Stretching northwest from New Zealand's North Island is a narrow isthmus of land reaching into the ocean like the claw of a local crayfish. It is known as “The Northland, " a subtropical garden of delights that visitors to this small country crammed with scenic wonders should not miss.
At the very tip of the peninsula is Cape Reinga, the most spiritually significant part of New Zealand to the Maori. Reinga means “underworld" and it is from here that the spirits of the dead slide down the roots of the pohutukawa tree into the ocean.
They climb out on Ohana Rock, which is visible from the cape on a clear day. The spirits then bid their last farewell from this rock before returning to the ancestral land of Hawaiki.
Cape Reinga's clifftop lighthouse overlooks the turbulent, crisscrossing tides where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet.
The cape is accessible via road and private car, but if you relax and take the bus you will have the thrill of driving to or from the cape along the Te Paki Quicksand Stream, which is part of the semi-lunar Ninety Mile Beach, actually only 90 kilometers long. Private car insurance becomes invalid if you are foolhardy enough to try and negotiate this dangerous stretch of beach yourself. The odd fender sticking out of the sand is testimony to human folly.
The bus trip from Cape Reinga will take you all the way back to Russell on the east coast, the capital of New Zealand in the early 19th-century when it was known as the “hellhole of the Pacific, " notorious for its sleazy grog shops and brothels. Today it's a sleepy, idyllic little town of 900 souls, famous as the jumping off point for the Bay of Islands, which American novelist Zane Grey dubbed “an angler's El Dorado. "
For fishermen, yachtsmen and scuba divers a visit to the Bay of Islands is a must. There are nearly 150 islands, scattered in clear, blue waters, with secluded bays, sandy beaches and very few people.
Keen scuba divers will want to visit the Poor Knight Islands, 24 kilometers off the coast at Whangerai (pronounced “Fongeray"), 60 kilometers south east of Russell. The Poor Knights are part of a marine reserve that protects the sub-tropical fish and other unique marine life living in these waters.
A flow of warm water called the South Equatorial Current sweeps down the east coast of Australia and then wanders across to New Zealand as the Tasman Current. The northern part rounds Cape Reinga and flows down the east coast. It bathes the offshore islands but not the coastline itself. So the Poor Knight Islands have a distinctly sub-tropical flavor to their fauna.
These representatives from warmer waters include the exquisite diadema sea urchin, banded coral shrimp, firebrick starfish and many fish including the mosaic moray, assorted gropers, long-finned boarfish, lizard fish, blue drummer, green pufferfish, yellowbanded perch and green and orange wrasses.
Underwater visibility in the Poor Knights is truly incredible, sometimes as much as 200 feet (65 meters) during late summer to early winter.
The islands are volcanic in origin and considerably eroded. The consequent labyrinth of caves, tunnels and arches provide a haven for marine life and a paradise for divers.
The Poor Knight Islands were named by Captain Cook, but without explanation. One theory holds that the Captain was eating a European peasant dish of that name, consisting of egg and bread, when the islands were spotted. Another is that, from a distance, the islands look like a reclining chess knight.
But, “What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare. For the Poor Knights are very rich indeed in attractions for the visiting diver and a shining gem in New Zealand's crown known as the “Northland. "
Bruce Burnett, has won four Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Gold awards for travel journalism. Read more of Bruce Burnett's writing on his websites: