Travelling from Paihia to Cape Reinga: Why You Just Have To
6:30am, and the alarm on my phone was beeping at me far too loudly. Even for work I don't get up at that kind of time! But we had a special reason for it today, an enticing bus trip to the very tip of the island. Shoving toast and coffee down our throats, we grabbed our backpacks and headed out to wait for our chariot - a giant off-road bus named the 'Dune Rider' that would take myself and my boyfriend as far North as we could possibly go. (I'm lying a little here - it is possible to get a little further, but not without great difficulty, plus there's not much there!).
It pulled up at the kerb, and the automatic door swung open. A grinning Maori man greeted us, informing our squinty morning faces that he would be our guide for the day.
The whale of a bus trundled around Paihia (our base) picking up others from nearby motels and backpackers, right through to Keri Keri, about half an hour away.
Our wonderfully comical and informative guide told us all about the places we passed, and what was in store for us that day - a big day indeed!
I would highly recommend the Dune Rider - Cape Reinga Tour - cheap, considering all the activities you get to do, and well planned out. Much easier than driving yourself, and a lot more fun with all the other people - the guide knows absolutely everything about these places so its very enjoyable. Ten out of ten I say!
Here are my reasons why you MUST see this part of New Zealand. Most of these things we saw or did on the above tour, any that weren't I will put an asterisk next to. (*)
- Seeing Maori mythology right in front of your eyes: Cape Reinga (or 'Te Rerenga Wairua' as the Maori call it) is a very sacred place - 'Reinga' translates as 'underworld', and 'Te Rerenga Wairua' translates as 'the leaping-off place of spirits'. The legend states the spirits of the dead travel to Cape Reinga to leap off the headland and climb down through the roots of the 800 year old Pohutukawa tree perched on the cliffs. This way they can return to their homeland, Hawaiki. Want the creepy part? The Pohutukawa tree flowers happily throughout the country - but the revered tree at the Cape has never flowered.
- Seeing two oceans meet: I have never seen anything like this before, so being at the meeting point of two major oceans was pretty awesome! The Tasman sea is on the left, and the Pacific is on the right. On a bright day the colours visibly merge and the waters clash violently further out from the coast - it's very photogenic! The lighthouse is set 290 meters above water, and the walkway comes from further above so there are great views and ideal opportunities for some beautiful landscape shots.
- SANDBOARDING!! I think this takes the cake for me. The landscape of right up north is absolutely amazing and incredibly diverse - from Paihia to the Cape we passed stunning golden beaches, thick forest, bare farmland and sand dunes the size of mountains. Our guide left the gravel road and revved the bus down a small stream - lucky it was an off road vehicle! He parked up below a 'small' sand hill and handed each of us a boogie board, urging us to get a move on. You could tell this was definitely a job perk - he was super excited! So was I - watching others fly down the sand dune looked like a huge rush. Getting to the top isn't easy though - the sand is exhausting, and even with a semi-decent level of fitness we were stuffed! Don't let it put you off though - a couple of people well into their retirement made the trip up, and went whizzing down on their boards too! You can control your speed with your feet. My advice: Take a big run up and leap out as far as you can go! This gives you super speed - my boyfriend holds the record on our bus for the longest slide by doing this. Also, lift your legs and pull up the front of the board - less surface area, less friction. But - be prepared that you may get cramp! In your back - like me.... Which has you wheezing for breath and unable to stand for about ten minutes. Still worth it :D
- Driving down 90 mile beach - which actually isn't 90 miles long! Long story short, horse-riding missionaries messed up the distance because their tough ponies were walking on sand which takes longer. Oops! The 55 mile long beach is still a sight to behold, and a journey in itself. The big bus comes in handy here - it keeps on hooning down the stream to the beach where you can dig for pipis, dip your toes in the water, or make big sand drawings like we did. This stretch of beach is still classed as a highway, and was originally the only way of reaching the Cape. It is still used leisurely and when the main road is closed due to landslides or floods. However, rental cars wont allow you to drive on it and it really is only suitable for 4WD vehicles!
- *Seeing 'Tane Mahuta' - God of the Forest. This tree is no mere sapling - it is the largest standing Kauri tree. The short walk through the Waipoua Forest amidst natives, birdsong and symbolic NZ ferns is peaceful, and almost magical. The tracks are raised so that you don't step on the fragile Kauri roots, and you cannot get close to the monolithic tree but it is still impressive. This special piece of living mythology is dying however, due to the years of people having photos hugging the tree and crushing the roots - hence why the tracks are now raised. It is called the 'God of the Forest' as Maori believed the giant trees held up the sky, allowing light to earth below. If you are there by yourself, it feels very much like 'home tree' in the movie Avatar, I wouldn't have been surprised if one of the big bird-dragons flew in and hung off the side!
Other bonuses included stopping in at Mangonui Fish Shop - award winning food, super fresh and super delish! Yum! The Kauri Kingdom is a must for any body with an eye for wood carvings and beach art - the thousand-dollar plus masterpieces really are breath taking. You can watch the wood workers in action, and even have a go yourself! Another surprisingly interesting place was 'Gum-diggers Park' - a replica 1900's gum diggers camp, which sits over top of an ancient Kauri forest. (This is where the English term for 'Wellington Boots' went out the window - the gum diggers wore rubber boots and called them their... Gumboots!!). You will learn that Kauri trees are very important to this area of New Zealand - it only grows in the northern regions, and the ancient kauri makes wonderful creations from the wood and the gum. Only ancient Kauri can be used for crafts - there is quite big business in finding stumps in the marsh and farmland to be used. The 1900's gum diggers had no use for the wood - they would burn it! They were after the gum - tree gold, used for ornaments, jewelry, varnish... All sorts!
So, even though there doesn't seem to be much that far north and it takes a fair whack of driving to get there - DO IT. You will be pleasantly surprised by the wonderfully diverse scenery that greets you the whole way, the cheerful people and the opportunities for doing something a little 'off the beaten track'.