Today, it is the South Island that attracts most of New Zealand’s wide-eyed adventure enthusiasts. It hosts the best bungee jumping, skiing and hiking. All well and good. But the true heart of New Zealand, as a country and a people, beats from the North Island.
I just returned from a 10 day excursion during which I ventured from Wellington in the south of the North Island to the Bay of Islands in the north. Sure, it was a nice last grasp at summer weather (Dunedin has, upon my return, transformed into a wind battered stronghold, dwindling into the single digits on the celsius thermometer), but it was also an interactive history lesson, and a canvas covered in dreamlike landscapes. I haven’t had this much to put down on paper in months.
In Wellington, I felt a sense of security as I returned to city life. I people-watched as I sat at a cafe on a pedestrian-only streets, and took hours to tour through New Zealand’s national museum. From there, I made my way up to New Zealand’s first national park, Tongariro — home to Peter Jackson’s Mt. Doom. The trip also included sailing through the tropical Bay of Islands and a visit to a protected forest that houses New Zealand’s oldest and largest tree (150 feet tall), a unique Kauri tree known as “The Lord of the Forest.” All the while, I passed through the older and wiser parts of New Zealand, including the region of Northland, one of the stronger bastions of Maori culture.
At the northwestern-most tip of Northland (and, subsequently, New Zealand) sits Cape Reinga, the meeting place of the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific (the blue grey of the Tasman and the Turquoise of the Pacific clashes in the middle, creating a swirling current perpendicular to the shoreline).
The cape is one of the most significant places in Maori culture and is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site waitlist. It is known, among Maori, as the Departing Place of the Soul. According to traditional Maori mythology, the soul, after the body dies, heads to the cape, leaps off a cliff and descends into the underworld to return to the traditional homeland of Maori, Hawaiki.
I’m not an incredibly spiritual person, but at Cape Reinga, I was able to sense the place’s importance. Standing on the headland, I turned to my left and looked down to see a long, white shoreline, beckoning in a powerful surf. To my right, a rocky cove, barren except for an 800 year old pohutukawa tree, known for its ability to grow and prosper in the harshest of climates. Looking straight, I could see the faint outline of offshore islands, but beyond that only the sun glistening on the water, the dancing light growing fainter as it neared the horizon. It wasn’t, of course, the edge of the world, but it felt like it.
The real power of the cape, though, was not its stunning beauty, but it’s perfect silence. The Tasman sea is not tame. It is angry and wild, and I knew that the waves battering the shore retained that ferocity. But from where I was standing, they made no sound, appearing only to swiftly, but gently lap against the sand. Birds soared, but saved their cries for another time. I felt the sea breeze, but it sneaked past me in silence. Other people were there, but I don’t remember much talking. Maybe I imagined the silence, I don’t know. But it’s how I’ll remember it.
Whether or not you believe in the mythology, Cape Reinga deserves respect and admiration. For the first time in my 2 months in New Zealand, I was in place that made me stop and realize where I was. Not that the other places haven’t been spectacularly beautiful, or rife with activity, but they didn’t evoke in me the same senses. In other words, someone could have blindfolded me, put me on a plane, spun me around three times, taken off the blindfold and told me I was in Montana or British Columbia. I would have still loved what I was seeing, but I also could have believed them.
Cape Reinga is distinctly a piece of New Zealand. If Tongariro and Lake Taupo are the heart and Wellington, the brain, then Cape Reinga is the soul.
I’ll most likely be on the South Island for the rest of my time here, until I depart from Auckland. But, I’m glad I spent the time on the North that I did. It may lack the glamour of its younger brother, but it is where New Zealand came to be.