And so we headed north from Auckland for a week of camping and exploring. First camping stop was Whangerei via a quick pit-stop at Mangawhai Heads to sample the culinary delights of my 2nd cousin Charlotte's hole-in-the-wall eatery 'Roasts to Go'. To say that the roast lamb, gravy and chutney baguettes were amazing may sound a little nepotistic but quite frankly they were just that. We made Whangerei in good time and settled in to the pleasant but small camp ground. Not wanting to try and outdo our lunchtime treat, tea consisted of 'Noodle-man' noodles (thanks Adam and Jenn) and toast. The camp was right next door to the Whangerei Waterfalls (amusingly described in the Lonely Planet guide as like the Paris Hilton of natural attractions, the most photographed but not necessarily the most beautiful). We set out the next day to have a look and also to head to Abbey Caves, which I had been reassured by the campground operator was a walkable distance. I guess it was, we did walk but our 'short trip' ended up requiring 5 and half hours of uninterrupted walking up dale and down vale in the sometimes blazing sunshine, interrupted only by me slipping and falling on my arse in the mud on descending down to the unmanaged and unfortunately rather treacherous looking caves. It was worth it though, the caves were impressive as was the view from the top of Mt Parihaka and the walk back along the Hatea river was pleasant. On our return to the campgrounds the pool and hot tub were quite rightly abused.
From Whangerei we headed up to Russell in the Bay of Islands area taking the extremely winding coastal route. Stopped at an appealing cafe/art gallery which afforded fantastic views over Helena Bay and featured a sculpture garden full of corrugated iron creations, some impressive paintings and a bunch of humongous, scruffy yet cute ex-rescue dogs. We disagreed on the merits of some of the jewellery but this was academic as our budget wouldn't quite stretch to such frivolities. We eventually arrived at the camp ground at Orongo Bay just south of Russell and the sun was finally shining. Initial impressions of the camp weren't favourable and the thought of setting up in the midday sun after driving 3 odd hours and then not really having anything to do was not appealing so instead we proactively drove into Russell. This was a good move, we had ice-cream, discussed the tours we could do, eventually deciding that we wouldn't do any (reasoning that they were too expensive and that we would hopefully get to do some of the stuff for free at some of our future stays), and saw a huge sting-ray swim effortlessly by no more than 3 feet from the waters edge underneath the ferry pier. (We were alerted to it's presence by the rapidly sea-exiting bathers along the beach.) A quick look at a map of the local area suggested a likely bay across the other side of town so we visited there before returning to the campsite, and at long last we were able to spend a few hours simply sunbathing on the beach. We repeated this remarkable feat the next day at a different beautiful beach (there really is one around every corner) where I did some minor exploring, rock climbing, snorkelling, diving and we dined on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
To complete our journey around the far north we finally headed for Houhore Heads a pretty spot about an hour and a half south of Cape Reinga. This is almost the northernmost tip of New Zealand and from here you can see not only a very picturesque lighthouse but also where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean collide. Very cool! The weather was such that we decided to stay only two nights here rather than the three we had planned. Our drive up to Cape Reinga also took in the giant sand dunes at Te Paki which were starkly beautiful even in the grey conditions in which we found them. Whilst doing my best Tuscan Raider impersonation the lip of what I thought was a rock formation, but which was actually tightly packed sand, collapsed under my feet and I fell head over heels a few feet down and out of sight. Luckily I had the presence of mind to hold my expensive, uninsured camera up and out of harms way, and even managed to accidentally video the fall as it was happening which provided us both with an hilarious 1st person memory of the event. A herd of cows tried their best to prevent us from leaving, looking at us with unreserved contempt as we slowly inched along through their ranks. On our way back to the camp we stopped at what was advertised as the northernmost pub in New Zealand which had a strong yokel feel. Not wanting to waste money but being nevertheless hungry I ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, "one large sausage". And that's exactly what I got, a sausage. When the landlord looked at me gone out I refrained from asking the obvious question 'why is such a seemingly surprising snack on your menu at all?'. I guess the lesson is you get what you pay for which also goes for the liqueurs we bought after leaving the pub to spice up our now nightly games of Uno. Again they were the cheapest drink on offer and again the results were less than impressive. The rain unfortunately didn't relent so we left early the next day, running on fumes to the next petrol station, to begin our journey down and round to The Coromandel.
We retuned to our 'home away from home' at Warkworth Lodge for one night to break up the journey. After making a rare stop to treat ourselves to a hot beverage at a picturesque spot we returned to our van to find it dead as a dildo. After performing the customary check under the bonnet that all men who don't know much about cars do, the one to 'see if it's anything obvious', we made the call to our breakdown provider. And sure as s*** the van started immediately after hanging up, so we made it to Warkworth without having to be towed by Geoff a second time. I was keen to check out the old abandoned, flooded limestone cement quarry, now a swimming hotspot for the locals. Ignoring Mellissa's warnings about the dangers of quarry swimming and the stories of killer eels I had a great time swimming in and jumping into the calm, refreshing water.