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The Far North of New Zealand

I woke up to the numbing cramp that knees get when they have been buckled up on car seats all night, and peered out the fogged up window. The sun had just risen, orange and sleepy over white sand dunes in the distance. I stuffed my feet in my boots and stumbled out into the clean New Zealand air. The cows in the paddock I'd parked next to stared as I ran around the car in the chill of the morning, hooting good morning's to them and trying to get my blood flowing. Soon my little Honda City was warmed up too, and we were heading down the rough country road for an early morning look at Cape Reinga, one of the northernmost parts of New Zealand.

Northland, which stretches from Auckland to Cape Reinga, has been called the "cradle of New Zealand History," and the ancient culture of its native people, the Maori, is still very much in evidence. Rolling down the final short slope into the Reinga car park, a sign informs that this is a sacred place and to please refrain from eating or drinking. It was here that the Maori believed the souls of their deceased slid down the roots of an 800-year-old puhutukawa tree, then traveled underwater to Hawaiki, the spiritual homeland. Modern tourists can still see the tree, as well as the much-photographed lighthouse and signpost. The lighthouse was originally built in 1879 on nearby Motuopoa Island, moved to Cape Reinga in 1940, and is now automated and solar-powered. Here too can be seen the Meeting of the Seas, where the currents of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide. This normally creates only mildly turbulent waters, but during storms their clashing causes sea-water to fly some ten meters into the air.

After a quick tramp down to the beautiful and aptly-named Sandy Bay, I headed south to take a peek at 90-Mile Beach. Though it is really more like 58 miles long, the wide, flat beach looks like it goes on forever. Tourists have come to take pictures, locals to walk their dogs, a 4-wheel drive truck goes flying by (the beach doubles as a highway), kids burn some rubber as they turn doughnuts in an old car, flirting madly with the waves.

A little further south along the highway, the Ancient Kauri Kingdom has sprung up as a result of a forest of huge kauri trees being unexplainably buried some 60,000 years ago beneath peat swamps and sand dunes. Many of these trees have since been dug up and are now being used to successfully drain tourists' wallets through skilled carving and the natural beauty of the wood. One of the neatest sights is an entire staircase carved inside a giant kauri tree (it's not for sale).

A park near Kaitaia (the largest town in the far north with a population of 5,000) pays tribute to the gumdiggers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In one of the many rough lifestyles that have since been romanticized beyond recognition, gumdiggers, often with only jute sacks for a bed and clothing in what was then known as the "poor North," dug to reach the kauri resin from buried trees. The gumfields have been described as the saddest place in the world, a refuge for the worthless and the hopeless, attracting the reckless, get-rich-quick sorts. As the gum became increasingly valuable for its use in varnish and linoleum, living trees were also cut and the gum bled out of them. This practice, of course, has the tendency to kill the kauri rather quickly and it no longer used.

A good pot of tea and bowl of seafood chowder at a quiet café overlooking the sea seemed an appropriate way to complete this foray into the north: land of traveling spirits, never-ending beached, colliding oceans and buried giants.

Carrie has been traveling worldwide ever since her parents first took her to Africa at age 5. After a year-long excursion in New Zealand, she is now living in California where she works and writes.

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