Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Far North

The weather deteriorated as we drove further north, and by the time we’d reached the start of the 20km of loose gravel track to Spirits Bay, the rain formed a relentless cascade down the windscreen. The unsealed road wound its way through the bush, dipping and climbing, all the time buffeted by strengthening wind and rain. Worryingly recent landslips covered half of the track, forcing the van to negotiate its way between piles of freshly exposed tree root and red clay on one side, and terrifyingly steep drops on the other. “Maybe we should have waited for next weekend”, I said with exasperation as we narrowed another hair-raising corner.

But Amy was nothing if not stoic, "Knowing us though, the weather next weekend will be even worse, and we’ll never get up here, so we shouldn't complain”, she said. And, as ever, she was right – we couldn’t not see these places just because the weather didn’t show them in their best light; that’s a mentality best saved for the tourist, not the traveller; and in northern New Zealand, with its humidity and temperamental climate, adopting it would often mean you wouldn’t see anything. 

Eventually we arrived at Spirits Bay DoC campsite, and determined to let the rain dampen anything but our resolve, we did the honourable British thing: threw on our cagoules and trudged, heads bowed to the wind and rain, to the beach. 

I’d read somewhere that Spirits Bay is considered the most supernaturally-active place in New Zealand, with strange, distant figures seen walking in the twilight towards the ocean, paying no heed to the calls of others. I'm confident that these eerie beings are, in fact, hardy British tourists, made oblivious to anyone else by the deafening thunk of sidewards rain hitting their anoraks, determined to see the seaside no matter what the weather brings.

The coastal perfection of Spirits Bay
The next morning couldn’t have been any different. The piercing squawk of a Pukeko outside the van heralded a bluebird dawn, and we knew we’d  made no mistake in coming here. The departure of the cloud revealed Spirits Bay for what it really was; radiant in platinum-white sands and sapphire waters, divided by the thunder of heavy waves. After a morning of basking, we decided to make the most of the clear weather while we could, packed the van and headed back  along precarious gravel road to the iconic Cape Reinga.

The Tasman (left) and Pacific (right) do battle.

The cape marks the tumultuous confluence of the dark, cold Tasman Sea on New Zealand’s west coast, and the mighty glistening Pacific on its east.  A lighthouse perched atop the cliffs overlooks the engagement of the two in constant battle, their waters broiling and churning in a maelstromic embrace. Incredibly, you can even distinguish the two oceans in their different hues of deep blue.

The spectacular, spiritual Cape Reinga. 
At the foot of the craggy headland, a wizened Pohutukawa tree marks the place where Maori belief says the spirits of the recently deceased make their descent beneath the waves on their journey to the underworld. There is something unequivocally asomatous and ethereal about its stark, lonely silhouette clinging to the rocks as it gazes north across the vast emptiness of the Pacific, and it’s not hard to imagine how its ancient gnarled branches and roots could be seen as a portal to the afterlife.

The good weather unveiled the beauty of the peninsula as we trundled back down - enormous sand dunes and dazzlingly white spits, rolling hills, and the seemingly endless Ninety Mile Beach - an unbroken stretch of sand that extends, rather confusingly, for sixty miles, forming the an arcing crest at the top of New Zealand. 

The horizon is lost in the waves and sand of Ninety Mile Beach.

Sections of Ninety Mile Beach act as a dubious highway along the peninsula for the daring motorist – daring, that is, if you’re driving a fully-laden 1.6l rear-wheel drive. We’d managed to get our van stuck in a small sandy rut before in Piha, but I wasn’t going to be dissuaded. Why drive on tarmac, when there’s a perfectly novel, slightly more dangerous alternative running parallel? Thankfully, my gung-ho decision to take on this granular motorway paid off, and for the 20km between Pukenui and Waipapakauri, the tyres of our van enjoyed the freedom of beach driving, while we enjoyed the genuine adrenaline rush of wondering whether or not we were going to become sand-bound.

Everything about Northland seemed wonderfully pristine and idyllically empty, just as we'd imagined New Zealand would be. 
The sun sets over the Karikari peninsula.

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