SH 12 via Hokianga Harbour, 183 km, 4+ hours
This leg of the Discovery Highway is equal to anywhere on the South Island’s West Coast. By the fastest route (via Kaikohe and SH 1), Dargaville to Kaitaia can be travelled in just over three hours, but there’s little point in doing that. Allow a day, drive slowly, enjoy the walks at Trounson Kauri Park and Waipoua Forest, then catch the vehicle ferry from Rawene across Hokianga Harbour and follow the back roads to Ahipara and Kaitaia.
Trounson Kauri Park: Trounson is down a well-marked side road off SH 12, 30 km north of Dargaville. This large (573 ha) forest remnant contains superb kauri, viewed from an easy 40 minute loop track suitable for all ages and even those in wheelchairs. Despite the cheesy poetry dressed up as natural history interpretation, one can learn much about kauri and other forest trees and wildlife on this walk. DOC manages the area as a ‘mainland island,’ which involves intensive predator and weed control, so what you experience is a very healthy native forest and kiwi habitat compared with other forests in the region.
Waipoua Forest: Flanked by huge kauri, rata, kohekohe and other large trees, the almost 20-km drive through Waipoua Forest is the highlight of the western section of the Discovery Highway. A lookout 3 km south of the centre offers a fine view, while a number of short or long walks get you right in among the ancient kauri trees, the oldest of which are calculated to be around 2000 years old. The two largest kauri, known as Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) and Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest), are the star attractions.
Hokianga Harbour: Continuing north, petrol can be bought at Waimamaku soon after Waipoua Forest, then Hokianga Harbour appears unexpectedly, beyond a rise with a view across the harbour to an enormous dune on its north bank. From here the road descends to the harbourside settlements of Omapere and Opononi. Shortly after Oue, the Discovery Highway turns left off SH 12 and makes for Rawene (Kaikohe is a 45-minute drive on SH 12 for those who want to travel east to SH 1). At Rawene the ferry to Kohukohu departs on the half-hour (from Kohukohu it leaves on the hour). A walk on Rawene’s mangrove forest boardwalk, a bite to eat at the Boathouse Café or a stroll amongst the village’s colonial buildings (Clendon House) are pleasant ways to pass time waiting for the ferry.
Kohukohu–Kaitaia: From Kohukohu the Discovery Highway takes you north along the edge of Hokianga Harbour before an enjoyable drive west through farmland and regenerating forest, past Broadwood and Herekino, towards Ahipara.
Kaitaia: Kaitaia is the winterless north’s commercial centre, with the visitor centre at the southern end of town. The Far North Regional Museum (near the visitor centre) is worth a visit for its displays of Maori history and artefacts and European exploration—especially the stories of Dalmation migrants who toiled as kauri gumdiggers during the late 1800s. Tours depart here for Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga.