Rent a vintage campervan to experience New Zealand’s extraordinary North Island landscapes in a way few others do – take the back roads to black-sand beaches and caves that sparkle like the night sky, to the country’s biggest lake and its wildest geyser eruptions
WORDS: MIKE MACEACHERA
PHOTOGRAPHS: JUSTIN FOULKES
The Maori call them makutu, or witchcraft, because, in New Zealand, the roads are magical. One minute they surface, unfolding along pastoral foothills; the next they vanish, furrowing deep into Triassic-period jungles laden with silver ferns. It is an untamed corner of the universe that rewards those travelling under their own steam. With the keys to a campervan, drivers can – on a whim – go in search of a lake glimpsed through the window, or stop to climb a hill spotted in the rear-view mirror – because their bed for the night is never somewhere distantly ahead, but always about two feet behind them. Setting out on the highway from Auckland to the west-coast town of Piha, the Kiwi enchantment begins to take hold. Anyone driving to the surfers’ retreat must first negotiate the Waitakere Ranges, an abrupt vegetative Eden of subtropical kauri forest that acts as a barrier between the twinkling lights of civilisation and the untamed coast.
After a 30-minute drive west, the road corkscrews into hills carpeted with nı¯kau palms, some as giant as pantomime beanstalks, then careens down the other side to meet Piha’s sheer cliffs, pockmarked with nesting sites for gulls. It’s mid-afternoon when the campervan trundles into Piha, passing scattered weatherboard houses and parking in front of a beach pounded by waves. This volcanic sand has Marvel-superhero strength, so rich in iron it will stick to a magnet.
New Zealand’s surfers are also drawn here, and talk about it in poetic terms matched only by the place’s name itself – Piha is the Ma¯ori word for the onomatopoeic crack of surf sliced by the bow of a canoe. The town is so laid-back and low-key that, if the surf club were to shut, it’d surely disappear off the map completely. Following a different clock to the rest of New Zealand, surfers rise with the tides and the streets empty at sunset.
With his sun-bleached mop of tousled hair, national longboard champion Zen Wallis embodies Piha’s surfing ideal. He’s out on the water most days, catching break after break as they blow in off the Tasman Sea, before darkness finally sends him ashore. (He even admits to sleeping with his board before a competition, for luck.)
Also a surf coach, Zen has a deep knowledge of Piha and talks about its waves in reverential metaphors. The predominant onshore wind, he explains, creates a potent hit, attracting only hardened surf-addicts to the town. “Life existed in black and white before the sport arrived here,” he says, the sky turning oily purple behind him.
“Now we wake every day to a kaleidoscopic, world-class wave, but without the crowds. It’s like a drug.” The campervan rolls south out of Piha in the haze of early morning. Grey banks of cloud shift across the glossy hills and fields where gangly sheep farmers round up super-sized flocks numbering more than a thousand.
Neither the livestock nor the terrain at the western edge of the North Island would look out of place in the Welsh valleys. Evergreen vales and dimpled pastures surround the one-street town of Waitomo, while, beyond the roadside, rumpled farmlands and wool sheds are a picture of serenity. Flocks doze on mossy crags as local farmers watch a rugby game in town. Calm, peaceful and seemingly unremarkable, this place gives nothing away of the preternatural treasures hidden below the topsoil.