Te Tai Tokerau Northland is one of those destinations that look nearby on a map, but in reality take considerable time to reach. Brian had to be in Auckland to catch a flight for work so we slowly made our way up from there. Stops on this trip included Whāngārei Headland, Mangawhai cliff walk, and the Tutukaka coast, the destination that inspired this trip.
Located on the east coast in the southern reaches of Te Tai Tokerau Northland, Whāngārei is NZ’s northernmost city. There is little industry beyond dairy supporting this sleepy little city of less than 60,000 people, but its subtropical climate, white sand beaches, and large harbour, Whāngārei-te-rerenga-parāoa (the gathering place of whales) attract those searching for summer in the ‘winterless’ north. We have stopped here various times on our trips north, but experienced nothing more than grabbing a bite to eat or strolling around the town center. We were excited to finally extend our stay beyond a brief stopover.
We headed along the scenic coastal road to Whāngārei Heads. This little peninsula is packed with adventure with towering volcanic peaks covered in native bush that is rich in bird life along the spine and white sand beaches with pōhutukawa trees line the coastal edge. There are two popular (relatively speaking) hikes here Mount Manaia, a short 4 km track with views of the harbour and the Te Whara Bream Headland circuit (8km) or through track (7.5km) that follow a historic Māori trail. We chose the Te Whara track for its cultural significance and proximity to the beach as we planned to spend our day here. This hike is quite challenging with big climbs and bit of rock scrambling, but the reward of the views from the top are worth all of the effort. I just love that steeple rock, iconic to the headland.
On the decent down to the coast you will pass some old WWII structures used by soldiers who lived there in case of an attack. and once you clear the bush line views open to expose a stunning beach and sand dune system.
This is one of my favorite beaches in all of Aotearoa NZ. So much to discover in the tidal pools, secret beach coves, and sand dune tracks.
After all of that hiking and swimming, we were on a food mission. There are a handful of cafes along the headland, but we wanted to sip some beer and spend time outside so we chose Parua Bay Tavern for its expansive outdoor seating and large selection of handles. Afterwords, we were off to find a campsite on the Tutukaka Coast.
We stumbled upon the Tutukaka coast last year on our way down from the far north. This little gem is a less frequented destination than the touristy Bay of Islands to the north, but in my view SO much better. With a 4200 ha protected marine reserve at Poor Knights Island, the Tutukaka coast became a diving destination. A variety of beaches, tidal rock pools, and native bush with giant kauri trees bring others to this sleepy summer destination.
On our first visit we stayed on a bush property with over 40 kiwi in a large canvas tent, enjoying star filled skies in a traditional kiwi bath. By day we explored the bush, hiked tidal tracks, and cooled off in the mermaid rock pool on the coastal edge.
During this trip we stumbled upon a dive shop with boat trips to Poor Nights Island, a place we had never heard anyone mention or noticed when searching NZ destinations. We couldn’t wait to return for a snorkel once summer returned and we did just that on the first full weekend of the season.
Part of a group of ancient volcanoes, Poor Knights Island is a 4200 ha marine reserve loaded with caves, cliffs, sponge gardens, kelp forest, and diverse fish population. In less than 20 years under protection the biomass of species grew exponentially, with some over 800%. This was my first cold water snorkle (besides Wellington) and while the fish may be a bit less colorful, their abundance was not. I also found that I am far more fascinated with the sea grasses of this environment verses the coral in reefs we have seen in tropical places. Here, the colorful kelp danced so gracefully in harmony with the current as the curious fish played up to the camera between cliff wall feedings
The ecology above water is quite diverse as well, with the island serving as home to many rare birds. The Buller’s Shearwater travels all the way from North America to nest there and there is a thriving gannet colony that dive with great force and efficiency as you snorkel. The colorful cliffs of the island were covered in blooming Pōhutukawa trees with a variety of rock outcroppings and ‘holes in the rock’ arches throughout. Side trips into caves and under arches were wonderful compliments to our underwater experience.
The freedom camping around the Tutukaka is some of the best, especially if you have a smaller camper. There are so many free sites tucked in tiny bays with incredible coastal views. With a maximum of 24 hours stay, there is good turnover so many get to experience the beauty here. When it comes to freedom camping in NZ, it is best to arrive early as most of the spots are filled by 3 pm in the summer months. We lucked out and scored the very last spot on Wellington Bay, located at the tip of a headland between Tutukaka and Ngunuru. This little bay has a large swimming beach, interesting rock formations, a low tide secret beach and heaps of late day sun.
Sunset here was a dream…
The excellent freedom camping extends north to Whananaki and south to Whāngārei. On our way back from Tutukaka we found a lovely low cost DOC site at Uretiti Beach. This campground is expansive and can hold heaps of people. While there were nearly 100 vans here for the evening, one can still find a quiet spot and once you cross over the sand dunes to the beach the people dissipate even more. Lovely views of Bream Headland are seen off in the distance.
Between Tutukaka and Whāngārei, you will also find Whāngārei Falls, a stunning waterfall right in the heart of development. Its remarkable to pull over to a parking area on the side of a busy road and walk only 5 minutes through the bush to the base of this waterfall.
Mangawhai cliff walk
We broke up our long ride back home with a detour through small coastal towns and a hike along the Mangawhai Cliffs. This 9km walk offers panoramic views of the coast from above and swimming opportunities in tiny cove beaches below.
This hike is best done during low tide as the many of the beaches require a swim to reach at high tide. Bri and I never seem to time our visits to places well with tidal schedules so our hike required a bit of patience and rock climbing along the coastline.
It was well worth the effort to be able to experience both sections of the track.
At the start/finish of the track there are some interesting honeycomb rock formations lining a white sand beach section. This area is popular with sunbathers and swimmers just there for a day on the beach.
No trip north is complete without a Sunday night stay at Waihi Beach. Enjoy a meal with killer views at Flat White Cafe, free and ample freedom camping, and dip in the ocean before bed. Summer had finally arrived!