Lost in the woods at night. It’s the scene of nightmares isn’t it? Bound with the fact that it’s a situation which will only develop from running in bewildered, snotty nosed circles to an untimely but all too inevitable demise, it’s one we weren’t overly keen in experiencing. Huge Kauri trees loomed over us from above, to our sides there was only utter darkness from which came unknown sounds and and worst of all, our torch was on the blink. Typical. It was only meant to be an easy 30 minute night walk, but here we were, two hours later on and yep, we’d definitely been past that tree before hadn’t we? Or had we? It’s in situations like these that I often find myself thinking “What would Bear Grylls do?”, but seeing no animals to sexually abuse and then devour and not needing to nourish myself with my own feaces, even the big man let me down this time. Out of ideas and beginning to believe the end was nigh, we stumbled into a huge moonlit clearing – the stars were out in force and aside from the incessant chirp of crickets, the air was silent. And it was upon our break from the trees that our panic and fears were suddenly allayed, for there not 15 feet away in front of us, was a Kiwi. ‘Big deal’ I hear you say, well yes actually, it was a big deal. For unlike its two namesakes – the furry fruits and the furry locals – not many people see these guys at all. They only come out at night for starters, which is inconvenient, and due to the fact they can’t fly they routinely get snapped up by the many rogue possums and feral cats. Which is also, for them, rather inconvenient. So it was in excited astonishment that we watched him in silence, minding his own business and pecking at grubs with that unmistakable curved long beak. After about 30 seconds he sensed he was being watched, looked for the nearest bush and then like a little bowling ball of feathers skittled off and out of sight. Not many New Zealanders have seen a Kiwi, they’re that rare, and upon discovering a previously unseen gate on the far side of the clearing, we soon found ourselves back in our campsite and thus ended our night of terror in the woods. Sometimes you just get lucky.
Following our night among the trees, we tentatively opted to look at some more in the safety of light the following day. This was the Kauri coast – the last bastion of the native Kauri tree which had all but been wiped out by logging – and however dull trees may generally be, these ones were worth a look. We stopped to see Tane Kahuta – the ‘Lord of the Forest’ – who at around 2000 years old, 51 metres high and with a circumference of almost 14 metres was the largest known living Kauri. He was colossal, and you couldn’t help but just stand in awe and admire his meaty girth. Magnificent. Leaving the forests behind we drove north, back onto the coastline and from there onward, it was all about the sand.
Now I don’t generally like sand to be honest. It’s pesky stuff which will do its utmost to get into places it shouldn’t, happily hiding there for hours until the moment you get into bed, at which point a great cry will go up and a million grains of sand will charge out into your sheets. Upon reaching the mouth of the beautiful Hokianga Harbour, sheltered by mighty banks of sand at its entrance, it was evident from the map that we had a few uncomfortable nights ahead. First came Ahipara, a small town at the foot of 90 mile beach where we quickly found some dunes to board down. Aside from the leg destroying climbs before each descent and the lack of control on the way down which resulted in a few unplanned endings, this was as much fun as it sounds. Having successfully filled every orifice possible with sand, we made for 90 Mile Beach, which if not famous enough already was currently the subject of the national media, a few grumpy locals and a trio of unflappable Englishman. Top Gear were supposed to be in town you see, and while film crews from every media channel were attempting to second guess their next move and a gathering of protesting Maoris were grumbling about the beach being used without their permission – Clarkson and co were nowhere to be seen. The beach acts as an alternative option to the main highway at low tide, so as helicopters hovered and homemade banners fluttered, we made our way onto the beach and drove northwards alone. We never did see our English comrades unfortunately – though apparently they did turn up for a moment or two later on – but should you see a battered old Toyota campervan featured as the car of the week on the BBC next year, that’ll be us.
Having journeyed the length of the South Island from Slope Point up to Cape Farewell, and then begun our North Island journey from its foot at Cape Palliser, it was with a real sense of distance covered that we reached the Northern extremes of Cape Reinga. OK it’s not at the very top, the remote Surville Cliffs take that accolade by a matter of 3km, but we were close enough. This is about as sacred as spots get for Maori, acting as a jumping off point for a person’s soul on its final journey home, but it’s a bloody long way up here for even the fully formed souls among us as well. As we stood under the obligatory sign pointing off around the world and looked out to sea, there was a definite sense of sadness. We still had some places to visit, but this was as far as we could go – after eight months and around 12’000km traveled we had just a few stops on the way to Auckland before it was all over. Fittingly, the Cape is a place that sums up New Zealand well. Sweeping beaches below were shadowed by dramatic cliff faces and rocky shores – rough, wild and barren – it was just the way it should be.
Our final leg was to take us via the alluringly named Bay of Islands, which was not a bad way to finish by any stretch. Following the coastline we stopped overnight at Matai Bay on the Karikari Peninsula – the white sand and calm clear waters giving a stark reminder that we were in the South Pacific – before heading onwards for an overnight stop at Kahoe Farm Hostel, where it’s stereotypically mad Italian co-owner organises the worlds first football game each year, playing under floodlights as the clocks chime for midnight. Having dusted off the walking boots we found breath taking views over Whangaroa Harbour from the summit of the Dukes Nose, and then took a drive down the nauseatingly named Million Dollar View road, only to find that under heavy cloud it wasn’t worth quite that much. In one of those galling quirks of nature, we’d timed our arrival in the Bay of Islands badly – drab grey skies spoiled our plans to get out into the Bay and so a hasty back up plan was formed. Despite the weather, Pahia and Russell had plenty of indoor activities on offer – the Waitangi Treaty grounds gave us an absorbing history of New Zealand’s origins, while over in Kerikeri we found ourselves an addictively good chocolate shop that was happy to shower us with free samples – quite literally sweet as!
The following day we found ourselves back out on water, this time perched between piles of air tanks and flippers and a boatload of excited divers. We were bound for Poor Knights Islands, reputably one of the finest dive sites in the world and a place which Jacques Cousteau not only raved about, but National Geographic also recently named it in their top 10 dive sites anywhere. Unlike everyone else however, we weren’t diving. We can’t go too deep you see – both having had ear problems (and no, I don’t just mean we don’t listen to each other) means we can do no more than flap about on the surface armed with just a snorkel. No problem though, we’d been using some $10 snorkels suitable for children aged 5-7 for the previous few weeks, so it was with great excitement that we were kitted up in wetsuits, flippers et all, and while the remainder of the passengers sank under a chimney of bubbles, we splashed off into the remarkably clear waters of the Marine Reserve. Warm currents at this time of year had brought a multitude of tropical coloured fish to the area, and on top of these we saw Sting Rays glide below us, huge schools of Blue Mau Mau in sun dappled sea caves and then to top it all, a Turtle sauntered by on our last snorkel of the day. As boat trips could go it had been unbelievable – stunning weather, fantastic sights, free lunch – but the fun hadn’t finished yet, oh no. All the excitement had been a bit much for Jamie apparently, and on the journey home she found herself feeling a touch queasy. Rather than grab a sick bag on her way up to the top deck, she waited until she was definitely sure she was going to be sick, by which time it was too late. Lunging her head over the side to deposit her lunch into the sea, the wind swiftly decided otherwise and hurled it back onto the boat, plastering a young Russian chap with vomit. The poor chap didn’t even flinch. As he looked down and surveyed the fresh coat of sick now slowly running down his chest, the look on his face said it all. Sometimes you just get lucky. And sometimes, it seems, you don’t.