Newcastle to Northland

Getting away couldn’t be easier

You know how you get to that time of the year when you’re just hanging out for a quick get away, something different, but low effort? Well that was me, and that was January! It was going to be a long year. So in search of an economical option, with the added bonus of a geographical “achievement”, my answer came in the form of direct Virgin Australia flights from Newcastle-Port Stephens to Auckland. Seasonal thought they are, there’s no better time to visit the North Island than February, so I did.

So if ever there were a sense of a quick escape, it can’t start any easier than this. 7:30pm departure time meant I could do a whole Thursday of work and not even appear to be skiving off early. Airport check-ins don’t come much easier than that time of day at a regional airport, and no sooner were we airborne and the dunes of Stockton Beach were behind us, and the subtle hues of a Tasman sunset were seeping into the cabin. Auckland still seems to do “awake enough” at midnight to offer a no fuss welcome to New Zealand, so it was barely bedtime at home when I was curled up in bed dreaming of the winding roads tomorrow had to bring.

Living in Australia it’s a somewhat herculean effort to reach the farthest flung northern tip of the country. Come to think of it, the same could be said of lots of the worlds significant land masses. But the northern time of NZ – a cinch? Okay, so Cape Reinga bound, it was out into the Auckland suburbs early on a Friday morning, and that’s where the culture shock began (stay with me here for a moment). I had decided to base myself in the tiny town of Waipapa for the next two night, so today’s drive was going to be up the Kaipara Coast Highway, and the West Coast Trail, but like all good Aussies the day need to start with a flat white. So whether it’s an economic thing or a cultural thing, but I could have had a thermal bath, picked blueberries and listened to a whole e-book before I came across a coffee shop that was open for business – eventually a source was found in Helensville.

On then to the rolling, winding and generally traffic free west coast road. First non-coffee related stop was a short detour off the road north of Dargaville to the crystal clear Kai Iwi Lakes. Clearly a favourite with Aucklander families for camping, boating and generally floating around on giant inflatable flamingos, but like most places in New Zealand it seems, take twenty paces to the left and you have the place to yourself. Clear fresh water with pristine white sandy edges – all the benefits of the beach and none of the risks (OK, so let’s assume you can swim, or that you’re only intending to wade knee deep on the edges).

Like most “coast roads” in Australia, this one in New Zealand seemed to offer only the occasional water glimpses, or in fact was nowhere near the coast at all! However, with sculpture parks, ever changing scenery and the lure of the Kauri forest, such definitions are somewhat irrelevant.

New Zealand is rightly doing all they can to protect their old growth Kauri forests, and like lots of ecosystems in the Antipodes they are sensitive and vulnerable. So if they ask you to keep to the path, use the disinfectant foot shoe baths, and take your rubbish with you – well just do it! It’s fascinating how such giants of the botanical world have such delicate root systems, which are so easily impacted by fungal disease. As you walk down a path to what looks like a rock wall, only to discover you’ve come face to face with a single tree trunk, the willingness to participate in this wonder of nature subverts any inconvenience of the 21st Century.

Let’s clear up two things about New Zealand roads at this stage: they know how to do winding; they don’t know how to do overtaking lanes. So car sickness and deadlines are not something you should mix with them. Almost at days end a hot tip from the roadside food van girls in the Kauri forest yielded a $2 dip in some thermal springs. I’m sure there’s an inversely proportional line of diminishing returns between how much you pay, and how much you benefit, from therapeutic practices, but if you’re prepared to put up with the sound of a geothermal power station being constructed behind the hill, surely that’s enough cred for the authenticity of the Ngawha Hot Springs. It’s possibly more sanitary to get changed in the car park, but once in, there’s no denying the soothing properties of plunge pools that range from tepid to “I don’t think I can sit down in this” hot. With Russians, Japanese, Aussies and locals partaking, there must be something in it?

With a night disturbed only by the shrill cries of a close by Kiwi lurking in the undergrowth, the day now arrived to set out for the goal that spurred on this trip. But I have a confession to make: while Cape Reinga was always my states goal, a little further investigation before my departure clarified that this Cape is not in fact the most northerly point in New Zealand after all. It is however the most northerly accessible point for the average traveller. Short of permits, a better than average hire car and a long hike, you’re not going to get to the Surville Cliffs, however you can see them in the distance from Cape Reinga on a clear day. In terms of Maori tradition Reinga holds an important place, with the Meeting of the Seas, and the point on the Te Ara Wairua, or ‘Spirits’ pathway where souls left the mainland on their journey through the underworld to their traditional homeland of  Hawaiki. There is certainly a spiritual sense to the place, but they’ve done a great job of making it accessible but sensitive at the same time. It’s 400 kilometres from Auckland, so there are plenty of day trippers, but the crowds are not overwhelming. What I enjoyed most was descending the track away from the main tourist path, and walking the entire length of Te Werahi Beach.

This is the start/end of the Te Araroa walking trail that stretches 3000km to the Southern end of the country. But, the 10km round trip to the far end of the beach was enough for me this time, and the 200 metre climb back up to the car park at the end certainly helped me work up a sweat! But put seven people on a 3km stretch of sand and you pretty much have your own beach wilderness, with brilliant sand and gentle glassy waves. I guess it’s possible to turn up to the Cape in a howling gale with torrential rain – the awesome sense of the place would not be diminished, although the comfort might take a battering, but isn’t that just the luck of travelling? The day I had offered stunning blue skies, shimmering clear waters, views worth every effort, and gentle breezes to cleanse the mind of all the hubbub of the past weeks.

Sunday’s journey back toward reality was punctuated by increasingly rough seas (but a fourth ocean swim for the weekend was mandatory), squally showers, increasing traffic (surely every M1 the world over is a Sunday afternoon citybound carpark), but an appreciation that another world is only a short distance away. As returns to reality go, being able to step off the plane at Newcastle Airport and be back in my own home in an hour was better than unbelievable. Would I do it again? Well, I’ve already booked for another long weekend beyond Auckland in January 2020 : Coromandel, here we come!

Virgin Australia offer seasonal three day a week services between Newcastle and Auckland….supporting such services is vital to ensuring opportunities for regional areas, and sure beats driving to Sydney! Spoil yourself and bid for an upgrade for a luxe experience. Car hire by Thrifty, accommodation in Waipapa at an AirBnB, a great feed and good NZ wine at the Waipapa Pioneer Bar. And most importantly, the flat white on Day 2 was an equally long wait, but from the Cable Bay Store, enjoyed sitting on the beach over the road!

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

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