After spending 2 weeks travelling the length of New Zealand in an old, beat up, Toyota Hiace van, my partner and I stumbled across the natural wonder that is the Kai Iwi Lakes. Located 30 minutes out of Dargaville in the far north, it boasts 3 crystal clear dune lakes and 2 well kept camp grounds. In the Summer months, the camp grounds are buzzing with life; full of families and travellers staying anywhere from 1 night to 2 weeks. If you’ve ever played Roller Coaster Tycoon with the sound turned up, you’ll know exactly what I mean by ‘buzzing'(if you haven’t played it before, definitely try it. It’s a great way to waste the 8 hours a day that you should be spending studying or working or generally doing something productive with your life). Be sure to book in advance for the busy season or you may just miss out on a campsite. If hoards of screaming children aren’t your scene, you can visit in the quieter Winter months when you’ll just about have the entire place to yourself.
The Camp Grounds
Taharoa is the largest of the 3 lakes with the 2 camp grounds backing directly onto it. The water is beautiful year round, getting up past 20°C in mid-January. Make sure you bring a snorkel and mask or you’ll be kicking yourself for missing out on the 20+ feet of underwater clarity. Pine Beach is the larger of the two camp grounds with a maximum capacity of 400-500 people. It’s affordable at around $10-$20 per adult, per night, with kids under the age of 14 getting an even cheaper deal (though of course, prices are subject to change). The facilities are impressive, with powered sites available for a small additional fee, and hot showers – a welcome luxury for travellers with a spare $2 coin. From December to early February there’s a food truck on site lovingly named “Kai Iwi Kai” (kai meaning food in Maori). They sell a range of hot food from chicken nuggets and hot chips, to an $8.50 burger that’s bigger than your face, as well as your basic necessities such as milk and bread.
The smaller campground, Promenade Point, hosts up to 180 people over the Christmas period and is perfect if you’re after a bit of peace and quiet. There’s no power or hot showers at this one, but it well makes up for that with the native wildlife you’ll see when swimming in the ‘sin bin’. From cheeky fantails to dragonflies to fresh water crayfish, you’ll soon forget about the episode of Coronation Street that you were supposed to record for your Mum last night.
There are a range of walking tracks on the grounds, the longest of which is about 2.5 hours and takes you right around Lake Taharoa – just watch out for the wasps along the way. A short 2 minute hike up the hill at Pine Beach will give you a view of a portion of the wild west coast appropriately dubbed ‘The Graveyard’ by locals, for all the boats it’s taken hostage over the years. There’s a 15 minute walking track up the road if you want to get up close and personal with this coast, but it would take a brave man to dive into the surf. On a clear night in the camp ground you can hear the crashing waves, and every so often you’ll catch the sea mist coming over the hills in the early hours of the morning.
The area is bubbling with both natural and local history. A good chunk of the domain is considered ‘wahi tapu’ (sacred) to the local Iwi, largely due to the part it played in land battles a few hundred years ago. On the European side of things, the surrounding area was populated by Kauri gum diggers in the late 1800s. When diving in the sin bin at Promenade Point, you can still find pieces of Kauri gum to add to your mantelpiece (though if you’re an international traveller, I’m not too sure how easy these would be to swing through customs – probably a good idea to check that out first to save yourself from a rubber glove and a forced cough).
If the food truck at Pine Beach camp ground doesn’t have what you need, you can pick it up from the pub or gas station in Kaihu, about 15 minutes drive away. Or if you’re really in a pickle, you can coast the 30 minutes into Dargaville and spend up large at the local Countdown supermarket. When passing through Dargaville, you absolutely MUST stop in at Sushi Nara on the main stretch. It’s easily the best sushi in the country, with pick ‘n’ mix style self selection and my personal favourite, the deep-fried Chicken Fried Rice ball.
When you’ve had enough of swimming, walking and all round relaxing, and are ready to head off on the next part of your trip, be sure to head north. Roughly a half hour drive will land you at Trounson Kauri Park and your best chance of seeing (or at least hearing) a Kiwi in the wild. Being a nocturnal bird, you’ll need to be there sometime after 10pm. If you’re taking a flashlight, you’ll need to cover the end in red cellophane or there is very little chance that they’ll come near you. On my first trip to Trounson I was lucky enough to see a baby Kiwi run across the grass in front of me, looking very reminiscent of a rugby ball with awkward legs. If you bypass Trounson, your next stop should be another 15-30 minutes up the road to see Tane Mahuta, one of the oldest known Kauri trees in NZ.
Moral of the story, if you’re in the country for a week, a month, a year or more, be sure to take the time to head north and visit the Kai Iwi Lakes. If you don’t have time to set up camp for a night, at least come for the day. With only 3 hours drive to Auckland City, there really is no excuse to miss out on this magical piece of New Zealand.