There were some worries that we wouldn't actually get away on our holiday, due to Gill being very busy at work, but by midday on Friday 30 September, all was set for her to have the following week off. A last minute booking of our now regular Auckland motel room was fortunate as we got the last room available! Actually it's only the second time we've stayed there, but managed to get the same room both times. After a fairly leisurely morning of packing, we left on the first leg of our Far North trip at about lunch time on Saturday morning. An uneventful trip to Auckland, and after checking in at the motel (to make sure they didn't give our room to someone else) we dropped in to see the McCartneys in the late afternoon.
At nine the next morning we left Auckland, with no set itinerary, just an unusually vague intention to explore a part of New Zealand that we haven't seen at all. The furthest north we'd been previously was the Bay of Islands, when Angela and her friend Chris took us to stay at his family bach some years ago. We'd also decided that, for once, we wouldn't camp, as the Far North has notoriously changeable weather, and October is often wet, wherever you are in the country. We were hoping to rely on campground cabins, but hadn't done any advance booking. Anyway, we got as far as Brynderwyn - which NZers, by the way, pronounce quite differently from what you'd expect - at which point we decided, on the spur of the moment, to leave the track well beaten by Aucklanders and many foreign tourists, and headed west, along the northern shores of the Kaipara Harbour. A much quieter route, with the road winding through the rolling hills and occasional glimpses of the muddy water of the Kaipara in the distance, much easier on the driving, particularly since there were numerous rain showers. We decided, after seeing the number of tourist buses stacked up outside, to avoid the Kauri & Pioneer Museum, although we did make use of their Clean Rest Room. We usually set off in the mornings on our journeys well stocked with flasks of coffee, which helps to keep me awake driving long distances, but also means we have to make fairly frequent pitstops. These are often in small, one-horse towns which we otherwise probably wouldn't give a second glance, and in some of which, e.g. Ruawai, on the Wairoa River estuary, the inhabitants probably don't have an awful lot to do except collect hubcaps. As I was taking the photo, I wondered where he'd got them all from, turned to check our car, and was vaguely relieved to note that it doesn't have any!
It's mainly farming country around here, as it has been for many generations. There are lots of very old churches scattered around the small settlements, including this one on a knoll overlooking the Wairoa River estuary near the village of Turiwiri, and in the shadow of a spectacular craggy peak which appeared from the signposts to be some sort of remnant of an extinct volcano. The church didn't look as though it was used very frequently, although the lawns were obviously still cut regularly.
The largest town on this part of the west coast of the North Island is Dargaville, which touts itself in the brochures as being the "Heart of the Kauri Coast". It has a reputation throughout the rest of the country, however, for being a sort of Hicksville, somewhat reinforced by the friendly garage attendant who, after filling up the van with diesel, and learning that we were from Tauranga, asked why on earth we wanted to visit Dargaville, when we could be in the Bay of Plenty. We took him at his word, and headed west straight out of town for our first glimpse of the real "wild" west coast (not capitalized, as the "West Coast" is used specifically for the west coast of the South Island) on this trip, at Baylys Beach ...
... interesting, but not particularly hospitable when the weather's being uncooperative.
From there we turned north and headed up into the hills through more farmland, with a quick detour to the famed Kai Iwi Lakes, freshwater lakes perched in the sand dunes, complete with resident trout populations! It was very windy and we had a few light showers while we were there, but it was very picturesque, and is one of the places that we agreed we'd like to go back and camp some time. However, I imagine that it's chokka, as they say, in the summer. The beach is very white, the water is clear and a lovely pale blue colour, and both are fringed, at least in the vicinity of the camp site, by pine trees. The ablution block is basic, but it was a place that I think I could happily spend a few days with trout rod and kayak, if we could keep the girls entertained. In fact, it reminded me very much of the Inyangombe Camp Site.
The camp site was almost deserted when we visited - in fact, there weren't many tourists at all on the entire west coast, despite it being the middle of the school holidays - and the girls made the most of this opportunity to use the playground and toilets ... and shatter the peace with rather a lot of shouting!
Then we were into the extensive Waipoua Forest ...
... where we stopped briefly and walked the five minutes - in the rain - to pay our respects to the famous Tane Mahuta "Lord of the Forest", New Zealand's tallest kauri tree, very impressive at 51 metres high, 17 metres to the first branch, 4.4 meters in diameter and with a circumference of 13 metres.
After winding up and down a few more hills we were suddenly overlooking the entrance of the Hokianga Harbour, where we had, some three or four hours earlier, decided to look for a place to stay the night. The holiday camp in the village of Omapere which we'd thought looked most suitable in the rather old AA Guidebook we were using turned out to have been taken over by a large hotel chain, and was way out of our price bracket, quite apart from the fact that we hadn't brought any smart clothes! We settled for a spacious, if rather sparsely furnished, single-roomed cabin at a motor camp in the next village along the shore, Opononi. This is a view of a part of the Hokianga harbour from the verandah of our cabin, with the huge sand dunes on the north head of the harbour mouth in the background.
After checking in at the motor camp, and the perennial "discussion" amongst the girls about who was going to get which beds/bunks, we went for a drive to the South Head, at the entrance to the Hokianga Harbour. The harbour stretches inland to the north-west for quite a distance (almost 40 kilometres, as the crow flies) but the harbour entrance is only 500-600 meres wide, guarded by a large hill to the south and the massive sand dunes to the north. Quite spectacular ...
... and on a clear day, I'm sure one can see a long way over the Tasman towards Australia. When we were there it was pretty hazy, presumably due to the high winds.
More interesting trees, plants, weathering, erosion and rock formations ...
Later it clouded over, and looked as though it might rain, so we headed back to Omapere for an evening meal ... but not before I got this great atmospheric shot of the harbour.
A very full day, and if we weren't already full enough, we stopped at a small cafe for a meal of fish, scallops, hamburgers and chips. The extended family of the people who owned the cafe including, it seemed, at least three, maybe four generations (children, parents, grandmother, uncles and aunts etc.) kept us entertained while we ate, after which we retired to the cabin for the night.