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Northland Adventures Part I: Giant Kauri, Dune Surfing & 90 Mile Beach

Our journey north to Ahipara took us through Auckland on a bright clear day. We managed to avoid any major traffic delays and sailed right on through the city. As we crossed the Harbour Bridge the sun was highlighting Auckland’s gorgeous city center marked by the sharp sky tower reaching from the sparkling waters of the bay to stab the blue sky.

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Auckland skyline from Harbour Bridge

We stopped over for the night in Wellsford to break up the long drive to 90 mile beach. While checking in, we couldn’t help but notice a group of somewhat noisy youths who were also checking in for the night. We were glad to have slept through most of the drama during that single night and just hear the details from the owner in the morning as we prepared to leave. Apparently, one of the kids that was staying there with the group to attend a birthday party in town had been stabbed at the party and required transport to the hospital via helicopter from the hotel during the wee hours of the morning. We hoped to leave that sort of drama behind as we drove further up the North Island. About an hour into the trip, we stopped at the Kauri Museum in Matakohe, persuaded by the rave reviews on trip advisor and a plug from the hotel owner in Wellsford.

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The Kauri Museum

 

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Kauri plank. Note the bench at the far end, staircase and large dresser on back wall for perspective.  The circles on the wall are the size of cross sections of the largest trees found.

 

We did have fair warning that it would take considerable time to navigate the entire museum. We also knew that it would be unlikely that we would be traveling through this area again so we decided to take the time to have a look. It was well worth it. The museum examined New Zealand history through the industries involving the kauri trees. The displays were interactive and informative and were intriguing enough to keep our attention despite the arctic temperatures in the buildings where they were housed.

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My hands were numb after an hour, and I even had gloves on. When we couldn’t take any more of the cold, we stopped to go across the street and have an early lunch to warm up. Thankfully, when we returned to the museum, we realized the only remaining sections to look at were closer to the gift shop where it was warmer. My personal favorite, the kauri gum collection.

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View from the museum carpark

Then it was back in the car. We chose to take a route through the Waipoua forest on our way up to Ahipara so we could also see the oldest and largest living kauri trees. Making these extra stops meant we’d be arriving in Ahipara after dark, but again we knew that our travel plans would not allow for a visit to the forest later. Late in the afternoon we pulled into the carpark at the first walk to see some giant ancient kauri trees, Te Matua Ngahere and the four sisters.

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Deb gazing at “The Four Sisters”

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Clouds hung low and it was cool but not unpleasant for walking, especially since we’d increased our pace to make sure we saw them while it was still light. Only a short distance up the road we stopped again to walk to Tane Mahutu, also known as the “Lord of the Forest.” Standing at the base of this giant tree, it felt imperative that we pause and simply be still in its presence. To stare up as such a strong and magnificent presence was rather overwhelming and even more so when contemplating that it has been living for around 1500  years. I find that incomprehensible.

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That’s my tiny silhouette by the fence

From there we had nearly three more hours on the road according to the GPS. I was in charge of searching the best route and found myself getting frustrated that the phone kept indicating that we needed to drive across the island to Hwy 1, it seemed really out of the way, when I could see roads on the map that provided a more direct route. As we kept driving, the map app shifted to reflect route I’d been seeing. Well, as we approached the next turn we got a surprise. There was a sign “Ahipara via ferry.” Upon reading this, it was clear why the GPS had originally indicated a different course. At that point we were faced with either continuing to the opposite coast and having to back track or driving to the ferry to see if we might be able to get on. We turned in and drove up to check the ferry schedule but we could see the ferry approaching the dock as we came over the hill and there were a handful of cars in line to get on so we pulled into the back of the line. We were laughing out loud, more in disbelief than because we found it actually funny. The timing was astonishing. We only had to wait about 15 minutes and we were on the boat crossing to pick up the road to 90 mile beach for the last hour of our journey.

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On board the ferry

The curves kept coming, back and forth we followed. Our host told us of a good Thai place in Kaitaia that we unfortunately didn’t get to try since they were closed. Generally we avoid American fast food even in the US, and we’ve been even more reluctant here in New Zealand, but anxious to get to the house where we’d be staying, we scanned the street for options and landed on Subway.   We walked just before they closed and were obviously the last customers of the evening. From Kaitaia we still had another fifteen minutes and based on the instructions from our host we were a little concerned about finding the house. We only had to turn around twice during the search but we did find it. The driveway was extraordinarily steep, both of us were somewhat nervous about driving down it wondering if we’d ever get the little rental car back out. The roar of the ocean greeted us as we stepped out of the car, and the soothing sound was only slightly dampened by the glass wall of the house once we went inside. Immediately, even in the dark, we knew that we would love staying here, whether we went exploring during the week or not.

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View from the driveway

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Breakfast overlooking 90 mile beach

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View from the deck

We felt fortunate to have found this house available. It was designed to perfectly soak up the surroundings. It was easy to find a comfortable spot to listen and absorb the tranquility so we weren’t in any hurry to leave to go find anywhere else to be. It suited us perfectly for the week.

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View of 90 mile beach from the deck

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View through deck railing

 

One destination we wanted to check out was Cape Reinga on the very far north tip of the country. We booked a tour so Paul could simply enjoy the trip as a passenger and not have to drive. After a short shuttle ride to pick up the tour bus, we boarded the 4wd “Dune Rider” bus which took us up Hwy 1 to Cape Reinga. The first stop was at Gumdiggers park for a look around at the buried kauri forest. What a fascinating stop it was! I was just as fascinated with the dew covered spider webs as the buried forest.

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Giant buried kauri stump

 

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One of the many photos I took of dew covered webs

I finally learned why they call the tall rubber boots gumboots here. The term originated from the boots the gumdiggers wore when searching for kauri gum in the wet, muddy swamps where they dug for it. Gumboots or “gummies” as many refer to them here are still a very popular choice in footwear for New Zealanders, from fishermen to farmers.

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Gumboots

 

After that we were treated to a hot lunch cooked just for our tour group at a little café along the highway before getting to Cape Reinga. During the last stretch of the drive to the top, our driver and guide, Daniel, told us the Maori legend and the history of why the natives considered this such a sacred place.

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A summary  of the significance of Cape Reinga to the Maori

Once there, we could sense what an incredible spot this was. There really seemed to be something special about standing at the lighthouse at the northernmost point of the country, not only because of the beauty, but because you could feel invisible energy of incomprehensible significance

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Cape Reinga

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Lighthouse at Cape Reinga

 

Besides the Maori legend of it being the pathway of the spirits, it is literally where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, and you could see the swirling waters where they came together just below the lighthouse.

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Lighthouse with swirling waters to the left.

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Turbulence where Pacific and Tasman Sea meet

 

With no place to go but back the way we’d come, we drove down and turned to Te Paki stream. The road ended and we kept driving right into the stream. Daniel engaged the 4WD and drove us down the center of the flow of water.

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On our way to the dunes, see them on the horizon.

 

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Te  Paki stream with dunes in the distance

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Te Paki stream, our access point to 90 mile beach

We followed it until we were amidst the giant sand dunes. Once we were able to stop on solid ground. We had the opportunity to hop out and grab a boogie board to ride a dune. Daniel gave us a quick lesson and then sent us on our way to climb the massive pile of sand. It really was quite a climb and just like staring down a ski hill, it looked much steeper staring at the bottom knowing you were about ready to release yourself to the force of gravity.

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Dune riding. You can barely make out the people at the top getting ready to slide down.

I was the first to plant myself prostrate on the board, face first down the mountain of sand. What a rush! I went zipping down, dragging my toes behind me because I was frightened of going too fast and those were supposed to be my brakes. It really only slowed me down a little and somehow I managed to stay on the board for the entire ride even when I went bouncing over some tire tracks near the bottom and got a face full of sand. What a blast! I grabbed my board and began the climb to have another go. Paul and I each got two runs before it was time for the tour to move on.  Here’s a couple of videos so you can get an idea of the speed. Paul dune riding video. Deb dune riding video.

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Through the stream we went, all the way to the beach where it flowed into the ocean. Ninety mile beach, it’s called and is actually sixty five miles long. The name, Daniel explained, was from when livestock traders drove their herds along the beach. They estimated that they drove the livestock thirty miles a day and it took them three days to make it to the other end of the beach. The vast expanse of sand and surf stretched as far as we could see, to where it met the sky.

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Dune Rider bus under sweeping skyscape

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90 mile beach

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90 mile beach. The tiny black dot on the right is a vehicle in the distance.

We made one stop where we got to step out on to the endless beach. I attempted to capture the scene in photos but they just don’t convey the magnitude of such a place. On we went following the highway of sand with the waves thundering in over and over again for miles and miles. When we reached the exit ramp, we had traveled about forty miles down the sand. It was such an incredible tour enhanced by an brilliant day of sunshine and dramatic clouds contrasting against a blue sky backdrop. The grand finale was an intense and enduring sunset sweeping the skyscape off the balcony of the house.

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Sunset at 90 mile beach, Ahipara

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Same sunset, several minutes later.

The forecast indicated rain for the next couple of days and we didn’t really care since we could enjoy the sights and sounds of the beach right from the house. That is exactly what we did for two days of rain. Then it subsided and the following days were only partly cloudy. We had ample time sit back both on the deck and during long strolls on the beach.

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Sand patterns on 90 mile beach

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Deb getting her toes wet on 90 mile beach

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Too soon the week drew to a close and it was time to move on. We prepared to depart the incredible place on ninety mile beach, so grateful for the time we’d enjoyed there.