Exploring New Zealand’s Northland with Willi

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We arrive in Opua- a small boating community in beautiful Bay of Islands with a marina and a boatyard at the end of a deep bay, all sorts of marine shops, a yacht club and a restaurant and one small rather expensive grocery shop.

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Checking in on a Saturday afternoon is as fast as it can get, with two easygoing friendly officials, who inspect the boat, confiscate our honey and a bag of beans considered biohazard in New Zealand, inspect our camping tent for any foreign plants or seeds that might be stuck to it, and take our garbage away along with the many entry forms filled, signed and stamped.

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After the long and difficult passage from Tonga to New Zealand, after the exhaustion and the pain of eleven sleepless days and nights, tossed up and down on the ocean waves, stirred in all directions by changing winds and currents- a sense of immense relief and profound amazement in a new green world is upon us.

The light almost transparent turquoise hues of the blue lagoons in the tropics has deepened here into solid greens of rolling hills and endless fields sprinkled with white dots. The bright gold and soft pink of remote sandy beaches has matured here into deep reds and browns of earth and rock. The thin tall palm trees dancing delicate and fragile against the white sky have taken here the shape of massive ancient trees and giant ferns we’ve never seen before.

New Zealand is different from all other places, exceeding expectations and defying logic. It is morning- a new day is ahead of us, while back from where we are coming, it’s the beginning of the night of yesterday. It is Spring in November here, fresh and beautiful- summer is around the corner, while in the world we used to know people are preparing for winter and the maples are shedding their orange leaves.

Reunited with our friends the German family aboard catamaran Invictus and the Belgian family aboard catamaran Mercredi Soir, we share dinners and walks around the bay, shopping in the near-by town of Pahia, doing small boat works and repairs, cleaning and laundry. A few days pass. We are planning to explore the northern wonders of New Zealand’s North Island, as cheaply as possible like always- hitchhiking and couchsurfing.

New Zealand- the legendary Aotearoa of the Maori, “the land of the long white cloud”, is an island country in the Southwestern Pacific Ocean consisting of two main big landmasses—the North Island and the South Island and around 600 smaller islands, situated 1,500 kilometers (900 mi) east of Australia across the Tasman Sea. The two main island are divided in regions, of which Northland is the northernmost part of the country and our first destination. Through Couchsurfing we contact a local guy named Willi, who accepts our request to stay at his lifestyle block, which means a small farm, in the town of Kaikohe for a few days. He even comes to pick us up with his car from Opua, so we don’t have to hitchhike to his place!

Willi is of Maori descend, our age, with long black curly hair, barefoot, ever-smiling, ever-singing, full of local knowledge, great stories, impressive artistic talent, and awesome sense of humor. Easygoing, funny and smart, with an enormous amount of energy reserves, positive attitude and love for life, Willi quickly became our all-time favorite Couchsurfing host and good friend, whose company we enjoyed more than anything else during those few days in Northland.

Willi

On the way to his house, Willi shows us a few of the places of interest around Kaikohe and Kerikeri, explaining the significance of the Maori sacred grounds, telling us about the local flora and fauna. It’s 5-dollar pizza Monday at Dominos, so we share 5-dollar Monday pizzas watching the Rainbow Waterfalls in the park just before sunset.

Willi lives in the old house of his grandparents with three small bedrooms where he accommodates couchsurfers from all over the world. There is a separate garage building and a big yard full with all kinds of curious old but useful stuff lying around, piled up, most of which could be used for something at some point in time, including a small perfectly rigged sailboat, which Willi is planning to sail around the Bay of Islands someday. In the meantime the yard, garage and sailboat could be used to house more guests, campers and couchsurfers.

Beyond the yard populated by a few chickens ruled by Kuro- Willi’s black ninja cat, are a few paddocks separated by fences, where Willi keeps sheep and cows. He has two kinds of sheep- the white fluffy classic-looking cute New Zealand cliché sheep,

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and a few rather sickly-looking foreign imports of bigger and uglier stature and sullen expression, brownish in color, paranoid in character.

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The cows, of various ages and sizes, are in separate paddocks and more numerous than the sheep. Many are young ones, which Willi buys as calves, raises for a few months and sells at the cattle market across the street from his house.

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Maya is thrilled with all the animals and farm life in general. But mostly, she loves Kuro- the black ninja cat, skilled hunter of mice and sparrows, who casually comes to check us out early in the morning in our bedroom all covered with mattresses and blankets, as it gets cold at night, and allows us to scratch him behind the ears. Cats think they are, and behave, as the rightful owners of the homes they inhabit and the supreme rulers of everyone.

Willi works as a bus driver and tour guide for one of the local bus companies organizing day tours to Cape Reinga and 90-mile Beach- Northland’s main tourist attractions. We were planning to hitchhike to some of these points of interest in the area, but it turned out that the northern part of Northland is very remote and almost no cars pass on the one main road to the tip of New Zealand. So hitchhiking might take much longer time than expected, and without a tent we might find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, at night. But thanks to Willi, we are able to join one of his awesome bus tours and see the most interesting parts of Northland.

First stop is the Manginangina Kauri swamp forest where we meet for the first time in our lives the mighty kauri trees. One of the most remote and isolated places on the planet, New Zealand developed a distinct biodiversity of unique animal and plant life, of which the kauri tree is one of the most famous and prized representative.

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Kauri forests are among the most ancient in the world, appearing during the Jurassic period 150 million years ago. The kauri is a coniferous tree found only north of the 38 degrees south latitude in New Zealand’s North Island. It is the largest species of tree in New Zealand, standing up to 50m tall. They can live for more than a thousand years.

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We continue on to the famous 90-mile beach on the west coast of North Island which is actually only 55 miles long.

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It is an official New Zealand highway and a major tourist attraction. Here Willi makes doughnuts with the bus and we stop to collect tuatua clams and to make a human pyramid.

“Why make a human pyramid?”- asks Willi, “Because we can! We have a whole bus full of humans and there is no excuse not to make a pyramid!”

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At this point, no one of the bus crew- all young backpackers from all parts of Europe, really cares where we are going next. It doesn’t matter, as long as Willi is our guide. This one day bus tour has become an awesome experience and unique performance on wheels thanks to Willi, who is constantly making jokes, singing, and telling stories, organizing karaoke on the go, teaching us to sing a Maori haka and perform it in front of the costumers in a small fish-and-chips joint, organizing games, human pyramids, sandboarding on the dunes of 90-mile beach, and transforming a road trip into a fun unforgettable event in which the passengers become the audience and the performers at the same time, and get to know each other. It’s truly amazing.

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Our next stop is Cape Reinga- the northernmost point of New Zealand and a sacred Maori site. Here the Tasman Sea collides with the Pacific Ocean.

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It is ‘the place of leaping’.

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According to Maori legend, here the spirits of the dead leap into the ocean to begin their final journey and return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. The first New Zealand settlers arrived from Eastern Polynesia around 1300, after long and epic sailing voyages through the southern Pacific islands, navigating the seas in their traditional canoes. They became the Māori people of Aotearoa. Hawaiki is home of the Maori gods and the Maori people’s traditional place of origin. In Maori mythology Hawaiki is where the supreme being Io created the world and its first people. It is the place where each person is born, and it is where each will return after death to transform into birds or descend to the underworld. (from https://www.teara.govt.nz/en/hawaiki )

Here Willi tells us to be respectful. He says that if we sit at the edge of the cliff and close our eyes we will feel the profound spirituality of the place.

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Back at Willi’s place, we are welcome to stay a few more days longer than originally planned and to do some work around the house, in the spirit of couchsurfing.

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If you are couchsurfing at someone’s house, the best thing you can do to repay your awesome host for the hospitality and free accommodation is to cook some traditional food from your country and to help around the house. So in the next couple of days, I prepare some traditional Bulgarian dishes and paint the toilet with a fresh coat of paint, while Ivo, Maya and Karlo- a young German guy also couchsurfing at Willi’s place, sheer Willi’s sheep. We also clear some of the bush in one of the cow paddocks piling the branches to create the biggest bonfire in the history of the world.

We are watching the biggest bonfire in the history of the world burning in front of our eyes with beers in our hands, Willi, Karlo and the three of us; sleepy cows munching grass under the stars, and a black ninja cat lurking in the shadows. The spirits of Willi’s Maori ancestors populating the night time of these places are watching over us, communicating their wisdom, guiding us.

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Watch the short fun YouTube video about our Couchsurfing experience at Willi’s house and the Awesome Bus Tour!

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2 Responses to Exploring New Zealand’s Northland with Willi

  1. John M "Buff" Leitch says:

    Love you guys…I enjoy the travels so much!

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