Cape Reinga and the Far North Road Trip

cape reinga lighthouse

Cape Reinga is a place of great spiritual significance to Maori. They believe it is “the place of the leaping”, where the souls of the dead gather before they enter the next world. According to Maori tradition, the spirits of the departed leap from an 800-year-old pohutukawa tree on the windswept cape to begin the voyage back to their final resting place in the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.

The passage to the afterlife begins at Te Oneroa-a-Tohe, known as Ninety Mile Beach. Spirits travel the length of the beach carrying a regional token such as a fern frond or manuka cutting. These offerings are placed on Te Arai Rock near the bluff and the journey continues inland at Twilight Beach towards Cape Reinga, and crosses a stream. Those who choose not to drink from the stream return to the body, while those who choose to quench their thirst continue on to the gnarled pohutukawa tree and leap, descending through its tangled roots, to the seabed. From here, they travel to Ohau Island, the largest of the Three Kings Islands, where they resurface and bid Aotearoa (New Zealand) farewell before returning home.

A clear day at Cape Reinga offers powerful views. The Three Kings Islands, named by Abel Tasman in 1643, are visible on the horizon while spectacular Cape Maria Van Diemen dominates the west. To the east, the long curve of Spirits Bay leads the eye to the dark smudge of the North Cape. Directly ahead, the towering breakers of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide in a maelstrom of churning waves and spume.

Several fine coastal walks depart from Cape Reinga. Cape Maria Van Diemen is reached via the golden stretch of Te Werahi Beach, while to the east a track leads to Tapotupotu Bay - a popular camping and picnicking spot - and on to Spirits Bay. The site of the legendary money tree, where early settlers travelling north left an offering to ward off evil spirits, is reached via a route further south.

A trip to the cape is best experienced with Sand Safaris, with day trips departing from Ahipara, Kaitaia, or Awanui. They travel one-way via Ninety Mile Beach’s sand highway, entering or exiting on Te Paki Stream. This magnificent beach arches in an unbroken stretch of white sand for some 103 km (64 miles). The European name is something of a misnomer, its length possibly having been originally recorded in kilometres from Ahipara.

Please Note: Apex Rental Cars must not be driven on any beach, including Ninety Mile Beach.

Shells from the rare toheroa, a type of clam that grows to 150 mm in length, are often found by beachcombers, while its smaller (and more plentiful) cousin the tuatua is gathered by locals and minced to make delicious tuatua fritters and nourishing soup. The beach is flanked by the Aupouri Forest, and here wild horses roam. Some folks believe these fine-looking horses are the progeny of thoroughbreds that escaped a ship wrecked off nearby Cape Maria Van Diemen.

On the east coast a white sand dune, containing some of the world’s purest silica marks the entrance to Parengarenga Harbour. Godwits gather here in early March and, when the dune is almost black with their sheer numbers, they take off on their annual migration to Siberia and Alaska.

The old gum digging town of Houhora hosts a legendary annual hunt: locals compete to catch one pig, one duck, one pheasant, one trevally and one snapper -all on the same day! The Houhora Tavern housed inside an old woolshed is a good venue to meet hardy northlanders, while the Subritsky Homestead, built in 1860 from local materials and plastered with a powdered seashell paste, provides a fascinating glimpse into the past.

At the Ancient Kauri Kingdom in Awanui, swamp kauri logs dating from 30,000 to 50,000 years ago are crafted into furniture and house-wares, while Paparore’s Gum Diggers Park offers further insight into the world of gum diggers with its authentic 100-year-old gum field and buried forest. Here the remains of two kauri forests, felled by unknown catastrophic events between 42,000 and 150,000 years ago, are buried beneath gum digger’s holes.

The round trip to Cape Reinga can be completed on an independent day-trip from Paihia. Alternatively, a number of operators provide coach and 4wd tours ex-Paihia and as rental cars are not permitted to be driven on Ninety Mile Beach, we recommend taking a tour. Most drive one-way via Ninety Mile Beach and return by road.