The Kingdom of the North: Discovering the majesty of Cape Reinga
Abel Tasman whipped past Cape Reinga on the first look-see and Captain Cook didn’t bother stopping when he sailed past Doubtless Bay. Sarah-Kate Lynch does not make the same mistake.
It’s “doubtless a bay”, Captain Cook jotted in his journal before sailing the Endeavour past the entrance to this vast, stunning sweep of the Far North’s east coast in 1769. Perhaps his tricorn hat was on too tight, keeping him from (a) exploring further or (b) coming up with a better name. It was December, for heaven’s sake – the pōhutukawa that fringe the bays would’ve been in flower, the sand on the beaches golden, the sky blue, the water beckoning.
Legend has it that Kupe certainly spotted the potential when he first brought his waka in to land hundreds of years earlier, having eyed up the rich fields along the Taipa River, the new bridge across which pays homage to that canoe. So densely did this area become populated that at one point Māori called it “one-shout valley” because that’s all it took to be heard from one pā to the next.
Still, Cook had his reasons to sail past all those centuries later: things to do, places to be. In fact, to this day you can miss large chunks of Doubtless Bay if you stick to State Highway 10 in your rush to get to the tip of New Zealand at Cape Reinga (more on that later). This particular neck of the woods hides much of its boundless beauty under a bushel.
So where is this neck of the woods exactly?
Forty-five minutes north of the Bay of Islands’ Kerikeri, you turn off and head for the harbourside hub of Mangōnui (after taking a look at the sleepy holiday settlement of Hihi). Keep going and you’ll hit Coopers Beach, then Cable Bay and the aforementioned Taipa, all of which combine to form our nation’s northernmost settlement.
At the top end of the large smile-shaped Doubtless Bay is the Karikari Peninsula with its stunning collection of beaches and bays: Rangiputa and Matai Bay, to name but two.
I discovered Coopers Beach a year or so ago when my TV show, The Sounds, was shooting at Whangaroa. The crew had rightly used up all the accommodation there, so I was “forced” further north to this 2km stretch of golden sand, largely invisible from the highway and now quite possibly my favourite piece of Aotearoa.
It’s something to do with the pōhutukawa providing shade and drama along the entire length of the beach. Or is it the vantage point you get from climbing up to Rangikapiti Pā at the southern end, where you can see the whole beautiful bay? Perhaps it’s dropping down onto one of the private beaches from the Taumarumaru Scenic Reserve Walk at the other end. Or it could be the great Four Square in a tiny village that has a butcher, a pharmacy, a liquor store and Doubtless Beauty Retreat. Alison, who does my nails at the retreat when I snavel a cancellation, tells me, “This place spoils you for anywhere else”.
Once you’ve gone Doubtless, you’ve no doubt.
Well, this was my third visit in just over a year. With a four-hour drive from Auckland, it’s a hike, but the temperature is typically five degrees warmer. You can tell by the gardens that it’s semi-tropical – oh, and the fact that you don’t need to have a warm layer in your handbag.
Each time, I’ve rented the same house, Coopers Retreat, through Richard Dunbar at Mangōnui Holiday Homes.
It’s at the northern end of Coopers Beach with nothing but a lawn and a glorious stand of trees between the house and the sand – perfect for a family or a group of friends.
This time, we extended our stay and had a couple more nights at Quail Cottage in Mill Bay on the way to Mangōnui, just five minutes in the car from Coopers. Mill Bay has its own history, much of it shared by another of Richard’s holiday houses, Mabel’s. This circa-1860 cutie beside the gently lapping waters of the inlet was once the home of a famed midwife who delivered many babies there, although the house is named after her granddaughter, who lived there in the 1950s and planted the rambling roses and bulbs that Richard now tends.
Richard and his partner, Neil Morgan, – and their personality-plus Sealyham terrier, Nigel – started out in 2007 with two holiday properties, and Richard now manages a collection of 26, so sees more than his fair share of undoubtedly happy campers.
“Most people coming for the first time can’t believe they haven’t been here before,” he says. “Historically, people used to stop at the Bay of Islands, but now they are discovering the ‘real’ Far North, and it’s completely different – more like how holidays used to be when we were kids. Most of the year, you can be the only people on the beach. Have you been to Puheke Beach?”
No, I have not.
“But I tell everyone about Puheke Beach!”
“It’s my favourite,” he continues. “Five kilometres of white sand, and on New Year’s Day maybe 12 cars parked there. Even with foreign tourists, it’s never busy.”
There’s just so much to love. “The people. The beaches. The quiet. We can live our dream here,” says Richard.
From Quail Cottage you can walk to Mangōnui and its famed fish shop, which sits out over the water and is a must-do.
(Although locals tell me that the fish and chips at Fresh & Tasty next to the pub and at the nearby Cable Bay dairy give it a run for its money and might perhaps not relieve you of quite so much of yours.) Mangōnui has its own Four Square – also sitting out over the water – a few other good eating options and a smattering of shops.
So, what else to do? As Richard says, because this is old-fashioned Kiwi holidaying, your swanky tourism options are pleasantly limited, but this time I made an appointment for a guided tour of the Butler Point Whaling Museum in Hihi. This historic family-owned venture knocked my Birkenstocks off.
American whalers discovered Doubtless Bay in the late 1700s but it was England’s Captain William Butler who arrived in 1838 and established a trading post at what is now known as Butler Point. It went gangbusters for much of the 1800s, when whaling was king, and flax, kauri gum and kauri trees were also hot items – Mill Bay being named after a timber mill that operated until 1915.
Māori played an important role in supplying fresh food and were sought after for their navigating and harpooning skills, and if, like me, you haven’t read Moby Dick, you’ll be gobsmacked by the detail of how whales were actually whaled.
“People just love the history,” says guide Jan Ferguson. “It’s a real eye-opener.”
Jan’s parents bought the 26ha property in 1970, including Butler’s tumbledown house, and spent decades restoring it before adding the whaling museum and opening it to the public by appointment. “The whole idea of the Mangōnui Harbour being clogged with whaling ships?” she says. “A lot of people don’t want to know about whaling but it’s so much a part of our history. And there’s more to it than that. It’s the story of an English whaler who built his house and raised 13 children here.”
It’s a labour of love, for which her passion is obvious. “I’m in awe of my parents – their foresight and the energy they put into this place. I love it and am so happy to share it, and it seems fresh and new every time. That’s part of the magic of the place. I know it’s tricky having to ring up and make an appointment, but once people have been here, they understand.”
Take a picnic, pick a warm grapefruit and tuck into it as you sit beneath the ancient pōhutukawa with its girth of more than 10m, then climb up to the pā site with its staggering view. This place is something very special.
The other thing you must do, once you’ve had a platter and a glass of rosé at Karikari Estate – New Zealand’s northernmost winery, with an outlook that will have you thinking you’re in Greece or Spain – is head north to Cape Reinga.
There’s nothing Greek or Spanish about the cape. Your spine starts to tingle on approach, which isn’t surprising when you consider that, for Māori, it’s arguably the most spiritually significant place in Aotearoa. Reinga, meaning “underworld”, provides a clue, as does the cape’s alternative name, Te Rerenga Wairua, a “leaping-off place for spirits”. It’s here that, after death, all Māori spirits travel up the coast and over the windswept hills to the lone pōhutukawa tree that grows, somehow, on the headland. They then descend into the reinga by sliding down a root into the sea below. It’s no wonder you feel a shiver up your spine.
Abel Tasman certainly didn’t stop here when he sailed past in 1643, but he did give it a name of his own, just not a very good one: Cape Maria van Diemen, after the wife of the governor in the Dutch East Indies. He didn’t do much else, though, and when you dig beneath the surface of his explorations, you detect an element of “could have tried harder”.
In terms of my own explorations, a return to Cape Reinga has been on my bucket list for decades. I went there as a child and all I can remember is being growled at by my late father for having the hiccups (to which I am still prone). This past winter, my beloved and I did the hour-and-45-minute drive from Coopers Beach in a bid to expunge this memory, only to find when we were within cooee that it was closed, post-lockdown.
But we had better luck this time. And we made a day of it.
There’s not much between Coopers Beach and the cape in terms of provisions, so it pays to pack a picnic or stop at the container café near Houhora Honey Bees (pāua pie anyone? It’s rich, but delicious).
Also, on the way, since you’ve gone this far, you should visit the giant sand dunes at Te Paki.
And if you get a kick out of this sort of thing, like I do, head east for a dip at Ninety Mile Beach with not another soul in sight, then drop down to Tapotupotu Beach (which has a gorgeous campground) for a swim on the opposite coast. The benefits of living on a thin-at-this-end island!
The closer you get to the cape, the more the vistas wow. And fittingly, given the reinga association, the terrain is other-worldly; the strange combination of soils up here mean a lot of plant species are stunted.
Then all of a sudden you’re there, winding your way down the paved path to the lighthouse: born 1941, automated in 1987 and still flashing every 12 seconds, the beam visible for 35km. You can see that impossible pōhutukawa, known locally as a kahika and never in flower, clinging to the rockface.
The closer I got to the end of the point, the more I found myself coming over all Great-Wall-of-China emotional. This happens when I find myself in places I’ve long dreamed of going to and they not only match but surpass my expectation. The Grand Canyon. The Serengeti. Paris. Swimming with dolphins in Kaikōura. It’s a gratitude thing, and with no international travellers at Te Rerenga Wairua, there’s a heck of a lot more room for gratitude.
Aotearoa. It’s such a small country and we’re all so familiar with its shape. And there I was, standing as far as it is possible to stand, watching the white caps where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea, nothing but water between us and the rest of the world – or the underworld.
Anyone who knows me well (or has read me banging on about it for the past mumble- mumble years) knows that there’s a certain overused word to which I’m allergic because it’s so rarely deservedly used. But Cape Reinga, the top of the tip in our kingdom of the north, is – truly – awesome.
THINGS TO DO
- Climb up to Rangikapiti Pā
- Find a beach, any beach
- Marvel at the Cape Reinga Lighthouse
- Do the Taumarumaru Scenic Reserve Walk
- Visit Hihi’s Butler Point Whaling Museum
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- Fresh & Tasty Takeaways
- Mangōnui Karikari Estate
- Mangōnui Fish Shop
- The Cable Bay Store
- The container café at Houhora Honey Bees
WHERE TO STAY
Mangōnui Holiday Homes
Photography by Jamie Wright, Reuben Looi and Sarah-Kate Lynch