From Auckland, we headed north. Beyond the city limits and heading off the main freeway, the undulating green hills seemed to grow larger as we drove to the first point of interest along our route: the Matakana Farmer’s Market. I’d seen the market mentioned in one of my travel guide booklets – I’ve accumulated an obscene amount – and, apparently, so had the rest of New Zealand. The outdoor market was alive and buzzing with activity.
Set upon the bank of a small creek, we strolled from one booth to the next under a warm morning sun. We sampled the local wares – sweets such as Turkish delight and baklava, honeys and olive oils and dips and salsas, delicious homemade salted caramel cashew milk, a few scrumptious ciders (the “Apple Crumble” dessert cider from Zeffer Cider Co. was my favorite), a pork steam bun (mainly because it made me feel like Po from Kung Fu Panda), and finally, for its divine scent alone, we meandered through a boutique flower shop before once again hitting the road.
Tyson kept our next stop a surprise, so when we arrived at the Mangawhai Heads beach, I was completely swept off my feet. I’m sure nothing I say about the incredible turquoise color of the water or the stretch of soft white sand will do the experience justice, so I’ll let the following photos do the rest of the talking as best they can. Having walked the length of the beach, we then hiked the Mangawhai Heads Walkway at the opposite end, yielding some amazing views from the cliffs – on one side, the breathtaking azure of the ocean, and on the other a rolling sea of green.
Hopping in the Vitz once more, we had a last quick wander of Lang’s Beach before arriving late in the afternoon at our next AirBnB in Whangarei. Considering we’d booked this particular place for under $70 a night, we were not expecting the mansion into which we were ushered by a lovely woman named Lisa. And when I say mansion, I mean mansion – the impeccably spotless, meticulously decorated, ultra-modern, magazine-worthy kind. We were kicking ourselves for only booking two nights here! We definitely took advantage, lounging on the deck with its jungle views, making a latte or two with the fancy espresso machine, and FaceTiming family and friends from the sun-spilled couch, sipping the aforementioned Apple Crumble cider as evening fell on what had been a truly beautiful day.
The next morning found us attending Sunday service at a local church whose members were so extremely welcoming that we ended up going out for lunch with them afterward to a little café on the Whangarei waterfront. Once we’d parted ways, Tyson and I took to the road that would lead us to the Bay of Islands. After driving through the Waitangi region where the treaty between the Maori and the colonials was signed, we went for a quick hike to Haruru Falls. Thus far, what’s most surprising to us is how tropical the northern areas of New Zealand seem. This provides quite the backdrop to the myriad walks and hikes here in this beautiful country, which I’m sure one could spend a lifetime doing – and to think, we’ve had only the smallest taste!
Though grey clouds dulled the sunlight upon our arrival to the town of Paihia, we had a pleasant walk along the waterfront and enjoyed sweeping views of the surrounding islands all the same. Though we’d only just bought some local apples from a fruit truck to munch on, Tyson gave way to a chocolate ice cream cone at my insistence – and after our walk, we parked the Vitz, rolled the windows down, and had a catnap to the sound of wind and waves before heading back to Whangarei for one last night to live the high life at our AirBnB.
The following day we spent the morning exploring the Whangarei Quarry Gardens, where I was transported to my happy place and went absolutely berserk with the camera. We wandered through the relatively unmarked grounds in admiration of the flora we didn’t – and consequently couldn’t – recognize, though this was only an inconvenience of technicality. For instance, I happened upon the most precious, tiny, furry, little flower I have ever seen; and somehow the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about it made it all the more precious to look upon. Our last stop in town was the Whangarei Falls where we enjoyed a picnic lunch before turning south, destined for our first Workaway.
Retracing the highway back through Auckland, I took the driver’s seat to try my hand at braving the wrong side of the road. Consequently, the rental car was destroyed – Ha! Kidding! As it turns out, I did just fine. Outside of Auckland, we decided to take a detour along the way and visit the Waipu Caves. Once off the beaten path, Tyson captained the Vitz again so as to maneuver a wildly twisting stretch of gravel road. With an official speed limit of 100km/hr that would quite literally kill you, we whipped about at 40km/hr (which still felt much too fast for some of those corners, let me tell you) and made it to the caves in one piece.
We had little idea what to expect of the Waipu caves – but whatever expectations we might have had were blown out of the water as we delved into the cavern. Our path was soon pitch-black, and being the well-equipped backpackers we are, the rest of our way was lit oh-so-poorly by our iPhone’s flashlights. Coming upon a particular hollow, a nearby family told us to turn off our lights and look up. So we did, and suddenly we were gazing into a galaxy. This sounds much more romantic than the reality, which is that we were really looking up at a bunch of slimy cave-dwelling glow worms, complete with dangling wet webs and a bulging set of bug-catching fluorescent kidneys – but if you ever get the chance to experience a glow worm cave, I can assure you that the galaxy thing will seem infinitely more accurate, too.
Something just as thrilling – though of a much worse variety – happened while Tyson and I were wading knee-deep through water, barefoot, bent beneath a 4-foot-high crevice as we felt our way through the stone. One of the kids from the family ahead of us shouted, “It’s a snake! No, it’s an eel!” I swear my heart dropped with a resounding thunk straight down to my toes. Toes that eels could bite. (If you know me, the thought of unseen sea creatures biting my toes is my own personal hell.) Reassuring myself that the boy must be mistaken, I was aghast to find out that he actually wasn’t when we laid eyes upon the thing ourselves just a minute later. Still, the thing about caves is that there’s usually only one way out – the way you came in – so back through the eel-infested waters we went. Thankfully, I was spared from any toe-nibbling horrors and we emerged from the cave, unscathed and full to the brim with thrills of all kinds from our adventures in the Northlands.
From my wandering heart to yours,