Bay of Islands

I was extremely excited to leave Auckland. After my time on Waiheke Island, I posted up in the city looking for a car to buy. For five days I felt like I was in the Pit of Misery (Dilly Dilly!). But after a few mechanical checks and some haggling, I found a good car (2000 Honda Accord) at a great price. I finally closed the deal on Wednesday, October 4th and found myself in an interesting position. I could now go anywhere. It was a different feeling than when I got my rental car in Iceland. I didn’t have to return it anywhere, and there was no stress about dinging or denting it. For the first time in New Zealand, I felt truly free. So where was I going to go? North, to the Bay of Islands.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
Sunrise over Wenderholm Regional Park.

My excitement was so intense that I woke up at 5:45 am to start my drive north. I mean, that’s pretty much a miracle in its own right. The sun began to rise as I passed the sleepy town of Orewa on the east coast. The views were magnificent, and I made it a habit to stop frequently to take photos and soak in the scenery. My goal was rather modest for the day’s drive – I was stopping for the night in Paihia. The drive from Auckland is just about three hours long. My photo-snapping road-tripping style would likely extend it to six or seven.

Those pictures sure aren’t going to take themselves…

I had a big advantage for this road trip that I didn’t have while I was driving around Iceland – my new camera. In Iceland, I was limited to iPhone photography, but in New Zealand, I had a second option. It’s fun getting used to a new toy, and New Zealand provides an endless supply of marvelous subjects.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
The sunrise pokes through the clouds as I drive past the Puhoi River.

I used the Hibiscus Coast Highway to deftly avoid one of New Zealand’s three toll roads. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Honestly, I can’t find a reason why you’d ever drive the toll road. It only saves you about ten minutes, and you miss out on a whole bunch of gorgeous ocean lookouts.

After the sun rose, I assumed that people were beginning to wake up and go about their regular Thursday morning activities. Now I could focus a bit of my attention on my secondary mission –  officially transferring ownership of the vehicle at a post office.

This secondary mission would determine my next stops on the way north to Paihia and the Bay of Islands.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
A brisk, cloudy morning at Tawharanui Regional Park on the Northland’s east coast.

I discovered that the little towns up here didn’t have a full post office. They stuck mini ones  into stationery stores and grocery stores, but I was quickly informed that I needed a true postal agent to handle my transfer.

It began to feel like a truly boring video game side quest.

In Mangawhai, a helpful lady informed me that the nearest place that I could find my agents was Whangarei. Have I mentioned that in the Māori language (known as te reo), Wh makes the same sound as the English Ph? I may have. But it doesn’t hurt to reiterate. So Whangarei sounds like Fangarei. I sounded like an idiot mispronouncing it for a while, and no one corrected me…

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
Langs Beach, with mountains on the horizon across Bream Bay.

At last I was able to complete my task in famed Whangarei, a small city that I’d heard much about while exploring the little towns on my journey north. For a $9 fee, the car was now officially mine, and I owned a little bit of property (kinda) in New Zealand!

Secondary mission completed. Now I just had to reach my destination at the Bay of Islands. Only an hour separated me from my hostel in Paihia, but the day was young!

That was when I heard about the waterfall.

I love waterfalls. Of course I had to check it out.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
Just once I’d love to visit a waterfall on a sunny day under a beautiful blue sky.

Whangarei Falls was beautiful. It’s very easy to get to, and there’s a nice loop that you can walk around in about 30 minutes. It is apparently a popular swimming location, but not while I was there in chilly October. The falls are certainly not as powerful as some of the Icelandic waterfalls I’d seen, such as Skógafoss, but the lush surroundings made it unique for me.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
The Hatea river slices through this beautiful forest after tumbling down Whangarei Falls.

The springtime plants had a vibrant color and life to them, and the sounds of the forest made the area feel wild – despite it being just a few minutes from the city’s center. I stayed at Whangarei Falls for about an hour, and had lunch there. I mean, it was just a little bit of canned tuna smeared on a piece of bread. But hey, it is what it is.

We’ll call it ‘backpacker’s lunch’.

After eating, I drove straight through to Paihia and checked in at my new hostel. I had made it to the Bay of Islands! The hostel was ok, but nothing special besides having a Jacuzzi. Which, I’ll be honest, was the main reason I booked there.

So why did I even come here? I came to the Bay of Islands because there was somewhere I wanted to see here. The tiny town of Russell. When I had first put together my New Zealand trip, my mother had watched a documentary about the North Island and we’d talked about how cool Russell was. It used to be a wild settlement back in the day, known for being lawless and rowdy. The place was filled with deserting seamen, runaway criminals, and grog sellers.

Cool, right?!

So I had to get over there. It was on the other side of the water. There’s a car ferry that operates across the Bay of Islands from Opua to Okiato. But I didn’t want to go on the same boat ride twice, and I definitely didn’t want to pay for it twice. So I resolved to drive around the long way, and take the ferry on the way back. That way I could see more of beautiful New Zealand.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
The dark, menacing sky over the Kawakawa River.

The road to Russell first took me by the Kawakawa River. I liked the view of the river against the backdrop of the green hills and the dark sky, so I got out to take some pictures. The riverbed looked like it had some potential, so I began walking towards the water for a better angle.

And then I squelched deep into the mud.

When I say deep, I mean DEEP. I ended up so deep in the mud that I wondered if my foot would ever again see the light of day. For sure, I’m never getting that shoe back, or at least so I thought. I slowly pulled my leg out of the mud, which was caked-on all the way up my shin. I did manage to get my shoe  back, but both of them are literally still muddy even to this day.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
The valley around Waikere, in the middle of nowhere.

I’d plugged Waikere into my GoogleMaps, thinking that it was a small town of some sort. Then once I was there I would be able to search for Russell and get directions. I had to do this because my phone couldn’t find a route from Paihia straight through to Russell that didn’t involve the ferry.

There was just one problem.

Waikere wasn’t a town. It was a collection of maybe a dozen farms in a valley, surrounded by small mountains. There wasn’t any service at all. It was just me and the cows in the middle of nowhere. So it took me a little while to find the right road out of there. And the reason it took a while is because it was such an insane winding gravel road out of there that I was pretty sure there was no way it was open to the public.

Thank goodness for the white guardrails spaced out along the elevated road. They helpfully marked every location where you could plummet hundreds of feet down to your death.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
Hazy mountains on the other side of the the Waikare Inlet.

I survived the crazy road, and found myself on the regular route to Russell. Thankfully, it was paved, and didn’t make any attempts to throw me off of the mountain. When I arrived, I drove straight through Russell to the end of the peninsula. I’d spend a little time in the town a bit later, but I wanted to capitalize on what remained of the daylight and the blue sky.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
At last, a good look at the beautiful Bay of Islands!

The end of the peninsula had a few small beaches hidden from sight. They weren’t heavily advertised – I had to go looking for them. I imagine the small community likes to keep a few areas to themselves.

Russell is truly a tiny town.

Only about 816 residents call it home. Or at least, that’s how many called it home during the 2006 census (thanks Wikipedia).

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
A hidden beach in Russell looks out across the Bay of Islands.

I picked up a few pieces of sea glass at this secret beach as a keepsake for home. After getting my feet wet I headed back into town to grab a bite to eat and check out one of the oldest settlements in New Zealand. There’s one small strip of shops by the bay, and you can tell that some of the buildings have been around for a long time.

There was a cool little fish takeaway shop – and you won’t believe what it was named. It’s called Crusty Crab. You know, like the Krusty Krab from Spongebob! I had to get some food there. But there weren’t any Crabby Patties to be found. So I ordered one fried mussel and one fried oyster, just to get a sampling of the local flavor.

I could tell they thought I was weird.

I mean, who orders just one fried oyster/mussel? Budgeting backpackers, that’s who. It was delicious. I should’ve ordered twenty.

Now the sun was starting to set, and I wanted to get back to the hostel before dark. I was ready to leave quaint Russell behind. But not before heading up a hill to get one good picture of Russell and the Bay of Islands.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
Take away a few of the modern boats on the left and you can imagine what it was like here a hundred and fifty years ago with the outlaws and criminals. I’m getting a Tortuga vibe.

Now that’s the stuff.

The gentle sunset, the cool breeze, the sounds of the seabirds – the scene from atop that hill was magnificent. It was the peak of my first day with the car, my first day feeling freedom in New Zealand. Every long detour was worth it. Now I had to make my way back to Paihia, and I was going to catch my first car ferry ever!

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
After I debarked in Opua, the car ferry loaded up again and left for Okiato.

It was an interesting experience, for me. But for the other cars, it was just the end of an average workday. Just another part of the commute. There are ramps on both sides, so you don’t have to turn around at all. You just drive on, and then drive off once your arrive at the other side. It seemed quite easy, although I don’t have anything else to compare it to.

It was a much simpler journey than the way I went earlier.

The detour through middle-of-nowhere Waikere and over the crazy gravel mountain road took about three times longer to complete. I couldn’t wait to just get back to the hostel, eat some dinner, and hop in the Jacuzzi. But before I did all that, I took a walk down to the beach to see the Bay of Islands from Paihia’s perspective.

Conquer Fear Bay of Islands
Paihia Beach in October, 2017.

The beach was a nice walk. I preferred Russell’s side – they had a lot of nice rock formations, and sparser crowds. Paihia was still a good place to stop and hang out for a bit. But I was done sightseeing for the day. The driving and exploring had left me exhausted. I just wanted to plop down into the Jacuzzi and relax. So I did. I reflected on the day – it’d been a long while since my 5:45 am start time in Auckland. The drive was amazing – the coast, the waterfall, the beaches.

And the Bay of Islands was indeed beautiful.

It was a great way to start my journey with the car. But I was planning something even more ambitious for the next day. In the morning, I was going to wake up at 3:45 am to drive three hours to Cape Reinga to catch a sunrise at New Zealand’s northernmost publicly accessible location.

But that’s a story for another day.

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