Northland, New Zealand: Nature's Wonderland by Elizabeth Heaney

When my new husband, Matua, and I became engaged, we made a deal. One: That we would return to our native New Zealand for our wedding. And two: That I'd organize the wedding and that Matua would organize the mystery honeymoon.

My first surprise destination turned out to be Northland, New Zealand, which neither of us had visited before. I started to feel that we had made a mistake when we found ourselves on a dirt road somewhere near Ahipara, heading out past a rubbish dump. Finally we emerged at a tiny weatherboard cottage called ‘Taharangi Marie' (‘Peaceful Horizon') that opened up on to a sunset on wide expanse of ocean and Ninety Mile Beach (named by rather hyperbolic explorers). And all of it was ours and ours alone!

Northland sits at the top of the North Island of New Zealand, along the East Coast. We soon found out that Northland is the ultimate outdoor playground. Filled with golden beaches, secluded coves, tranquil harbours and spectacular forests, it has to be seen to be believed.

Before Captain James Cook arrived in the 1700's, Northland was populated by gigantic Kauri trees that were used by Maori for waka (massive canoes). It later became a source of precious gum and amber for European settlers, especially Yugoslavs whose descendants still heavily populate the area. As often happened during colonial times, the resource was virtually dug out of existence. But you can still see kauri gum and wooden craft, including a stair case carved entirely our of one tree trunk at Kauri Kingdom which we visited on our stay.

After purchasing some caramel coloured amber and coffee, Matua and I headed out along the Karikari Peninsula to New Zealand's northernmost vineyard, the glamorous palm lined Karikari Estate. Here you can order a wine tasting platter for about NZ$12. We pretended that we were real connoisseurs as we relished our wine and delicacies on the platter, taking in the spectacular view over the white-sand crusted peninsula and across to the Pacific Ocean.

One benefit about Matua being on the "honeymoon-organizing-committee-of-one" is that he got to schedule in some ‘boy fun'. I soon found myself on a quad bike gripping on to my husband for dear life, "hooning" down a beach South of Ahipara while he tested just how fast he could ride the bike; 90 kms per hour as it turned out.

The Tua Tua Quad Biking Tour south along the coast from Ahipara is speckled with corrugated iron shanties, often incongruously fitted with cable TV satellite dishes. At low tide we regularly had to make way on the beach and rocks for local cars driving to the Ahipara shops, frequently with a trailer of kids bumping along behind. At Reef Point we came to the Ahipara sand dunes - another local misnomer, these monsters were more like mountains!

We spent the afternoon, exploring the moon-like landscape of the dunes, searching for remnants of kauri gum in them, sand tobogganing, and hurtling down a100m drop in fifth gear with no breaks. The tour went for almost double the time scheduled and I can confidently say it was the best NZ$130 I have spent in my life, especially with the free feed of the freshest green lipped mussels in the world collected for us by our friendly guide, Walter. The further North we went, the emptier the landscape became of people. It transformed into a narrow gold band wedged between masses of pure blue sky and sea.

We arrived early the next day at Cape Reinga, the northern tip of New Zealand where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea meet. Maori believe it is the place where the spirits of the dead depart from Aotearoa (New Zealand) to journey back to their ancestoral home of Hawaiki.  And when you stand on the edge you can almost feel joyous souls journeying past you while other souls travelling on the sea are welcomed by the old light house that is perched on the headland.

If the morning was a spiritual adventure, the afternoon was a physical one. Tui Inn Horse Treks is at at Herekino (20 minutes South of Kaitaia) and is run by a local character called Grant who seems to take the treks mainly for his own love of horses, the land and visitors. We wound our way along the Herekino Harbour. At the mouth of the harbour are rocks that I would find difficult to manage with my two legs let alone the four the horses had to manage with. But the horses, although occasional feisty, are experienced and Grant was always there to help out.

Grant offered to take us past his secret paua (abalone) and kina (sea urchin) spots to collect some kaimoana. Matua was in seventh heaven, feasting on his catches fresh off the rocks while I was glad to give my behind a break on the beach. As the sun was beginning to set, we headed home up over private farm land and bush. We arrived back at the Inn in moonlight where we shared a well earned beer with Grant after our six hour trek. Payment was taken at the local pub where NZ$80 each was added directly to his bar tab.

After a lazy start we set out for an afternoon picnic under the red crested pohutukawa trees as Coopers beach just south of the Karikari Peninsula, armed with supplies from the Okahu vineyard (located between Ahipara and Kaitaia).

On the way home we took an ice cream break at Cable Bay where we watched families enjoying the last days of sunshine and commiserated the fact that we had to leave Northland the next day. ‘Not to worry,' my new husband said, ‘you don't know what adventures I have in stall for you next.'

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