Karikari Peninsula

3 September 2005. On a beautiful spring Saturday, we’re off for the Karikari peninsula in the “winterless” north. Because the Bongo is still on Waiheke, we opt for one of the new “cheap” ferries; this one leaves at 10:30. This is a civilized time for departure (no pre-dawn wake-up alarm), but it means we don’t get to the mainland until 11:30 and it’s almost noon by the time we get fuel and drive over the Auckland Bridge.

About an hour north of the city, we stop at the Puhoi Pub for lunch. It’s a short way off Route 1 in a small and charming village. Seating is mostly outdoors; a large pool table dominates the main room. The pub is a popular watering hole for motorcyclists and others. Steve and I like the ambiance, the outdoor seating and the burgers. The village of Puhoi includes a library, general store, meeting hall and church. Steve buys the weekend New Zealand Herald, sort of like the Sunday papers at home but published on Saturday, and we continue north, stopping once more to buy honey.

We’re so late at this point we’ll never make it to Karikari before dark, so we decide to find a closer campground and just enjoy the slow pace of the day. In Mangawhai, we stop at the Riverside Holiday Park for the night. This is a dog-friendly camp, but we are handed a page of nine dog rules—all acceptable but the tone is draconian (“Dog owners not observing these rules will be required to leave the premises”). The campground is alongside the upper reaches of Mangawhai Harbor, and it has a nice trail along the shore. After setting up the Bongo, we take Sam for a walk. Thick stands of mangroves hug the path on one side and wild grasses and gorse grow on the other. The trail is not well marked and we take a wrong turn, coming out near a farm and some summer homes. It’s a pretty walk and there’s no traffic, so we decide to keep going. At the end of the road, we come to a large gated community between the beach and us. Even New Zealand seems to be closing prime parts of their coastline to public access. As we look around, a woman in a fancy SUV pulls up and uses her card to open the gate. She zooms off without a glance and the gate bangs shut. Sometimes it seems like the old joke—“I went to New Zealand, but New Zealand was closed”—rings true.

We spent a quiet night at the campground. Quiet if you don’t count the tiny, yipping dog at the next campsite, the loud cheering of the rugby fans and an invasion of thousands of tiny bugs. On the upside, new lights that Steve installed in the Bongo worked brilliantly. We were able to eat dinner at the table without feeling like we were in a cave.

Next morning we continued north, driving through an area of the North Island that seems to be undergoing a development boom. Large tracts of land had been cleared for construction, some already built with new houses and roads. We reached Mangonui and Doubtless Bay by early afternoon and drove up to the Rangikapiti Pa site for lunch and the view. “Pas” (without question not the plural form of a Maori word) were built as fortifications, villages and observation points. Because they used wood construction, there’s not much left at these sites except for the characteristic earth shape where the pa once stood. Rangikapiti provided us with a wonderful view of Mangonui and its harbor as well as all of Doubtless Bay, stretching off to the north.

About 12 kilometres from Manganoui, the Karikari peninsula road turns off Route 10. The countryside becomes flat and open. We pass farms, a few holiday homes and the occasional small village. Our destination is the Whatuwhiwhi Top 10 Holiday Park, about halfway out the peninsula. A side road leads to the campground and past future subdivisions. I wonder if these new houses are planned as holiday homes. The area seems too isolated from centers of employment to be convenient for many. The campground is snuggled between steep hills and close to a small beach. It’s clean and well planned with all the important amenities. They are doing a lot of construction work in anticipation of the coming season. Unlike other campgrounds where we’ve stayed, this one seems to be building more simple accommodations for campers instead of “flash” cottages. We find a spot and Steve sets up the Bongo for the night—pops the top and plugs in for power—then he goes off to explore. I pour a glass of wine and settle at a picnic table with The New Yorker. An older woman from the only other camper there wanders over to chat. She and her husband spend much of the time travelling around in their bus. I offer her a glass of wine, but she heads back to the bus for another gin before dinner.

The campground has a BBQ area, which is a nice feature considering I’d brought steaks for dinner. Steve handles the grilling as well as the microwave rice while I make a salad in the Bongo. The new lights make dinner much nicer—we can actually see what we’re eating. It’s a quiet night, just what we like, with no bright security lights, cheering rugby fans or whining dogs.

Puheke Hill is supposed to have spectacular views of the Karikari Peninsula and Doubtless Bay and that’s our goal for the morning. The description in Daywalks of Northland says the road sign may not be visible—it isn’t—and that you may want to avoid the carpark and walk a bit longer to the start of the trail. It’s good advice. The washouts and ruts would come well above the Bongo’s wheels. The walk is steep and grassy and leads through several stands of burned-over gorse. From the top, we can see for miles under bright blue skies—all the way to the North Cape, the length of the Karikari Peninsula and across the plains where horses and cows graze far below us. A long curve of white-sand beach makes up the north side of the peninsula. It’s nearly empty except for one couple that are long gone by the time we get back to the van. At the very top of Puheke Hill is a location beacon. Ever curious, Steve checks its coordinates with his GPS; the two are within 0.2 seconds (10 feet or so). Good to know exactly where we are.

We finish exploring Puheke Hill and drive out to the end of the peninsula. Or at least as far as we can go. Part of the area ends in Maori lands and is marked with no trespassing signs. The other part ends in a DOC (Department of Conservation) campground marked with no dogs signs. Our guidebooks say there is a beautiful tramping trail on the other side of these two barriers. Regretfully, we stop for a roadside picnic instead of a hike. It’s spectacularly quiet, with few cars and gorgeous views of the countryside.

To overcome our disappointment, we stop at Karikari Estate, “Superb wines from a stunning landscape”. Steve has a latte, I have a glass of the winery’s 2004 Merlot-Malbec-Cabernet (Silver Medal at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards) and Sam has a nap under the table. The views from here take in Puheke Hill, where we hiked in the morning. I am beginning to think I don’t have a very good palate for wine tasting—all those little thimbles of wine and you’re supposed to taste the difference. My new approach is to ask the winery staff for a recommendation and order a full glass. That way I can sit back and enjoy a real sample of the wine without pressure.

Since our hopes for taking the Whangatupere Bay Walk have been dashed once again by DOC’s “no dogs” policy, we decide to move a little further south for the night and get a jump on tomorrow’s long drive. At the Kerikeri (not to be confused with the Karikari) Top 10 Holiday Park and Backpackers, we pull in for the night. It’s started to drizzle and this seems like an acceptable place. It’s not very fancy and it has the darkest ladies shower/toilet room I’ve ever seen. (Imagine lighting a locker room with one 40-watt bulb and you’ll understand—I could barely find my feet in the shower.) On the plus side, the kitchen was clean and the backpackers were quiet. We left early the next day for home.

The west coast drive is our favorite when returning from Northland. It has less traffic, beautiful scenery and a twisting road that Robin would love. One day we may even get a chance to stop in Helensville and poke in the antique stores. Instead we stop for lunch at Blossoms Café in Kumeu, a large agricultural center with lots of local wineries. Next door is an organic fruit and vegetable stand and I stock up with tomatoes, lettuce, apples and peppers to bring home. As I was paying, I noticed a basket of emu eggs about the size, shape and color of large avocados. I asked the cashier what they were used for and she said anything you used a chicken egg for. Only larger, I assume. Say, a four-person omelette. At $9.95, I didn’t think I could get one back to Waiheke without breaking it. Maybe next time.



Last update:
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Copyright 2004 - Ellen Freda