On Friday while waiting for our campervan, we killed some more time with another surfski paddle. This time it was a bit windy, but still gorgeous. Don got to see some ex-America’s Cup boats zoom by real close! Just after finishing our outing we finally got the call that the van was available. We made our way towards the airport.
The rental company was really nice about the delayed availability of our van, and gave us 4 bonus days at the end of our scheduled rental, if we chose to use them instead of getting a B&B or whatever in Christchurch. That seemed like a generous enough gesture. They also took our reservation for the Cook Strait ferry, saving us some money over booking it directly with the ferry. As it was getting late and we wanted to make some progress out of Auckland, we loaded up and took off. We made one stop to buy some camping and cooking supplies that the van lacked.
Early in the evening we made it to the seaside town of Orewa, NE of Auckland. We had a very filling dinner at a cute Japanese restaurant, and then went to the chain campground down the road. It was a bit pricey, but it had amenities and it was late, so we stayed. Setting up the van for our first night of camping was a bit trying, but we got it done and then settled down for the night.
Our Saturday morning mission was to find some groceries. We found a big, well-stocked grocery store and loaded up on all of the essentials, and some tasty snacks. And then a few more camping supplies, and finally, a few non-essential clothing items at a MacPac outlet (like Smartwool or Icebreaker). Then we made for the Northland, hoping to find a quiet, scenic place to camp and explore.
After a short section of fast toll road, we were cruising around coastal backroads – fun and scenic, but slow. We’d read about a nice-sounding campground on Puriri Bay, so we set out to find it. It’s on a narrow peninsula, but we did find it, and it was great!! The camp sites were right by the beach, and it was super quiet and unpopulated. We were stoked to finally be camping the way we imagined! Here’s Don and the van at our site.
Russell is a quaint town with lots of history. It’s on a neck of land, and one side had a gorgeous, long swimming beach, and the other side the harbor and town. We had a great swim, and a tasty gluten-free pizza! (Apparently even Kiwis are discovering their gluten allergies.) We had to get a pic of this, NZ’s oldest gas station, and we even tried to keep them in business by buying a little O-ring for our grill.
On Monday morning our first stop was a fresh oyster vendor we’d seen on the way into Russell. We got 2 dozen, on the half shell, with lemon, for cheap!! Just outside of Russell there is a short ferry ride that saves quite a bit of driving. We rolled on, and took the cheapest, most convenient ferry ride of our lives! This took us to the touristy town of Paihia, which was crawling with cruise ship tourists. The dollar store was handy for a few little things, though, and we made our move for more remote locations.
The town of Kerikeri was an intermediate stop with a few points of interest. First we hit a small chocolate factory, and after some samples, grabbed a few tasty treats for the road. Then we headed to the waterfront to visit NZ’s oldest buildings. The old store, pic below, is the oldest stone building, and the Kemp house is the oldest wooden structure. We didn’t have time for the guided tours, but the old store had super fun stuff to look at, both old and new, so we grabbed a few souvenirs and gifts.
At some point it became clear that we’d have to get to MaiTai Bay, either because of the name, or the stunning locale, or both. The bay and its campground are near the end of the Karikari Peninsula, jutting into the Pacific, and it did not disappoint! Super long, sandy beaches, with hardly anybody around.
This was the NZ we’d dreamed about! We quickly set up camp, and enjoyed a great beach walk and swim before downing the rest of our oysters. We vowed that oysters would become a regular part of our NZ experience.
MaiTai would be our first camping site for more than one night, and it was a relief to have a day off of driving. For Tuesday we planned a nice hike on the Fig Tree Track. The map didn’t show much detail, but it was a triangle with one tip at our bay and another tip at an adjacent bay, and was said to take 3-4 hours. 40 minutes of beach walking lead us to the trailhead. The trail ascended and led us to some stunning views over our bay. However, we got to a poorly marked T junction and weren’t sure where to go. We continued in our general direction, and although we could see the adjacent bay, it became clear that we either couldn’t get there, or it would take too long. So, we got back to the T, ascended a long ridge with more astounding views, and then began the descent back to the trailhead. It was a great hike, and our legs held up well despite the lack of solid hiking recently. This was the bay that would not be.
Back at the beach we were ready for a swim, so we doffed our hiking clothes and walked into the sparkling waters. Soon we were motivated to try to swim to a nearby island. It took longer than we thought! After a rest in the sun, we started the return, and this went much faster, perhaps because we had a light following wind and flood current.
We were sad to leave MaiTai, but it was time to see more of Northland. We bypassed Cape Reinga, NZ’s northernmost point, and angled south down the west side. The road swept inland and a must-hit spot was the Ngawha hot springs. We arrived around noon, and the rustic place was pretty quiet – just us and a few Germans (funny enough, the two small groups of Germans didn’t speak to each other!). There were about 10 pools of varying temperatures, and we braved all but the hottest, called “Baby.” We were impressed by one of the Germans ladies who went in, although she was only in for a few seconds!
Continuing down the west coast we were excited to see some of NZ’s biggest kauri trees. These ancient trees can grow to truly magnificent size. Fortunately, the biggest one, Tane Mahuta, is close to the road, so it was an easy stop. We’d already seen some big trees, including a ridiculous fig tree in Russell, but Tane Mahuta was almost beyond belief!! We’ll let the photo do the talking.
Not too much further we reached Trounson, a kauri and kiwi (bird) preserve with a tiny campground. Both species have been depleted, and continue to be threatened, by both development and invasive species, so preserves like Trounson are very important. The park had a great little hike through the native forest, with many of the interesting trees marked for identification. Kiwi are a shy, nocturnal bird, so we took a quiet walk through after dusk, but didn’t see any. The tip is to use a red flashlight (or red cellophane over your light), and we didn’t have this setup, but vowed to try again in some other locations. Before arriving in NZ, we would have never guessed that kiwi are so elusive.
Thursday was a big driving day. We wanted to swing by the campervan rental place in Auckland to sort out some niggling issues, before continuing on to the Coromandel Peninsula. We were a little worried that the campervan might be a lost cause, but the issues were resolved, and we finally continued on our way – in Auckland rush hour traffic! After nearly a full week of hardly any traffic, it was tough to deal with the stop and go, but we finally busted through. The Coromandel beckoned, and we gleefully continued our NZ adventure.