“That is beautiful greenstone. Can I touch it?” We stopped for a steak and mushroom pie and salad. As we enter the small cafe, Maoiri woman greets us with a smile from the cash register. In an instant, she spys Andrew’s greenstone and lights up with approval. The Maori draw much of their spirituality from New Zealand’s natural wonders, pounamou or greenstone among the rest. Maori warriors took long Odysseys to find the perfect greenstone to derive strength and express their power.
When Andrew tells her she can touch it, she reaches across the counter and holds it in her hand. “Oh, it’s a very warm stone. Where did you get it?”
Andrew explains we purchased it in Ross, and the stone came from the Waimea River. She nods with approval and smiles. “Yes, it is beautiful.”
The further North we travel, the stronger the Maori presence has grown. Now, at the very northern most point of the Island, we are visiting Maori holy land. This nature can give any church I have visited a run for it’s money.
As we drive along the coast, there seems to be no end to the beautiful places to stop. We stop into Maitai Beach and find a camp on top of a grassy hill, overlooking dunes and a perfectly shaped half moon bay. We park, set up shop, then walk barefooted down a soft sand path through grassy dunes. Andrew takes a swim in the perfectly clear water with the pristine sandy bottom until he feels a crap tickle his toe. Then, he scuttles out of the ocean, high stepping all the way, as if the crab will chase him out. “Yyiiieee! A crab pinched my toe!” I guess he has lost his comfort with the ocean.
I am lucky enough to wake up with the sunrise, so I wander the beach taking pictures. We pull our camp chairs to the edge of the sand dunes and enjoy coffee on the “patio.” One more swim, then we cast off to our next beautiful spot.
Our focus lies with exploring Cape Reinga, the very most Northern tip of New Zealand. The Maori believe this is where the soul goes when it is time to depart the earth. As the story goes, the soul descends down a grassy hill until it reaches a craggy rock cliff adorned with only one tree. The roots of the tree form a stairway for the soul to climb down to the ocean and onto the point. From there, the soul can depart this world with one last view of all of New Zealand and the tumultuous waters where the currents of the Tasman and the Pacific meet.
We pass through an archway with built in Maori flute music. To our left, a long beach sweeps around in an arc to some islands. The sun and clouds leave a pattern of light and dark on the beach. The music and the lighting gives the area a spooky feel. We turn to our right and follow a trail toward the lighthouse point.
We walk along, trapped behind a group of other tourists. A young man donning shorts, loafers and colorful reflective sunglasses leads the pack, pointing and stating with authority: “just put the lighthouse there in the bottom left hand corner of your picture. … No, no, the bottom left hand corner. No, the very corner…” He must be a photographer, I think. Maybe he is on a walking field trip with a class he is teaching? I peek through my viewfinder, curious because his way is not how I would frame this picture. I’m puzzling about his composition instructions when I hear:
“Yeah, my Instagram page is awesome.”
“Well, congratulations!” One of the girls he is walking with exclaims. She is trying hard not to be sarcastic, and she succeeds well enough because he carries on about his Instagram page.
I laugh and carry about my own business framing the lighthouse as I see fit.
When we reach the lighthouse, we get a better view of the point where the soul departs. It’s a very peaceful and beautiful spot - at least today with the ocean so calm.
Andrew and I marvel over the spot where the currents meet. With as calm as the ocean is today, little whirlpools dance and spin together; it is as though the currents approach each other from opposite points on the dance floor, clasp hands, then swing in a circle with their leftover momentum. I would feel more bad-ass if we sailed here, but it’s still pretty cool to be standing between the Pacific/Tasman line.
We head next to Te Paki Sand Dunes. We’ve heard you can rent a boogie board and sled down the giant dunes. So, we stop at a little house with chickens, a puppy named Meg (pronounced Miiieeg) and a shed full of boogie boards. We take two, and head to the dunes.
Upon arrival, we kick off our shoes and make the walk to the giant mountain of sand everyone is sledding on. The sand is perfect. Soft, cool in the cloud-shade, and warm where the sun peeks out.
The dune is very tall and steep! The people at the top look like tiny little ants, readying themselves for their slide down the hill.
We climb, with half of the sand beneath each step losing grip and cascading down like a waterfall. Our feet bury into it like we are walking in a foot of freshly laid snow. With each step, we climb a little bit but slide back downward about half as much, making the climb like being on a giant sand treadmill.
When I get to the top, I zip my vest to my chin in hopes of keeping out as much sand as possible. Then, I figure there is no time like the present. I lay on my belly on the boogie board, push off on the steep part of the mountain and wait to slide down.
“Erch, eerruch, erch.” I expected to speed down, face first in a blaze of sand-flying glory, but I seemed to be stuck. I scooted a bit further over the edge, until the sand beneath me gave way. "WOOSH"! The sand swishes beneath me, following me downhill like river water as I pick up speed. Sliding face first (as instructed by the boogie-board lady), my face is just inches from the sand. I picture getting caught on my chin, burying my head in the sand and flipping over in a ball of boogie board, human, and dune. Trying hard not to smile (so as to keep the flying sand out of mouth), I laugh and scream through pursed lips the whole way down. The sand-mountain flattens out and I slow to a stop. “Wow!” I exclaim. That was intense. I pick up my boogie board and climb the hill again to give it another shot.
Our fellow Duners each take their turns, everyone waiting until the others are safely clear below, egging each other on, laughing about the copious amounts of sand in all of our clothing. Andrew is on his way down, too. ZOOM!
By the end of the day, Andrew proclaims he made the distance record of the group.
We sled, jump and explore until it is time to go back to camp and we are covered in sand.
Our next destination is to see The Maori Forest God, the largest Kauri tree in the world. We traipse through more magical forest, marveling with our eyes tipped skyward. We meet the four sisters and several unnamed but awesome trees.
Hikers are strung out in a steady line, walking on wooden tracks built to protect the delicate Kauri roots from our feet. Muffled voices float along the edges of the track, hikers chatting as they walk. Then, we turn a corner and come upon “Father of the Forest,” the second largest Kauri in the world. With the surrounding forest casting shadows all about him, the Father of the Forest stands warm in a ray of light. We fall silent.
Hikers whisper as they stand before the tree to take a photo. Everyone tries this angle and that angle, but no matter what we do, our photos won’t do the scale justice. I would have to pace ten steps to walk past the base of this tree, it is so wide. It stretches up at least twice the height of all the other trees in this forest, and the trees in this forest are pretty tall.
We sit with the “Father” for the span of three rounds of new hikers. Then, I reach my hand out toward the tree (can’t touch him, he’s behind a fence) to wave goodbye and say thanks for the company. You can fall in love with trees, here.
Then, we drive a skip down the road to see the “Lord of the Forest” Or “God of the Forest” depending on the literature you read. Kauri Numero Uno. A Maori woman sits at the entrance gate, helping to make sure we wash our shoes with an anti fungal liquid and rotating brushes to prevent the spread of a fungus that is causing dieback. I ask her how far to see “The Lord” and she tells me he is just thirty seconds or so down the trail. We walk until arrive at a wide spot in the trail. Andrew pauses to read a sign, and I wait patiently until he’s done. Then, I begin to carry on.
“Where are you going?” Andrew asks.
“To see the Lord of the Forest! Where are you going?” I respond.
Andrew looks upward and points at a giant tree standing off the trail maybe about 20 feet, but right next to me.
“Oh. There he is.” The Lord was big and beautiful and amazing just the same way that the Father of the Forest is, but with the track continuing on to another viewing platform I almost missed him!
Andrew shakes his head and sighs. “How have you not been eaten by a wolf?”
(Trying to get the best angle...)
By the time we complete our trip in Northland, I am pretty sure my soul departed the Earth at least for a little while. Cathedrals of sky, cheerful people playing in the sand, and giant trees showing me to root my feet into the earth and stretch my hands to the stars. I walk away from the Cape Reinga, Te Paki, the Kauri Trees, and the beautiful beaches feeling soulful and rejuvenated, certain that something good must come of this adventure we are on.