Usually most thrilling experiences only offer you another view for a few seconds (think rollercoasters, bungy jumps) but here I can meander along all day, not a care in the world except for making sure my footing is in the right place. 

I’m at the Northland Adventure Forest and I’ve just discovered the loss of caution can be humbling. I quickly find out that getting too complacent could have embarrassing side effects. While completely safe (thanks to always being attached to at least one cravat), I push my luck on a rope bridge, its instability causing me to slip and rely on my reflexes to grab hold of the thin grey wire responsible for my safety.

 It’s a rude wake-up call, but at the same time, pushing and finding your limits is what this is all about. Seven circuits, 24 flying foxes (some travelling at 10m a second) and more than 60 activities up to 12m high make for a great day out. 

The first course (Discovery) is easy enough, but the second (Challenge), third (Adventure) and fourth (Adrenaline), which include a huge spider web, Tarzan jump, ‘wooblie brudges’, a huge slide and a skateboard meters above the ground, progressively get more testing. 

Navigating the course requires the skill of a simian and the nerve of a trapeze artist. Upon completion, every muscle in my body feels as if it’s been in action. And then I realise, apart from the sound of my own voice either giving into doubt or pushing me along and the satisfied whoop of those who have already made it, the only noise I’ve heard all day is the constant buzzing of the cicadas. This, truly, is the best way to get high.

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Return of the kayak

New Zealand’s made up of islands so there’s plenty of water to get out on. Some of the country’s best kayaking is found in Northland. And Northland’s main kayaking man in Mark Garry, a longtime local who knows the waters of the province like the back of his hand. I meet him at Ngunguru, a small community 26km to Whangarei’s south west. It’s name means ‘rumbling tides’.

Heading off from Ngunguru shore, we make our way through the harbour, our paddles soon cutting a swathe though the glassy waters. Out of the calm and intothe rougher elements, I can see the rumbling tide in the distance, hammering the mouth of the estuary.

A lone female kayaker paddles by, no life jacket, but performing a perfect stroke. Mark shakes his head in disbelief. He’s an educator when he’s not on the water and has given me the best safety briefing I’ve ever had. He’s aware of all the dangers (potential and actual) and has made sure I am too.

 As we approach the breakers, Mark has everything under control, leading the way. My stroke is quickly in sync with my use of the rudder and we plow on, heading wide to avoid the waves that pound the harbour mouth. In no time, we’re beyond the breakers and in cruise control, whirring atop the water, me valiantly trying to mirror Mark’s fluid, consistent strokes. I keep up, so I must be doing OK. However, out of the corner of my eye I spot a huge shifting mass of water. Mark’s already seen it and senses my hesitation. “Don’t worry, they won’t break on us.” And he’s right. “The water gets a bit shallower here, that’s why they come up,” he explains as I roll over the top of the swell.

As we head near Goat Island, Mark introduces me to what he calls ‘threading the needle’, navigating our way between a gap between the island and a rocky outcrop to head onto the pure golden sands of Whakarewa Bay. It’s seems as if though the waves will break on top of me, but I take heart in Mark’s laidback confidence and he guides us through safely.

On the beach,  it’s soon apparent Goat Island is an unsullied slice of paradise. If you’ve seen The Blue Lagoon or perhaps Danny Boyle’s The Beach, you’ll have an idea of what I’m amongst. The type of surrounding that people come to New Zealand for: untouched golden beaches, native trees and (apart from a family camping on a hill fifty metres from shore) splendid isolation.

Mark brews up a strong coffee and we look out over towards the sandspit that was once threatened by development but saved due to a rearguard defence by locals. Thank goodness for the locals, I think, when we paddle back to Ngunguru. This place wouldn’t be the same with man’s pawprint all over it. Mark leads me through the waves again, and we surf back into the calm, the waves only losing power when they want to, not when they’re told to.

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Out on the ocean

Further on, past Ngururu, through Tutukaka, is the beautiful Sandy Bay, where people of all abilities arrive from all over the world to learn to surf with Simon Egginton and his team of instructors from Tutukaka Surf Experience.

Sandy Bay offers a beach break, working best in an east nor’east swell, with waves peeling to the right. Because water temperatures are up in the 20s during summer, it means surfers can head out in a springsuit, or – better still – just a pair of boardies.

My coach for my ‘progression session’ is Paco Divers, a former NZ junior champion and one of the most relaxed people you’re likely to meet. I don’t get to the beach as often as I’d like so I’m frothing at the opportunity to get a wave in. We head straight out and from my first wave, the eagle-eyed Paco has spotted adjustment to my technique. My pop-up is good and I’ve got the balance, but my turns are nowhere good enough. 

“Get your arm out, look over your shoulder and point to where you want to turn. Your board will follow.” Sure enough, on the next wave, I’m speeding along the face, trying to remember all the advice as Paco surfs beside, gently chiding me to stay low and remember my arm. It works like a dream. 

Satisfied, Paco paddles with me out the back, to where the big ones are. It’s too hard to duck dive the big foamies, but the old eskimo roll makes sure I’m not too nailed. In between sets, Paco explains line-up etiquette, not snaking other surfers and respecting the locals while also getting a wave for yourself.

I get wave after wave, getting progressively braver – but as a big onshore lump arrives and I try to ride it, I hear the whoops from those watching on the beach turn to ‘ooohs’ as I go over the falls and am hammered into the surface.

“You alright?” Paco asks when I surface. I want to reply, but I just simply nod. I’m too busy paddling out the back to get more waves. Paco has taught me well.

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Kiwi North

It’s been a good while since I’ve been acquainted with New Zealand’s native bird, but I soon come across the perfect spot. Kiwi North is home of Whangarei’s Museum, Kiwi House & Heritage Park. It is situated on a 25-hectare historic farm in Maunu, the hilly outer suburbs of Whangarei overlooking the harbour.

I could spend hours watching the two resident kiwis, Manuiti and Kura, as they fossick around in their $1.2million climate-controlled enclosure that almost perfectly mimics the birds’ natural habitat. They’re a funny old pair, snuffling blindly for grubs, as their other mate Ruru, a morepork, flutters above them. If you’ve never seen a kiwi before, this is the place to come.

However, it’s not all about the birds here. There’s a range of geckos – the Auckland and Northland green and the Forest – and the tuatara, the last living relative of the dinosaur.

I also get the chance to see how people used to live when the site’s original owner, Dr Alexander Clarke, and his family arrived from England in the 1850s and built a kauri homestead. The home has been preserved as it once was, even down to the wallpaper and the old man’s wheelchair.  

There’s also the Orauaiti Chapel, believed to have be the smallest octagonal chapel in New Zealand. It’s made from a single Kauri log and still plays host to weddings. It’s such a special spot that couples have come here one year and then returned the next to tie the not.

And speaking of the old ball and chain, there’s also the chance to sit in the former Whangarei Women’s jail and imagine what life on the other side of the law was like in early 1900. You can even get locked in if you like.

But jail’s got nothing on the Kiwi North medical museum, a collection of hundreds of surgical implements scavenged together since Seventies by specialist anaesthetist John Swinney. I shudder at the thought of how bodies were invaded by these primitive instruments including paddles for shock therapy, forceps and the torture implements employed by dentists of yesteryear.

There’s also a museum with exhibits revealing the history of Northland and with Kiwi North set on 25 hectares of rolling, volcanic farmland, forest and bush, with views that overlook the city of Whangarei and the Whangarei Heads, next time I’m here I’ll be bringing a picnic and spending the entire day.

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Kingdom of Zion

There’s a tension in the air at the Kingdom of Zion in Kamo, Northland. It’s feeding time and the 33 big cats are hungry. There’s a tension, too, inside the cheetah cage. It’s emanating from me, a cocktail of fear and adrenaline, as I traipse gingerly behind keeper Graham, eyeing up Kenya and Thabo, the park’s two fastest residents.

 “Whatever you do, don’t run,” Graham has warned. He leads us in a line far away for the door, the sound of it shutting still rattling around my ear canal. 

The cage’s two occupants trot alongside, as tall as alsatians but far more wiry, a blend of perfect sinew and spots. Graham feeds Kenya first, the male’s feeding spot atop a rock the ideal place for me to stroke him as he hungrily wolfs down his share of cow. Then it’s time to get a bit more involved. I head over to the fence where Thabo is being fed and dip into the bucket. Graham tells me I’m doing it wrong when I simply drop the piece into the hungry cat’s mouth and she hisses her displeasure. 

They like to be fed one way and that’s to delicately take it from your hand. There’s another hiss of annoyance at something and it’s then I take a mental note of how long it would take me to scramble to the top of the 10ft high wire fence which contains these two. Could cheetahs really jump that high? There’s a group of Danish tourists on the other side, murmuring their approval at my bravery, but the clicking and beeping of their cameras scarcely registers as I constantly move my eyes from Kenya to Thabo and back again. There’s no posing in the cheetah cage. 

“Make sure you save us enough meat to get out of here,” I suggest to Graham, but the cats bellies are starting to bulge and they have a satisfied aura. It’s not until (after a final, hestitant pat) I’ve heard the door safely click behind me, that I’m able to begin to calm down. 

Only on the outside am I able to reflect on what is one of the experiences of my lifetime. It’s not everyday you come face to face with a wild animal and survive. This is a tale I’ll tell my grandchildren.

The writer was hosted by Destination Northland ( and travelled in a Deuce motorhome from Mighty Campers. Prices start at $318 for five-day hire. ( He also stayed at TutukakaHoliday Park ( and Whangarei Top 10 Holiday Park (