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'The Hub of the North': Kaikohe, Ngāwha Springs, and the Hokianga

Published
January 12, 2024
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IN the late 1500s, King James VI of Scotland is supposed to have called the Fife peninsula, between Edinburgh and Dundee, “a beggar’s mantle fringed with gold.” Fife wasn’t really on the way to anywhere, so there weren’t any busy roads through its interior.

And so, the people of the interior were cut off and led a no-frills, subsistence lifestyle by the standards of the trading ports along the coast.

Northland is like that today. As it is not really on way to anywhere either, it was referred to for generations not only as ‘the winterless north’, but also as ‘the roadless north’. It has more roads today, but the busiest ones still hug the coasts.

The touristy Pacific coast is prosperous, but once you go more than a few kilometres to the west, the place starts to look quite poverty-stricken. There are quite serious problems with drugs, gangs, crime and economic underdevelopment, which people are constantly trying to do something about.

Halfway between Paihia and Ōmāpere is Kaikohe, ‘the Hub of the North’.

Kaikohe does have some claim to being a hub. It lies toward the bottom of the following map: south of Kaitaia and Cape Rēinga, west of the Bay of Islands and Paihia, and east of the Hokianga Habour, the inlet with Opononi and Ōmāpere on its south coast.

Map data ©2023 Google. North is at the top for this map and the maps reproduced via Google, NZ Topo Map, and the New Zealand Department of Conservation, below.

Kaikohe might be a hub, but it still only has a population of about 4,500: a fact that gives you an idea of just how few people live in the less-developed parts of Northland.

All the same, Kaikohe has been given a bit more prominence lately, thanks to a couple of documentaries made by the local director Florian Habicht, son of the swinging-sixties photographer Frank Habicht. The first of these was 2004’s  Kaikohe Demolition, about the local demolition derby. One memorable scene shows people putting a bit more tread on their tyres for extra grip with a chainsaw: it’s the sort of place where you have to improvise a bit.

Demolition Derby vehicle, Kaikohe

The other film was 2021’s James and Isey, about a local woman named Isey Cross who was about to turn 100, her son James, and the week leading up to “the big event.” There’s a story about it, here. It turns out that James is the great-uncle of Matiu Walters, of the popular band Six60, among other things.

I heard lots of lurid stuff about crime and drugs in the poorer parts of Northland, including the scourge of the drug P, also known as meth (i.e., methamphetamine). Northland has a huge P problem.

This poster, by local Māori, harks back to past wars and protests waged by tūpuna (ancestors), and pretty much makes the point:

Image of the lifelong Northland-based activist Whina Cooper in her 79th year, holding a little boy by her hand as she leads the famous 1975 Māori Land March from the village of Te Hāpua to Wellington

When I was in Kawakawa, the train conductor on the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway, which I wrote about in last week’s post, told me that he had almost been murdered by some P freaks and a convicted murderer from next to where his mother lived on the Hokianga side of Northland. There is a story in the papers about similar incidents in 2017 and 2019.

People from the touristy Pacific coast of Northland seem to regard the folk from the more western parts as stereotypical hillbillies. Hopefully, Habicht’s films will promote more understanding.

Near to Kaikohe, there is a hill with a scenic outlook. Hōne Heke sat on top of the hill after the Battle of Ruapekapeka and composed a lament for his fallen comrades.

The top of the hill is now called the Hōne Heke Memorial Park, in honour of the old warrior and a grand-nephew also named Hōne Heke, a politician of great promise who died aged only 40 in 1909. It includes a large monument to the younger Heke, unveiled in 1912 by the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Joseph Ward.

Photographer unknown: Portrait of Hōne Heke Ngāpua. Prosser, D (Mrs), fl 1959: Photographs of New Zealand Natives Football Team, a painting of Te Pehi, and horse trainers. Ref: PAColl-D-0011. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23046654
Monument to Hōne Heke, at Kaikohe. Godber, Albert Percy, 1875–1949: Collection of albums, prints and negatives. Ref: APG-1666–1/2-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23181910

The Twin Coast Cycle Trail, between Opua on the Bay of Islands in the east and Horeke on the Hokianga Harbour in the west, also runs through Kaikohe. Unlike the Twin Coast Discovery Highway, which runs up and down both of Northland’s coasts, the Twin Coast Cycle Trail just runs from one side of the peninsula to the other.

Kaikohe is on the way to several other places, as befits its nickname, the ‘hub of the north’. It was also a good place to shop, and I think it boasts the cheapest petrol in Northland as well. So, you should pay a visit for these instrumental reasons, if nothing else.

But Kaikohe is all the more worth visiting because it is next to a lately done-up spa resort known as the Ngāwha Springs, or more fully and bilingually, Te Waiariki Ngāwha Springs (Waiariki means hot springs).

Hot springs of course, since nobody would want to sit in cold springs.

I used to go to the Ngāwha Springs quite a lot. You used to pay NZ $2 and cover yourself with mineral water. It was pretty basic back then.

The locals got some regional development funding to do up the springs via a scheme presided over by Shane Jones, Minister for Regional Development as of the time of writing, the last time he held a similar portfolio (2017–2020).

So, I made a point of checking out the Ngāwha Springs as it is now: wow! It was closed the day I was there, but it looks absolutely pristine on the outside. Better than anything in Rotorua.

The Ngāwha Springs are currently open to casual visitors from Wednesday to Sunday; it was closed on the day I turned up. Unfortunately, it now costs a lot more to visit, as much as NZ $34, though locals can get a concession all the way down to $6, which is probably about what it used to cost in $2 days after allowing for inflation.

Mural at the Ngāwha Springs in 2014. Author AuthoritravelNZ® — New Zealand in your pocket™, 12 April 2014, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons and Flickr.

The Ngāwha Springs today

To the north, where the Aupori Peninsula leading to Cape Rēinga begins, there is Awanui, at the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach. And the Gumdiggers’ Park a short distance to the north of Awanui.

Map data by Land Information New Zealand, CC BY 4.0 via NZ Topo Map (2023).

There are also some scenic lakes near Awanui. You can drive to Lake Ngatu, the most accessible, where you can park and go for a local walk around the lake, and from there to Waipapakauri Beach, actually the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach, where there is another campground, the Ngapae Holiday Park.

In 2022, I stayed at the Ngapae Holiday Park in a lovely self-contained cabin for only NZ $40 a night.

In the past, you could go for hikes in the Herekino Forest due south of Kaitaia.

Map data via the New Zealand Department of Conservation by Land Information New Zealand, CC BY 4.0 (2023).

However, the Herekino Forest Track is closed due to Kauri Dieback disease concerns. To its east, the Mangamuka Tramping Track, through the Raetea Forest and Mangamuka Gorge Scenic Reserve, is open save for the usual temporary closures due to slips and other such events.

(Before heading out to an intended destination, it pays to click New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) sources, not only for general trail information, but also the latest closures and re-openings.)

I also made sure to visit Kaitaia. There are some nice monuments at Kaitaia, such as the fully bilingual ‘Angel Memorial’ erected in 1916, perhaps the first World War One war memorial erected in New Zealand even as the war was still raging, and this group of pou or poles that I saw as well.

Just outside of Kaitaia

Kaitaia is quite big these days, bigger than it used to be. This is to say that it has hit nearly 6,500 of late, the largest town in the far north after Kerikeri.

From Kaitaia, I drove down local roads past Broadwood to Kohukohu.

On the way to Kohukohu, there is a monument erected in 1938, which commemorates the centenary of the first preaching of the French bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier. This monument is at a locality 1 km off the main road known as Totara Point.

Bishop Pompallier’s legacy lies in the mostly Catholic nature of the population on the north side of the Hokianga Harbour. He established a Hokianga mission station at Pūrākau, which operated from 1839 until 1915.

The bishop returned to France when he was getting older and died there. But he was fondly remembered in the Hokianga, and in 2002, his remains were reinterred at St Mary’s Church, Motuti, which is also not far from Kohukohu.

Kohukohu is being done up at the moment. The improvements were really interesting; one woman was redecorating most of the historic buildings.

From the wharf near Kohukohu, I took the Hokianga vehicle ferry to Rawene on the southern side of the harbour.

Map data by Land Information New Zealand, CC BY 4.0 via NZ Topo Map (2023).

From Rawene, I drove down to Ōmāpere via Opononi, where a dolphin delighted visitors one summer in the 1950s.

Statue of Opo the Dolphin at Opononi, a statue created by Russell Clark in 1960. Public domain image by Sas Cuyvers, 5 November 2006, via Wikimedia Commons.

The short stretch from Opononi to Ōmāpere is a really pleasant waterfront drive, if the weather is fine.

Finally, I ended up in the seaside town of Ōmāpere, where you look toward the incredibly barren and sandy North Head of the Hokianga Harbour.

Ōmāpere

Looking toward the North Head of the Hokianga Harbour, from Ōmāpere,

Behind the North Head is the village of Mitimiti, which the local tourism website hokianga.com describes as the gateway to "one of the most remote beaches you can find on the planet." The website adds that "If you want to forget the rest of the world, this is the place to be."

The Hokianga region. Map data ©2023 Google.

You can see it, represented in white though the sand is golden, on the map above.

Though I did not detour to see it, another place that is very worth visiting if you are heading back in that direction, and which is also visible in the map just above, is the Wairere Boulders Nature Reserve and Campsite.

The map also shows Lake Ōmāpere beside the intersections of State Highways 1 and 15, about 10 km to the east of the Wairere Boulders and about 5 km north of Kaikohe.

Lake Ōmāpere is of great significance to Māori, in part because of the Battle of Puketutu that was fought nearby. However, the lake is almost entirely surrounded by farms and quite polluted these days.

The seaside town of Ōmāpere and the inland lake have the same name, though they are some distance apart.

There are a few holiday homes and a backpacker hostel, but this area is nothing like as developed as the Pacific coast.

According to hokianga.com, as of the time of writing, access to the spectacular dunes on the North Head “can be gained from the South side by boat across the Hokianga Harbour with the Hokianga Express leaving from the wharf in Opononi, and also on land from Mitimiti (15 km drive along beach).”

There is a kauri forest behind the North Head and Mitimiti, called the Warawara Forest. But the Warawara Forest has also been closed due to Kauri Dieback concerns.

There was nowhere in Ōmāpere or Opononi for less than NZ $120 a night. So, I ended up at a more affordable lodge in the hills northeast of Opononi named Okopako Lodge.

The view from Okopako Lodge

I stayed there in my campervan for one night and shared the facilities. This gave me time to go down and see the giant kauri tree called Tāne Mahuta.

Here’s a brief video I made, about staying at Okopako Lodge and visiting the beach at Ōmāpere.

Before Covid, there were coffee shops at Ōmāpere. They closed temporarily for a couple of years, including when I was there, but you can now get a coffee and a meal once more.

Tāne Mahuta was absolutely beautiful. After visiting Tāne Mahuta (of which more in my next post), I headed back to Kaikohe.

For more information, check out Visit Hokianga, hokianga.com. And, of course, the library of usable images of the northernmost parts of New Zealand, courtesy of the NorthlandInc Media Centre.

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning new book about the North Island, available from my website a-maverick.com.


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