks in New Zealand. The beautiful sandy beach stretches for an epic 27 kilometres northwards from Waipu Cove to Marsden Point. It can be walked in a day, apparently, but most come here for the great swimming, boating and fishing. In season, the beach is patrolled by lifeguards from the Waipu Bay Surf Lifesaving Club (Est. 1928) whose striking club rooms sit proudly atop the dunes.

Waipu Cove settlement comprises a small clutch of classic baches and modest houses, home to a permanent population of less than a dozen. In the summer months its salt-laden delights attracts hordes of visitors, swelling the population to around three thousand. The majority can be found in the campground.

The holiday park is typical slice of Kiwi beachside paradise: occupying a half kilometre long wedge of land nestled behind the dunes, with grassy pitches for vans and tenters, and a handful of tidy cabins. It’s busy in summer, but that’s part of its appeal and one of the reasons numerous families return year after year. It has the feel of a small village where children are happily running or biking around the camp with new found friends, while Mums and Dads are relaxing and wondering whether to snooze or snack. There are ample facilities, well equipped and well maintained to cater for the 1800 to 2000 that are here peak season. Staff keep the place running like clockwork, helped along by the communal spirit of the campers.

No one can complain that they’re too far from the beach, but there’s also plenty more to do right on the doorstep. The domain is a great place for a picnic, complete with a stream, playground, café opposite, and a dairy with all-important ice cream. Gnarled old pohutukawa lend shade and that irresistible ‘crimson Christmas’ feeling in summer.

A short walk from the campsite, the Waipu Wildlife Refuge is situated around the river mouth and estuary. This is an internationally significant ecosystem, home to many protected, rare or threatened species. It’s a nesting area for the New Zealand dotterel, variable oystercatcher, and the New Zealand fairy tern, one of New Zealand’s rarest endemic birds. Other feathered friends here include the reef heron, wrybill and Caspian tern.

Forming the backdrop to the Cove, the Brynderwyn hills behind the bay offer tracks of various lengths, with the five-hour Brynderwyn Walkway the most well known. Some tracks are suitable for mountain biking. Nearby, shorter and easier walks abound, including the Piroa Falls (complete with great swimming holes), Ruakaka Estuary Walk, and Mangawhai Cliffs Walk.

Around 50 minutes’ drive from the Cove, the Waipu Caves Walkwayis a popular two-kilometre track rising to a spectacular viewpoint (two hours return). The caves themselves feature impressive limestone formations and a galaxy of glowworms, and can be explored on your own or with local tour guides.

As you’d expect, there’s heaps to do out on and under the water. Around 800 metres offshore, a reef offers rewards for those fishing of a small boat or kayak. Long lining and kite fishing from the beach are also very popular, while coastal diving around Bream Tail offers opportunities for spear-fishing and cray-fishing. The Hen and Chicken Islands, 22 kilometres out to sea, are renowned for fishing, and with excellent visibility are a magical diving destination. Several local charter operators can take you out for a great day’s fishing, diving or just sightseeing.

We stayed just 24 hours in Waipu Cove. A week wouldn’t have been enough.

Camp Waipu Cove, Cove Road RD2, Waipu, Northland; 09-432 0410

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