We are all very impressed with Tāne Mahuta. He's beautiful and old and lovely.
We're standing there admiring it on the first day of our campervan trip to the Hokianga, when a couple of Australian tourists nearly walk past it, double-back and say, 'Oh, is that it?'
Apparently 'the one down the road' is thicker and you can get closer, so Tāne Mahuta is a disappointment. But it only slightly mars our visit, we're not disappointed at all. The six-year-old notes details of the facts on the nearby info boards to take back to school and we take a bunch of photos that provide no sense at all of the size or majesty of the tree.
It’s our first day driving north in a Britz Explorer 4-berth campervan to spend a few nights in the Hokianga. The kids are THRILLED with the accommodation – it turns out that campervans with their secret compartments and ladders are made for children.
We leave the big tree and drive the rest of the way to Ōpononi. The bush through the Waipōua Forest is just stunning – I get misty imagining local iwi in the past here, hunting kererū and moa and sheltering from the rain in the deep green lushness of it all.
Out the other side of the forest, we stop at the Ōpononi Hotel and have deliciously fresh flounder and chips and handles of Speights with a side of seriously good views.
The kids learn about Opo, the famous dolphin who used to visit the beach in the mid-1950s and the golden sand dunes on the other side of the Hokianga harbour look beautiful and imposing in the evening sun. This pub goes off for the Hokianga Country Music Festival in September and gets pretty busy at New Years and in January, but tonight it's quiet – just a few locals drinking swappas with their backs to the view, like it’s nothing special at all...
I guess you get used to it, but we're marvelling – the view when you crest over the hill when you first go down to Ōmapere; the sunset over the harbour from the Rāwene campsite where we spend our first night. The Rāwene Holiday Park is lovely – warm friendly hosts with special little areas to eat or hang out (one with a pizza oven), a pool and exceptional views. The sites and cabins spill down the hill, so everyone has a view, but as I said, they’re used to that here!
The kids are in LOVE with our accommodation – they've already decided we should swap the campervan for our house. They sleep in the large space above the driver’s seat. It takes some serious giggling and shrieking and popping out from between the little curtains, but finally, they get to sleep.
We grownups feel very smug and snug, drinking wine and reading our books while it thrashes down outside, and feel very sorry for the four young guys we saw struggling with tents in the rain as we drove in. The campervan comes with all the bedding and towels, so we just needed to fill the fridge and bring our clothes.
The weather for most of our weekend is terrible, with only short patches of sun and it's here we really appreciate the campervan – not having to run from car to café to motel to public toilet and so on...
In the morning we have breakfast in the camper, then drive into the cute little town of Rāwene and have excellent long blacks and muffins at the Boatshed Café, which is perched right on the water's edge and the deck hanging over the water offers more of the good stuff... those views!
There's a good little craft shop in the café and a couple of galleries on the same street. We walk up to the historic gaol and library – there's a sunny kids' section with books and toys and a big Māui mural. We learn a bit about the history of the area, while the kids read.
Rāwene is where you catch the car ferry to Kohukohu, on the other side of the Hokianga Harbour. We crawl through driving rain. Although the campervan is easy to drive and we're both enjoying having turns, you're always aware of the sheer size of it and need to take extra caution on these windy dirt roads.
We stop and make lunch in the carpark of St Mary's church in Motuti, a place of great historical significance to New Zealand Catholics. The founder of the Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand was a young French bishop, Jean Baptiste François Pompallier, who arrived at the Hokianga Harbour on 10 January 1838 and New Zealand's first Mass was celebrated at Tōtara Point on 13 January 1838. The bishop returned to France in later life, but in the 1990s calls began for the return of the founding bishop and, in 2001, it was agreed that Bishop Pompallier's remains would be returned to be buried here, in Motuti.
It's a lovely scene, set in rolling farmland and the neighbouring graveyard and stations of the cross are pretty, too. There are little churches absolutely everywhere in the Hokianga – Catholicism was embraced strongly by many local Māori.
The adults of the trip could drive on and on – so many winding little roads to explore! But kids are not so good at driving. If only it was still the good ol' days when they could just roll around on the bed in the back while we’re driving, but our law-abiding natures win out and we strap them in and get used to the aural background of terrible audiobooks about puppies from the library and arewethereyetarewethereyethowlongisanhourhowlongis45minuteswhenarewetherearewethereyet . . .
Kohukohu has a number of cute cafes well worth a visit, but we've got to get back on the car ferry. Again we are glad of the luxury of being able to be inside a spacious area where we can move around, cook and eat without having to get out into the weather.
I now get why people love hiring campervans so much (even if it's a bit pricey) – it's very satisfying.
We drive to Hōreke. The harbour here is brown from all the rain, but it's still dramatically beautiful. We stop in at the pub – I read that it's the oldest hotel in New Zealand and insist we go in the name of research. This seems like something they might advertise, but we can't see a plaque or note about it anywhere. We check online – there are a few claims to the honour in New Zealand, of which it is one. Regardless, it's certainly got a special feel to it and it does a good pink lemonade and Speights for this group of four intrepid settlers.
We drive back to Ōpononi for our second night – the dunes stretch goldenly opposite us and we cook a meal in the camper and try only slightly more successfully to get the kids to bed at a reasonable hour. We go to sleep with the rain beating on the roof and I listen to the sleeping breathing of my family, feeling so so lucky.
The next day is very windy but a little sunny! The goat at the campsite obligingly eats a hundred handfuls of offered grass, despite standing in the stuff all day long. He gets called Flouncy and the kids try and convince us we also need a goat at home.
We are so keen to do the sandboarding on those beautiful dunes and Pete at Hokianga Express Charters has offered to take us, but it's so windy he says the boat won't get across. This is such a shame – the pictures we've seen look like so much fun (you walk up then race boogie boards to the bottom), but the weather will do what it wants so we put it on the list for next time. Another opportunity we miss is the Footprints Waipoua tour – by all accounts it’s a very special and fascinating way to spend a few hours, walking through the forest with a local guide talking about how the trees are intertwined with the lives of local Māori and their significance in the forest, but three hours of walking at 6pm is too much for us (well, some of us anyway!)
We drive up to the lookout point and walk the Signal Station Track that starts from the Arai Te Uru Recreational Reserve car park. There are no surprises here, with more stunning views of the whole harbour across to the dunes and out to sea. It's only a ten-minute walk and you can pop down to the beach off the side of the headland, or to the site of the old signal station.
We stop for smoked fish at a roadside shop on the drive there – it's mullet and freshly smoked and absolutely delicious. The raw fish salad is great, too.
I can’t get the comment of those darn Australians out of my mind so we drive back to the forest past Tāne Mahuta to Te Matua Ngāhere. It's a 20-minute walk through dense, moody, beautiful native forest and it is indeed a very very thick tree, but the canopy isn't as nice as Tāne Mahuta's. We also stop by the Four Sisters – four tall kauris standing extremely close together – and I think of my own three sisters.
It’s back to the cosy camper for lunch. Thanks to our mobile kitchen facilities, there's been far fewer pies than usual on this trip! We then drive to the Copthorne Resort in Ōmapere where we have been lucky enough to be invited for the night – it's in one of the best locations I've ever seen. Directly facing the enormous dunes across the harbour it's so beautiful – the green grass of the lawn leads to the deep blue ocean then the golden sand dunes – a stunning triptych.
The luxury of the hotel quickly turns us from intrepid walking explorers to spoiled blobs and we lie by the pool with a drink while a mad four and six-year-old jump in. It is NOT warm enough for this. We take a wander along the beach looking in rock pools and playing in the sand until it's time for an aperitif in the lounge bar before dinner in the restaurant. Dinner is a perfect steak and chips and a couple of glasses of local Kapiro wine, which all sees us tucked up by 9.30.
There's sun! It's a beautiful morning so we fill up at the buffet then enjoy a couple of hours on the lawn and beach – it's really such a beautiful spot and I want to ask the lovely efficient staff how they don’t spend the whole day staring out the window. But we've got to get our lovely travelling beast back to its headquarters, so we load up with more smoked fish, take a few more glances at those mighty dunes, and hit the road.
'Today at the pub we saw a statue of a famous dolphin called Opo.'
'When walking we came upon a pony called Mahogany Buzzbar. It was very cool.'
'And we saw a dog too. He shivered and looked like he said, arrr I wanna lick that girl.'
'We went to a kumara town. A whole town of kumara!'
'And we saw Tāne Mahuta and we got to know that his seed was planted 2000 years ago and he is 51 metres tall. We loved it it was very cool.'