STAFF / SERIES / Spirituality / Beaches / Forests / Lighthouses / ROAD TRIPS / CHARACTERS / NEW ZEALAND

Cape Reinga, New Zealand and the Awesome Bus

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.

Foggy morning seen through the window of the Awesome bus

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.

Kauri forest

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.

Left: More kauri old growth | Right: Me hugging a kauri

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.

Ninety Mile Beach from the front of the bus

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.

Our boarding dune

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!

Tapotupotu Bay

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.

The meeting point of the Tasman and Pacific Oceans off the Cape

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.

Me in the regeneration zone with my plant

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.

Left: Little Te Aroha clinging to its rock | Right: At the lighthouse, with signs pointing to London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Tropic of Capricorn and more

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.

The lighthouse from halfway down the trail

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.

Left: The kauri staircase | Right: An awesome sculpture in the workshop

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.

A fellow traveler on a kauri armchair

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.


Cape Reinga tour –

More images of Ninety Mile Beach

Cape Reinga Lighthouse

Manginangina Kauri Walk

Ancient Kauri Kingdom


View Larger Map

Guest blogger JM Merchant

JM Merchant

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.



  1. What a GREAT cyber-tour! I felt like I was right along with you on the bus chatting with Spike! I think the sand surfing was incredible…and I would have LOVED the show room of all the wood artwork! Thanks SO much for sharing with us!

    • Thanks Ann 🙂

      If there’s one thing you can rely on (most) Kiwi bus guides to do it’s keep you entertained while they give you local knowledge, it just seems to be part of the Kiwi attitude.

      I have plenty more photo’s of the sculptures created at Kauri Kingdon, they really are masters.

      Thanks for reading.
      Jo x

  2. Wow! I love this post. I so want to go. Your pictures are great. I especially like the fog shrouded forest and the meeting point of the Tasman and Pacific Oceans off the Cape. At first I was thinking… it’s a bus ride, how great can it be, but it sounds wonderful. Seems like crashing on a dune board would be unpleasant (I mean even without the broken bones and teeth).

    • Thank you so much j. The photo’s are good but they really do not do any of New Zealand justice.

      I was lucky that my crash was more of a skim, so was actually kind of fun, but yeah I can imagine how bad they can be.

      Thanks for reading.
      Jo x

  3. What an incredible tour and post! I love it! I especially loved the young native tree planting — and of course the 90 mile beach explanation is hilarious! Too funny. That bus ride on the sand sounds like great fun (but also mildly terrifying!). p.s. LOVE the photo of the Pacific Ocean meeting the Tasman, very very cool!

    • Cheers Julia, really glad you enjoyed.
      I agree the ocean meeting point is extremely cool.
      The rivalry between the Aussies and the Kiwis really is hilarious, whatever you do, never mention pavlova, they will argue for hours over which country invented it!

      Jo x

  4. Just loved this account. I never made it to the top of North Island, but reading your tour of Cape Reinga makes me even more determined to save and return. I loved the sound of the board walk but I think my days of dune boarding are over. I wonder what that beautiful staircase would set me back? Awesome country and wonderful people especially the Maoris. Thanks for sharing your experience. x

    • I think it would be more of a setback for the showroom than you, they’d have no way to get to the upper level 🙂

      When we did the tour their was a group of older chinese tourists on the bus (we think they’d been recommended the wrong tour!) and I’m not convinced they knew what was happening as they climbed that dune. Mrs Wong lost her hat on the way down, the boys behind her were challenging each other to retrieve it.

      Thanks for reading Aunty Trish 🙂

  5. great pace and detail, should think the NZ Tourist board should be paying you a commission and giving spike a pay rise. Maybe you should patent idea of seats on roof of bus, 20% extra on ticket 🙂
    . Thoroughly enjoyed it!

  6. Wow, what a day, indeed! I can’t believe you were able to pack all of that in — no wonder you were tuckered out on the way home. 😉

    Adored the photos… Such a beautiful country, NZ. I’m aching to go.

    Must admit I had no idea they had big sand dunes there. I used to sand board in Peru — it’s a ton of fun. The only reason to be glad you didn’t go for another run is that it’s a long, slippery trek back up to the top!

    • Thanks Lisa 🙂

      It is almost impossible to get up those rotten dunes isn’t it! It certainly was a lot to do in one day but it was brilliant.

      Jo x

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