Bay of Islands, Northland NZ

Kai Iwi Lakes and North (2011)

The Northern Wairoa river is New Zealand's 'great grey-green greasy Limpopo' of Rudyard Kipling's famous 'Jungle Book' stories, but, no Fever trees!  I have never seen it anything other than brown and sluggish as it slowly pushes past Dargaville to enter the Kaipara just past Ruawai. I used to visit this area once a fortnight in another life, calling on growers of kumara (sweet potato) for which the area is justly famous. 40 years later, seemingly nothing much is changed, the town buildings are the same, the small farm cottages dotted around the flat landscape, the TokaToka pub - a favourite watering hole for the 1960's motley crew of commercial travellers - all still here. I find it quite settling really that some things don't change when other parts of our lives seem to change with alarming speed. There's nothing to keep us in Ruawai except for a quick visit to the wharf which is situated at the 'no exit' end of the main street, just past the hard right hand turn which puts you on the road to Dargaville, about 30kms north. The road follows a picturesque route along the banks of the Wairoa, past TokaToka and through mixed farming country. Dargaville is on the other side of the river reached via a substantial bridge after which a left turn takes you into the town centre a few minutes away. There are some lovely old pubs and other public buildings in Dargaville - The Northern Wairoa, The Central and the original post office. The Northern Wairoa has undergone some rennovation, the Central hasn't and unfortunately both are adorned with monstrous liquor advertisements which greatly detract from their unique features.


The only cafe in town for a great coffee and food prepared in their kitchen is 'Blah,Blah,Blah'. You can't miss it in the main street, lefthand side heading north. After enjoying our coffees and a walnut and maple muffin we went in search of our night's accomodation  near the Kai Iwi Lakes, on the way making a detour to the wild west coast Baylys beach, about 15 kms from Dargaville. Well worth the visit as this beach stretches from the Kaipara north head to the southern Hokianga heads and is wide open to the Tasman Sea. After an hour's walk, on to Wai Hou Oma Lodge, about 20kms further on near Kai Iwi.


Wai Hou Oma is a lovely, tranquil 7 acre haven with several different sized 'lodges'. All are modern with up to date kitchen and bathroom facilites. The views over the small lakes with water lilies combined with the elegant manicured grounds create a calming vista from your lodge terrace. Guest privacy is strongly protected by strategic, mature native plantings and unobtrusive fences. Ruby, one of the partners, is an accomplished artist and some of her enigmatic, colorful works adorn the lodge walls. The lodges are pet friendly by arrangement and Tammy, our wire haired dachshund, loves every minute. As soon as we arrive we wish we were staying longer - one day or one week - relaxation takes over on arrival.


Our destination the next night is Opononi (Opo the crazy dolphin of the 1950s), not so far to drive but a few things to see on the way. After breakfast and sadly saying a bientot to Wai Hou Oma our first stop is the Taharoa Domain which encompasses the Kai Iwi Lakes. What a horrible shock as we drive down towards Pine beach. It is now like a moonscape, denuded, but studded with pine tree stumps - awful! What was a lovely shaded, secluded camp ground, is now an open scrub covered, sun scoured desert. Scattered native plantings can be seen but these are small and will take decades to afford the shade and tranquillity of the chainsawed pines. We leave quickly.


We were soon entering the Waipoua forest which is very dense and full of kauri at all stages of growth. We had been this way before so did not stop at Tane Mahuta - the giant 1200 year old kauri - but did drive down to the Waipoua information centre. We park riverside, a charming restful spot, raise the roof and brew our coffee. A peaceful hour passes by and we could recover from the Kai Iwi Pine beach awfulness. Soon out of the forest and to Waimamaku where we fondly remember Morrells cafe. Just after 4 and they are still open. We don't need another coffee but have to stop for old times sake. A good decision.

Over the hill to Omapere and the incredible view of the Hokianga harbour entrance bar never fails to take your breath away. The large rollers breaking at the entrance, the enormous dune on the north head, golden yellow, glowing in the afternoon sun. The Hokianga district seems untouched by modernity and it is this timelessness which appeals so strongly. We had found a little Opononi motel (The Lighthouse) which is happy to welcome Tammy and we are soon settling into our comfortable unit. Not the standard of the previous night but clean and quiet. I'll tell you about the shower later.

It is going to be light for a while yet and a walk to the lookout which gives a wonderful view of the bar and the North head of Hokianga harbour is tempting us. We had done this before but the panorama from the vantage point is so outstanding its impossible to resist. We arrive at the small carpark about 10 minutes later. A group of overseas tourists are just leaving so we are the only visitors. Right by the entrance to the lookout walk a trio of young women around a rough looking vehicle are drawing attention to themselves with bad language, dope smoking and loud music. We did not want to leave our vehicle unattended as we fear a breakin so we wait 15 or 20 minutes thinking they will probably move on. No such luck - so a beach walk tonight and a lookout return in the morning.


Dinner tonight is at the original Opononi Hotel where we had stayed with our children nearly 30 years ago. We are a bit uncertain as we are the only guests for a start but the dinner is a very pleasant surprise. 2 other tables join the room later and we return to the Lighthouse after a couple of hours, very satisfied and impressed. If you're in the area, do have a dinner at the hotel - you'll love it. An interesting sign is above the door to the public bar declaring; 'Helping white men dance since 1835' and the original Opo statue is at the front of the hotel carpark.


The shower - 8/10 on start, 1/10 on finish. You must be very quick, otherwise soap and no water! Maybe a 'Helen Clark' water saving showerhead! Today we had planned a run to Cape Reinga but after a bit of map checking and simple arithmatic conclude it is too ambitious and could await another day. The day starts with a breakfast attempt at the Omapere Copthorne but, alas, too late. There are no staff available to make us even a coffee, although one of the reception did offer after she had finished her primary duties. The offer is a bit perfunctory and I did quietly wonder what her barista skills might be? Linda had read about the Schooner cafe - on the hill overlooking Omapere and the harbour so this is our breakfast choice. We fall right on our feet here. Excellent coffee, scrambled eggs and toast, prepared and served with charm by two filles Francaises. A big bonus is the small deck, complete with shady umbrellas and an unsurpassed view of the harbour, where we could bring little Tammy. A couple of local newspapers are on hand which we read whilst enjoying a second coffee.  Instead of our original Cape Reinga idea - much to ambitious -  we lunch at Rawene; Boatshed Cafe of course, and they are still serving their wonderful, baked, Thai style flounder. Very tasty and washed down with a local Okahu pinot. The new plan is to cross on the car ferry and take the semi coastal road to Ahipara and Kaitaia.

 A very quick visit to a small gallery directly across the road where we are intrigued by the delicate necklaces the resident artist creates from small pieces of found pottery. Much to our delight we come across a small dish of 'KeriBlue' design which complements a piece we already had. The KohuKohu ferry is pulling in and our vehicle is first in the queue of about 6 vehicles. The 'Kohu Ra Tuarua' - surprisingly modern for Rawene which is charmingly old world - is soon powering us out into the Hokianga, seemingly heading downstream for the harbour entrance and quite away from our KohuKohu destination. Disconcerting if you didn't know the harbour's tidal currents are super strong and our experienced skipper is making necessary adjustments which unerringly steer us to the KohuKohu ramp in about 20 minutes. As the ferry pulls out my camera is drawn to a catamaran on our starboard side. As you can see there is much wrong with it. Maybe slipping quietly beneath the waves would be appropriate - provided of course, no one aboard. We are intending a coffee at the Waterline, but unfortunately it is closed - only for today it seems, not for alltime. This westcoast road we now embark on takes us through Broadwood, Awaroa, Herekino, Pukepoto, joining SH #1 at Kaitaia. It's about 70kms - not so far, but seems like an all day drive as the road is very twisty and slow. Nearing Kaitaia and needing a break we deviate to Ahipara, a picturesque bayside group of a few shops, houses and small bachs, at the bottom end of 90 mile beach. Perfect seaside spot for a 'VW espresso - Alessi style'.

A short drive to Kaitaia where we hadn't visited for some years. Nothing to report, no noteable changes and no reason to stop. Onto SH #1 driving south through the Victoria Valley, Mangamuka, Rangiahua then turning right onto Lake road which takes the western side of Lake Omapere, connecting up with SH#12 just west of Kaikohe. The road through Victoria Valley is a pretty, scenic drive although steep and twisty for a lot of the journey - not a lot of kms but much time ! An uneventful 50kms back to Opononi. Dinner in tonight with one of the Lighthouse's meagre DVD collection. Still, better than the limited TV available. Woken quite early morning by a heavy downpour but by 7ish this clears away to a reasonably blue sky. A minutes worth of dribbling shower, pack up our few bits and pieces and we are back to the Schooner cafe for brekkie. Our Filles Francaise have the day off but all is good at the Schooner again.


Our plan for the day is in an easterly direction ending at Paihia in our 'pet friendly' Waiora apartment. Driving east along SH 12 takes us through Kaikohe where there is no point in lingering - quite a sad town with a stagnant air about it. A few kilometres past Kaikohe we briefly detoured to Ngawha Springs, a geothermal hot pools area, bringing us to a dilapidated collection of buildings, more like large huts, made of various material. Not inspired to linger, a KeriKeri lunch seems a much better idea so we turn north on SH 1, soon turning right towards Waimate North and Puketona Junction. This is a pretty drive through good volcanic farmland set about with original dry stone walls - very picturesque. Of course famous at Waimate North is the Mission House, one of the oldest European buildings in New Zealand and the site of the 2nd signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. A noted visitor was Charles Darwin. This is a lovely peaceful place to spend some time, maybe setting up a picnic. Being very familiar with Waimate North and it's charms from previous visits and with lunchtime looming we quickly cover the remaining distance to KeriKeri. A very pretty town, famous for it's 'Old Stone Store' . It is the oldest commercial building in New Zealand, dating from 1835 and being set by the river with Kemp house to the right you cannot help but be charmed. The Stone Store is now used to display and sell heritage items of earlier days. Unfortunately the stunning view from across the river taking in The Stone Store, The Mission Station (Kemp House) and St James Church behind, is badly spoiled by the construction of a modern single arch footbridge. This detracts greatly from a pristine early colonial scene. If you are a keen photographer you will want this image and with due care you can eliminate the nasty footbridge from the frame.


After a leisurely stroll through the store and into the well tended, early settler style grounds we adjourn back to the excellent Cafe Blue, at the other end of KeriKeri township for lunch. Tammy, our small wire haired Dachshund, enjoys lunch with us under a rustic pergola in the company of several recent canine acquaintances. Visiting a pottery and a furniture maker on the way southeast to Paihia made a comfortable arrival about 5pm. The situation of Waiora Apartments is a little awkward, being set into quite a steep hillside but this is well made up for by the charming, well maintained and spacious studio apartments, set as pairs amongst the manuka and ferns. Full kitchen, excellent bathroom and very importantly, fresh clean linen on a comfortable king bed, makes for a restful night. There is no sea view from this location - not really missed as a wide balcony looking over the tree ferns offers compensation in solitude. The California's individual parking space is on the slope above our apartment, accessed via a short steep path. It could be difficult if heavy gear is an issue.

Time for a beach walk and local restaurant assessment. Tammy dawdles on beach walks as there are so many interesting smells and four legged friends to meet and greet so we happliy accept this; a walk which would take us 20 minutes easily turns into an hour or more. Our idea for dinner was a little spot down a side street of which we had a good memory from 4 or 5 years ago. Too long you think - anything could have happened - well you are right. As we approach, deafening music is playing and the menu displayed at the entrance is heavy on wedges, burgers and so on - not our dinner idea at all. Maybe it had changed hands - who knows. Back to the Countdown supermarket across the road from Waiora and we soon have a selection of fresh items which we can prepare the way we want.


A check on the weather next morning while Tammy is attending her toilet amongst the bush reveals a fresh but pleasant day ahead. Russell is our first destination  which means crossing on the ferry from Opua to Okiato. This is a quick 15 minute calm ride and we are soon away to Russell along Auks Road - about a 12km journey. We haven't visited Russell for maybe 20-25 years but nothing much is significantly different. Originally (early C19) named Kororareka, New Zealand's capital was briefly nearby at Okiato before this moved to Auckland, then Wellington, which is the capital today. Hone Heke famously chopped down the Russell flagstaff several times in 1845.


The most beautiful French Lyonnaise design house was established in 1842 on it's beach front site by Roman Catholic Bishop, Jean Baptiste Pompallier and is a fine example of pise de terre (rammed earth) construction.


The day is quite windy with a cold onshore breeze making the open air waterfront dining verandahs unpleasant so we opt for the more enclosed Wharf restaurant where we enjoy a good quality lunch and excellent coffee. As we are home to Auckland tonight and want to travel the 'Russell Road' east coastal route we depart Russell early afternoon.

Leaving Russell we are driving southeast along the 'Russell' Road, past Auks Rd which takes you to the car ferry at Okiato. This would be the normal road if a quick trip to Auckland on SH #1 was your choice. Not today for us and we are soon passing Frenchman's swamp to arrive at the Paroa Bay Rd turnoff to the left. We take this and are soon rewarded by the most spectacular view across the Bay of Islands from our elevated vantage point behind Paroa Bay. To the right as far as Otehei Bay (of Zane Grey fame) and to the left past Roberton Island where older Bay of Islands' residents will recall Colonel Brown, who built a most unusual mud brick house in the Mediterranean style using mud labouriously dredged from the nearby bay - to the best of my knowledge the house is still standing. The Colonel welcomed visitors with a shotgun! Reluctantly leaving this vista we wind our way towards Rawhiti passing Manawaora and Parakura Bay, the road rising and falling, twisting and turning following the very pretty coastline. You don't want to be in a hurry as the road is not built for any more than 20 or 30 km/hour and the wonderful view would be missed. There is nothing much at Rawhiti; a Marae and a few houses, but with the crystal clear water gently lapping - what an idyllic spot.

It is necessary to backtrack a little until a left turn heads you south and towards Whangaruru. A very pleasant drive with glimpses or the sea away to the left. Getting to late afternoon and time for a quick coffee at Bland Bay, a piece of coast we vow to revisit on our next trip north. We pass a dog friendly camp ground BlandBay 1which seems to have reasonable facilities,  fronting onto the beach and making note of it's phone number so we can book for our next visit to this area thinking it would be great spot for our first 'dormir a bord' with the California. We'll see - depends on the weather. It's 4pm now and we are still quite north of Whangarei so - roll up the awning, powerdown the roof and 3 1/2 hours later we are driving into our Mt Eden garage. A very enjoyable few days even if we didn't make the northernmost point - Cape Reinga - that's another day.