Destination: Northland, North Island, NZ March 2 – 22, 2006

Hello friends and family,

We are back in Auckland for a quick 36 hour stint to regroup and catch up on some internetting which is much cheaper to do from Auckland ($3/hour) rather than small-town NZ ($5 to $9/hour). I spent a good six hours at the internet shop today catching up on emails and I’m a little computered-out at the moment. However, I wanted to get one more post out before we head south tomorrow to make our way to Wellington over the next ten days. We plan to hit the Coromandel peninsula for four days, then drive down the East side of the country, ending up in Napier for a couple of days, and then into Wellington where we will ring in Bruce’s 41st birthday with a Burning Man friend, Yonder Man and his family (wife and two small children). Apparently the hub of the Kiwi Burning Man community is located in Wellington and we hope to celebrate B’s birthday with some new found kiwi friends. According to Yonder Man, Bruce will become the Christchurch regional Burning Man co-coordinator (or something like that). We find this quite amusing but also are keen on finding out what this duty will entail. More on this in future posts…

I’ve decided to create a “musings” post for each region we stay in, covering topics which might be of interest to friends and potential ex-pats alike.

I’m also dropping the “NZ” prefix from the cost; the current USD to NZD exchange rate (as of March 20) is .63 (it takes $.63 US cents to get one NZ dollar). To get the USD value equivalent of any cost mentioned, just multiply by this figure.

Map of the Northland (Cape Reinga is at the tippy tippy top of the peninsula north of Kaitaia)

During our first three weeks we did the following:
6 days Auckland
3 days Pahia/Bay of Islands
8 days Wwoofing in Honeymoon Valley near Kaitaia
2 days Pukenui on Cape Reinga peninsula
2 more days Auckland


We love staying at budget accommodations called “backpackers” in NZ. Backpackers are similar to youth hostels except that they’re for persons of any age. If you’re single and willing to share a room, a dorm room is the way to go at about $20/night. A private double room costs approx. $60. In remote areas the costs are more like $15/$40. A few backpackers have en suites (private bathrooms in room), but most have central bathrooms/showers which are shared by a handful of people. There are ‘partying’ backpackers and ‘laid-back quiet homey’ backpackers. There’s something for everyone.

While in Auckland, we spent our time in a great neighborhood twenty minutes from the Auckland city center called Ponsonby. Ponsonby is like a combination of Noe Valley and the Castro, which is much to be preferred to anything in the Central Business District dominated by Queen St., which is much like downtown San Francisco and Market St., except nicer and almost practically devoid of homeless people. We stayed at the appropriately named Ponsonby Backpackers, run by hosts Diana & Yoshi who took over ownership of the place in July 2005. If you’re looking for a room for two, Room #12 is the way to go. It’s a spacious room with a double and a twin bed, couch, chair, ample storage cabinets, room to exercise and it overlooks the garden ($62 or $58/night for two with two BBH cards, also a good value for travels of a month or more). We’re now back here again for 2 nights ‘recuperation’.

We spent three nights in Pahia – one night at the Pickled Parrot which was on the outskirts of this less populated but highly touristy town of 7000. If you are spending a few days you might want to head over to Russell instead. The Pickled Parrot was new but quaint and had a nice garden setting and offered free breakfasts consisting of a sort of minimal toast, yogurt, juice drink, and canned peaches, etc.. The rooms were a little small but not a bother ($52/night); We liked much more our two nights at the Peppertree Lodge where every room had its own bathroom facilities (quite luxurious) and daily housekeeping service. It also offered free bikes and free kayaks, neither of which we made use of ($60/night). It was here that we bumped into the folks from Sparks, Nevada, a couple about ten years older than us, very friendly, and who invited us to stay with them for a night or two while en route from Burning Man this summer. They also tipped us off about the utterly fabulous Mangonui Fish Shop much farther north.

After our stint at Wwoofing, we spent two nights way up north in a very tiny town called Pukenui (no population stats given in our guidebook, I’m guessing less than 1000) at the Pukenui Farm Backpackers ($40/night for twin room with lovely views). We were on a dairy and melon growing farm – we shared our 10 person occupancy backpackers with two young men (one from the Netherlands, the other from Eastern Europe) and enjoyed some interesting conversations with them. This backpackers offered lovely sunsets over the rolling pasturelands.

We arrived in Auckland at the onset of Fall, but we definitely enjoyed Summer weather. Temperatures during the week hovered around 70F, high humidity, frequent showers, and some very windy days that put San Francisco wind to shame. One full rainy day; one gorgeous day. Always a breeze coming from one coast or the other. Evenings spent listening to the chirping sounds of the crickets (and cars).

In the northland we enjoyed full-on summer weather with temperatures hovering in the mid 70’s (I’m guessing). Shorts and beach-wear appropriate. It was deeply warm in a way that Auckland is not, Auckland being more of a typical Pacific climate dependent on the sun and lack of wind for warmth.

Food & Pubs:

Auckland offers a good variety of international cuisine – we ate at a Japanese gyoza (pot stickers) restaurant which was quite good but more than we wanted to spend ($35 total); we spent the rest of our nights eating out in Auckland (though backpackers provide full kitchens) at the nearby international asian foodcourt which offered a choice of Malaysian, Singaporan, Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Japanese, and Indian fares for about $7 – 11/dish. Certainly we could have spent more enjoying ourselves at posh neighborhood restaurants, but we weren’t quite looking for that kind of experience (or that expense). One that would have piqued the interest of our friend Kelly was the restaurant Bolliwood which served Indian cuisine against a backdrop of Bolliwood movies (think Foreign Cinema).

Once one leaves the big city, one loses any hope of cuisine diversity. It’s all pub food: fish-n-chips, seafood, burgers, etc, which has, so far, been okay with us. We had the best battered fried food and great steamed seafood at the aforementioned Mangonui Fish Shop in the Doubtless Bay Area, and great burgers & kumera chips at an unnamed takeways place while up in Pukenui.

Then there’s the pies which New Zealand is famous for. We’ve been quite restrained and have only had pies twice – the best were in the little town of Russell in the Bay of Islands (mince & cheese, steak & cheese, spinach & cheese – all delectable).

The Ponsonby district in Auckland is quite trendy, akin to perhaps the North Beach, Hayes Valley, Castro or Noe Valley neighborhoods in SF. Lots of boutiques with cute clothes for tiny women. Kelly & Marla would both enjoy perusing these shops. Unfortunately I was not in the market for shopping as we could only fit so much into the car. I dare say I don’t think Christchurch will offer such variety. Shoes, however, remain quite expensive ($160 – $200 a pop for something quite ug-a-ly! I am glad I have my 30+ something pairs coming in the container!)

Once out of the city it’s all farmland and hence, farmland clothing. Laid back outdoorsy attire. Jandals (flipflops) and gumboots (galoshes) appropriate!

All the people we’ve encountered have been very nice and very receptive when it inevitably comes out that we’re recent migrants and not just tourists. Then we get the inevitable question of ‘Why New Zealand’ which gives us a great opportunity to tell the kiwis why we’re here, what we hope to achieve, and why we feel so fortunate to be here. The kiwis always have time for a chat and are always eager to know where you’ve been and what you’ve seen and will always have a pointer or two for you.

Real Estate:
Expensive by NZ standards; bargains by SF standards. I think the starting price in the Ponsonby district is about $500,000 for a singe family dwelling with plenty going for $750,000+; outlying Auckland areas are a less expensive but quite costly relative to Auckland incomes.

Land in the Northland was also surprisingly expensive. Small 2 to 10 acre properties (with sea views) are going for $600,000+ which is nothing to sneeze at. All the coastal towns are being developed – anyone who has any amount of savings is trying to snatch up real estate for sub-development, “lifestyle,” or rental income property. Yvonne & Wayne (our Wwoofer hosts) were very actively leading a protest to a condominium development overpass that was going to allow for a ‘private’ walkway to be built for the condo owners over public land to the beach front (We got to help paint the sign).

Memorable Moments & Fun Stuff

While on the very northernmost tip of the country, we hit the Te Paki giant sand dunes for some giant sand dune surfing. The Kiwis are perhaps the most inventive people in the world in the category of extreme sport. I could be wrong, but I think bungy jumping originated here. Among other treats are the Zorb, a large clear plastic ball that your ride inside as it bounces and rolls down a hill.

Dune surfing is technologically simple by comparison. Equipped with a standard boogie board, toboggan, or snow sled, one climbs a giant sand dune, and rides the conveyance down in typical fashion. It’s quite a bit like sledding. Extra points if you can make it past the flat base of the dune onto the sandy stream bed with 2 inches of water running over it, where you can glide quite a ways (no one but a tour guide was able to achieve this).

Bruce had a fabulous wipe out the first time he surfed the dune. It turns out that the weight distribution and steering techniques for dune surfing are very different than boogie boarding in the water, and Bruce’s long experience at the latter allowed him to build up quite a bit of speed while being totally out of control. Halfway down the dune he lost the board and went flying. No worries though, mate! Giant dunes are soft and yielding as long as you pull in your arms, relax and let yourself tumble as long as it takes to come to a stop. There’s quite a bit of sand to spit out afterwards, though. Ptooi!

One night we experienced New Zealand slang poetry. Yvonne and Wayne bought their kids some of those fridge magnetic poetry things on their big trip down to Auckland. One set was all kiwi slang: sweet as, boy racer, chilli bin, and a lot more. We sat around the dinner table composing… “Suck the Kumera” (KOO-mer-ah, a local sweet potato) was one of my favorites. It’s slang for experiencing the fruits of failure, as in: She stuffed it and had to suck the kumera.

We drove to the very thin and snaky tip of the mainland portion of the Bay of Islands, decided to walk to the top of a hill where a multiday tramping trail started (Cape Brett track which reminded us of the Banks Peninsula track and something we may need to do another time with our friend Darek), and stumbled upon a predominantly Maori cemetery at the top of a hill with a fabulous view. It was so beautiful, quiet and serene, bittersweet and full of love. Most graves had fabulous funky installations of all sorts of stuff and things reminiscent in some ways of the Day of the Dead art at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco. On the other side of this narrow spit of land was a steep drop to a gorgeous deserted beach sheltered from the wind and looking out at intricate fingers of coast and tiny islandlets of rock. In fact there are so many beaches in the country and so relatively few people that most beaches are deserted or only have one or two people on them at any time despite their stunning aspects.

March 7 was National Census Day. Every single person in the country, regardless of whether they were residents or tourists, were asked to participate. Our backpackers host promptly knocked on our door in the morning and handed each of us our tri-fold form. It was quite amusing to say we were residents of New Zealand having been in the country only five days yet had a Christchurch address and had to check ‘other’ for nationality since we didn’t fit into any of the stated catagories! (Here’s a funny story about the census – wacky kiwi’s!)

We didn’t get to do this but it looked somewhat entertaining in Auckland: the Minus 5 degree bar where everything from the seats to your glass is made of ice. For a set fee and a set time, you get to wear special clothing for a sub-zero experience, sipping a vodka-based drink or a juice from an edible glass. Wacky but not essential in our opinion.

All in all, we enjoyed the northland quite a bit, especially the climate. It certainly has given us pause to consider whether this would be an area to which we could eventually relocate. I think the major downside, at least for right now, is its distance to a major city (about 4 –5 hours drive to Auckland from the far north). There are still many more areas to explore, so no need to decide anything yet. Onward we go.