BETWEEN Auckland and Cape Rēinga, 320 km or 200 miles further northward, the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand tapers into a subtropical peninsula known as Northland in English and, in Māori, Te Tai Tokerau, which means the north coast.
In Māori lore the North Island is also likened, because of its shape, to a fish caught by the demigod Māui — Te Ika a Māui, specifically a stingray — and Te Tai Tokerau to its tail.
Because it is so long and thin and tail-like, there is, indeed, no shortage of coast on Te Tai Tokerau: a green, subtropical peninsula also known as the winterless north and traversed by the Twin Coast Discovery Highway.
Many famous holiday spots, such as the Bay of Islands, are scattered up and down the two coasts of the peninsula.
I’ve done some earlier posts about this region. There’s one that introduces the winterless north in general, another one about hiking to Cape Brett near the Bay of Islands, and another about Northland’s biggest city, Whangārei.
This post is about the Tūtūkākā Coast, which National Geographic Travel lately rated as one of the top three coastal destinations in the world.
The Tūtūkākā Coast is one of three areas of coast near Whangārei: the Tūtūkākā Coast, the Whangārei Heads, and Bream Bay.
And about the little town of Hikurangi, just north of Whangārei on State Highway 1, where a loop of the Twin Coast Discovery Highway branches off to the Tūtūkākā Coast, heading back to Whangārei via Ngunguru. Other roads to the Tūtūkākā Coast branch off just north of Hikurangi.
On a recent trip north from Auckland, in the wet December of 2022, I had planned to stay in Whangārei. But there was nothing in Whangārei on Airbnb for under $120 a night.
I headed for Tūtūkākā town via Ngunguru and stayed at the Tūtūkākā Holiday Park, $20 a night in the backpackers’ section. I’ve stayed there on earlier trips as well, so that’s how I know it’s a bargain, especially for such a touristy coast. You can’t miss the giant fish, a fibreglass representation of a marlin.
Among its other claims to fame, the east coast of Te Tai Tokerau has long been internationally famous for the catching of marlin, a gigantic tropical fish, by which Ernest Hemingway types would prove their manliness by wrestling it onto the boat and then posing for photographs. In the 1920s, the American writer Zane Grey dubbed the area the “angler’s El Dorado.”
It takes a long time to tire the marlin out, so many people today regard marlin fishing as a cruel sport, akin to bullfighting and fox hunting. Even so, the mighty marlin itself remains a symbol of the east coast of Te Tai Tokerau, which bathes in a warm current from the tropics. That’s part of the reason why the region is called the winterless north, why it has marlin, and why it is such a popular holiday destination.
Tūtūkākā means a snaring tree (tūtū) in which parrots (kākā) are caught. I don’t know if parrots used to be unusually common there. But there were lots of other birds, including the ubiquitous wet-weather ducks.
(The weather is often wet in New Zealand’s Christmas holiday season, even though it is in the middle of summer. And this summer would turn out to be exceptionally wet in the northern part of the country, with Auckland recording its most torrential rainfall ever, and flooding drastically, on the 27th of January.)
Tūtūkākā town has changed quite a bit. It used to be very sleepy, but now it is touristy, with a packed yacht marina. I talk about that in the following video, which includes a pan around the present-day marina.
It was really good that I pressed on to Tūtūkākā and its holiday park because, this time, I discovered two trails to hike.
One was a walk called Tāne Moana, through a big kauri forest, which used to be part of the Te Araroa Trail but no longer was because of kauri dieback.
The kauri forest was saved from being logged out when the government banned kauri logging in 1974.
There was a magnificent kauri tree there, the Tāne Moana after which the track is named. And then I bumped into a guy there who was working for the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC), trapping weasels.
He said that many of the Northland kiwi prefer pine forests. So, at night, you would be able to see many kiwi in the pine forests.
The other walk was the Tūtūkākā Head Track, or tracks, which led to a lighthouse and also to Tūtūkākā Beach.
Tūtūkākā Head, the lighthouse, and a nearby lookout are all on Kukutauwhao Island, which you can walk to even though it is an island, though the relevant DOC webpage says, in bold, that “Crossing … is difficult around high tide or in rough conditions.”
Apparently, the kiwi used to survive rather well in this area, not only in the kauri forest but also in the pine forests, until the pine forests were felled. Most pines in Aotearoa New Zealand question are exotic (non-native) species, either Norfolk Island Pines or commercial plantation pines from California, and are conventionally thought to have no value to the native wildlife. But it seems that judgment is hasty. Indeed, I’ve seen masses of tūī, local relatives of the New Guinea birds of paradise, living in exotic pine trees in Queenstown.
So, that was a real experience. I made a video of my Tūtūkākā hikes:
Just off the coast lie Tawhiti Ra and Aorangi, known along with some other smaller islands and rocks as the Poor Knights Islands. This group of islands is one of the world’s top diving locations.
The tropical current that I mentioned above fully bathes the Poor Knights.
The waters around the Poor Knights are also very clear because the islands are far from any river that might make the seawater muddy,
The clear water makes the Poor Knights a popular diving destination. In combination with a local upwelling of nutrients, the warm current also gives them a rich undersea life for divers to admire.
Tūtūkākā town is the departure point for charters to the Poor Knights.
Interestingly enough, the Poor Knights also support a great diversity of land plants. These have been replanted in a garden in Tūtūkākā called the Tawhiti Uni Waerenga, meaning the garden or cleared area, of a nearby marae called Tawhiti Nui. It is also known as the Poor Knights Garden. The garden is located at the Tūtūkākā Marina, from where the Poor Knights charter boats also set out.
Nearby, in the vicinity of Rona Place, I spotted this very tropical-Polynesian-style café. New Zealanders are so fortunate: they have it all right here.
A little further north, there is Matapōuri Bay.
I made a video here, too.
There are some beautiful tidal pools at Matapōuri Bay called the Mermaid Pools. But a rāhui, or traditional tribal ban, was placed on them in 2019 because of visitors making a mess and polluting the pools. The ban is intended to last for several years.
Across the peninsula from Matapōuri Bay, to the northwest, there is Whale Bay, described on the tutukakacoastnz.com website as:
"Idyllic white sand, bush fringed beach.
"Walking access only from either the car park on Matapouri Road (30 mins round trip), through groves of ancient Puriri trees or via Matapouri Bay (40 mins one way)."
I would like to see those ancient pūriri trees, which can be huge, even before getting to Whale Bay, which has basic facilities such as toilets but not much else to spoil the charm. That’s one for next time!
I headed a little further north still, to Whananaki South, which lies across an estuary from Whananaki North. The estuary is full of birdlife.
The two Whananakis are united by the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere.
Fortunately, you can drive around the head of the estuary as well, and there is a very attractive beach on the northern side called Moureeses Bay.
I made a short video at Whananaki as well.
Whananaki South has a Freedom Camping area. That’s worth bearing in mind.
I headed back onto State Highway 1 and stopped in to Hikurangi. There was a real community Christmas parade going on. But I could not get a coffee anywhere. The local café was completely closed down until the end of January.
That was pretty unbelievable. Lots of people leaving the Tūtūkākā Coast pass through Hikurangi either on their way north or on their way south.
The town is quite charming in its own way, but definitely un-touristy. In fact, it is a logging, mining, and farming town.
Here is a video I made in Hikurangi: a band was playing in the street.
Next week, I keep heading north…
If you liked this post, check out my award-winning book about the North Island, available from this website, a-maverick.com.
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