The Greenwood Guide to New Zealand

Northland

  • Explore the secluded bays, long white beaches, velvet-green rolling hills and sleepy fishing settlements of the Whangarei Heads. This is one of the most beautiful, and gladly, least visited parts of Northland.
  • Dive or snorkel the fantastic Poor Knights Islands, go inside the biggest sea cave you'll ever see and round off the day with a pizza in Tutukaka's quiet harbour.
  • Join in the Maori boat-racing, flag-raising, canon-firing celebrations of Kiwi life on Waitangi Day, 6 February at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, or come here each day of the year to watch re-enactments of Maori and European histories on stage.
  • Learn to sail in the stunning coastal waters of the Bay of Islands. Swim, snorkel or take a rod and fish for your dinner.
  • Head north to the pohutukawa-lined, golden shores of Coopers Beach and Doubtless Bay, stopping off for lunch in picturesque Mangonui.
  • Try your hand, and body, and nerves at sand-boarding down dunes after hot-footing the length of 90-mile Beach, racing the tide, from Cape Reinga. Even better, fly its length if you can.
  • Feel very small indeed as you contemplate Tane Mahuta, New Zealand's most gigantic kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest Sanctuary.

Cape Reinga or Te Rerenga Wairua: 'leaping-off place of the spirits'

Right up at the top of the North Island, Cape Reinga separates the Tasman Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Its lighthouse is spectacularly situated and presides over the two massive bodies of water as they clash and create the wild waters below.

The site is of great significance to the Maori. According to their mythology, the spirits of the dead travel here on their journey to the afterlife in the spiritual homeland of Hawaiki. At Cape Reinga the spirits depart from the mainland by leaping off the ancient pohutukawa tree that stands nearby. They then turn briefly at the Three Kings Islands offshore to look back towards the land one final time before continuing on their journey.

The Mighty Kauri

With trunks as wide as a two-lane road, most trees don't come in proportions as gigantic as New Zealand's kauri. Growing to more than 50m tall and with trunk girths of up to 16m, they covered much of the top half of the North Island before the first people arrived 1000 years ago.

The Maori, who used their timber for boat building, carving and housing, and their gum for starting fires and chewing, first began felling them. Then, the arrival of European settlers saw the decimation of these magnificent forests. Sailors were quick to realize that young Kauri trunks made ideal ships' masts and the settlers who followed discovered that the more mature trees yielded timber of unsurpassed quality for building. The gum, too, became essential in the manufacture of varnishes.

The exploitation of forests increased with the demand for more and more cleared farmland. Whereas kauri forest once covered 1.2 million hectares of land; now they have been reduced to just 80,000 hectares.

Revered by the Maori people, who believe the trees possess their own spirit, they have named several individual trees including Tane Mahuta or 'Lord of the Forest', still standing (at a neck-achingly huge 51.5m tall!) after 2,100 years in the Waipoua Forest in Northland. Saved from destruction by their remoteness, the Waipoua forests are also home to the second and third largest kauri trees, Te Matua Ngahere and the McGregor kauri. If you are driving down to or from Auckland via the west coast then you simply must take the time and trouble to walk into the forest and see these giants. They are simply magnificent.

The Treaty and grounds of Waitangi

New Zealand's founding document, an agreement between the British government and 50 Maori chiefs, was signed on the grounds of Waitangi in 1840. In return for giving Queen Victoria rights to buy their land, Maoris were granted all the rights and privileges of British subjects, quite extraordinary considering the times and the very different form of race relations (or non-) just over the pond between the British and the Aborigines.

However a few differing meanings, lost in translation between the two versions of the treaty (English and Maori), have caused considerable controversy over the text that continues to this day.

Differences aside, each year on 'Waitangi Day' on 6th February, New Zealanders of all origins come here to commemorate the founding of their nation. Ceremonial celebrations including flag-raising, canon-firing and fireworks mark the event. The highlight of the day is the launch of the 120-warrior long-canoe Ngatokimatawhaorua. This impressive 35-metre Maori war canoe is made from the trunks of three kauri trees and is named after the vessel in which Kupe discovered these shores.

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