Paihia to Auckland Road Trip via the Hokianga and Waipoua Forest


“Morning!” chirps Bob. We arise earlier on this, our last day in Northland, and travel across to the west coast and Rawene, a picturesque harbourside town located on the tip of a peninsula. There are many noteworthy buildings here, including Clendon House, but we make a beeline to The Boatshed Café. Built on stilts overhanging the harbour we breakfast on its terrace, watching mist rise from the mangroves as water laps gently beneath our seats.

A hoot from the vehicular ferry heralds its departure and we decide to take a side-trip, chugging across the Hokianga Harbour to Kohukohu. We drive through Panguru to the wild ocean beach at Mitimiti, where the misty peaks of the Warawara Forest roll down to meet the dunes.

And here – by fortune or design – we meet a local man, Tipo Cash. He shows us around his marae and onto the beach sharing riveting stories about the chief who was killed on a rock giving Mitimiti its name, the graves of Chinese flax workers in the dunes, and legends of the Waitaha.

A keen fisherman, Tipo reckons drag netting for mullet using traditional methods is the most popular activity in these parts. “Have a go,” he urges, but instead we help gather mussels off the rocks for the elders.

Back in Rawene, we drive to Opononi, the home of Opo, a young, friendly bottle-nosed dolphin who adopted the town and played with children during the summer of 1955-56. A committee was set up to safeguard her while regulations for the protection of dolphins were passed into law. In a tragic twist, Opo was found dead in a pool the following day, jammed between a cleft in the rocks. Today all that remains is a stone memorial opposite the wharf and some old film footage at the museum.

A group of locals gathers outside the Four Square store. They tell us the fishing has been good of late and ask if we’d like to try sand boarding. We choose to watch from the wharf as kids and backpackers cart old body boards up giant dunes and ride them down, landing with a splash in the harbour.

In Omapere a viewing area provides a last glimpse of the harbour, before entering Waipoua Forest. We pass the visitors centre and numerous hikes but decide to make only one stop en route: to pay our respects to Tane Mahuta, the largest kauri of all. A five-minute walk, alive with birdsong, leads us through bush to this enormous kauri tree, and we sit in silence beneath, revelling in its sheer magnificence. Estimated to be around 2000 years old, Tane Mahuta is one of several notable kauri trees in the forest.

Further south we skip the Kai Iwi Lakes in favour of lunch at Baylys Beach. Here we relax at the Funky Fish Café, surrounded by sculpture and original art works, tapping our feet in time to 88.2 FM, a radio station operating from a local’s shed. Its reception is only one kilometre but that’s more than enough coverage for the folk surfcasting from the beach.

Refreshed we continue to Dargaville and to Ruawai through flats lush with kumara crops.

In Matakohe, we stop to stretch our legs at the Kauri Museum and lose ourselves for a while in days of old: a rugged world of kauri felling, gum digging and hardy pioneers. For a time Bob disappears; I find him stroking a giant piece of kauri gum with an amber-glint in his eye.

At the antiques store in Paparoa we join the locals in sifting for treasures. Bob discovers a nice souvenir - a translucent piece of gum. East of Maungaturoto, SH12 meets SH1 and we return south to Wellsford. Caught up in my own lecture on the hardships of the gum digging days, I miss the alternate route to Auckland via Helensville.

And my co-pilot? Well he’s on auto, having stashed our map in the glove box along with his shells, chocolates and kauri gum. Somewhere near Puhoi I think I smell sulphur from the Waiwera Hot Pools but it turns out it’s Bob’s now-reeking crab’s claw. Luckily, it’s a well-timed reminder, as there’s no finer way to end a day. We relax in hot thermal pools before returning to the glittering lights of the city.