For the final four weeks of our trip, we set out to fill in the blanks of our New Zealand map and explore the sandy edges and green interior of the nearly subtropical North Island. While the South Island is famous for the Southern Alps and the accompanying awe-inspiring scenery, it quickly became clear that the North Island’s beaches are second to none in this corner of the Pacific.
At the northern tip of New Zealand, the road ends at a dramatic curve of cliffs dropping into the ocean. The Indian Ocean and Tasman Sea meet just offshore in a frothy line of clashing waves. For the Maoris, this was both a place of creation and the point where the dead enter the spirit world — an impressive spot to gaze across the water.
The far north also holds relics of a time when New Zealand had no human inhabitants. Massive kauri trees fill the forests here, not impressively tall by redwood standards but enormously wide and undeniably ancient — some of them are more than 2,000 years old.
At night, we crept silently through the forest listening for the telltale piercing call of New Zealand’s beloved icon, the kiwi. We could hear a couple of them calling to each other somewhere in the pitch black forest, but knew the chances of one wandering right next to the path were extremely slim. Just as we were heading back to our tents, we heard a rustling in the bushes, exactly like a long beak probing the undergrowth for bugs. Quickly flashing on our headlamps, we spotted a small feathery back before it melted back into the night.
As we dropped Alex off at the Auckland airport for his flight home to Canada, an incessant drizzle and a forecast for a week of rain almost made us wish that we could join him. But, if there is one thing we have learned it’s to never trust a New Zealand weather forecast. A day’s drive led to the rugged and little traveled coastline of the East Cape, and the rain clouds were nowhere to be found. Kayaking through an aquamarine playground of rocky shores and roasting marshmallows over an open fire (a novelty here in NZ) proved an idyllic way to take advantage of the weather.
Afternoon rays fall to the left of White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano.
This corner of New Zealand is Maori country, and further down the coast in gathering clouds we pulled up to St. Mary’s Anglican Church in the town of Tikitiki. The church blends Christian themes and Maori design — even the stained glass is cast in traditional black, white and red Maori patterns, and six ancient deities support the lectern. A husband and wife were practicing music for the next day’s Easter service, and she spoke to us for a while about the church interior and the struggles to keep this town of 200 alive. Most of those left are older, she said, and it these days it’s hard to keep the young people here. This weekend was the school reunion and old pupils had returned from far and wide to celebrate the school’s 125th anniversary.
Eventually, the predicted rain caught up with us. Eastwoodhill Arboretum, a 300-acre park with thousands of tree varieties, was a perfect spot for two damp nights. We wandered miles of peaceful paths under the familiar branches of maples, oaks, birches and chestnuts, just showing the first blushes of fall color.
A fantail says hello.
After a couple days, the sun returned, and it was back to the beach to try our hand on a borrowed (thank you Natalie!) surfboard. We took brief and exhausting turns paddling out and getting battered around by waves that were much to large and sloppy for our skill set. We finally found a mellower break in Gisborne, and Nate managed to stand up once.
A couple hours inland, a large and untouched block of native forest makes up Te Urewera National Park and Whirinaki National Forest. After the recent rains, the tree ferns and mosses were a brilliant green, and we walked along spongy paths under a canopy of jungly vegetation. We are going to miss these forests!
The Coromandel Peninsula is a favorite vacation spot of just about every Kiwi we’ve met, and for good reason. The peninsula is lined with unbelievably gorgeous coasts, beaches, and bright green sheep paddocks. At this late time of year, we barely had to share it with anyone.
Just off the main road, Otama beach is a long arc of white sand, backed by sand dunes and rust-colored cliffs. We walked up and down the long, empty beach in both evening and morning light.
At the far end, a swing hangs on thick ropes from the limbs of a pohutukawa tree. Kids voices carried down from the collection of summer homes above, and we wondered if they realize how lucky they are. What a place to grow up.
The drive to the top of the peninsula was possibly the most beautiful we’ve ever taken – and after 45,000 kilometers of driving down under, that is saying something. A hazardously narrow dirt road winds along a scalloped coast, lined with the graceful spreading branches of pohutukawas and nikau palms. Sheep farms, of course, hug the steep hills, and we must have pulled over to gawk a dozen times.
We spent a day and a half here, wandering the hillsides and watching a pod of dolphins offshore, and it was about at this time—two hours down at the end of a long dirt road—that our car decided it was just about done.
A loud, erratic crunching noise made us wince and pray that the axels would not pop off and send us careening over the edge on the whole trip out. In the end, it was just one more adventure and another beautiful drive. Rolling into Auckland that night was a relief, having put 30,000 kilometers of New Zealand roads behind us.
We have just one more day in this country we’ve grown to love. A long spell of spectacular weather seem to be trying to lure us into forgetting past downpours. It is going to be sad to leave after so long, but home is calling.