Northland in a Campervan

7 May

Our love affair with New Zealand has begun.

Take some of the most beautiful areas of England, Scotland and Wales, add a touch of Alpine and a slight tropical twist, put it all in one country and you have some idea of how beautiful and scenic we found New Zealand. We only covered the North of the North Island but in ten days, found a place we both love and agreed that the holiday rates as one of the best either of us have ever had (and that includes a lot of holidays and travels between us!)

We opted for a campervan, initially as a way to cut costs on accommodation and a hire car but it turned out to be the perfect solution and enabled us to see some of the more remote parts of the island, spend nights camped literally metres from the ocean, explore all the wonderful little beaches and coves and take advantage of camp sites in some of the most stunning locations we’ve ever seen.

Our trip started out in Auckland, from where we traveled north up to Waiwera, on to Russell in the Bay of Islands, over to Ahipara at the south end of Ninety Mile Beach, then up to the northern tip at Cape Reinga, spending a night at Tapotupotu Bay. Then we drove down through the picturesque Doubtless Bay,  past Taipa and on to Taupo Bay from where we had one of the most beautiful drives round the coast to Matauri Bay before heading back to Russell and the Bay of Islands for our final two nights.

It was one of those places where every bend in the road delivered another stunning view across rolling hillsides, turquoise waters, deserted beaches or dramatic mountainous landscapes.

We did quite a few walks – the longest up a small mountain and along the ridge running towards Spirits Bay along the northern coast of the far north peninsula where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. When you are walking along that stretch of coast on the tip of a promontory, over 100km from the nearest small town, it is quite a strange feeling, perched on the very edge, with an entire country at your back and nothing bar a few small islands between you and Siberia.

Heading to and from Cape Reinga, we stopped a couple of times at Ninety Mile Beach. It is strictly speaking 55 miles long but nevertheless you get the sense of the beach stretching on forever and on windy days, the waves are incredible. It is flanked by the Tasman Sea almost all the way up to Cape Reinga and some pretty impressive sand dunes.

Not only were we totally alone on that bit of beach, we spent the majority of our time only ever passing one of two others while in the far north. New Zealand is so sparsely populated that coming out of season, at the start of what they now call their ‘Winter season’ meant we often had beaches to ourselves, the campsites were almost empty and we had no problem with availability. In contrast to Sydney, usually the only vehicles we saw on the roads were a few logging trucks and other campervans. Having said that, whenever we did meet any New Zealanders, they always lived up to their reputation of being friendly and easy-going. We even got invited to go out sailing with a couple we’d only spent five minutes talking to but unfortunately it was on our final day and we couldn’t take them up on the offer. It is no exaggeration to use the cliche that Kiwis will ‘give you the shirt off their back.’

One of the places, which attracts thousands of tourists in high season is Matauri Bay, a stunning bay with crystal clear water and the campsite, right on the water’s edge, so we were pretty lucky to see it almost empty. At the top of the hill, overlooking the bay, is a monument to The Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace flagship, sunk by the French foreign intelligence service in 1985. One of the most memorable mornings was spent there as we decided to get up and climb the hill to watch the sunrise.

Matauri Bay was one of the more ‘luxurious’ campsites and after nine days on a ‘firm’ bed and eating fairly well but on a diet consisting of sandwiches, beans on toast, soup, apples and crisps (basically anything we could do simply in the campervan) we treated ourselves on our last night by staying at The Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell, one of the most historic hotels in New Zealand, dating back to 1827, and the first place in the country to have got a liquor licence. It was a fantastic place with views across the bay and an open fire, perfect for the chilly Autumn evenings we’re getting now. Russell itself is a small, quaint town and where some of the first Europeans came to settle. It is full of heritage-style properties, home to the oldest church in New Zealand and despite its popularity in the summer with holidaymakers and tourists, it has still retained its character, with no big commercial hotels or shopping malls.

From arriving on a wet and windy evening in Auckland, we managed to enjoy a full week of sunshine, only a couple of cloudy days and a bit of rain on our final day driving home. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were and the combination of light rain and sunshine on our final morning in Russell gave us a pretty amazing view to remember the country by.

The trip inspired a LOT of photos – I have put a selection in the photo gallery here.

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