On the west coast of Northland sits another wonderful harbour, the Hokianga. Just like Whangaroa Harbour on the opposite coast, the Hokianga is a drowned river system, but was flooded much earlier, at the end of the last ice age around 12000 years ago.
Although Hokianga doesn’t have the stunning rock formations of its counterpart, it is much larger, and has some gorgeous beaches and huge sand dunes. These dunes dominate the northern shoreline, where the relatively tranquil waters of the harbour crash into the often raging Tasman Sea, creating a bar that has been the downfall of many a sailor over the years.
A wandering soul finds his home
The legendary Polynesian explorer Kupe arrived there in around 925AD and decided to call the place home, giving it the rather beautiful name of ‘Te Puna i te ao marama’ ‘the spring of the world of light’. He lived there for many years, until in his old age he decided to return to his place of birth, Hawaiki. Upon departing he uttered these words about his decision to leave “Hei konei ra i te puna i te ao marama, ka hoki nei ahau, e kore ano e hokianga-nui mai” “This the spring of the world of light, I shall not come back here again”, and so the name ‘Te Hokianga nui a Kupe’ was given, which in time simply became ‘Hokianga’.
These days, the Hokianga is still pretty sparsely populated, with small, sleepy settlements dotted along the shores. Approaching the harbour from the east, on the southern shoreline, the first of these that we arrived at is Horeke, which is reported to be New Zealand’s second oldest town.
Established to serve a new ship building yard which was built in 1826, it’s also home to NZ’s oldest surviving pub, the Horeke Tavern. The twin coast cycle trail comes through here now so it’s a great place to stop off and rest your weary legs and replenish those energy reserves.
Not far from Horeke are the Wairere Boulders, an incredible set of huge basalt rocks that have tumbled down the valley over the last 2.8 million years or so, creating a truly unique natural attraction.
Walking amongst these ancient behemoths, we really felt their great age, and could only begin to imagine the forces of nature that were at work over the past few millennia, carving, shaping and shifting these megalith-like rocks.
The track wound its way through the boulders, putting us cheek to cheek with their ancient, weathered faces, until we eventually reached the viewpoint. From here we were rewarded with truly breathtaking views back down the valley and across the mass of rocks within its bush-clad ramparts.
Next up, we followed the coastline around to the village of Rawene, New Zealand’s third oldest settlement and a place that’s full of history and character. Many of the buildings sit on wooden piles over the lapping, murky waters of the harbour and this is also the place where you can take the car ferry across to Kohukohu on the northern side of the harbour. Legend has it that when the explorer Kupe was here, he was angered that the food in the hangi was not sufficiently cooked, cursing those responsible “Kohu,” which is where the village got its name.
Don’t let Kupe’s early version of a one star Tripadvisor review put you off though, Kohukohu is a lovely little village, home to many artisans, writers and musicians. There are a number of art galleries dotted around, along with the historic Kohukohu Pub. Owned by a friend of mine, Russell, who I used to work with at Vodafone, it’s a great spot for lunch, dinner or just a drink or two.
From Kohukohu we followed the road west as it winds its way to the coast, eventually arriving at the remote beach settlement of Mitimiti. This really is about as far away from everywhere as you can get, and there’s even a rusted out truck on the beach to add to the atmosphere. The rusting hulk symbolises the end of the road, and its not too far wrong. Stunningly beautiful though.
Opononi and Omapere
Back on the southern side of the harbour and continuing west from Rawene are the twin settlements of Opononi and Omapere. Both are great places, fringed with beautiful white sandy beaches, with a backdrop of rolling hills.
Opononi is world famous in New Zealand due to ‘Opo’ the very friendly dolphin who swam and played with the locals and tourists in the mid 50s. Originally called ‘Opononi Jack’ as it was believed that she was a male, she was unfortunately washed up dead not long after on the nearby shores, thought to have been killed by people fishing with dynamite! Opo was buried with full Maori honours in a special plot by the War Memorial Hall.
The views across the harbour from Omapere are spectacular, with the Rangi Point sand dunes providing an almost surreal backdrop to the blue-green waters of the harbour. The dunes are simply stunning, huge walls of sand that cascade steeply down into the beckoning water below. If you are feeling adventurous you can take a water taxi across from Opononi and sand board down the dunes, which I’m sure would be heaps of fun.
We headed just up the road from Omapere to the Aria te Uru Nature Reserve. Gazing back across the headland, the expansive vista across the harbour, dunes and town below is truly mesmerising. From here you can also walk down to Martin’s Beach, a beautiful secluded bay which you will probably have all to yourself.
After exploring Aria te Uru we travelled back down the hill for a bite to eat at the Copthorne Hotel, right on the beachfront. It has a great restaurant looking out across the harbour to the dunes and the food is good too. The beach outside the hotel has a real tropical feel, with the white sands, blue waters and impressive hills behind combining to make a picture perfect scene. When we owned our motel in Kerikeri, I used to drive over to look for driftwood on the beach outside the hotel as there’s heaps of great pieces there.
That evening we walked out to the nearby wharf, adjacent to the hotel, where the big game fishermen weigh their catches after doing battle with these denizens of the deep. It’s another magical place, and there’s nowhere better to sit and watch the sunset over this enchanting harbour.