Heading to where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea, MICHAEL
BROWN jumps in his Mondeo and discovers the natural beauty of Northland.

There’s something inherently cool about road trips, not least for
the opportunity they give you to explore wherever you please. So in our
Ford Mondeo, my wife and I headed up to Northland in search of
something a little different. The map was packed but there were
certainly no plans – just a determination to steer clear of the much
loved Bay of Islands.

Most visitors to the area don’t do this.
It’s hard to drive past something that’s home to more than 150 islands,
a collection of gorgeous beaches, turquoise water and a historical
significance that sees it referred to as the birthplace of a nation (it
was the site of New Zealand’s first permanent settlement and the
controversial Treaty of Waitangi was first signed by Maori chiefs and
the British crown in 1840).

But beyond the Bay of Islands,
Northland is home to one of the most diverse and, perhaps surprisingly
given its proximity to Auckland, most unspoilt regions in the country.
It has massive sand dunes to rival the Sahara’s, wild coastlines that
stretch as far as the eye can see and haven’t been swallowed up by
developers – yet – tropical forests as dense as a Central line tube at
rush hour and a tempting climate that renders woolly hats obsolete.

It does take some driving to get around, however. Almost four hours after leaving Auckland and with driver’s back setting in, Taupo Bay enticed the Mondeo down a windy track off the main road. What awaited was a throwback to the good old days when one shop served the entire community, holiday homes were just shacks painted a dreadful shade of lime green and the camping ground was still the heart of the area. For the moment, until money-hungry developers arrive, it was quintessential 1980s New Zealand.

Taupo Bay is one of the most beautiful bays on Northland’s east coast and it’s also one of the best surfing beaches in the region. Further north, in a region imaginatively known as the Far North, lie Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga. Although it’s only 55 miles (88km) long in reality, Ninety Mile Beach is an impressive sight – a series of towering waves on one side and equally grand sand dunes on the other. In between, the beach is used as something of a highway by tourist buses and 4WD vehicles at low tide. The appearance of a handful of rusted-out cars swamped by the Tasman Sea is enough to convince the Mondeo to take the more traditional tar-sealed highway.

Cape Reinga is commonly regarded as the northernmost tip of New Zealand, although this isn’t strictly true. According to Maori mythology, the soul of the dead travelled to Te Rerenga-Wairua (Cape Reinga), where it slid down the roots of a lone pohutakawa tree and journeyed to the underworld at the end of the Earth. Standing beside a striking lighthouse that watches over the meeting of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean below (the waters can visibly differ in colour), it’s hard not to believe this is the end of the Earth. It’s a windswept and lonely place with water as far as the eye can see and one road in and one road out.

On the way back down the west coast, south of Kaitaia, the Hokianga Harbour is one of the unspoilt regions guidebooks rave about but few visit. It’s largely inaccessible and because of this has attracted a fair few hippies and happy families content to live the quiet life. The feature of the region is the massive sand dunes on the far side of the harbour, which turn an inviting golden colour in the late afternoon sun and also provide an ideal slope for sandboarding.

It was tempting, but I had a date with a god. This god has a girth worthy of any old man but, despite his advancing years which place him between 1200 and 2000 years old – when you’re that old it doesn’t really matter – he’s immensely strong. He also stands 51m tall and his many gnarly arms that fan out offer grandfatherly protection.

Tane Mahuta is the god of the forest – the kauri forest – on the Kauri Coast. It’s the largest kauri tree in New Zealand’s north. It’s a remarkable sight, and a handful of Maori elders look up at him knowingly as a gaggle of tourists and their point-and-shoot cameras file by. But it’s hard not to imagine how big some of them might have been had the loggers not moved in with their hungry saws at the end of the 19th century. In the space of 30 years, some of the world’s most incredible trees were largely decimated. The Kauri Coast is home to dense, subtropical forest; as dense, in fact, as the dreadful Auckland traffic, which was where the Mondeo was headed.

It was hard to leave an area that is a step back in time, a place that doesn’t want to catch up to many of the ways of the modern world. And, as beautiful as it is, Northland is best enjoyed at a speed that matches its pace of life. •