In our concrete- jungle world, just how easy is it to find an unspoiled place in our country? DEBBIE GRIFFITHS takes her family out of Auckland to find out how far north you have to drive, before you find wilderness.
The trees closing in on each side of our vehicle are making us nervous. My husband glances over at me from the driver’s seat and raises his eyebrows. The thought of reversing our Britz campervan back down the 2km of windy gravel road makes me shudder. “If we carry on to the end, there might be somewhere to turn around.” Hours earlier, the kids couldn’t quite believe their luck when we picked up the campervan in south Auckland. “Wow! A house with wheels on!” As we’re given a tour and safety briefing by the Britz staffer, they’re wide- eyed and eager to be given the nod to poke about. We’ve been advised against suitcases which are too bulky for the under- seat storage, so as we stow our backpacks of clothes and a box of food. Little fingers are pressing the pop- open handles of every cupboard and drawer and memorising their contents. We’re fascinated by the economic use of space. The shower is above the toilet; the oven is covered to double as bench space and the seats morph into a generous double bed. Once we get used to where everything is stowed in the campervan, it becomes a very easy way of travelling. The close proximity of the pick- up point to the airport makes it an easy option for domestic and international travellers, too. There are plenty of out- of- towners picking up or dropping off campervans with their suitcases or travel bags beside them. The depot in south Auckland even has showers, towels, a food- drop and a book exchange. We start off slowly to get used to the feel of such a large vehicle. The sound of plates and cutlery rattling is initially alarming, but after investigating I realise they’re tucked snugly in their own indents and are quite safe. We drive north out of Auckland and turn off to hug the east coast as soon as we are able. We arrive at the tiny beach- side settlement of Waipu Cove before lunch time. The word cove has created an image in my head of a tiny horseshoe shaped bay, sheltered by rocks. That’s why I’m shocked when I see the beach for the first time. It’s low tide, so the huge expanse of sand, stretching kilometres into the distance is very wide and very flat. We peer into the sea mist to see the Hen and Chicken Islands in Bream Bay and jutting out to the left the peninsula of Whangarei heads appears to be curling protectively back towards the mainland. We unpack bread rolls, ham, cheese, fruit and crackers from the campervan, unfurl a picnic blanket and sit on the grass overlooking the ocean. The seagulls know full well what this means. They form squawking gaggles as they wait for scraps and are finally rewarded with bread crusts. The kids jiggle impatiently as they scoff down enough food to be allowed to run off and play. They’re drawn like magnets down to the rocks that ring a hillock at the southern end of the beach. Beneath one of the gnarled old Pohutukawa trees, we find someone has tied up a rough rope swing. Its simplicity and location are delightful and the kids push each other with rope trailing through the stream underneath – yelping when they get splashed with water. It keeps them occupied for a good half hour before they each peel off to follow their preferences. The older child heads into the waves and her younger brother hunts for crabs and shells. There are rock pools to explore and driftwood to examine, waves to jump and a hill crisscrossed with paths to wander. We spend an idyllic few hours at the beach before climbing back on board the campervan. We make a brief stop at Whangarei Falls as we pass through the Northland city on the way to the Tutukaka Coast. It’s mostly windy country roads and I need to switch places with Master Six to cure his travel sickness. He’s immediately enchanted by the campervan’s massive front windscreen and is happy for the rest of the journey. We pass through the estuary settlement of Ngunguru and towards the Tutukaka lighthouse that I’ve circled on my map. It’s here that the road narrows to one lane and we’re nervous for the first time. The campervan that initially seemed to be the perfect way to escape the rat race, now feels lumbering and clumsy. But we’re in luck – not only is there a wide carpark at the start of the track, the campervan proves very easy to manoeuvre. The walkway begins on a grassy hilltop field and then winds down dozens of steep steps to a rocky narrow causeway that leads to Kukutauwhao Island. I’ve been told it’s only accessible at low tide, but it’s about two hours past that and there’s still plenty of room to move. From here it’s up, up, up a rough bushwalk through mostly native manuka, flax and cabbage trees until we reach the lighthouse at the top of the headland. It turns out to be a very basic white rectangular concrete structure with a light on the top, but the reward is the amazing view back over Northland. We can see all the way north to Cape Brett and south to Cape Rodney. The sun is setting in the west when we make our way back to our house on wheels and we continue north towards our first night’s destination. I’ve had a campsite at Whananaki marked on my
map – but it’s a local we’re chatting to at Matapouri who puts us right. “You should go park at Sandy Bay for the night. It’s bee- you- tee- ful!” It’s the way he draws out the last word that convinces us. In my eagerness to find a remote, unspoiled beach I’ve made rookie error and under- estimated the distance. I’ve been blithely pointing the way towards a long and windy unsealed road as night approaches. Local resident, Phil, is swigging from a beer bottle outside the takeaway store when he points us to an easier, closer location. Ten minutes later we pull over into a rest stop at the stunning Sandy Bay with our battered Hoki and chips feeling grateful for his good advice. We’ve squeezed a lot into one day and happily fall exhausted into our beds. The kids in the double bunk above the driver’s cabin with a safety net up to avoid any falls. When we wake, my city- slicker ten year- old has a complaint – the waves were too loud. Moments later, she bounds out of the door with little brother in tow – off to explore the beach. A stream running down to the surf keeps them busy with jumping contests, dams to build and holes to poke sticks into. It’s enough time for husband and I to tidy the beds, clean and stow the cereal bowls from breakfast and take some time to enjoy the early morning quiet of Sandy Bay. The sky is a soft pink and the waves are gentle and we’re the only ones there. Bliss. The Tutukaka Coast lies around two hours north of Auckland. Along the way, we’ve found pockets of genuine unspoiled wilderness. The biggest sign of success for me, though, is that the two bags full of toys that the kids brought along have remained unopened and the LCD screen in the campervan hasn’t been switched on once.
Debbie Griffiths studies her map as she navigates the rugged Northland coast. The sun rises over Sandy Bay on the Tutukaka Coast.
The rocky causeway that links Kukutauwhao Island with the mainland.