Driving to Cape Reinga
Driving to Cape Reinga, up Highway 1 in the far north of New Zealand is an exercise in solitude. Towns get smaller and farther apart, and the views get bigger.
Until the clouds began to settle, and hid the world from view. The forest and farm-filled valleys faded away until it felt like we were on the bony spine of the country with nothing else around. It was as if we were in a snowglobe. The more north we got, the more it began to feel like we were the last people on Earth.
The road turned to gravel, and visibility dropped to a few metres in any direction.
The unsettling feeling was exhilarating.
A beach finally revealed itself though the mist, and we got a sense of how elevated we were. There was nothing but a series of switchbacks on a winding mountain road between our lookout and our destination.
The only thing to do was to hang out the roof of the van and drive down there.
Standing on the back seat, squished in next to one of my best friends we jostled into each other as the van eased around the sharp corners. Our faces and hair became damp from moving through the fog. It was silly and spontaneous (and probably a bit unsafe), but it was one of those pure moments that make travel so fulfilling.
The Tapotupotu campsite was a postcard of what you expect from New Zealand. Wilderness and solitude with only a dot of human influence.
Our camping neighbours seemed as content as us to preserve the silence; the girls to our right enjoyed a bottle of wine after setting up their tent, an older couple to our left sat by their campervan, watching the ocean rage. A handful of people explored the beach.
Despite the ever-darkening clouds and turbulent water, our campsite felt quite peaceful. Two arms of the mainland reached out to embrace the small bay and protect us from the worst of the weather.
Before it got too dark, I explored the beach as well. The damp sand from an earlier rainfall made it easy to walk along without sinking in.
The quiet and isolation were almost overwhelming. A heavy sense of peace, or perhaps it was just the low clouds, hung over Tapotupotu like a veil.
Even the wildlife at Cape Reinga seemed to feel the same. An egret, standing on the sand, seemed to have no worries about me joining it.
Finally, the clouds broke (thankfully after dinner), and we fell asleep listening to the rain tap on the roof of our van.
In the morning, the rain had reduced to a drizzle, but the clouds seemed even lower and thicker. We drove to the entry point to the actual Cape Reinga, and began down the path. The view was entirely hidden by clouds and fog. We got lost (surprise!), and ended up in another parking lot. For the record, when you go under the entrance arch, take a minute to listen to the music that plays, and then head right instead of left.
We had no idea before entering that there was anything more to Cape Reinga than a lighthouse and being the top of the country.
Cape Reinga is so much more important than that. This is where Maori spirits finish their journey up the country on the way to the afterlife. A gnarled and ancient pohutukawa tree stands out on a finger of land along the spiritual pathway – it has never flowered in human memory of the place.
A sign at the entrance asks you to not eat or drink while visiting the Cape. Plaques along the path further explain the cultural significance of the place. When you visit Cape Reinga, please see as more than just a tourist spot. Feel how sacred this place is to the Maori people, and be thankful they allow us to visit one of their most beautiful and hallowed places.
From the lookout at the unmanned lighthouse, you can see where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean collide, causing unnatural-looking waves and whirlpools. The clouds had lifted just enough for us to see past the end of the land. A well-worn path leads down to an outcrop where you can sit and look out over the emptiness of the ocean. It’s strange knowing there is no big landmass between you and the Arctic. Just sit, breathe, and be.
I had massive vertigo going down and up the path, trying not to look at the steep drop-off to the ocean on either side (again, this was probably pretty unsafe). I don’t really recommend heading down there – especially if there is wind or your shoes are not appropriate. My legs were shaking for a while once I was back behind the fenced-in area.
Soon enough, while we were lost in our own reflections, the curtain of clouds came back in, closing off the view.
How to Get There
- Driving to Cape Reinga is pretty easy. Get on State Highway 1 and go north. Keep going North until you can’t drive any further. You drive to Cape Reinga straight from Auckland in about 5 and a half hours. We took the scenic route and took the Eastern Route along State Highway 12 until it merged back into Highway 1.
- To get to the Tapotupotu Campsite, turn right onto Tapotupotu Road about 200m before you reach Cape Reinga itself. Be aware that you will have 3km of steep, windy road ahead of you. Good breaks are essential, take extra care in poor weather or poor visibility.
- There are loads of tours running straight from Auckland, Paihia, or Kerikeri. Pop into an ISite to find the one that suits you best. The perk of taking an organised tour is that you get to drive on 90 Mile Beach instead of taking the highway (don’t take a rental car onto the beach!)
- Staying at the Tapotupotu Campsite costs $6/person, per night. Pretty cheap for such amazing views.
- Facilities are limited – there are toilets and cold showers, but no cooking block or hot water. Drinking water is available.
- Save room for rubbish! There is not a single trash can at Tapotupotu. Take out what you take in.
- No dogs allowed without a permit.
- Beware the sandflies!
Have you visited Cape Reinga? Or what has been your favourite remote place to check out? Let me know in the comments!
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