Old School House at KohuKohu Hokianga

Hokianga calls again


It is always an adventure onto SH 12, west to Dargaville, Kai Iwi, Waipoua, Opononi, Rawene, Kohu Kohu, Mangungu and Horeke. There’s a sense of a quieter, earlier New Zealand, although that’s not to say there isn’t plenty to see and do, as well as interesting accommodation and food choices to satisfy all. If you are old enough to have memories of the 1950s you may remember ‘Opo’ the dolphin who lived for some months playing in the waters of The Hokianga off Opononi.  Sadly Opo  drowned after becoming stuck in a rocky crevice, however he is remembered today  in a stone statue in front of  the original Opononi Hotel.

On the way north Puhoi  is a great stop for a coffee at the Puhoi Cheese Factory – about ½ an hour north just past the Johnson Hill tunnels -  and to purchase some of their delicious cheese’s to take further north with you. There are some great image subjects in Puhoi too – the original hotel, the church and the sluggish river which has stunning reflections.

Maungatoroto, about 110kms out of Auckland, is a lively little rural town on SH 12 well worth a stop for a coffee or a spot of lunch, then it’s on to Paparoa with its historic BNZ bank building and the Paparoa Store. The Bank has taken a turn for the worse  looking sadly neglected and most definitely one of our early 19th century historic wooden buildings well worth preserving. We despair for it so I have preserved it on film anyway.


Matakohe with its solid brick church in honour of our first New Zealand born Prime Minister , Gordon Coates. Here  also is the Kauri Gum museum – always interesting and well maintained, depicting early Kauri gum prospecting days and life in those times. And so on to Ruawai where nothing much changes year to year and the brown waters of the Northern Wairoa River move sluggishly, towards the Kaipara. The route from Ruawai to Dargaville which is not so far, taking about 20 minutes is quite picturesque, along the banks of the river and past the Toka Toka pub. A sign outside offering pies and a beer but oddly the pub looks closed up. We are aiming for a late lunch in Dargaville at café Blah Blah Blah, which we hope is still serving as it is getting into a later lunch hour. Our reward comes at Blah Blah Blah with an excellent lunch accompanied by a Hawkes Bay Syrah. Not too bad at all, and two of the best coffees in the North West. Dargaville is on my radar for its heritage buildings. There are only a few and as you drive through you could miss them. They are mainly hotels from the early 20th century, mostly unaltered which makes them interesting. These hotels catered for the early 1900s business traveller,  most likely in the timber, gum and flax trades with the Wairoa river being the main export route from the district, through to the mid-century commercial traveller with wares to sell. A clean, economical bed for the night, a beer or two at the bar, a roast dinner with pudding, eggs bacon and sausage for breakfast. Traditionally a 6am wake-up hot cup of tea was delivered to your room. Luxury indeed but don’t expect this level of service today.


Returning to Dargaville tomorrow so for now on up the coast to seek our accommodation. We are staying 2 nights at Wai Hou Oma Lodge on the Kai Iwi Lakes road, about 35kms north of Dargaville. The Lodge has changed hands recently and we are warmly greeted by new owner Cherie who shows us to freshly renovated lodge #2. We had stayed in #2 several times before under Ruby and Noel Martin’s ownership and the standalone 1 bedroom studios are just as welcoming now. The kitchens have been reconfigured, usefully giving a little more bench space. We quickly settle in, take Tammy for a brief garden walk before it is time for dinner.

Overnight rain on the roof but the morning dawns fresh and clear. The district could do with several days of steady rain with parched pastures and stressed vegetation evidence of the extended dry.


Breakfast over we drive down the Kai Iwi Lakes road to the Taharoa Domain to check how the native plantings are faring. These replaced the felled mature pines which had lent the name, Pine Beach.  Still rather ‘scorched earth’ with the natives barely head height and taking decades to provide any meaningful cover and shade. Open and occasionally windswept  it is not an especially pleasant place any more. The lake levels are very low as these are dune lakes, solely rain fed.

Next is a visit to Harding Park where the Dargaville Museum offers an extensive collection of 19th century district life. In addition, there is an amazing collection of professional accordions making for  a very worthwhile hour and a half overall. A broad elevated view down the wide brown Wairoa river and across Dargaville itself is a good bonus to our Harding Park visit.

Our last night at Wai Hou Oma and we know we’ll be sorry to leave in the morning it is so peaceful and quiet. Little Tammy is also very relaxed and happy here.


North through the Waipoua and a visit with Tane Mahuta, New Zealand’s oldest Kauri – reputed to be 2500 years. Our Dept. of Conservation is doing its best to protect this great tree from an insidious bacterial disease but, I rather suspect Tane Mahuta is reaching the end of its life and may simply be running out of steam.  As  you look up the enormous trunk there is some thin leaf growth on the topmost branches but it could not be described as lush. We wish it well and bid Tane Mahuta what maybe a final goodbye.  The road through the forest is quite good except for lots of blind bends on which we hope oncoming traffic remembers which side of the road New Zealand drives on.

We stop at Morrells, Waimamaku and we are delighted with our decision to return. On and up over the hill and there is that magnificent view of the Hokianga north dune, glowing gold in the sun. It has wowed us many times yet never fails to take our breath away. Mild surf is breaking on the harbour bar today but in heavy weather the swells here can be formidable, evidenced by many wrecks over the years. Imagine a schooner,  with only sail power,  attempting to cross the bar in adverse conditions. Many didn’t make it. Aptly named a graveyard harbour! Some large vessels could navigate all the way up the harbour to Horeke but this is now impossible with heavy silting, caused by logging and farm development  over the decades allowing many hectares of mangroves to take over.  


We are staying our 3 Hokianga nights with Robyn at Marriners Rawene, the little coastal township being about 40kms past Opononi. Rawene (Herd Point as it was in the mid 19th century) is a very quiet town these days and still shows lots of historic character. James Clendon, the first American Consul to New Zealand lived here (Clendon House), and of course there is the boatshed, a quirky café/restaurant on stilts out over the water. It has new owners now and we drop by for a late lunch. Nothing is too much trouble and we enjoy a delicious French style baguette, freshly made for us accompanied by a glass of red and coffee . Unfortunately they do not open for the evening and there is not much else on offer in Rawene but we have our own supplies and a small kitchen at Marriners so are not worried. When walking back up the hill to Robyn’s we pass 2 other couples walking down to the small township who both ask us for a dinner recommendation .  With the Hotel closed down there is only the fish and chippery at Hokianga Takeaways so we hope they managed to find something to their liking. Back at Robyn's, our accommodation in Lotus Cottage is really excellent.  The Cottage is separate completely self-contained accommodation, alongside Robyn’s house and another single room studio. Lotus is exceptional with a small fully equipped kitchen, a very luxurious queen bed and a spacious, tasteful bathroom. French doors open to a private deck facing the easterly harbour view and the rising morning sun, not that we saw too much of this with the weather generally unsettled.

Robyn’s little four legged pal, George makes growly friends with our Tammy who decides to be rather aloof! Maybe tomorrow a closer relationship may develop? George is waiting at our door in the morning looking a little disgruntled but he really isn’t and he and Tammy have a little chat before going off about their business.


Today we are going across the harbour to KohuKohu which is a short 15 minute trip on the modern double ended  ferry ‘Kohu-Ra Tuarua’. We enjoy a very good coffee at the new Gallery café across from the wharf as we have half an hour before the next crossing. The ferry travels across in quite a disconcerting way as the harbour current is strong with the tide either in or out. Now it is on the way out and the ferry is carried broadside down the harbour. Of course the skipper has done this many times before and unerringly brings us to the KohuKohu ramp.  The tiny KohuKohu settlement is about 3 kms from the ramp so we are soon on foot enjoying the 19th century atmosphere with plenty of film rolls being used.  We recall an ancient cemetery some way up quite a steep gravel road and we are surprised at Tammy’s enthusiasm  . The small graveyard is very interesting and occupies an undulating space on the side of the hill with a commanding view out over the harbour. Half an hour inspecting the graves, some dating from the early 1800s, followed by a town walk which lets us imagine life here in the 19th century. The well-kept 100 year old villas, the original school house and the Free Masons Hall, all built in a time of horse drawn transport and village self-sufficiency. Necessary supplies from outside the area would have to arrive by sea – coastal schooner from Auckland. A hazardous voyage during times of West Coast storms taking many days.  We don’t venture further north on this side of the harbour as we had driven the Herekino Road through to Kaitaia at another time. A scenic trip but quite tortuous. Back on the ferry to Rawene and a very nice lunch at the Boatshed , then on the road further east to Mangungu, where the 2nd Treaty signing took place in 1840 and the ultra-early New Zealand settlement of Horeke.

Soon onto a gravel road for the last 14 kms to Mangungu, driving through persistent rain but as we arrive at the Mission House the rain clears away. The Mangungu Mission House is an architectural gem having been mysteriously moved  to Onehunga and then brought back to its spiritual home in the mid 20th century. By sea of course so quite a journey up the west coast and across the Hokianga bar. We are delighted to see it again and looking well maintained. Horeke is really early New Zealand dating from 1826 when a shipyard was established here and is the site of New Zealand’s first ‘pub’ which still stands and is open for service, and we are told accommodation as well.  A beer at the bar followed by a photographic wander.


This is our last night with Robyn at Rawene and we are determined to dine at the original Opononi Hotel, about 30kms west of Rawene. We arrive about 6:30, find a seat in the wide restaurant verandah – plenty to choose from as it is not crowded, and wait. No one comes to see if we want anything. A visit to the kitchen reveals the secret – the restaurant is closed tonight due to no waiter, but no problem, we can order at the bar exactly what we would have ordered off the restaurant menu and it could be brought to our table in the restaurant. Anyway we follow instructions and are soon enjoying stone grilled chicken tenderloins herb tossed roast potatoes and crisp broccolini. Couldn’t be faulted.  Back to Rawene through the night and light persistent rain.


The rain holds off for California loading this morning but as we set off to the east a steady drizzle promises for heavier later in the day. The first town enroute is Kaikohe, a place which seems doomed with no future. Driving slowly through the main street there are many for lease premises and the whole perspective is generally run down and shabby.  Bringing  Kaikohe back to life would need vision, money and persistence. Beyond Kaikohe we pass through the volcanic country around Waimate North where the famous chapel and Mission House are historic places. In the 1830s a farm was established at Waimate North, with George Clark’s house the only remaining today of the original farm buildings. The church, St John The Baptist was constructed in 6 weeks in the autumn of 1831. The Church did dual duty as a school room. Probably the most well known of the church clergy was Rev. William Williams who was at Waimate from 1834 until 1840. Raining heavily now, we don’t spend too much time, moving on quickly to our KeriKeri, KeriGold chalet for the next 2 nights. We have stayed before and these are very comfortable and convenient, completely free standing, well away from the road so very quiet. With the California right at the door unloading in heavy weather is not such a problem.

Our KeriKeri day is still dull and overcast with rain threatening but good enough for us to do the 20 odd kms back to Waimate North for photography. We are well rewarded with some clear shots. Lunch today is a real find – Ake Ake vineyard, or ache ache as Ms Google calls it. The vineyard restaurant is charmingly low key with a vegetarian slanted menu. We are impressed and enjoy our couple of hours at AkeAke very much. A visit to the Stone Store and Kemp House completes our time in KeriKeri. Kemp House is one of New Zealand’s oldest buildings dating from 1821 and is surrounded by heritage orchards and gardens which are New Zealand’s earliest European gardens.  KeriKeri is an horticultural district with elite soils allowing a wide range of crops and tree fruits to thrive. Alongside these established operations a selection of potteries and artists’ studios have sprung up guaranteeing the visitor plenty to occupy their time. The town is also a good base for visiting the wider Bay of Islands including Russell, the first Capitol of New Zealand.

The morning arrives still drizzly but as we are back to Auckland today  the weather slowly clears as we approach home.

Image gallery                     useful links for this story