Camping on the Kauri Coast: A nostalgic trip reveals special piece of paradise
From kūmara to kiwi, and of course those giant trees, Fiona Ralph takes a trip down memory lane while camping on the Kauri Coast.
The chilly bin’s full, the tent is packed, the mattress, chairs and mossie repellent are ready to go. My husband, CP, and I are ready to hit the road. Unfortunately we’ve spent so long packing that it’s rather late by the time we leave Auckland, and it’s a long, dark, two-and-a-half-hour drive to Baylys Beach Holiday Park, the first of three campgrounds we’re planning to hit in as many days.
That first night we sleep in the van, to save untangling tent ropes in the dark, and we’re delighted to wake up in a lovely little campsite, nestled among tropical plants and protected from the roar of the Tasman Sea by a tree-lined fence.
There’s something about cooking outside that’s instantly relaxing. We fry up bacon and eggs on a colourful picnic table, squinting into the sun. As we wash dishes in the kitchen afterwards, our sink neighbour introduces himself as “Dennis the Menace” and tells us about his fishing plans. He’s cleaning out some old marge containers he has found in the bin – or “the big, green supermarket”, as he calls it – to use for bait.
Dennis tells us to come and see his fishing drone in action on the beach, and luckily that’s not my idea of a good time, as when we arrive there are no fishers in sight, just a few vehicles and a motorcycle, as well as a couple of construction workers who are building a boardwalk so pedestrians don’t have to run the gauntlet alongside cars entering the beach.
Wild, windswept Ripiro Beach, of which Baylys is a part, is New Zealand’s longest drivable beach, even longer than Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē/Ninety Mile Beach.
It covers around three-quarters of the length of the Kauri Coast, from Pouto Peninsula to Maunganui Bluff. The stretch of sand we walk along has an end-of-the-world feel to it, wedged between towering sand dunes and thundering ocean, and strewn with dried-up blue bottles, fish skeletons and dead birds, plus a fair few cans and chip packets, which we pick up. Further along the coast, you can find the remains of shipwrecks, while washed-up sharks and half-submerged cars are common sights.
Returning from the end of the world, we drive 15 minutes inland to Dargaville. I’ve always found it to be one of those perfect small towns: wide main street, well-preserved buildings, friendly locals, good op shops, and quite possibly the best fish and chip shop in the country. Matich’s has been serving fish almost non-stop since the 1930s. As well as takeaways, smoked fish and fry bread, you can order fresh fish from the front window, or, as we do, dine in for a slice of local history.
We order salt and pepper squid, mussels and a crab stick, plus kūmara chips – because we’re in the kūmara capital and it would be rude and silly not to. My husband also asks for a tea, which I think is a strange choice, but it comes on a tray with all the trimmings and looks so cute that I wish I’d ordered one.
Two older women, sisters it turns out, tell us they have been coming to the restaurant “forever”. Their mum used to clean the place. They both order the strawberry sundae and owner Justine Hoggard (who moved here from Waiheke Island with husband Rick to buy the joint two-and-a-half years ago) whips next door to pick up the requisite strawberries from an unexpected source, the Dargaville Book Exchange & Crafts shop. Inspired, after lunch we head there ourselves to stock up on locally made tomato relish, strawberries and eggs, as well as a couple of books.
Further down the main drag we pick up a bag of local kūmara from an honesty box. Did I mention I love this town? We also visit the op shops, where I find a vintage New Zealand-made swimsuit and colourful, cosy cardigan, and CP buys a classic New Zealand-branded fleece, all of which come in handy later in the day.
The dramatic Kai Iwi Lakes are half an hour from Dargaville. For a population that can’t travel to the tropics, this bright blue water is a pretty good consolation prize.
I usually prefer the ocean to a lake – fewer weeds and eels – but these are dune lakes, clear and sandy. The main lake (confusingly named Lake Taharoa, Kai Iwi being a small lake just south of the campgrounds) has a beach with a shallow platform, perfect for kids and wallowing adults, and then a steep drop-off further out, creating an eye-popping dip-dye effect.
I haven’t camped here since I was a kid, and thanks to photos my mum unearthed, I discover that I still have the same washingup bowl, having inherited it when my parents stopped camping. (I passed on their old army tent, given that the wooden poles were so long you needed a trailer to transport it.)
Choosing a tent site is a big decision. You don’t want to be too close to the partiers or the toilets, for obvious reasons. You want shade for early morning sun – no one wants to get woken up in a hot tent – and you don’t want to be too exposed to the wind. After two false starts we settle on the hill overlooking the lake with only one other tent in the vicinity.
Curiously, when our neighbours return from a swim, our cheery hello is met by frosty silence. A stare-off from their side ensues, and I’m worrying that we have interrupted the couple’s romantic getaway, when the young man comes over and tells us it’s his 19th birthday party and we might find their gathering a tad noisy. (Translation: we are cramping their style and taking their friends’ spot.) Feeling a bit old (and at almost double their age I guess we are), we agree it’s wise to avoid the party, wish him a happy birthday, pick up our tent and carry it down the hill.
Fourth time turns out to be a charm, although there is some grumbling from CP after having to reassemble the table for the fourth time. Any annoyance is quickly forgotten after a swim and an idyllic evening exploring, cooking, and drinking hot chocolate under the stars, although tempers rise a little again as we resort to performing an interpretive dance while trying to enter our small tent in the dark without bringing in mosquitoes, dew and wet grass.
As we wind north through the forest the next day, at one point the road narrows to one lane to make way for giant kauri on either side. The drive is almost as impressive as the place we’re headed to – the country’s largest known living kauri tree, Tāne Mahuta, in Waipoua Forest.
The forest is under threat from kauri dieback, and some walks are closed, but you can still visit the Lord of the Forest after checking, scrubbing and disinfecting your boots, as long as you arrive between the hours of 9am and 5pm. It’s just a short walk, and worth the trek north. Tāne Mahuta towers over the surrounding trees, impossible to capture properly with an iPhone camera.
Though my preference is a basic campground – all I need is a long drop and a grassy paddock – even I have to admit that our final destination, the Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park, set between two rivers and surrounded by native bush, is pretty special.
The kitchen and bathroom are immaculate, with benches made from swamp kauri, and there’s a swimming hole, resident glow worms, trout and eels (shudder), a help-yourself herb garden and even a flying fox, although unfortunately CP is a bit too vigorous when returning the “fox” and almost knocks over two small children.
The real drawcard of this campground is the proximity to Trounson Kauri Park, where you have the opportunity to spot kiwi on a nighttime guided or DIY walk. We opt for DIY, and the campground assistant manager, Tracy Holster, gives us the rundown on where and how to look for the nocturnal birds, as well as a torch with a red light to ensure we don’t startle them. After an hour of shuffling through the pitch black forest, listening for telltale scuffles, we are rewarded with a cheeky kiwi right beside the path. He doesn’t hang around long but the excitement remains for the rest of the night.
Our final morning is rained off so instead of swinging via rope into the chilly-looking swimming hole, we pack up our wet selves and our sodden equipment and begin the three-hour journey home, stopping at the Kauri Museum in Matakohe to learn more about the area’s logging history.
The museum was founded by Mervyn Sterling, who also helped to establish Auckland’s MOTAT, so it’s as interesting and entertaining as you’d expect, with slightly unsettling mannequins around every corner. You could spend hours wandering the quirky exhibits, and we do, but eventually a warm shower beckons and we continue home, resolving to buy a bigger tent. I wonder if Mum and Dad’s old army tent is still on offer...
What to do
- Swim at Kai Iwi Lakes
- Walk to Tāne Mahuta
- Visit the Kauri Museum
- Spot kiwis at Trounson Kauri Park
Where to eat
- In Dargaville, get fish and chips at Matich’s, stock up on produce at the Dargaville Book Exchange & Crafts shop, and buy speciality groceries at Good Life.
Where to stay
- Baylys Beach Holiday Park
- Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park
- Kai Iwi Lakes Campground (choose from the main campground, Pine Beach, where we stayed, or the more peaceful but less beachy Promenade Point)
- Take the Twin Coast Discovery Highway north from Auckland and turn left at Brynderwyn. The Kauri Coast stretches from here to the Hokianga.