Over the three-day Anzac weekend, we packed up the Bongo and headed north. We chose our destination by looking at the map to find an interesting area and then locating a dog-friendly campground nearby. It worked well enough, but once again we underestimated the amount of driving time. By late afternoon (we had taken the civilized 9:00 a.m. ferry), we had only reached the turn off from SH1 to Whangaruru North and Bland Bay, about 20 kilometers north of Whangarei. Already the sun was low in the sky; we had hoped to be at the campgrounds by now. On the map, it looked to be another 50 to 60 kilometers of twisty and hilly back road. It was nearly 5:00 when we arrived at the campgrounds. With the sun setting before 6:00, we didn’t have much time to relax.
The Bland Bay Motor Camp is basically a large grass field bordered by the ocean. It has several small concrete block buildings near the road containing the kitchen/laundry in one and toilets/showers in the other. Normally campgrounds have an office to check-in and pay your fee, but Bland Bay had no office and no one seemed to be around. We parked at the water’s edge, with a dozen or so other campers. Sam had been cooped up in the van all day, so I immediately headed down the beach to give her a good walk while Steve set up the Bongo. Within five minutesno more than thatSam had gotten into a patch of very sticky seeds and she was totally covered in them. As I tried to comb them out of her fur, a local kid came by on his bike and told me that the dog had “billi bid” seeds all over her. Next, the man in the camper beside us popped out to say the dog must have gotten into the “billi bid” seeds. So much helpful advice.
Bland Bay is a beautiful spot, an unspoiled part of the coast protected by two arms of conservation land and ringed with small islands. It often seems, however, that the more spectacular a campground’s location, the poorer its amenities. This was true at Bland Bay: the kitchen was none too clean and the showers were not very inviting. In fact, this was the first campground we’ve encountered with a BYO policy for toilet paper. Luckily, the Bongo is stocked for such emergencies.
Being in a bit of a funk after Sam and the seeds and the kitchen and the showers, it was time to turn things around. After all, there was a nearly full moon and we were camped right at the beach. We set up our camp chairs, bundled up against the cold and watched the moon rise over Bland Bay. A single sailboat made its way across the bay and anchored near one of the small islands. Anchorages this beautiful and this empty are rare at home.
After a blissfully quiet night, we made coffee on the Bongo’s stove, bypassing the kitchen. We passed on the showers and decided to find another campground for the night. No one had yet arrived to take our money but as we were leaving we asked a woman walking into the drive if she knew where we could pay. She said it was her father’s campground and he usually came by at some point but we could pay her or else she’d gladly take Sam in exchange. Where was she when Sam was covered in seeds?
We drove north along the coast road towards Russell, in the beautiful but very touristy Bay of Islands. Our goal was the Orongo Bay Holiday Park where we planned to spend the night. We found the park and decided to have a look around. The amenities were not much nicer that those at Bland Bay, and it had no redeeming view. We made a new camping rule: in addition to being dog friendly, campgrounds must have either a great view or good amenities (both would be brilliant). Orongo Bay had neither, so we headed south towards Whangarei. To get back to the main road (SH1), we took the car ferry between Russell and Opua. It’s a tiny, drive-on ferry like the On Time in Edgartown. Opua is a charter boat center, home of the Moorings Charter Company and several others. The Bay of Islands offers great sailing and lots of sheltered anchorages.
Whangarei is the only city in northland and we skirted the edge as we headed toward a campground on the Whangarei Heads. The Blue Heron Holiday Park is old fashioned but charming. Its location on a point of land in Whangarei Harbor is hard to beat and its amenities are simple, but clean and functional. We arrived at Blue Heron by mid-afternoon and it was blowing 30 knots or more off the water. The owner was gruff but amenable when I asked to park in another spot from his direction. We took showers while it was still somewhat warm in the afternoon. Steve took Sam for a walk and I stretched out in the Bongo with a good book. By evening, it was raining and the wind still howled.
To improve our camping, I was determined to have better food this weekend. We had truly had some strange and not wonderful meals. Because the campground kitchen at Bland Bay was so bad, we cooked the easiest of our planned dinners: pasta with homemade sage-walnut pesto and a tomato salad. Obviously, this is no great shakes, but to us homemade pasta sauce was a great advance over the store-bought (and quite horrible) stuff. Unfortunately, we had “pre-cooked” pasta (available in the stores here), which has a glue-like consistency and slimy texture. At the Blue Heron, our joint cooking efforts reached a new high. The campground had two kitchens: one near the water with a coin-operated gas grill (50 cents for a half hour) and another better-equipped one further away. Steve grilled steaks, while I microwaved kumara (sweet potato). Back at the Bongo, we made a salad, opened some wine and ate a great dinner, as the van was buffeted by wind and pelted by rain!
The storm blew through by morning and left spectacular blue skies and clear, cold air. The light filtering through the trees at the edge of Whangarei Harbor was golden. As I sat at a picnic table enjoying coffee in the sunshine, Steve puttered around the Bongo and Sam searched for who knows what.
After getting lost in Whangarei, we made our way back to SH1 and drove south towards home. We stopped in Waipu to get fuel and coffee. On this Anzac morning, the local parade of veterans was about to begin. New Zealand lost many people in both World Wars and Anzac Day is a remembrance of all the lost soldiers. Even the smallest towns have monuments to those lost in foreign wars and the numbers are always staggering.
To avoid the holiday weekend traffic on SH1, we crossed over to the west coast at Wellsford on SH16. This road crosses the North Island and winds through agricultural land and eventually the vineyards of Kumeu. Once upon a time, Steve brought me a bottle of New Zealand wine that I really enjoyed. It was a 1998 Cabernet Franc by Harrier Rise, a winery located in Kumeu. Each time we passed through Kumeu we said we should find Harrier Rise and try some more of their wines. Since we had some time, we went in search of the vineyard. Unfortunately, all that was left was a for sale sign.
We drove back through Auckland and out to the ferry at Half Moon Bay. Since we had time, we stopped for coffee at the nearby marina and finally unpacked the Bongo and made our way to the ferry. We were trying to make the 4:00 and just as we walked up the ferry left. It was only 3:30. Seems the ferry was running lateit was the 3:00 leavingdue to the windy weather and the slow weekend drivers. This should sound familiar to Robin who got stuck waiting for slow boats due to the wind and waves, too!