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Touring New Zealand 2005 - Part 1

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We flew over with Air New Zealand to Auckland via Los Angeles for the fourth year running. The big advantage of flying through Los Angeles is that you are allowed two items of hold luggage each of which can be up to 32 kgs rather than a maximum of 20 kgs total on most routings. Flying via the United States is however inconvenient because you are forced to clear immigration even when in transit - at least this time we did not have to take all our luggage off at Los Angeles, only the hand luggage. This year we were required to have a machine-readable passport in order to use the visa waiver scheme, and we were required to have fingerprints taken and also a photograph. Hand luggage limits have been tightened a little and depending where on the Air New Zealand web site one looks one may or may not be allowed a second small personal item or laptop and the total weight now seems to be reduced to 7 kgs. We now have a series of strong flat boxes which we can use for electronics in the suitcases but tried to carry as much as possible after the scandals of security staff opening suitcases and stealing the valuable contents. Our luggage on NZ1 was not taken off the aircraft, so no problem.

The flight was long and boring as usual - we pick up a few books from charity shops and shed them as we progress! The Air New Zealand food (and wine) is OK and service good - much better than Qantas with whom we recently flew to Australia.

The next couple of days were spent recovering with Chris and Ralph in Auckland during which time we organised our bank accounts at BNZ where we reopened our current account and set-up our EFTPOS cards - everywhere takes EFTPOS, which is a low charge direct debit system. Current accounts in New Zealand have significant monthly charges so we close ours when we leave the country and just maintain a savings account. We also have Internet banking so we can keep an eye on the accounts, transfer money and even pay the sailing bills without going to an ATM machine.

It was then time to collect our camper van from Rental Car Village. We have been using them for many years now and they have always given us a good deal. The vehicles are far from new but they have always proved reliable. Unlike the Wicked Camper we rented in Australia they have no exotic (or erotic) colour schemes and do not look like a hire van which can be an advantage. We have done many tens of thousands of kilometres in their vans over the years with only minor problems, other than one year when we had a head gasket blow. But that is a hazard with almost all Toyotas.

New Zealand has a different approach to cars and they are maintained in use for far longer than in the UK. Last time we checked the average age for re-registration of cars was eleven years. Little salt is used and with good maintenance it is not exceptional to find vehicles with over 400,000 kilometres on the clock in fleet use, this years Toyota Townace has 167,250 on the clock. We spent a while talking to Keith and Helen Thomlinson, it is very much a family affair with daughter Helen and son Grant as well as other relations all owning and running parts of the enterprise - overall they have several hundred vehicles. Grant spends a lot of his time in more exciting parts of the world and also has comprehensive kit to enable him to keep in touch whilst mobile including a Libretto CT100, a newer version of our venerable sub-laptop used on previous trips.

Packing always seem to take a while as we have gathered up a lot of kit over the years including the "Red Devil", a portable camping barbeque and cooker which can run off the little gas cylinders as well as the large one in the van. By the time we have loaded our library of New Zealand books and a couple of camping chairs and a table there is little room so we tend to use a tent rather than sleep in the van - it is much more pleasant and one can hear the dawn chorus. The only downside is that one has to slow down and wait for the tent to dry in the mornings. We also make use of cabins when the weather is less good - a basic cabin with only a bed and power point is often little more than a tent pitch on a commercial camp site. Camping pitches range from $5 per person on a DOC site to $14 each at a good Top Ten (before discounts) whilst cabins have been as little as $25 and $35 is the level at which the tent wins unless it is too windy to be practical.

The next activity was a visit to Charterlink where we were very disappointed to hear that they were no longer sailing out of the Bay of Islands this year, and although they would have moved Largesse up and back for us we know them too well to put them to that trouble and expense. We looked at sailing one way ourselves but that would have needed more time for contingency especially as we wanted to spend time North of the Bay of Islands so we changed our plans. We have a little extra time and will have another try at the Mercury Islands off the Coromandel coast. It needs good and predictable weather as one is outside the shelter of the Hauraki Gulf - we have tried twice so far but have only got to Great Barrier both times but that is still delightful. We then returned to Rental Car Village to rework the van hire timing and have changed plans for the trip as we had intended to swap the camper for an estate car (it is cheaper) for the last 3 weeks which we were leaving the vehicle for 2 weeks in the Bay while sailing. We had thought the extra cost was worth saving the time and hassle in going from Auckland to BoI by bus, then back to Auckland then back to BoI before driving to the Far North. The new plans are that we will only have a camper after sailing. A side effect of all this is that in order to go to the BoI at all we have to go at the beginning of the holiday.

So we drove straight up North when we left Christine to the Kauri Coast (the West) where some of the magnificent Kauri trees still remain and where the Kauri Trade started. We stopped at our favourite dairy at Orewa to get our ice cream fix, then continued to stock up with Cheese and Salami at the Dutch Cheese shop at Kaiwaka. New Zealand has very little really good local cheese as they have regulations banning unpasteurised cheese. The shop in Waikawa however sells some remarkable good old Dutch cheese and also NZ copies which are the equal or better than their Dutch imports. We always stop there to stock up. They also sell frozen and smoked venison and lots of other culinary delights.

The Kauri is an unusual and very long-lived tree; the larger ones can be 2000 years old. Kauri seedlings need plenty of light so they usually start life amid Manuka scrubland in forest clearings formed by windfall or fire. Adolescent trees form a tapering trunk and narrow conical crown. The tall adolescent Kauri have narrow pole trunks, but as they mature the trunk thickens and the lower branches are all shed giving the very clean straight trunk of the adult tree which made their wood so desirable (see left). The bark is shed in plate-sized scales giving a distinctive appearance to the trunk and helps to stop epiphytes from establishing a hold. As they grow older the trunk progressively swells into a vast cylinder whilst the crown becomes thin (see right). Despite the clean trunks the crowns are filled with other plants - one can find as many as 30 different species of epiphytes on a single large Kauri. The largest Kauri such as Tane Mahuta (the Father of Forest) and Te Matua Ngahere have girths of about 15 meters. The talking trees in The Lord of the Rings are modelled on the old kauri.

We stayed at an old favourite camp site, the Kauri Coast Top Ten. The weather was hot and still so we set up the tent. We had no choice since all the cabins etc were already booked. It was good to get back under canvas. We usually use the tent whenever we can but last year the weather was so bad we hardly used it. The tent is getting old and we worry it may rip apart in heavy winds but it has always been remarkably water proof - last year we could see it floating one evening as it was battered by hail but it still kept dry and we were sleeping in it an hour later after digging some drainage ditches.

In the evening we used the Red Devil to cook some of our Kumera, the sweet potato introduced by the Maori. Kumera can also be boiled, mashed with lemon - our favourite with fish. The best way is on a barbeque hotplate. Slice 1.5 -2 cms thick with skin on and add to a puddle of hot olive oil on a well heated barbeque hotplate and cook for circa 15 minutes till the sides are a dark golden brown and the centre soft - superb but few seem to know of that way of cooking it. The Red Devil has a big enameled cooking pan which is not quite as good as a thick cast hot plate but still does a very good job with Kumera.

In the morning we went into the Trounson Kauri Park, which is the first of the DOC "Mainland Islands" which seek to undo some of the damage done to the native flora and fauna by creating a secure environment in particular, the reduction of the impact of pests. Trounson was chosen to be the first of such experiments as it is literally a forest island surrounded by a sea of farmland; it is isolated from other forest patches and is the home to a number of endangered species such as the North Island Brown Kiwi, Kukupa (NZ pigeon) Pekepaka (bats) and Kauri snails. We had an excellent walk round the Trounson Park - it is not on the tourist route and it was very peaceful. We both decided it was the best area of Kauri we have seen and arguably one of the best medium length bush walks we have been on - the competitors are those in Goblin forests round Egmont. This time the highlight was seeing a huge example of one of the - they are normally nocturnal but this one was so big it did not seem to care.

DOC has set up an information area and there is a lot of information indicating how successful the concept of a Mainland Island has been with full and alarming information on the number of pest caught or poisoned. The number of Kiwi reaching a "safe" size of a kilo rose from 5% to 30% after the first two years of poisoning rodents and Possums and has now climbed to 70% since they have been eliminating stoats and cats by trapping. Feral cats do untold damage to bird life and they are trapping several dozen every year. Dogs are perhaps worse and one single dog killed nearly 200 Kiwi in a six-week period in the past.

We looked at the small DOC camp site at the edge of the park - it was almost deserted although it has much better facilities than most DOC sites including showers and a fridge freezer and is only $7 a night. We always intend to return at some point although the Top Ten with its better facilities, river and swimming hole seduced us again this year.

We took a side road 6 kms to a Lookout over the Kauri forests and then an extra couple of kms to the Toatoa short walk which we had not done before which had plenty of label boards for the wide range of shrubs and trees. We continued to Waipoua Forest Walks car park which serves a number of short and longer walks - the most popular is to visit Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest), the second largest remaining Kauri. This involves a 15 minute walk so sadly few people make the trip and it is normally very quiet compared to Tane Mahuta (the God of the Forest), the largest Kauri, which is too close to the road. The forests need quiet to be appreciated.

This year we did the short walk to the Kauri Rickers (juvenile kauri before they lose their side shoots), then a longer walk to the Yakas Kauri which we had not seen before. The round trip took us a little over an hour including plenty of time admiring and photographing the Yakas Kauri and the Cathedral Grove - there were many magnificent Kauri and it is a walk we will repeat. The track should continue to the Waipoua Forest Centre 7 kms away but has been closed for maintenance - they are increasingly using board walks through the Kauri forests to protect the delicate roots of the trees which are close to the surface and easily damaged which has killed a number of fine Kauri. The Yakas Kauri is named after an early Dalmation Kauri logger.

We had booked for a second night camping as we wanted to do the night tour of the Trounson Kauri Park which had been full the first evening. It had been very good last year although we neither heard nor saw Kiwis hence our wish to go again. Last year we saw the ells and fresh water crayfish as well as a number of the big carnivorous snails and the more common weta. It was also much easier to understand the way the Kauri grows and the other growth such as the ferns when an individual tree could be picked out by torch and followed up through the canopy. There are lots of glowworms in the forest as well as some near the campsite. Every evening the campsite owner also feeds the eels in the swimming hole when he returns from the trips. Unfortunately the rain came in late afternoon and after a meal cooked on the covered camp barbeque we found the tour had been cancelled. We gave up and listened to the rain beating on the tent but woke up to a beautiful clear morning with enough early morning mist to give a magical appearance to the forests above us.

On the way north through the winding forest road we stopped for a brief walk to see Tane Mahuta (the God of the Forest) which is so close to the road that it is a big tourist trap with many coaches stopping - even so it is a magnificent sight which even the presence of large numbers of other people can not detract from. We were fortunate this year and it was early and quiet so we could admire in silence the magnificent Kauri which is believed to be about 2000 years old and has a girth of 13.8 metres and a trunk volume of 244.5 cubic metres and a height of 51.5 metres and the boards claim it is the largest surviving Kauri. There are a variety of different lists of large kauri which have them in different orders, we suspect that size is sometimes based on volume, sometimes height, sometimes girth and sometimes convenience for publicity.

We continued on to Rawene ('sun setting') to look round the harbour township that was New Zealand's third oldest Pakeha settlement and was the traditional 'capital' of Hokianga. Clendon House, a fine kauri homestead, which is owned by the Historic Places Trust, is at Rawene. It is only open Saturday, Sundays and Monday, and we missed it last year. The 1860's house was built in Rawene as the final home of one of New Zealand's earliest traders and ship-owners. James Clendon was born in England but became the US Consul to NZ and was a witness to the treaty of Waitangi in 1840, a member of the first Legislative Council and a magistrate. On his death his second wife Jane, a Maori, inherited his tremendous debts but managed to keep the house and contents together and it remained in the family for 100 years. The house contains many items from the Clendon family collection.

This year it was our first chance to look round the inside. We spent some time talking to the curator who lives in the house next door and who is a professional photographer and is also well known as an author of short stories. He had some interesting comments on the problems of CDs for long term archiving of valuable data and photographs which we need to check out. Whilst looking round the house we were intrigued by some plates on display which had a deep base which could be filled with hot water. The curator had also been doing some research into them and they were probably specially made for James Clendon at Burslem as he had a hatred of cold and congealed fat on his food. The curator turned the plates over for us to take pictures and we hope to be able to do some checks when we go next through the Potteries on our narrowboat and with friends in that area. We were told that the Director of the UK National Trust had visited recently and had also been interested as he had heard of such plates but never actually seen any.

We continued across the Hokianga harbour on the hourly ferry from Rawene to a camp site we found a couple of years ago at Ahipara at the southern end of Ninety Mile beach. Two years ago we described it as one of the classic older style camps with lots of facilities but fairly deserted - now it is more busy and has recently joined the Kiwi Holiday Parks chain. We used the same nice quiet and sheltered corner as last time and set up the tent and the Red Devil. They seldom seem to get much rain in the area and the ground was very dry and almost a dust bowl in some places when we arrived. We did however have some light rain late that evening and eventually retreated into the tent with the extension light Rental Car Village provide, the first time we had used it.

The morning was bright and the tent was dry and quickly put away and we headed on North stopping at Kaitaia for provisions, ice cream and to do a quick email check before leaving areas of reliable mobile coverage. We paused just North of Kaitaia at Kauri Kingdom where they make furniture and other smaller items from Swamp Kauri. The Swamp kauri they use is from an ancient kauri forest which has been submerged under water in swamps for tens of thousands of years since the last ice age - typically their swamp kauri is radiocarbon dated to be 30,000 - 50,000 years old. The trunks are perfectly preserved and are just carefully dried before milling. The trunks can weigh over 100 tons when they are dug out and the largest has been preserved as a centerpiece to their showroom where it has been hollowed out to form the central staircase - it shows the size of typical trees in a Kauri Forest. They release some beautiful pieces of furniture from the kauri as well as making a number of more mundane items - we have a kauri chopping board we use for cheese and we have given several such items as gifts. Each item, however small, comes with a certificate of authenticity and age - we even have one for an offcut we use to separate our boxes in the van.

We stopped for the night at Waitiki Landing just before the final gravel road starts to Cape Reinga. It is the last civilisation travelling North with an associated Petrol station, shop and restaurant in the complex. The camping areas are fairly sheltered but we decided to take an ensuite cabin for the night. We then carried on up the gravel road to Tapotupotu, one of our favourite DOC camp sites, to see how busy it was, if it was sheltered enough to move on to in the morning and to get out the fishing gear and try to catch supper. It was obvious we were not going to get any fishing when we looked down on the beach from above. The Easterly winds were obviously from a big system offshore as there were rough seas with a swell breaking right over the rocks at both ends of the beach even at low tide. The site was not very busy and there were a couple of pitches which might be sheltered enough although our favourite pitch looking down on the beach was occupied by what looked like a long term group with canoes.

We continued to Cape Reinga to admire the "meeting of the Oceans" where the Pacific and Tasman seas meet - a magnificent example of the power of water. We walked down to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, which is the northern tip of New Zealand and looked down the distant Pohutukawa tree where Maori spirits leave on the first staging post to immortality. Legend says once the Maori soul had slipped down the Pohutukawa tree to the underworld it climbs up to one of the Three Kings Islands, which can be seen offshore and from there finally left for the world of its ancestors. The whole area is sacred to Maori and most of the facilities have recently been removed because of pressure from the Maori - one is now just left with a new and totally out of character path leading to the lighthouse.

On the way back we took a short diversion to the sand dunes on the Te Paki Stream Road - they are well worth a visit but are on the tourist route as the buses use 4km of the stream bed to get down 90 Mile Beach where they tear down the sands to save travelling on the gravel roads and avoid speed limits. 90 Mile Beach itself is an amazing continuous sweep of beach, deserted apart from the occasional surf caster and the dreaded coaches - it is not quite 90 miles long, actually 102 km, but still something to see.

It was still very windy the next day but we decided to commission the fishing gear and try our luck at one or the wharfs on the sheltered Parengarenga harbour. There are two we use, at Paua and Te Hapua. The tide was high and had turned by the time we were set up at Te Hapua and it was flowing very fast past the Wharf. All we caught were a couple of small Snapper, which we put back. On the way back to the main road we took the side road down to Spirits Bay which has a large DOC campsite. Again it was extremely windy with sand blowing across the beach and blasting ones legs. We checked the rocks for mussels but there were only nurseries of tiny mussels a few millimetres long covering the more exposed rocks - the others were covered with rock oysters.

The next morning we tried the other wharf at Paua with even less luck although we were there just before high tide, in theory a good time. We only had one tiny snapper but did see a couple of schools of large Mullet cruise by but they did not seem interested in our bait.

It was now time to start our journey South towards Auckland, our next fixed point. The journey is continued in Part 2 - Northland and the Bay of Islands

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