Far North New Zealand: Splendid Isolation

Driving north of Pahia, New Zealand in the far north. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Driving north of Pahia, New Zealand in the far north.  Max Hartshorne photos

Pahia, New Zealand’s North Island: A Marvelous Place to Explore

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Darryl Honey and his first mate don the appropriate goggles and hat to get their guests to feel comfortable.
Darryl Honey and his first mate don the appropriate goggles and hat to get their guests to feel comfortable.

If you look at a map, as I often do before a trip, you’ll see the way the New Zealand’s north island juts skyward, to a pointy tip.

When I was planning my trip down to NZ, I wanted to get up to that very tippy top. I didn’t make it that far, but my adventures in the Far North proved to be an exciting and tasty excursion. Once again, my favorite country of all didn’t disappoint me.

In my rented Toyota RAV4, I ventured up the big highway out of Auckland’s airport, aiming for a beachy town called Pahia on the eastern coast.

This was all the far north, I learned, and this town is booming from an influx of cruise ships and a surfeit of waterfront recreational activities.

The small town has a gorgeous crescent of beach and a busy dock where all manner of vessels depart to explore the scenic Bay of Islands. My first venture, though, would take me sideways across this beach and down a river that dead-ended at a marvelous waterfall.

Darryl’s Dinner Cruise

Darryl Honey is quite an entrepreneur in these parts—he operates a flotilla of vessels that offer visitors a chance to dine while chugging along on a barge, paddle kayaks, and to cruise in a 1920s vintage motor yacht or a lovely sailing yacht in the glittering Bay of Islands. In a few days I’d get the chance to ride in all of his various vessels.

Ok, ok, a dinner cruise? That sounds about as touristy as they come—yet I gotta say, after we had departed and the cruise began, it was totally enjoyable and educational…oh, and tasty too!

To get the group of 30 or so strangers comfortable, since we’d all be on this boat for the next

First course on Darryl's dinner cruise are giant prawn and green lipped New Zealand mussels.
First course on Darryl’s dinner cruise are giant prawn and green lipped New Zealand mussels.

three hours, it took more than the lubrication of New Zealand’s wines. It took an exercise that had us don a funny pair of glasses and a captain’s hat, and tell the group where we were from.

This indeed got our conversations started and established that most of the people on board were from Australia and the US and for most of us, it was our first visit to Pahia.

Along the shore, Daryl pointed out the nesting areas of some seabirds, cormorants, who had liberally coated the lower part of their homes with guano…oh well, it’s their house, right?

At the stern, Daryl’s first mate Mike grilled huge succulent tiger prawns and steamed some green mussels–a delicious first course as we continued at the slow pace toward the Hailulu Falls, (large roar, in Maori language). T-bone steaks and lamb on the grill would come later.

The next morning I awoke to the bright sunshine that New Zealand is famous for in November.

Paddling to a Far Off Island

I was setting out with some skilled paddlers to an island far off the coast. Well it looked far to me, but as we got into a rhythm of paddling the 14-foot sea kayaks, the waves no longer intimidated, and we continued apace. At the beach we found little oysters glued to the rocks, which if you beat them with a rock, provided tasty little bites.

After some beach time, we were met with two of the prides of Darryl’s fleet—the aforementioned 1920s yacht which we rode down the coast. Alongside us, a squadron of dolphins soon joined us, zipping and jumping in the wake of the boat. Darryl has just begun offering this delightful combination—kayaking, yachting and sailboating—and I was happy to be a guinea pig for the inaugural run.

Aboard the Vigilant Yacht

We capped the experience by jumping aboard the yawl Vigilant which took a leisurely cruise back into Pahia as the sundown arrived and the Bay of Islands twinkled.

I had so much of the Far North to explore, and I set out bright and early for my next stop, way way, up and across to the western coastal village of Opononi. There I would notice the thinning population and see how the settlements got farther and fewer between.

Bond. James Bond

I was to rendezvous with a boat captain named Pete at the Opononi wharf, and my instructions were to head across the water to the giant dune. I rounded a bend and found said dune, and soon I was zipping across a narrow stretch of harbor toward it. I felt a little like my hero, James Bond, with all of this adventure!

I saw a little pink dune buggy driving across the sand to meet us. What an entrance! I jumped off the beached motorboat and soon was sitting shotgun in the buggy, roaring across the sand. There was quite a hill to climb, and we approached it sideways….even with the half-inflated tires, this VW powered buggy was lightweight and the perfect vessel for traversing the soft sand.

My Maori Guide

Andrew Kendall of Hokianga Sand Trails is a Maori who has offered these dune buggy rides for the past few years. Like many of his fellow Maori up in the Far North, he’s joined the legions who make their living in the tourism business.

He lives with his wife and children about 40 kilometers up the coast, in the tiny hamlet of Mitimiti. This town has no services so he has to drive 80 km across the peninsula to gas up. Despite its incredible remoteness, he loves the life he leads there and they take in guests looking for a total get away for a few nights. He told me his wife commutes to a job down in Auckland during the week.

Andrew Kendall in his dune buggy.
Andrew Kendall in his dune buggy in Hokianga.

The sand formations here reminded me of what you might see in the desert outside of Las Vegas, interesting crenelations and shapes that the fierce wind and rain has created.

Kendall said that they continually change and taking people on these dune buggy excursions never gets old, with the many different patterns that emerge.

To Omapere

My accommodations were down the road in Omapere. We were at the biggest hotel in the area, the Copthorne Hotel & Resort, right in front of a beautiful stretch of deserted beach.

The seawater was a bit chilly but the pool temp was perfect as I unwound in the company of a group of Aucklanders who were there for a conference. Dinner would be on my own–seafood in the hotel’s restaurant.

I noticed that there were many cafes and businesses that had closed up. I learned later that this is a problem in the far north. There aren’t enough customers to keep a café busy and successful, so many of the proprietors give up.

Despite the bleak economy up in this region, I found a few very successful entrepreneurs….one is Jim the carver, who I learned about from my boatman who took me across the harbor.

Meeting Jim the Bone Carver

A bone carving from Hokianga Bone Carving Studio by James Taranaki. photos by Max Hartshorne.
A bone carving from Hokianga Bone Carving Studio by James Taranaki. photos by Max Hartshorne.

One thing you notice here is that every Maori citizen here, (about a quarter of the population) wears a piece of carved cow bone around their necks. These icons are passed down from father to son, taking on special colors that come from the body oils of the wearer.

It’s a tradition to wear them passed down from one’s father. They are made in a craftsman’s home and studio high above the beach called Hokianga Bone Carving Studio.

James Taranaki, the bone-carver, showed me how he first bleaches the cow bones in a solution of detergent and bleach, boiling them for many hours to get them perfectly white. Then he begins carving with his Dremel tools, intricate designs that he dreams up.

Bonecarver James Taranaki, of Hokianga Bone Carving Studio.
Bonecarver James Taranaki, of Hokianga Bone Carving Studio.

He invites people to spend a day with him, he hands them a pre-cut bone and his guests can finish the carving, and enjoy lunch on his ocean-view patio.

Call Jim at 094058 061, cost is $60 for any amount of studio time and lunch.

Another highly recommended stop here in Hokianga is to come face to face with the gigantic father of the forest, Tane Mahuta Ngahere.

He’s a staggering 16 meters in girth. This is one thing that’s sacred in this part of New Zealand, in thanks to all that it gave the citizens and the sadness over its loss and a determination to preserve and revere it.

The Kauri tree, or Agathis, is hands-down the most important tree in the forest. They can live for more than 1000 years.

These slender, branch-free tall conifers once covered nearly the entire North Island, and today grows in a few places in the Southern hemisphere. But turning the tall trees into mast after mast, stack of lumber after railroad cars took its toll.

Today, there is just 4-5 percent of the original growth left. So while arborists grow many small fry Kauri trees in nurseries, there is nothing new that’s a match for the Father of the Forest, the 223-foot high tree that’s a sacred spot and a popular tourist attraction in the far north.

Maori man explains his tattoos, which are maps of the area where he grew up.
Maori guide explains his tattoos, which are maps of the area where he grew up.

Footprints Waipoua

We joined a Maori man named Bill in the Copthorne’s lobby who would take us that evening to meet the greatest tree in Maori history.

Bill began with the simple Maori prayer for a safe journey and to pay respects for the elders. Then he began to regale us with his plentiful stock of stories, facts about Kauri trees, and Maori legends to keep us entertained all night.

Walking in the woods at night let us hear the sounds of the forest, and feel almost like we had it to ourselves. But of course, we were not alone. We first heard the call of the Tui, the black bird with white neck that signals it’s time for many forest creatures to sleep.

Then the male Kiwi, the country’s iconic flightless symbol, which we learned, are much bigger than the little stuffed ones you see in the airport. They actually come up to your knee when they aren’t down on the ground searching for grubs.

Paddling a Waka

There would be more opportunities to learn about Maori legends when the next day we met up with our heavily tattooed guide named Hone to paddle a waka. The gigantic boats are seaworthy enough to have been used before the settlement of New Zealand by Europeans to explore islands as far away as 500 miles.

On our excursion, after some perfunctory paddling, our guide turned on a small outboard motor to take us the rest of the way. Hone told us when we were in the boat about a part of the tour “that we hadn’t paid for.” This was an important distinction, because where we would go isn’t something for sale, rather, it’s an honor that someone bestows upon a worthy guest.

A Moving Maori Welcome Ritual

In the hut that's a shrine to his grandfather, Hone, Judy and their son performed the Maori welcome ritual and commemoration of the ancesters who have left the earth.
In the hut that’s a shrine to his grandfather, Hone, Judy and their son performed the Maori welcome ritual and commemoration of the ancestors who have left the earth.

What he was referring to was a moving Maori welcome ritual, involving his grandson, a centuries old protocol, and some time inside a shrine built in the memory of his departed father.

After the greeting, being invited to come ashore by his grandson, holding a traditional spear, we entered the low slung hut and saw a statue in the back, a memory of the ancestor.

As the young sturdy grandson spoke to us in Maori, next to Hone’s wife Judy, she sang, and then he poured forth the traditional words of welcome and an invitation for us to speak.

After a few of us got up to say thank you, an older woman born in New Zealand but who now lives in Canada stood with tears in her eyes.

“I never learned this, I feel so ashamed, I grew up here yet all of what you’re telling me they never taught me.” She reached for the shoulder of her friend, crying and feeling the emotion that packed this little hut with such a rich tradition–with three generations of a family all present.

Ngawha Hot Springs: Shabby Chic

One of the things that Hone told me when asked about the area’s best attractions was that I ought to see the Ngawha Hot Springs. So I jumped into my car and headed out the long highway north to find it.

A very hot soak at the Ngawha Hot Springs in New Zealand's far north.
Enjoying a very hot soak at the Ngawha Hot Springs in New Zealand’s far north.

One thing that can’t be said about Ngawha is that it’s too fancy, or anything close to what a ‘hot springs spa’ might look like. Oh no, it’s more shabby chic, with a ramshackle look and broken fences that nobody has ever gotten around to finishing erecting.

Handwritten signs warning guests not to leave anything in the run down locker rooms gave the place a sort of hillbilly charm.

The natural pools, all a greyish sulfuric color, varied in temperature, from tepid to “you must be nuts!” A sign with tub names like ‘baby’ ‘doctor’ ‘bulldog’ and ‘Waikato’ and their respective temperatures added to the charm of the place.

It costs all of $4 to experience a soak in these natural hot springs. I asked whether they ever thought about raising the price and making it a little nicer. But then I realized, it’s great just like it is, everything doesn’t have to be shiny, clean, new and perfect after all.

Part of the charm of this far northern end of New Zealand is just that–it is what it is, and it’s far, far away from the shiny newness and perfection of Auckland. That’s what people love about it up here and why they’re so proud of their ancestors and their heritage.

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