New Zealand Odyssey Part V – Giant Sand Hills and the Mixing of Seas.

Taking my backpack and the rental car, I left my base in the Bay of Islands and headed far north to the very tip of New Zealand. With Radiohead’s latest album (at the time), ‘OK Computer’, as my travelling soundtrack, I followed the meandering State Highway north, as it hugged the coastline. Spectacular views flowed past me as a dreamscape. Beauty round every bend of the road.

It was a perfect summer’s day. Under an azure sky I crossed Whangaroa Harbour and continued north to Doubtless Bay, stopping off to have a picnic lunch on the white sands of Coopers Beach.

Dragging myself away, I took to the road again. The afternoon waned as I cruised past yet another breathtaking sight, the Houhora estuary. An inlet of very shallow water, crystal clear, with white sandbanks breaking the surface here and there. But nothing was to prepare me for what was to come…

Journeying ever northward, the highway, the only route north, eventually petered out at Cape Reinga, the most northerly tip of New Zealand.  I parked, just one of many tourists, many of them pouring from coaches and bus tours. But despite this, the place was still remarkably unspoilt and quiet. Leaving the car, I was inextricably drawn to the famous Cape Reinga lighthouse and its signpost, a testament to just how far away New Zealand is to every other country in the world!

Taking the coastal path, I walked along the edge of what had become my beloved Aotearoa (New Zealand) and watched in awe at the mixing of the seas –  a strange and beautiful phenomenon where the Tasman Sea suddenly meets the Pacific, just beyond Cape Reinga’s point.

I stood mesmerised by the sheer power and purity of nature. As the sun sank in the most gorgeous of sunsets, I found a sheltered cove just above a tiny beach and camped out beneath the stars. Just magic. Nothing but the sweet beautiful blue disturbed my sleep…

If heaven existed…this was it.

I rose early, just as the first throng of tourists arrived. To my satisfaction, I was not the only single-minded solitary traveller who had had an impromptu stay. Weary but intensely happy, these campers gave knowing smiles to each other as they filed out of the lighthouse ‘restrooms’.

I was reluctant to leave, but I knew there was one sight I could not leave without seeing for myself…the famous giant sand hills!

Studying my maps, I travelled back south a little way until I reached Te Paki, a small settlement of houses, then turning right I followed the Te Paki stream road, really no more than a rural track until I reached them.

I still cannot explain the startling sight of driving through green countryside and emerging from lush woodland to be faced with a desert landscape!

Towering sand dunes or hills surrounded by green…beautiful desolation!

I went exploring. Watching a small party of thrill seekers ‘sandsurf’ and body board was great fun, but it was solitude I sought. Suddenly I was alone walking along the ridges and shifting sands of the Sahara, the Gobi, the Kalahari…

The starkness and simplicity of nature was humbling and again, I found myself letting go of demons and dreaming of distant forgotten lands and cities of sand…

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New Zealand Odyssey Part IV – Desert Island Discs.

I left the magical Waipoua Forest with its towering kauri trees and took a breathtaking drive eastward across North Island to the Bay of Islands. The sun was shining and the old rental car I’d hired was humming along with the rhythm of the road. I arrived in Paihia, a quiet little coastal town and gateway to the Bay of Islands, surrounded by scenic forested hills and sail boats drifting lazily in the inlets and marinas.

I rented a self-contained unit by the beach, my base for the next few weeks. The apartment had a small balcony overlooking a little garden with an enormous flowering pohutukawa tree, the ‘New Zealand Christmas Tree’, its blooms a suitably vivid red for December. The air was warm and sweet somehow. A tui bird (found only in NZ) was perched outside my window singing furiously, while it proudly puffed its white chest plumage out.

Dumping my enormous backpack for a lighter day one, I headed out into the sunshine and the startling blue skies, apparently the second ‘bluest’ in the world after Rio de Janeiro (but obviously not in my photos!). Leaving the car for the first few days, I explored Paihia, looking every bit the awe-struck tourist. It didn’t matter though, the vibe of the whole place was friendly and ultra relaxed. I followed suit. Going under my own steam, I did the tourist thing, taking a ferry out to see the pods of dolphins that were famous to the area. If it’s possible to see pure joy in a wild animal, this was it. I watched enthralled as the twenty or so dolphins launched themselves out of the water beside the boat, doing back flips and somersaults, little did I know that in a couple of months I would have an even closer encounter at Kaikoura in the South Island!

I spent glorious day after glorious day soaking up the atmosphere and watching the incredible sunsets ignite the sky. Taking another boat, I sailed to Cape Brett and the hole in the wall rock, before returning to visit the historic town of Russell, a picturesque place with a rowdy sea-faring ‘wild west’ past!

But once again, it was my solitary travels away from the tourist trail that proved the most inspiring.

Waking early and packing a small provision along with my sketch pads, I took a ferry trip around some of the 150 islands scattered around, that make up the Bay of Islands. To describe them as miniature havens, islands of paradise, would not do them justice. But, most thrilling, after charting a small boat, and with a bit of persuasion, I was dropped off on a small deserted island just off the coast of Urupukapuka Island.

I was so excited I could hardly speak, as I saw the boat disappear from view. All I kept playing in my head was the theme tune to ‘Desert Island Discs’! Here I was, totally alone on my very own desert island…well, at least until 5:30pm!

Peeling off layers and clunky boots, I wandered barefoot over the island, not much more than a strip of rock with some trees and vegetation and a couple of beaches…but it was perfect! Boats sailed or powered by, but the place was quiet and incredibly serene. I sunk my feet into the sand and watched the light dance off the surface of the water. Life just didn’t get better than this.

I whiled away the day sketching and writing and dreaming, words and images tumbling out of me faster than I could grasp them. If there was a heaven, this was it. Blissful solitude with nothing but the clear sky above and nature around me. Again, snatches of the story that would become ‘White Mountain’ came to me. So as I dozed under the shade of another pohutukawa tree, I dreamed of dragons and ancient hidden civilisations, still surviving in our modern world…