NZ: The Road To Waitangi

Waking up in the campervan is not the closest you can be to nature, but when you draw back the curtains and gaze up at trees older than the history of the local people… Well, it is still impressive. Comfortable and impressive. And a brilliant start for our travels to Waitangi—the birthplace of New Zealand, the nation.

This is not to be mistaken with the birthplace of Aotearoa (and the Maori People), being Hokianga Harbour. But let’s start our day of history from the beginning…


After our audience with the forest gods yesterday, it was wonderful to wake up with a fresh sense of adventure and peace. As if we had been given their blessings to continue the journey and learn more about this amazing place.

We started with a change to the seating arrangements. For most of the long stretches, our eldest child was able to sit in the front seat and help navigate or take notes, while I sat in the back and helped with the younger two. You can find more about NZ child restraint laws here.

Being up the front with Dad gave him a sense of responsibility. They could talk about the landscape, photos, history,  destinations… even just chat about music selections. It gave me the opportunity to engage the younger two with stories of where we are heading and what we are doing. And it was easy enough to swap around, allowing our eldest time in the back to recharge and me up front with specific directions and planning.


It felt good to drive through the Waipoua National Park again. The winding road with all of the majestic trees around us really created a ‘land before time’ feel. These trees have seen so much. They were here first and fortunately, with the protection of caretakers, they will be here for some time yet.

As we came out from the Waipoua Forest, the trees spread out across the hills and the bright blue sky opened above us. I remember hearing a young gasp from the front seat, noting the first significant change in scenery. The forest greens and browns were soon replaced with contrasting yellow and orange as we came upon the beautiful Hokianga Harbour. Of all the areas of Northland, this harbour felt as removed from time as the forest. Most of the Maori tribes believe this is the original landing point for the first explorer, Polynesian navigator Kupe around 924CE. Kupe’s descendants later returned to settle in Aotearoa, and the Harbour was originally named “Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe“—the place of Kupe’s great return.


The only thing that stopped us from exploring further was the tight time-frame for travel. However, it was the Harbour dominating our discussion for the rest of the journey to Waitangi. The kids loved talking about why Hokianga would appeal to the Polynesian travellers of long ago; the beauty, the location, the ease of access after long travels, the Western position (which the kids found curious because wouldn’t the travellers have hit the East Coast first?). The one thing we all agreed on was how much this area would mean to the Maori people, and how that would be enough motivation to fight any invaders to retain their land.


Which brings us to the Waitangi Treaty House. This place holds a special importance in the history of New Zealand, and thus why we felt it necessary to bring the kids here. It was here the much contested Treaty of Waitangi was first signed by Maori chiefs and the British Crown, establishing British sovereignty with considerable compromises. Talking to the Maori people working at the historic centre, many of the compromises were ignored or neglected for too many years. It is only recently the Maori people have successfully called the NZ Government on these breaches and received compensation for them. For example, the ownership/caretaking of the Waipoua Forest is now solely in the hands of the Te Roroa, the local iwi (tribe).


The Treaty House shares many displays of the Maori heritage in New Zealand, establishing a long history, contributing to the growth of the nation. The kids were most impressed by the balance between Maori and European settlers in maintaining a healthy respect for nature. In Australia, we seem to be caught in a never-ending battle on this front—partly due to the lack of respect ‘white people’ have for the traditional care Australian Aborigines have for the natural environment.


Seeing how New Zealand people were able to find a tentative peace and mutual path to the future, we continued our drive down south from Waitangi. After seeing the Forest gods, the Maori Heart, and the Treaty Home, it was time to show the kids its urban heart: Auckland.


By the time we reached Auckland (with a few stops for food and leg stretches), it was night. This suited us just fine. In absolute honesty, we had not planned on stopping in Auckland for too long. We live in a large city and did not really want to spend our holiday in another, especially one so similar to our own. The only thing we had promised the kids was a visit to Auckland’s Sky Tower. We had to tick it off the list: Sydney’s Tower Eye; Kuala Lumpur’s Menara Tower; Pisa’s Leaning Tower; Bologna’s Asinelli; and now Auckland.

It’s a thing.


Dusk to evening is the best time to visit the Sky Tower. There are plenty of parking opportunities within four or so blocks, with a few pizza stops in between for dinner. Following the State Highway 1 into Auckland, we took the first exit after the main harbour bridge (Queen’s Wharf). This set us down in the main CBD area surrounding the tower.


We found a park near Victoria and Nelson Streets; on the road for a reasonable price (less than $25 for a few hours). It was well lit and large enough for the campervan. There are secured car parks closer to the Tower, but none of them has the height clearance for the campervan.

Speaking of heights: If you are scared of heights, you may want to jump ahead of the next few photos. From the top, there is a 360-degree view of Auckland. Dusk provides you with a good view of the Harbour, but we really enjoyed seeing the city lights come alive.


The greatest highlight for our youngest was to look down through the glass panels to the road below. The glass is as thick as the concrete and as safe as the rest of the floor you are walking on, but the floor isn’t anywhere near as fascinating!!


After watching the hustle and bustle of the city, our kids were ready for bed. They had absorbed so much that day; from the beautiful scenery through to the complex history of two nations desperately merging together.

As the kids settled into their seats, we opted to drive south from Auckland and aim for Thames in the Coromandel Peninsula. The drive is mostly highway and as boring as it is efficient. It was the perfect stretch for driving while the kids sleep since they won’t miss anything.  Once again, we pulled out the trusty Campermate and planned our next ‘freedom camp’ for the night.

Stay on the SH1 until just after Bombay where you will take the exit for SH2. Follow this highway until you see the sign for Mangatarata—don’t go that way! Instead, take the exit to the left for SH25 and head for Thames.

We ended up driving through Thames and going for Tararu. The next day we were planning on visiting the Butterfly & Orchid Garden, which is closer to Tararu than Thames. Just down the road from the Garden is a great place for campervans: Tararu Beachfront North Reserve. It’s after the Aerodrome and on your left as you head north. In total, it’s just over two hours drive from Auckland and gave us a much better head start for the next day.

When visiting the north island of New Zealand, you don’t have to turn it into a history/sociology lesson like we did. There are so many beautiful places to stop and explore. It really is a country that keeps on giving, no matter which direction you travel.

For us, we really enjoyed driving from Waipoua Forest around Hokianga Harbour, over to Waitangi and finally through Auckland. It added a contextual nature to the birth and growth of New Zealand and all of its people. The kids seem to have a greater cultural interest in our holiday and believe me when I say, this led to a greater discussion on the road ahead.




NZ: Waipoua Forest and the Forest Gods


My travel holidays never feel like they have started until the first morning; When you slowly open your eyes and realise you’re in a new bed, a new location, a new world.

The fresh morning light gave us the first real opportunity to appreciate our campground selection—Port Albert Domain (read more in the previous post). B had parked in a brilliant position: good distance away from the public toilets and main driveway in; completely avoiding the horrible potholes; with the rear windows facing the ocean views (perfect as our first outlook for the day). It was a very quiet secluded campsite, with only three other campervans for company.

Shaking off the bad vibes of yesterday, we all agreed to head to the Waipoua Forest and seek an audience with the Great Guardians of the Forest. The Waipoua Forest is home to the largest Kauri trees in New Zealand, some of which are considered Forest Gods and Guardians of Aotearoa. Control of the forest has recently been returned to Te Roroa, the local iwi (tribe) as part of the settlement for breaches by the New Zealand Government (the Crown) against the Treaty of Waitangi (more on that later). While I am sorry to hear of the breaches in both Treaty and trust, I am very glad to learn these cultural and environmental places of such significant importance have been returned to the people with the closest connection and best interests.


After a quick breakfast and tidy-up (‘take only photos, leave only footprints‘), we were back on the road. Follow the signs back to the State Highway 1 and Brynderwyn, then head west on SH12 to Dargaville. The further north you go, the more infrequent the shopping opportunities. If you are planning on staying more than a few days, make sure you stock up in Dargaville and withdraw cash for any purchases on the road.

On the way, we passed through Matakohe, a tiny little village with nay more than a Kauri Museum for its claim to fame. I’ll be honest: we didn’t go inside.

However, outside is a fascinating cemetery. And yes, I am one of those weird people who absolutely love cemeteries as the story-tellers of a town. If you do stop here to stretch your legs, have a wander around the cemetery and take note of the predominant families in the area. You will soon notice the pattern.

Onwards and upwards to Waipoua Forest, the highway becomes less ‘highway’ and more ‘main road’. This area is the one true highlight of Northland New Zealand, with its windy roads through the stunning forest sanctuary. The forest road is 18km long, with the Waipoua Visitor Centre and Forest Campground located at the southern end. Our plan was to drive through the sanctuary to the northern tip and work our way back to the campgrounds for the night. It meant doubling up on the driving (tripling up, if you consider we were driving north again the next day), but believe me when I say it is worth it. Even the kids agreed.


We first presented ourselves to Tane Mahuta, named for the Maori forest god. Tane Mahuta is the largest kauri alive, measuring around 51.5m high and about 13.8m around the base. Te Roroa believe Tane Mahuta has been guarding over the forest for somewhere between 1200 and 2000 years.


No matter your faith or personal belief, there is a presence in the forest. Tane Mahuta, in all his magnificent glory, commands respect. The sense of awe as you look up to this tree… this forest god, is breathtaking.

“In the beginning before the world was light, Ranginui the sky-father and Papatuanuku the earth-mother were bound together, their offspring caught in the darkness between them. Their strongest son, Tane Mahuta, put his shoulder to Papa and thrust upwards with his powerful legs, creating life and light.

– Maori Legend”

Our children were silent. They were stunned. For a moment we each stood there gazing upon Tane Mahuta, soaking up the vibrant emotions all around us. The magic was gently interrupted by a soft curtain of rain. At that point, our eldest child whispered “Thankyou”, and it felt like the perfect acknowledgement. There is so much life all around the forest. It is so natural to feel gratitude for the trees, the sanctuary and the local iwi who are taking care of it.


Tane Mahuta is the first of many gods in the forest. Heading back to the campgrounds (south), there is another collection of kauri. From the carpark, it’s a 20-minute walk past the Four Sisters to Te Matua. These are four separate kauris standing tall, but fused together at the base. There is a very accessible walkway for most of it, especially around the fenced off trees. The kids were amazed by the connection of the trees at the ground, following it all the way to the separate canopies.


Te Matua Ngahere is further along. As Father of the Forest, Te Matua Ngahere is not as tall as Tane Mahuta, but he holds the same attention within the forest. Even though he is surrounded by mature trees, they look like saplings in presence. Te Matua Ngahere is the widest kauri, with a girth of about 16.4 metres.


By this time, we are all tiring from the lengthy walks (even Z up in her backpack carrier). As we walked back to the campervan, S and I slowed our pace and started talking about the forest. It felt so healthy and strong and full of life! It was at the point, talking about life when S turned and exclaimed: “What was that?!?”

We have no picture to prove it. In fact, I was too slow to see anything but the movement of low leaves. But S swears he saw something brown scurrying along the ground. It was until further in our trip when we reached the Bird Sanctuary in Queenstown, where S became convinced he spotted a Kiwi bird!

We were already buzzing from the emotional and spiritual experience of visiting the Kauris; to add bird spotting was just too much! Only minutes down the road, our campgrounds awaited and after a quick dinner of spaghetti bolognese, the kids fell asleep almost immediately.

The Waipoua Forest Campgrounds are a DOC site, with cabins and sites for campervans or tents. Payment is by cash in the box located in the kitchen, and for the facilities, I was a bit disappointed with the price: $15 per person per night for a non-powered site. I know the money goes towards the maintenance of the campgrounds in the Forest Sanctuary, but the facilities were really lacking. For example, half of the kitchen facilities were broken.

I also found out the hot water was turned off for the ladies bathroom. The switch is on mains board in the kitchen, but that’s not helpful when you’re in the shower. I ended up choosing to shower in the men’s bathroom because the women’s bathrooms open directly onto the main thoroughfare. The cold wind straight into the bathrooms was awful, never mind the lack of privacy.

To be absolutely honest, we love the park for location. We had stayed here once before (pre-kids) but this time we were sorely disappointed with the facilities, even knowing it’s a DOCS site.

If you choose to camp with a tent here, be careful in the wet weather. The main area of the campground becomes very squishy in the rain, with most of the water running down hill to the tent sites.

Next stop: Waitangi Treaty Grounds