The last parking lot
in Aotearoa:
fall cyclone fluting.

A few minutes’ walk from that last parking lot and you’re at the top left corner of New Zealand: Cape Reinga. Some days, they say, you can see the Pacific ocean’s waters meet the Tasman sea’s. But I couldn’t.

Cape Reinga lighthouse

Look right: that last headland is the Surville Cliffs, actually NZ’s northernmost point.

Looking East from Cape Reinga

Look left:

Looking southwest from Cape

There really was music in the parking lot; by a little shelter with murals, the path to the lighthouse leads through it. I was sure there had to be a hippie up on its roof playing vaguely Asian riffs on a wood-flute; then falling silent.

I scrambled up and found nobody, but then I could hear the wind, the last after-gusts perhaps of Cyclone Pam, making music. On and off there was a basso pulsing, a bit like those huge Andean pan-pipes; but then the purest-imaginable flute melody would break out. Maybe there was a hippie there hiding in a corner I couldn’t find. Quite possibly one of the murals explained how the corrugated-metal roof was tuned to play flutey stuff. Who knows, maybe it was a cheap stereo playing Paul Horn recordings. The family had to drag me away.

Deep north ·
Election posters
rattle before the cyclone
blue and pink on green.

Three days before, we’d driven all afternoon from Auckland north to Whangarei where Auntie Jean lives; the modern divided highway was pretty soon a two-lane with passing pullouts. The landscape grew greener as the towns grew smaller. As we arrived, Jean had the TV tuned to the weather forecast, full of portentous cyclone images.

On a map Auckland looks near the top of the North Island. But it goes on for another 265km and that’s The Northland. It was having a by-election, thus the pink faces in blue suits on all the signs. Whangarei is the only substantial city.

Whangarei isn’t all that exciting, but cousin Duncan has a place on Parua Bay across the street from the beach; we were going to go over there and let the kids have a day in the water. But Cyclone Pam was weighing in; the water was metallic and scary looking. I walked around the corner and photographed a little jetty, hanging on for dear life as the gale cranked up and up and up.

Parua Bay

Those clouds were proceeding across the sky at a fast walk. There were a bunch of sailboats tied up; I hope to hell they knew what they were doing with those moorings.

Narrow road ·
Cyclone-wet pavement
twisty grey in green on green
more green behind it.

The day before we visited the cape we drove east from Whangarei past the farm where Lauren grew up to Dargaville where she worked for the city council as a teenager — “they still haven’t put in a traffic light!” she said — then turned north through the Waipoua forest and its great kauris (more on that another day) then, rain-soaked and hungry, stopped for lunch at Opononi (which I recommend).

We were headed for Doubtless Bay but had neglected to plan our route and had precious little cell data. But the minivan Lauren’s Dad lent us had a beautiful old-fashioned map-book, in which I discovered the ferry from Rawene to Kohukohu.

Leaving Rawene

Leaving Rawene on the ferryboat.

The road went on through the Maungataniwha Range via Mangamuka Gorge, and that was quite a driving experience.

First, a sociology sidebar: NZ (and Oz across the ditch) have something I’ve not observed in any other English-speaking country: A culture of obeying speed limits. I was driving more or less at it and nobody ever went zipping past me.

But I can tell you I wasn’t driving anywhere near it in the Mangamukas. A EuroSuperCar might be able to sustain 100kph around a few of those curves without inflicting instant death on its passengers; but not Lauren’s Dad’s old Chrysler. I think the Kiwi road-builders have a sense of humor; I giggled every time I wrestled the van around another steep-descending set of hairpins to be greeted by a “Max 100” sign.

It looks like this.

Green behind green behind green

Green on green, more green behind it.

Doubtless Bay ·
Killing cyclone waves
now soft kisses on gold sand
a child’s cries of joy.

It was a hard day of driving to the bay; as soon as we hit our Mangonui motel we took the kids to the beach.

Cooper’s beach near Mangonui

That’s Coopers Beach, with a few Cyclone-Pam leftover waves rolling in. We’d borrowed boogie boards and the kids hit the surf explosively. I’ve been to a lot of beaches but I’m not sure any of them, anywhere, are significantly nicer than Coopers.

I guess, since we were in the neighborhood, I should mention Ninety Mile Beach, even though we didn’t swim there, nor did we use it as a highway or bodyboard down the dunes, both of which are said to be fun. We did visit though.

Boy jumping on Ninety Mile Beach

I have to say that Mangonui stole a piece of my heart. It’s a gentle place, mostly sheltered from real Pacific wave fury, green, neither deserted nor overpopulated. It’s pretty high on the list of places I’ve visited in recent years that made me think “I could live here”. Good Internet would be a problem though, I bet.

Mangonui from Rangikapiti Pa
· · ·
Looking west from Rangikapiti Pa

Above Mangonui from Rangikapiti Pa.
Below: looking west toward Coopers Beach and Cable Bay.

There are decent places to eat. We had really superior fish & chips; not from the famous joint that the locals told us to stay away from, but from “Harbourside Takeaways”, where they were made by a teeny little white-haired Māori lady, assisted by her blond grandson. Also, we were astonished at one of the best Thai meals I’ve had in years and years, at The Thai. Totally recommended.

Small towns ·
Cyclone-washed seafront
burly waiter slings pizza
sundazzled ice cubes.

We made a day trip down to Kerikeri and Paihia. They’re pretty and charming and green and hospitable. If you feel like it you can go see the historic sites where the treaty was signed or the disgruntled Māori chief Hōne Heke cut down the British flagpole, repeatedly.

Instead, we had damn fine waterfront pizzas at “Sauce”, and that was where I discovered the best beer of my New Zealand vacation, an IPA from Good George Brewing.

They have a piano on the promenade; here’s a girl playing it.

Piano in Paihia

The Northland; well, yeah, the roads are narrow all right. But you might want to check it out anyhow.


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March 31, 2015
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