Cape Reinga, New Zealand and the Awesome BusBeaches, CHARACTERS, Forests, Lighthouses, NEW ZEALAND, ROAD TRIPS, SERIES, Spirituality, STAFF — By JM Merchant on September 21, 2011 at 01:21
Story by staff writer JM Merchant. Photos Copyright © Joanna Abram.
7 a.m. on a foggy morning in Paihia saw us introduced to Spike, the driver of the Awesome bus.
To call him a character would be an understatement, but I can think of no one better to introduce you to the “top bit” of New Zealand. I don’t think this guy stopped talking from the minute we got on the bus to the minute we left. He always had some tidbit of information to impart or a joke to share, and thus the extensive time we spent in our seats over the course of the day was a delight of knowledge and intrigue.
The fog was still hanging as we reached the Puketi Kauri Forest. The Manginangina walkway is a boardwalk trail which, according to Spike, was built for one of the Commonwealth games to allow Queen Elizabeth to take a tour of the forest. The project cost nearly one million NZD! Purportedly, the Queen arrived at the boardwalk, took two steps onto it and left. Apparently her security detail were concerned about big scary Maoris jumping out of the trees at her.
It only takes 10 minutes to do the walk, but in that time you’re immersed in a whole different world of flora and fauna. Ferns and shrubs brush your arms, strange bugs hum and birds call to each other while these giants of time tower over you.
It’s mind-boggling to think that some of these trees, including the one that I hugged, are at least 2,000 years old. In centuries past there were trees that no doubt exceeded 8,000 years old. The height they grew to and the fact they grew straight and with no knots made them ideal for ships masts, and so the first settlers and exporters in the region decimated the kauri population. It is now illegal to cut down living kauri trees—but as they’re such a slow growing species, it will take centuries for the population to recover.
Ninety Mile Beach was our next destination. The name is a bit of a misnomer. The story is that travelers knew, in the olden days, that they could travel 30 miles in a day, and to travel the length of this beach took three days, hence Ninety Mile Beach. But they didn’t take into account that sand slows you down. It’s really only 55 miles long, but they refuse to change the name because Australia has a Ninety Mile Beach (which is actually 94 miles) as well, and it wouldn’t do for the Aussies to have one up on the Kiwis! There has been some talk in recent years of giving the beach a more traditional Maori name.
The beach is used as an alternative road to New Zealand’s Highway 1, usually by tourist groups or when the road is out of commission.
Driving in a bus along a beach is quite a thrill, and this particular morning we were racing the tide. Spike made a few swerves into the surf when we first got onto the beach but by the end of it the tyres were soaked. Those of us that wanted to were invited to come down to the front of the bus and stand in the foot-well for a while. It was an awesome sensation seeing all that sand rushing towards and then passed you. The only way it could have been better would have been to sit on the roof!
We reached the Te Paki stream at about midday. The sand dunes there are huge, and allegedly the best in all of New Zealand. This was where we were to learn to dune board. We passed by Spike’s usual quite-gentle-but-still-huge dune. The base was covered in tyre tracks from someone’s quad-biking adventures and such things can cause a board to stop dead and throw the rider, potentially resulting in serious injuries.
So Spike took us to an even bigger dune! The walk up to the peak nearly did most of us in, for every two steps you take you slip back one and a half.
Spike arranged each of us on our boards at the top before giving us a push and sending us on our way. Yikes. You have very little control in this sport. All you can do is dig your toes in behind you to try and slow down a bit. Halfway down I pulled my toes out to try and get as much speed as possible, then hit a bump in the sand and rolled to a stop nearly 10 meters away from the dune. What a rush!
There’s only two things I regret about this part of the adventure: 1) I didn’t go back up for a second go, and 2) I didn’t take my camera with me for fear of it getting sand-clogged.
Spike and the lads were having a whale of a time and went to attack a bigger dune. It wasn’t until we were back on the bus that Spike revealed he’d broken his wrist, several ribs and his front teeth, and another driver had broken his neck dune-boarding—but because it was a “work-related accident” they were able to claim compensation for it. Gotta love the Kiwi mindset!
Tapotupotu Bay gave us the perfect opportunity to get rid of all the sand we’d acquired coming down the dunes, and also allowed us an alternative use of the dune boards. Boogie boarding!
As a kid I always used to love trying to swim into the shore on the crest of a wave, but inevitably I would end up going under. This happened again with my first dozen attempts to catch a wave with the board. But then I caught one, and it was brilliant. That sensation of movement without effort is exhilarating: you feel that first tug on the board, then you pull yourself up and you’re flying ahead of the water.
Suffice to say some of us would have been happy staying there all day, but after a cold fresh-water shower we were back on the bus, headed to one of the most spiritual places in the country.
On the drive up to Cape Reinga we passed a number of salt water lakes. The Maori people believe these lakes hold the tears of the dead as they bid farewell first to their families, then to their people, before continuing on their journey home.
There is much debate about where in the world the Maori people originated from, but according to most of their legends they are descendants of Kupe and his family, who travelled from Hawaiiki in the eastern Pacific in a canoe. Hawaiiki become synonymous with the underworld of the Maori, and Kupe named the area (now known as Cape Reinga) Te Rerenga Wairua: the point where the spirits of the dead leave New Zealand to return to their ancestral home.
Until very recently, Cape Reinga was not given the respect it deserved. People could drive almost as far as the departing point and picnic in one of the Maoris’ most sacred sites. But the area has been reclaimed and is undergoing a massive regeneration, including planting of the slow-growing native fauna. Food and drink is no longer allowed beyond the car park as it is believed evil spirits use it to access this sacred place.
Visitors are allowed to plant a young native tree in the regeneration zone, and so I planted a little Taupata plant in memory of my mum. I believe she would have loved New Zealand, and now she has an excuse to visit there whenever she likes. The site staff kindly provided me with the GPS co-ordinates of my plant so I can check up on it in years to come.
The farthest accessible point of the Cape is marked by a lighthouse. Beyond that is a rocky point, Te Reinga, clinging to which is a solitary ancient kahika tree, named Te Aroha, the Maori word for love. This is where the dead say their final farewells to New Zealand before descending to the water on steps formed by the trees roots, and departing for Hawaiiki.
The walk down to the lighthouse is unbelievably beautiful, the spiritual energy of the area almost palpable, and as with so much of the country, no amount of photos do it justice.
Our last stop before home was the Ancient Kauri Kingdom, a factory where they create absolute wonders. All kauri products are now made out of swamp kauri, trees that fell into swamps a very, very, long time ago, where they were preserved and have since been excavated and dried. Some of the excavated kauri is so old that carbon dating can’t give an accurate estimate of its age, making it over 45,000 years old!
Here they create souvenirs, furniture and sculptures, but the most impressive item in the showroom is the staircase.
Before the showroom was built, they dumped a huge stump in the middle of site and let some guy loose on it with a chainsaw. Over the following two weeks he formed a staircase spiraling up inside the trunk. Two other guys took a further two weeks to give the staircase a proper finish as the rest of the showroom was built around it.
In the back of the showroom you get a glimpse of the factory where beautiful sculptures are created, often using nothing more than a chainsaw.
The drive back to Paihia, after stopping in Mangonui for the freshest “fush and chups” possible, was quiet and subdued. I think it’s safe to say Spike managed to tucker us all out, but what a day.
This is one day trip I cannot recommend highly enough.
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JM Merchant (or Jo Abram to most) lives in the North End of London, although she aspires to the West End. An occasionally employed sound engineer and stage manager, most of her time is currently spent reading pirate tales as she works on her first novel. She blogs and posts short stories at Am I A Writer Yet? and tweets as @JMMerchant86.