Te Tai Tokerau: New Zealand's 'Winterless North'

November 4, 2020
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SOUTH of the long, thin Aupori peninsula is the main bulk of the part of New Zealand known as Te Tai Tokerau ('the north coast') or Northland, a region long dubbed the ‘winterless north’ by local tourism operators. This is almost true, even if it isn’t literally true.

The‘Winterless’ North. Place names over water added for this book. Map data©2020 Google.

Northland used to be covered in kauri, a tree of great significance to Māori and esteemed as particularly valuable to loggers, partly because the oldest ones are huge and partly because the wood is rot-proof and asy to work as well, with a beautiful, honey-like appearance.

Kauri also produce hard resin called kauri gum, which had many decorative and industrial uses at one time.

The marine playground of the Bay of Islands and its protective southern breakwater, the Cape Brett peninsula, are the main attractions on the east coast.

The Cape Brett peninsula is of special significance to Māori as the branching-off place of the seven ancestral ocean-going canoes (double-hulled and more like catamaran yachts) on which the ancestors of the Māori were said to have arrived from Hawaiki or in material terms, Eastern Polynesia, roughly one thousand years ago.

In the traditional story, the vessels arrived at the peninsula and then split up to settle different parts of New Zealand.

The Waipoua Forest, and the Bay of Islands and nearby CapeBrett, are just two places worth visiting in Northland. There’s plenty more to this slow-paced region, which, in spite of its natural beauty and proximity to Auckland, still provides a range of fairly uncrowded and uncommercial experiences. Some other parts of New Zealand, such as Queenstown, are starting to become quite busy with international tourists. That isn’t true of Northland – yet.

The Tallest Giant: Tāne Mahuta and the Waipoua Forest

Waipoua Forest is home to Tāne Mahuta, the tallest kauri tree in the world. Named after the god of the forest,Tāne Mahuta is over fifty metres tall and just under four and a half metres in diameter. Thought to be about two thousand years old, this immense tree is oneof several impressive sights in the forest. These also include the second tallest kauri, Te Matua Ngahere which means The Father of the Forest.

Waipoua Forest makes up the largest remaining tract of native bush in the area together with the adjoining forests of Mataraua and Waima. At only 65 km from Dargaville, it can be easily reached by car via State Highway 12, which runs through the forest.

I once took Niels Lutyens (from A Maverick Traveller) there to see the majestic kauri, which are absolute giants. Looking up at the huge tree, you can see how Tāne Mahuta got its name.

One thing I noticed at Waipoua was the growing prevalence of dead and dying kauri, the consequence of kauri dieback disease, a spreading malady that was probably imported into the country some decades ago. And, alongside, growing evidence of belated official attempts to deal with theproblem.

See the freely available article by Bob Harvey, ‘Death of the gods: the woeful response to Kauri dieback disease’, Metro magazine (Auckland), 20 February 2019.

The Bay of Islands and Cape Brett

Bay of Islands, Cape Brett peninsula, and environs. Names of Cape Brett, Deep Water Cove and Rākaumangamanga added for this post. Map data ©2018Google.

One of the most famous places in NewZealand is the Bay of Islands. As its name suggests, this gorgeous bay on the east coast of Northland is full of islands. It is shielded from cold southern winds, any that make it this far north, by Cape Brett.

The Bay of Islands was the seat of New Zealand’s very first capital at Russell; and is the site of the Treaty House, where the founding Treaty of Waitangi was signed on the 6th of February, 1840, between Queen Victoria’s representatives and a number of Māori rangatira, or chieftains.

The Bay of Islands is a hugely scenic, classic holiday destination with lots of interesting islands as the name suggests, and also plenty of history, including an old stone store dating back to the 1830s in the nearby town of Kerikeri.

For more on the Bay of Islands and my hiking the Cape Brett Peninsula, see

Whangarei and the rest of Northland

If you travel up the east coast from Auckland, you get to Leigh Marine Reserve, which is very much worth a visitwith its reef and glass-bottom boat tours.

North of Leigh there’s some really scenic coast with offshore islands, past Mangawhai Heads and up Bream Bay.

The biggest city in Northland is Whangarei, with a population of about 55,000 in the city and 80,000 in its surrounding area.There are some really nice tracks just in and around the city, such as climbing Mount Parihaka close to town and Mount Manaia closer to the harbour heads, the Otaika Valley Walk and the Abbey Caves and the Whangarei falls. Of all New Zealand’s cities Whangarei seems to be the one that’s actually built on scenic attractions and outdoor opportunities the most.

As you'd expect for the northernmost part of New Zealand, the whole region looks quite exotic in a subtropical and Polynesian sense.

Mt Manaia viewed from Taurikura township near the Whangarei Heads. Photo by 'Follash', 3 November 2007, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Eastern End of Te Whara / Bream Head, photo by 'Glenn h', 2 February 2008, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Whangarei is also the gateway to the Tutukaka Coast, which National Geographic Travel lately rated as one of the top three coastal destinations in the world.

From the Tutukaka Coast you can see the Poor Knights Islands, which are rated as one of the world’s top diving spots as well.

Further north towards the Bay of Islands, there is the Mimiwhangata Coastal Park.

Basically, the entire coast of Northland is one of mountainsand stunning beaches.

Near the Bay of Islands, the town of Kawakawa has toilets designed by the Austrian hippie architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser and also has a railway line going up its main street, the last town in New Zealand to have that sort of olden-days arrangement. The railway is operated today by the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust.

Street entrance to the Hundertwasser-Toilets at Kawakawa, public domain image by Reinhard Dietrich, February 2012 via Wikimedia Commons

North of the Bay of Islands there’s Matauri Bay and Coopers Beach, more classic holiday destinations. Coopers Beach is in Doubtless Bay, sheltered by the Karikari Peninsula, which has several beaches of its own.

West of Coopers Beach, Kaitaia is the northernmost sizeable town in New Zealand.

Coming down the wilder, less developed west coast, you come to the very historic Hokianga Harbour just north of the location of Tāne Mahuta, which has many attractions and lookouts of its own including the Waimamaku Coastal Track.

Near Kaikohe, in the centre of Northland, there’s Ngāwhā Springs.

Further down the west coast are the beautiful Kai Iwi Lakes. White sand and clear water, basically rainwater.

At Matakohe, near Dargaville, there is an amazing museum dedicated to the kauri logging and gum digging that used to be common in the area. Dargaville itself is rated as New Zealand’s ‘kūmara capital’, the centre of sweet potato cultivation. From Dargaville you can head due west a short distance to Baylys Beach. South of Dargaville, at the tip of the Poutō Peninsula which shields the northern part of the vast Kaipara Harbour, it’s possible to go sand duning again, just as it is near Spirits Bay.

For people who like things hippyish, Kaiwaka, closer to Auckland, has the Eutopia Café. This has lately been redecorated and is now really attractive inside.

Some additional online resources Te Whara / Bream Head Track (this looks amazing! and yet it's right next to Whangarei.) (good visitor website for Whangarei, with local walks), Visitor Information

DOC: Te Matua Ngahere Walk

DOC: WaipouaForest

DOC: WaimamakuCoastal Track

DOC: Mimiwhangata Coastal Park (good overall visitorwebsite), 12 Whangarei walks you can’t miss

Whangarei District Council Walks and Trails Guide, Whangarei Heads

Heritage New Zealand, Path to Nationhood (historical tour apps)

Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust


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