Northland Highlights

“I have climbed highest mountains. I have run through the fields. Only to be with you.” (U2 – I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.)

Except I haven’t. Climbed mountains, that is. Not really. We have struggled up some precipices that barely exceed 400 meters above sea level but at some point we will have to scale Stag Saddle in the Two Thumb range in Canterbury which stands at a not unsubstantial 1925 meters above sea level. At least we won’t be starting at sea level – what a relief!

But I digress. We have made it, via some large strokes of good fortune and a healthy dose of bloody mindedness, to day 31 on the TA. Map wise we have edged past the 500km mark and have left the Northland section of the trail and entered the Auckland section. This seemed an appropriate point in the journey to list some highlights of Northland.

1. 90 Mile Beach – There can be no more spectacular start to a through-walk like TA then being dropped off with your backpack at the lighthouse at Cape Reinga and making your way over headland and beach to the quaint Twilight campsite. You haven’t reached 90 Mile Beach yet and the anticipation is palpable. The next morning you climb over a headland and descend some steep stairs to take your first steps on the famous sand of 90 Mile Beach. Some walkers who have gone before me have spoken of their boredom at spending 3 days on a beach where the scenery barely changes. But I did not find it so. The physical and mental challenges of walking 30km a day on a beach so early in a through hike are immense and ever-present, but it is that same beach that is your friend. The scope and power and majesty of a beach that is so huge can never be boring and I found myself smiling at how lucky I was to spend three days in her company.

2. Puketi Forest – whilst Puketi was the scene of my most spectacular tumble, disappearing as I did down a bank towards the river we had just scrambled up from, in hindsight I have been able to appreciate her charms. Simply put, this is some of the most impressive virgin forest in all of Te Araroa. Thousand year old kauri trees tower above the forest floor but there other superb examples from NZ’s lexicon of indigenous trees such as rimu and totara. The whole experience is heightened by the fact that 3km of the walk are through the impossibly scenic Puketi Stream and followed by a 3 hour muddy scramble to get to the Puketi Forest track.

3. The Weather – normally I don’t enjoy much luck with the weather. Which has me concerned as we have enjoyed better weather then we have any right to in Aotearoa in Spring. Which makes me think I have inadvertently played all my weather chits in advance and there is royal comeuppance due to me further down the track. But for now, I got to walk 90 Mile, Ocean and Pakiri beaches in glorious sunshine, which, let’s face it, is more pleasant and makes for better photos.

4. Kerikeri to Waitangi – sometimes you just want a pleasant trail that doesn’t provide too many physical challenges and one can set one’s mind to auto-pilot. The trail from Kerikeri to Pahia via the Waitangi Forest and through the Treaty grounds is one such walk. A recommended side trip is to take a ferry to Russell and have a boozy lunch at NZ’s oldest licenced establishment, the Duke of Marlborough. Pre-arrange with Sheryl to pick you up and whisk you to Waikare where you can pitch your tent in her garden and rejoin the trail in the morning.

5. Trail Angels – a generic term given to those who give up their time and some of their property to house the broken and bedraggled TA walkers who struggle into their property. This is especially important in Northland which is sparsely populated and where pinchpoints for accommodation abound. My favourite of all was Utea Park who whisked us from the bus stop at Kaitaia to there wonderfully quirky backpackers on 90 Mile Beach and then dropped us off at the start of the TA at Cape Reinga. Three days later we struggled into their place and were greeted with so much love and encouragement that made the last 30km on the Beach the following day possible. Honourable mentions must also go to the mad-cap Sheryl at Waikare, the warm and welcoming Sue at 2999 Russell Road and Kevin Fish whose hospitality is rightfully celebrated in a previous blog post.

6. Holiday Parks – a Kiwi term for camping grounds. This is the way Kiwis used to holiday with prodigious tents and all the bells and whistles such as boats and jetskis. And in this part of the world they still do. Ruakaka, a shit town to be fair with a population of 3,453, yielded a 50 hectare gem of a campground set on a beautiful beach with amazing facilities. We also had a great experience in Whananaki, Mangawhai Heads and Riverside in Mangawhai which had the added bonus of being walking distance to the iconic Mangawhai pub.