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Northland’s West Coast By Camper

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Exploring the Kaipara region

When it comes to heading north from Auckland in a campervan, I frequently take a left-hand turn at Bryndrwyn, near the turn-off to Waipu. From there, I savour the journey through the gentle hills and hidden havens of Kaipara Harbour, which offer an abundance of history and off-the-beaten-track adventure.

This region is not completely overlooked by travellers. It forms part of the well-known Twin Coast Discovery Tour, which takes in both the western route and suggests a return journey via the better-known east coast. This is certainly a trip I recommend to any visitors wanting to explore New Zealand’s Northland in a rental campervan.  

Of course, it’s easy to see why the coastal towns of the east coast route are so popular, especially in summer, when the turquoise seas and white sands are dramatically contrasted with red flowering pohutukawa trees. But, for me, especially in the transitional seasons of autumn and spring, New Zealand’s Kaipara Region really comes in to its own.

Then, the crowds are thinned and the harbour is often at its tranquil best. This is also a time when the mature trees planted by early settlers, and the white-washed colonial buildings, stand out; luminescent in the softer light against the backdrop of rolling green hills.


Rich In History

This is a region steeped in history, both Māori and European. At the heart of it all is the magnificent harbour – one of the largest in the world - and its tributary rivers and streams which facilitated transport and trade and provided a rich source of food from the earliest occupation.

According to Māori tradition - kai means food -  the Kaipara Region was named by chief Arawa to honour a feast prepared by his nephew at Pouto. Fishing, both recreational and professional, is still a favoured occupation of Kaipara residents.

Enjoy easy access to the water through a plethora of boat ramps and jetties at quaint harbour-side villages. Pack your rod into the campervan and reel if you’re a keen fisher but, if not, console yourself by looking out for the remnants of old wharves on inland waterways where small cutters delivering mail to early settlers once moored.


Towns To Visit

Set aside time to drive down the many alluring side roads if you can to visit places like Pahi, Whakapirau, Tinopai and Pouto. And, even if time is short, make sure you allow a good few hours to visit The Kauri Museum at Matakohe. This will really help you get your bearings and understand the significance of the area as you pass through it.  

If time allows, start your campervan journey out of Auckland once you pick up your rental vehicle by travelling along State Highway 16 instead of the more usual SH1. This will take you north and east through the route less travelled from Helensville via Port Albert to Wellsford. Sure, it will take longer, but you’ll most likely encounter very little traffic, and the slower pace will also set the scene for a more relaxed campervan holiday.


Do Your Research

Before you get underway, do some research (if that is your bent) and you’ll be amazed by the ambitions that blazed in the hearts of early settlers for sleepy places like Port Albert. I was intrigued to see the scale of the deception undertaken by greedy developers and the role local Maori played in saving those who were sold the lie.

Scratch below the surface of the sleepy towns, visit the magnificent museums, search for shipwrecks revealed by the shifting sands, and fall in love – as I have – with the Kaipara region of New Zealand. You’ll find delight at every twist and turn.


Kaipara Region Highlights

  • Take SH16 out of Auckland heading north for an in-depth tour of both sides of the harbour  

  • Immerse yourself in history at The Kauri Museum and Dargaville Museum

  • Stop and stay under the largest Moreton Bay Fig in the Southern Hemisphere at Pahi

  • Make time for a cuppa at lovely Paparoa

  • Take the side-roads to quaint places like Tinopai, Whakapirau and Pouto

  • Dargaville offers shopping, cafes and history in abundance - take a harbour or rail trail tour

  • Bayley’s Beach offers beach access for vehicles  

  • Look out for Northland’s many quaint wooden churches

  • Fishers enjoy easy access to 947 square kilometres of harbour

  • Take the side road to Kai Iwi Lakes

  • Add a bike to your campervan, and swot up on the local bike trails at nzcycletrail.com

  • Shipwrecks are frequently revealed by shifting sands, but don’t take souvenirs

  • Visit Tane Mahuta and other northland forest treasures while you can

  • Stop at lovely Opononi and take a water taxi to dune surf

  • Take a wander through the WW! memorial forest

  • Stay over at Rawene before crossing Hokianga Harbour by vehicular ferry. Don’t want to cross over? Cut across to Kerikeri and the Bay of Islands here

  • Ahipara is a highly regarded surf spot with a popular campground

  • Don’t miss a tour of  Waitangi Treaty Grounds

  • Continue north to Cape Reinga or begin your return south on SH1