My happy place: Kerre McIvor finally feels at home in the Hokianga
She’s an effervescent media machine long in the public eye but these days it’s the peaceful privacy of a Far North harbour that really floats Kerre McIvor’s boat.
For years, my friend Wendyl Nissen kept telling me I needed to spend a weekend at her place in the Hokianga. It was a different way of life, she said, a beautiful part of the country with beautiful people, a place where you could relax and fill your lungs with clean, fresh air.
For years, I resisted. “Yeah, nah,” I’d say. “I have a limited amount of time left on the planet and I don’t really want to spend eight hours of it stuck in a car travelling up and down the country in a long line of traffic.”
I’m lucky that Wendyl persisted. A lesser friend would have given up on me. When I finally caved in and drove up for a long weekend, it was love at first sight. I came up the hill – the final hill before you drop down to the Hokianga – and the sight of that harbour took my breath away.
The golden sand dunes, that magnificent expanse of sea beyond the bar and the harbour stretching around to the right is a vision I never tire of. It’s one hell of a welcome.
Within a month of visiting Wendyl, we’d bought a place of our own. And it truly has become my happy place. Every day I spend there is a day to recharge and reset. And now I don’t even notice the drive. I’m quite happy to travel up for the weekend, just for the joy of waking up in the Hokianga.
So don’t let the drive put you off, either. From Auckland, it’s three-and-a-half hours on a good day. Put some great music through your car speakers and you’ll be there in no time.
If you’re heading up for the first time, go the Dargaville way. I always stop at Blah, Blah, Blah Café/Bar for their mussel chowder – eat in or get some to take away. Travelling via State Highway 12 means there’s less traffic, and although you have 18km of windy road to negotiate through the Waipoua Forest, it gives you the opportunity to pay homage to Tāne Mahuta, lord of the forest. He’s New Zealand’s oldest living kauri tree and really is majestic. Going this way also gives you the opportunity to see the Hokianga as I saw it for the first time – laid out before you in all its glory.
Once you’ve appreciated the view, it’s down the hill to Ōmāpere then along to Opononi, where a statue of Opo the dolphin is erected just outside the Opononi Hotel.
This pub is great. The first time I visited it, the annual pig-hunting tournament was on, and the roads were crowded with four-wheel drives covered in dust and dirt and enormous pigs. There were boars tied to bonnets and roof racks, and inside, the pub was heaving as the hunters swapped tales that grew ever taller with each jug of beer.
It’s also a great place to sit and watch the sun go down on a summer’s evening.
I’m looking forward to taking a twilight harbour cruise this year – more and more tourist-oriented ventures are starting up as people discover the raw beauty of this part of the world. The splendid new Manea Footprints of Kupe opened in December.
This multimillion-dollar visitor attraction is an immersive animation and theatre experience that tells the story of Kupe, the Polynesian explorer who travelled to Aotearoa more than a thousand years ago, focusing on Kupe’s connection with the Hokianga.
The complex was mostly funded through the Provincial Growth Fund (thanks, Uncle Shane!) and I can’t wait to experience the interactive tour inside.
This area is so rich in history – for Māori, for Pākehā, for Christians. Bishop Pompallier came to the Hokianga to establish the Catholic Church in New Zealand and the French priest’s remains are buried at St Mary’s church in Motuti. It’s also a great place for artists and creatives. There are art galleries in Rawene and Kohukohu, and they’re well worth visiting.
The car ferry will take you from Rawene to Kohukohu – it goes on the hour. There are some lovely cafés in Rawene too, and if you’re lucky, you might be able to buy some flounder from the fisherman who has a store next to the ferry terminal.
The last time I talked to him, though, he said it wasn’t worth going out and getting his nets ruined just to supply flounder for people who were too lazy to get it themselves – not in so many words, you understand, but I got his point!
Once my grandkids are home from overseas, I’d love to take them out and have a go at spearing some flounder myself. I have a vivid childhood memory of trying to catch some with my dad. That was my first experience of refraction – learning that the flounder you saw in the water wasn’t where you plunged the spear. I can’t remember if we caught any on that trip, but I’m going to give it a shot as food always tastes so much better when you’ve caught it yourself.
There is much to see and do in the Hokianga, but what I really love to do when I come up here is nothing, absolutely nothing. I seldom turn on the radio; I never turn on the television. I love to sit in my chair or lie in the hammock and watch the tide come in, and then I love to watch it go out. Time is meaningless.
The hawk generally heads off for a day’s hunting on my second cup of coffee and flies back up the hill for home as I’m about to pour myself a drink at the end of the day. Tui are constant visitors and I usually see kererū at least once during a week-long stay.
If I’m feeling particularly energetic, I’ll wander down the pathway to the little bay at the end of our property and go for a swim. The beach is rocky and you can only swim at high tide at our place, but that’s fine. You very quickly get into the rhythm of life in the Hokianga.
If I get a cooler day, I’ll hack away at the weeds that threaten to choke the thousands of baby trees that have been planted on our property. We’ve been very lucky to find a local man who has adopted our place as his own – armed with just a machete and a roll-your-own ciggy, he’s almost single-handedly rid the place of pampas and ginger and planted thousands of natives. Without Eli, we’d be lost and the place would have been swallowed up by pampas long ago. I love tending and nurturing baby kauri, rātā and tōtara that I’ll never see grow to their full height – but someone else will.
The Hokianga is not a wealthy area. You’re never going to see the huge mansions complete with en suites and loggia and all the bells and whistles that you’ll see in other beachside communities, but that’s fine by me. Where it’s rich is in raw beauty, cultural relevance and a history I find fascinating.
I’ve never really felt like I belonged in a particular place. When I was a child, my family moved every two or three years until I left home, and although I’ve lived in Auckland for more than 20 years, I don’t feel like an Aucklander. But when I drive through the gate of our property in the Hokianga, I know what it feels like to come home.
THINGS TO DO
- Manea Footprints of Kupe Motuti
- Tāne Mahuta
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- Blah, Blah, Blah Café/Bar
- Opononi Hotel