Northland, unsurprisingly, comprises the uppermost tip of the North Island of New Zealand. Northland is perfect for exploring in a campervan. It is long and narrow, and the drive takes you through ancient forests and along stunning coastlines. Northland is rich in history and culture, both Maori and Pakeha (European), and it has its own micro-climate.
This New Zealand campervan trip around Northland marked our first family adventure in a campervan. This trip gave us a taste of the freedom a campervan can offer us, and the beautiful spots we could discover only in a home with wheels. We were hooked.
The Kauri Coast Highway
We picked up our Maui campervan in Auckland and headed north. A helpful hint here, if you are spending your first day in a campervan, don’t plan to travel too far. Limit yourself to a few hours of driving, planning for stops, and schedule plenty of time to set up for your first night in the new campervan.
Our first break was at Kaiwaka. This charming little town is definitely worth the stop. To stock up on cheese from the Kaiwaka Cheese if nothing else! A creamy blue to accompany a cold glass of wine with a beautiful view at the end of a day’s travel?
We continued to follow the Kauri Coast Highway, a scenic detour from the main Twin Coast Discovery Highway. Heading off the main highway is our modus operandi. Throughout our Northland trip, we managed to spend only a few hours on the main four-lane highway. By staying off the main highway we could stop in the little Bays for lunch on the waterfront, explore ancient Kauri forests and stop at roadside stalls for fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan sausages, and cheese tasting of course!
We spent our first night at the Pine Beach campground at Kai Iwi Lakes, parked up on the waterfront. We could make dinner whilst watching the girls played on the sand. There are also fantastic walking tracks, including a walk around the lake (30 – 45 minutes) or a walk across the dunes to the surf beach. Unfortunately, we only planned to be here for a night, so we didn’t get a chance to explore the area. It is a common theme of this trip that we should have doubled the amount of time spent in every location.
Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest
The next day we followed the Kauri Coast Highway through the ancient and stunning Waipoua Forest, home to the famous Tane Mahuta. Tāne Mahuta (‘Lord of the Forest’) is New Zealand’s largest known living Kauri tree at over 51 meters high!
According to Maori mythology, Tāne is the son of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatuanuku (the earth mother). Tāne was the child that tore apart his parents’ parental embrace. His growth broke apart the embrace of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, to allow space and light in between them for life to flourish. Tane Mahuta is regarded as the parent to all living creatures of the forest.
Logging of native trees drastically depleted Kauris from the 1820s until its ban in 2002. Kauri Dieback Disease now threatens the few giants that remain. For this reason, when you enter a DOC managed forest in New Zealand you will be asked to clean your shoes.
Hokianga Harbour and a history lesson
The Kauri Coast Highway then took us through to the Hokianga Harbour where we stopped at Opononi. Arriving at Opononi is like stepping back in time. A place where the pace is slow and the people are down to earth. There are amazing views, wharves to fish off, and stunning picnic spots.
Next, we headed to Rawene to catch the Rawene Ferry. My husband appears to love ferries and will schedule them in wherever he can. Its all part of staying off the main Highway I guess…
Rawene is one of the oldest European towns in New Zealand. Unfortunately, this charming and quaint historical village was not built for campervan parking…
Rawene is however home to excellent cafes, galleries like the Boatshed Gallery, and the historic Clendon House. Clendon House is a heritage house where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. The Treaty is the founding document for the New Zealand settlement by Europeans. The Treaty traveled throughout New Zealand and was signed in numerous locations.
One surprising thing I learned on this trip is that one of my ancestors actually signed the Treaty of Waitangi (as a settler), and potentially acted as an interpreter. Maybe not something to be proud of given the interpretation issues with the Treaty, but still fascinating history.
Ninety Mile Beach, the beach that is not ninety miles long!
We spent our second night in Ahipara, staying at the Ahipara Holiday Park. This wasn’t our first choice, but it was a lovely, clean holiday park. And the girls had a surprise the next morning with an Easter Egg Hunt in and around the campervan (we were finding Easter Eggs for days… silly Easter Bunny didn’t count how many eggs she hid!).
The main attraction at Ahipara is Ninety Mile Beach. Which, incidentally, is not ninety miles long! Ninety Mile Beach is a renowned surf beach, and famous for its sunsets. The beach itself is actually an official highway. As novel as it is to take a drive down the beach (which we couldn’t do in a hired camper), I didn’t enjoy the vehicles roaring past whilst trying to explore the beach with two young children.
Although Ahipara is an adventurer’s paradise, it wasn’t somewhere I’d rave about for a family with young children. However, as a gateway to the Far North, it was worth the stay.
The Far North, lighthouses and spirits
The Far North is where it gets really fun! We headed to Cape Reinga, the (mostly) northernmost point of New Zealand. The Cape is home to the famous landmark, the Cape Reinga Lighthouse, and a lone Pohutukawa tree. It is also (arguably) the most significant spiritual area for the Maori people. The Cape itself marks the departure point for Maori spirits, the point from which Maori wairua (spirit) return to their traditional homeland after they die.
I cannot stress enough how sacred this area is. It is well marked. Yet when we were there a tourist was assisting her son to pee in the bushes. There are public toilets. Please don’t be that tourist.
We spent the night in the appropriately named Spirits Bay at the Kapowairua (Spirits Bay) DOC conservation campsite. To get to the campsite we had to detour down a long dirt road, but it was well worth the extra drive. This is one of those areas we would not have been able to explore without a camper/mobile home.
Spirits Bay had an eery (yet comforting?) feeling about it. Oddly, I’m not the only one to think so. When researching for this blog, I found an article that included Spirits Bay in a list of New Zealand’s eeriest spots. Legend has it that, at night, spirits can be seen moving down the beach toward that lone ancient Pohutukawa tree on the tip of the Cape, and then suddenly disappearing. I didn’t see any spirits, but I certainly didn’t like being out on that (beautiful) beach on my own!
Te Paki Sand-Duning Adventures
Time for a bit of fun? How about sandboarding down the GIANT Te Paki Sand Dunes? The sand formations, vegetation and continually moving sand really make you feel like you are heading into the desert. Hire the boards on-site. Don’t bother trying your bodyboards. Pay the $10 for a specially designed and waxed board… it is worth the money.
Next, it is time to head south again. Where there are plenty of adventures to be had, wine to be tasted, wild Kiwi spotting, and stunning scenery to enjoy. In Part Two of this Northland blog we will be enjoying Matauri Bay and the Bay of Islands… more to come!
This article does not contain affiliate links. Any recommendations are my own honest accounts. I will not receive any commission from any of the recommendations I have made in this article. However, I will have helped support the New Zealand tourism industry post-Covid-19 lockdown.
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This blog is part of The Place I call Home Series, a #NewZealandTravelBlog.