See Northland New Zealand via Campervan
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It's a surreal experience being a tourist in your own country – but the Far North is a different world, Ruth Hill discovers on her campervan adventure.
The Matakohe Motor Camp manager seems shocked to see us. "A campervan! I haven't seen one of those in a week!" she says, making us feel quite the intrepid explorers.
It's true the town is not as lively as it was 150 years ago, when Matakohe was the kauri capital and the forest giants' timber and gum (which made lovely varnish) were second only to gold as New Zealand's top exports.
The impressive Kauri Museum's exhibitions include a scale model of a working steam sawmill, a gumdigger's hut and an entire boarding house, all peopled by mannequins modelled on real-life volunteers and descendants of the original settlers. Photographs from the pioneer era show proud bewhiskered men astride giant stumps in the rakish poses of big-game hunters.
One of the museum's recent acquisitions is a 150-year-old kauri trunk, which was cut down to make way for the Orewa to Puhoi motorway extension. A plaque explains it was donated to the museum "as part of a range of ecological initiatives" by the construction company.
After witnessing the destruction memorialised in the Kauri Museum, it's almost a shock to find kauri still in existence in Waipoua Forest, like meeting storybook characters in the flesh.
Where teams of bullocks and bulldozers ploughed through virgin bush, tourists now tiptoe over board walks to avoid treading on delicate feeder roots.
These ancient living things have outlasted the rise and fall of empires here at the bottom of the world.
The oldest of them all, Te Matua Ngahere (the Father of the Forest), a colossal five metres in diameter, was already 2000 years old when Jesus walked the earth.
North of the Kauri Coast, the road meanders down to Hokianga Harbour and the twin hamlets of Omapere and Opononi.
The predominantly poor and under- developed West Coast might as well be a different country to the East Coast, which is lined with luxury enclaves of architecturally designed monstrosities.
It's not uncommon to pass a corrugated iron shed on the verge of collapse and then spot a straggly line of washing and a carefully tended vegetable patch and realise it's actually someone's home.
The landscape is achingly beautiful: rolling green pasture land, primeval forests, chalky cliffs, golden beaches, turquoise waters.
The tatty little towns strewn casually about this majestic countryside are so self-consciously "Kiwi", it's almost like they are parodying their lack of chic, playing it up for the tourists. But the welcome is warm and genuine.
Opononi's heyday was in 1955 when a lone dolphin made friends with a little girl called Jill Baker, whose parents ran the tearooms, and turned the the town into a national attraction.
Opo inspired a hit song, and the Government even passed a law to protect her. A day later, she was dead.
It is suspected she was killed by fishermen, who accused her of eating their catch.
The townsfolk gave Opo a public funeral and put up a statue of her; more than 50 years later, she is still pretty much the only show in town.
Historic Rawene is the departure point for ferries to Kohukohu and the back road to Kaitaia.
In the days of sailing ships, the town could only be accessed on the incoming tide, but with three pubs, crews didn't mind the stopover and neither do we.
The ferries run every hour, but we're happy to give the first one a miss and enjoy a coffee at the Boatshed Cafe.
The surfing mecca of Ahipara is distressingly calm, and Ninety Mile Beach appears empty except for a couple of doleful Chilean surfers in a $250 Holden waiting for their luck to turn.
The beach is an open road and various bus tours offer a hoon past the dunes. However, it's not recommended for smaller vehicles, as the odd car roof poking through the sand will testify, and all car-hire agreements prohibit such tomfoolery.
We stop off at Te Kao's general store, strangely drawn to the sign of the giant icecream. Inside, the walls are lined with flax kete, caps, hats and handicrafts in a rainbow of colours.
Bonnie Conrad is the dynamo behind the Kaikihikihi Arts cooperative, and her three daughters are among a small legion of weavers whose busy fingers keep the store stocked.
"Yeah, it's looking a bit bare at the moment," she says, gesturing to weaving strung from the ceiling and covering every inch of wall space.
"We had a bus-load of Hawaiians through last week and they cleaned us out."
Thousands of tour buses pass this way every year, but the road to Cape Reinga is unbelievably bad: old school metal broken up by huge craters.
It's late in the day by the time we make it to the parking lot, which is under construction, a swirl of mud in our wake. The car park and toilets are being moved because their old position was offensive to Maori, for whom the area is sacred.
According to legend, Spirits Bay is the place where the souls of the dead depart the earth and the 1000-year-old pohutukawa tree hides the entrance to the Underworld (Te Rerenga Wairua) among its roots.
Cape Reinga is not actually the northern most point in New Zealand – that's North Cape, 30 kilometres to the east – and the lighthouse keeper is long gone, the lamp now controlled by computer from Wellington. But standing on the cliff top, which is like the prow of a massive ship, with the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea churning together far below, it certainly feels like the end of the world.
The coastal riches that make the Bay of Islands a tourist paradise also made it a hotly contested territory for Maori tribes before Captain Cook sailed through in the late 18th century.
The hub for countless cruises and dolphin-watching excursions is Paihia.
It's possible to drive from Waitangi to Paihia in two minutes instead of circumnavigating the entire inlet, which we discover takes the best part of three hours.
However, thanks to my creative navigational skills, we get to see the world-famous Hundertwasser toilets of Kawakawa.
The reclusive Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser moved to the area in the 1970s and left a lasting testament to the town in this work.
It's a tad disturbing to see a bunch of people queuing for the loo with cameras in hand, but the weird and wonderful block with its crooked, patchwork, ceramic-tile columns and grass roof is certainly eye-catching.
Russell is a short ferry ride from either Paihia or Opua.
The town was notorious as the hellhole of the Pacific thanks to the rag-tag gang of whalers, sealers, traders and missionaries who followed in Cook's wake.
We make a last abortive attempt to find surf at Waipu but console ourselves by rummaging around in its great second-hand stores.
Our last evening is spent at the famous Leigh Sawmill Cafe, which attracts gourmands and music-lovers from far afield. The menu is so exciting we order too much and end up with an embarrassing number of platters.
The cafe is a converted 19th century kauri mill and the giant saws are now quaint decor features.
It's an apt setting for the final night of our Northland odyssey, bringing together the rich pioneering past of the region with its future hope, tourism.
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