After less than a week on a road we all seem to have settled in to life in a camper van very quickly. I can’t believe how long a week seems when you keep moving, seeing and doing so much on the way. I reckon we have done more in the past week than in the average year! We are getting very quick at transforming seats to beds and back again, the fridge is starting to smell, and there is sand and mess everywhere. It definitely feels like home.
It is wonderfully liberating having the freedom to take each day as it comes. If we are very happy somewhere or everyone has had enough of travelling we can just stay put for a while; other days we cover lots of ground, never having to worry about finding an open cafe or bed for the night as we have everything we need with us. For the most part this lifestyle is suiting us very well although going to bed and waking up with the sun means that the children are getting a bit less sleep than they are used to (and us considerably more), and Piran did comment one morning that he wished we could just have a ‘normal’ life until I pointed out that that means school every day, at which point he revised his opinion! It is early Spring in New Zealand and the holiday season hasn’t started yet, which means that everywhere we’ve been has been incredibly quiet and even in the holiday parks there have only been a few campers, no children and definitely no games of football. This is absolutely perfect for me and Ben, but the children are starting to crave the company of other kids and I am hoping that we might find more families as we venture South to the more touristy areas.
After leaving Auckland we headed to Northland, up the East Coast. We spent the first night at the tranquil Mangawhai Heads Holiday park, home to many kingfishers, terns and oyster catchers. We saw our first white sandy beaches and continued our new tradition of finding a cliff to climb to take in the view. It was a wonderful place to stop for our first night in ‘Fritz’ (our van).
The following day we travelled on to the Bay of Islands, stopping at the Kawiti Glowworm caves on our way, a trip which we all enjoyed. Our guide was very informative so we left with plenty of material for our next biology lesson- ‘the life cycle of a glowworm’ (they are actually maggots but called worms to make them sound nicer). We parked in Paihia and took the passenger ferry over to Russell for the afternoon, an extremely quiet town perfectly preserved in time dating back to the late 1800s. It felt quite surreal, a bit like a living museum, and for those of you who are fans of Westworld I confess it reminded me slightly of that! The sun shone for us as we made the ferry crossing each way and we were treated to the beautiful turquoise water that Bay of Islands is famous for. We really enjoyed walking around Russell, and spent an interesting hour in their small museum, the perfect size for young children, learning about the European discovery of New Zealand, whaling, Maori culture, Tamati Waka Nene and the Treaty of Waitangi.
After leaving Paihia we decided to head to the Puketi forest where there is a cheap DOC campsite to try some freedom camping for the night. It was lovely being in such a quiet, isolated spot for the evening and we didn’t miss having Wifi or electricity for the night. The chance of seeing kiwis in the wild with the noise of our children around was always going to be slim, but it was still fantastic to wake up in a forest with walking trails on our doorstep, and the boys and I enjoyed a morning run amongst the fabulous Kauri trees whilst Ben and Cara did the nature walk and learnt the names of many trees, Cara’s favourite being the shining Karamu purely on the basis that the name sounded a bit like hers.
After a morning in the forest, we only had a short drive to the stunning Matauri Bay where we found calm turquoise sea lapping a white sandy beach, with a holiday park right on the beachside. We hadn’t been sure whether or not we were going to stop here or carry on to Taupo Bay, but it was so lovely that we didn’t want to leave, even when we found out that there was no Wifi there, something we really needed that day for Ben to get some work done. Having found our own little slice of paradise we decided to stay for 2 nights and chill out for a bit after several days on the road, as well as to dedicate a bit of time to work (Ben) and school (me and the kids). The sea was too cold for me, but Ben and the kids swam both days, and we enjoyed gorgeous views from the top of the cliff, soaked up the sunshine and practiced our recorders and harmonicas. We could probably have stayed there forever!
Determined, however, to make it all the way to the tip of Northland, we set off for Cape Reinga on Tuesday morning. As we neared Te Paki we started to see signs for sandboard hire, and we picked up a few body boards from a local farm by the side of the road on our way. We arrived at the Te Paki sand dunes at lunch time and proceeded to have an awesome couple of hours sandboarding down the enormous dunes. Seriously good fun. When we had tired of walking up and sliding down (extremely hard work), we finished the drive North and had a blustery stroll at the point where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. The Maori believe this is where the spirits of their dead leave the world. It was wild and windy, much like our experience of Orkney, and Ben and I would have loved to spend more time here taking in a coastal walk. Ninety Mile Beach runs up the west coast to Cape Reinga and we had fabulous views looking back at it; however as the kids were too exhausted to go for a long walk by this time, we settled ourselves with the thought of exploring the beach at the other end the following day. We had a weary drive back south as far as Ahipara holiday park and all slept very well that night!
The following morning in Ahipara was cold and cloudy, and I suspect we didn’t see the best of Ninety Mile Beach. However the kids and I had a nice walk/ paddle/ run/ spelling test on the long wide sand and saw plenty of surfers out at sea. I can imagine it would be glorious with clear skies when the sun is shining brightly.
At this point we had to decide whether to make a leisurely amble back south to Rotorua allowing a couple of days for travel, or whether to try and fit in the Coromandel peninsula as well. A vote was cast and the decision made to drive as far and as quickly as possible to fit Hot Water beach and Cathedral Cove into our schedule, so after leaving Ahipara we put in some long hours on the road, stopping only to get the car ferry across the Hokianga river and to walk to Tane Mahuta (an ancient Kauri tree and the largest known to stand today). It certainly is an enormous tree and I love the Mauri creation myth which says that Tane is the son of the sky Father and earth Mother who were in a marital embrace until he separated them, creating light and space for all living creatures. Tane Mahuta means ‘Lord of the Forest’. We passed some truly stunning places on our drive, particularly Opononi and Omapere that we would have loved to explore and will definitely need to come back here again one day in the future. We finished our trip to Northland in a campervan stopover in Dargaville, a town which I had no desire to spend time in, but which was super convenient for our journey and just around the corner from a large supermarket allowing us to restock our supplies whilst the kids were asleep in bed. I guess we can’t always have views of beaches/ waterfalls/ volcanoes out of our camper van window!
We were very spoiled by beautiful weather, amazing beaches and fantastic walking in Northland with hardly anybody else around to have to share it with. I am not sure why more tourists don’t head that way, but I absolutely recommend it. The Coromandel peninsula has a lot to live up to now!