"An Outstanding but Dangerous Beauty" Top 5 Page for this destination North Island by Kakapo2

North Island Travel Guide: 5,216 reviews and 12,873 photos

The Island of the Pohutukawa

When I think of the North Island I think of my first love, the Coromandel Peninsula. Although I have travelled in most regions of this part of the country and love a lot of places this affection has not changed. Part of its charm surely are the pohutukawas... Oh dear, what a difficult word, nearly impossible to pronounce for foreigners who have not heard of it before, and it might be a big relief to many that they can call this spectacular coastal tree "New Zealand Christmas Tree" because its crimson red flowers are in bloom around Christmas time and adorn the coasts of the Coromandel and many other regions of the north with a red border. The Coromandel celebrates this unique tree with the Pohutukawa Festival in the last week of November and first week of december every year.

Once we drove from the Coromandel to the East Cape, and the whole day we drove along those majestic flowering trees which cling to the beaches with their mighty air roots, a red ribbon above white beaches and turquoise blue waters under a cobalt blue sky. Such scenes of sheer beauty are forever embedded in your memory.

When we last travelled to Northland, including the Bay of Islands, we saw the first timid blossoms of pohutukawa on Cooper's Beach in July already. I also enjoy to walk from the international to the domestic terminal in Auckland because there are so many pohutukawa along the way.

In fact, I am so delighted of those evergreen trees with their feathery brush-like flowers that I always knew I would plant a pohutukawa in my garden if I ever lived in New Zealand, and in fact it was one of the first things I did when I moved here at the start of 2004. I planted it in a container in the front garden because I did not want the pohutukawa to damage the small yard or the house some far away day LOL It has grown nicely and flowered since its first year, and the second one I have on the deck is even faster growing. So I have my little reminder of the Coromandel and the north at home on the South Island.

There are many places in the south with beautiful pohutukawa, and many people have them in their gardens. But the predominant tree of the myrtle family growing in the wild is the rata. Especially on the West Coast they are thriving.

Whereas the pohutukawa always comes as a tree you will find very different kinds of rata. On the South Island the rata are mostly trees with normal trunks whereas most of the rata on the North Island are climbers which grow up on host trees (which finally get killed by them). If you have a close look in the native bush you will see many thin vines of rata climb up other giant trees like the totara.

Both, pohutukawa and rata, are threatened species. Threatened by humans and animals. People who walk over or parking cars on their sensitive roots, farmers who do not keep their sheep and cattle away from the trees. But the worst enemy is the possum which once was introduced from Australia where they love it. Here we have the slogan: "Only a dead possum is a good possum." Possums can destroy a mature tree within two years. Project Crimson, sponsored by a energy provider, has been established to save the pohutukawa and the rata.

New Zealand's oldest pohutukawa is probably more than 600 years old. Its location is at a small settlement named Te Araroa on the way to the East Cape. The tree's name is Te Waha o Rerekohu which means: Rerekohu's mouth. In the Maori legend Rerekohu was a young boy who would later become the leader of two Maori tribes.

Te Waha o Rerekohu is more than 20 metres high which is five metres more than the average. But the really spectacular feature is its crown extending over 40 metres.

But however big the trees are and wherever they grow: They are a New Zealand icon like the silver fern and the kiwi.

Active Volcanoes, Geothermal Wonders and Disasters

Also New Zealand's geological history has created a lot of colourful attractions tourists visit. If you think about them more thoroughly you could get scared, escpecially if you think of the North Island. Whereas earthquakes, due to the movement of two tectonic plates, can happen anywhere in NZ, all volcanoes that have shaped parts of the South Island, like the Lyttelton and Otago Harbours, are extinct. Those on the North Island are of younger date and still active.

Mt. Ruapehu in the centre of the island and of the Tongariro National Park south of Lake Taupo erupted several times in the 1990s, and from the end of 2006 we were all waiting for the rising crater lake to break its wall and trigger a lahar - a giant mudflow - that would smash down the mountain and devastate lower lying areas. It finally happened on 18 March 2007. But as scientists had calculated the path and installed an early warning system all safety measures (road closures, evacuations) were in place when it happened, so nobody was harmed like in 1953 when a lahar hit an express train which was crossing the Tangiwai rail bridge. 151 people died.

More than 100 people died when Mt. Tarawera, not far away from Rotorua, erupted in 1886. The village which has been destroyed by this eruption can be visited, the huts filled with the petrified mud from the disaster. It is known as the Buried Village.

Scientists draw far more disastrous scenarios that could happen soon. If you think of it, we would all need to flee NZ. We must expect a mega earthquake on the South Island which could destroy parts of Christchurch. At the end of 2006 Paul Gorman from the newspaper The Press travelled a week along the alpine faultline, and wrote a great series about his encounters along this line of fear.

Think of how Napier has become our art deco capital: It was - together with the also flattened city of Hastings - built after the worst earthquake in NZ history which happened at 10:46am on 3 February 1931. It hit with a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter scale and lasted for two and half minutes. 258 people died. A fire that had probably started in a chemist shop after the quake swept through both towns. Parts of the coastline were blasted into the sea. There were about 150 aftershocks in the 24 hours after the main shock and 525 over the next two weeks.

We must also think of tsunamis that can hit NZ. When the seaquake off Valdivia in Chile triggered a tsunami in 1960 the water of Lyttelton Harbour rose by several metres. If a quake happens right off the NZ coast the east coasts of both islands could be flooded, and it would sweep away Christchurch's peninsular suberb of New Brighton.

However, the scariest scenario for me is an eruption of Lake Taupo. In fact it is not just New Zealand's biggest lake but the the biggest crater that was created after a series of volcanic eruptions. The most recent one was about 1800 years ago and left a massive crater that is now filled with water. More than 30 rivers and streams flow into the lake. The ground is covered by the ashes of the eruptions of Mt. Ruapehu. The volcano blasted around 2.3 million tonnes of ash into the lake in 1995 and 1996.

An eruption would make the East Cape break away from the North Island and trigger a tsunami that would sweep over the Bay of Plenty, and probably Rotorua would not exist anymore.

Let's hope the same scientists warn us early enough, as they did in the case of Mt. Ruapehu's overflowing crater lake at the moment, and in the meantime let's enjoy those natural wonders that have been created by disasters. The magic colours of the geothermal wonderlands around Rotorua and Taupo, the steaming hot springs, the geysers - and if you ever have the chance and good weather, do the one-day Tongariro Crossing Track. The ever changing colours of the rocks and the lakes are breath-taking, and in some areas you can smell the sulphur of the disasters that have created such an incredible landscape.

Aotearoa and the Main Island of the Maori

Of course, we have Maori on the South Island, and even Maori culture shows. But they are rare. The North Island has not only a much higher Maori population. It is also the place where you have encounters with Maori history everywhere, the most famous place, of course, is Waitangi where Maori sovereignty ended with the treaty with the British government on 6 February 1840.

Maori are often described as the indigenous people of New Zealand. I think this is wrong because, for example compared to the history of the Aborigines in Australia, New Zealand has no indigineous people. The Maori are the earliest immigrants of this country, and their roots are somewhere in the Marquesas and the Society Islands, the land they call Haiwaiki in their legends, their homeland. Their culture is derived from East Polynesia.

Others say their homeland were the Cook Islands or The Chatham Islands. Perhaps they were just the last place they had stayed before sailing to New Zealand in their outrigger canoes. But it all is evidence that the Maori are no indigineous people of New Zealand.

The way they have been treated and cheated on by the British by the means of the Treaty of Waitangi is another story.

With the arrival of the Maori 1000 to 1200 years ago the islands we now call New Zealand became Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. After the arrival of the white people, the pakeha, everything changed for the Maori, most to the worse. Many Maori have moved to the cities, and away from their tribal authority. But it is still amazing how weddings and funerals (tangi) draw them back to their iwi, their tribal community.

In recent times the iwi has become a subject of controversy, as some protected child murderers under the cloak of the big family. The darkest side is the crime rate: Although Maori form only 14% of New Zealand's society 50% of the crimes are committed by Maori. Drug and gang related crimes are common. Sociologists blame it on poverty, worse education and health.

The classic Maori shows - especially in Rotorua, the centre of Maori culture in NZ and 38% Maori population, present us the other face, as it could be in an ideal world: a sharing and loving society, in harmony with nature, traditional meals shared with the whole tribe (hangi). But as long as politicians like a lady named Donna Awatere Huata who stole $800,000 from her own Maori people and then blamed her imprisonment on injustice towards Maori people, and as long as they do not stay away from crime, nothing will change for Maori. On the opposite. Culture shows for tourists do not solve the internal problems.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Soft and colourful scenery, fantastic geothermal wonderland
  • Cons:More traffic and more people than on the South Island
  • In a nutshell:Coromandel, East Cape, Tongariro - more than enough to be happy
  • Last visit to North Island: Jul 2006
  • Intro Updated Sep 11, 2008
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Reviews (23)

Comments (6)

  • lynnehamman's Profile Photo
    Apr 17, 2009 at 6:08 AM

    So after visiting your South Island page-I now now about North Island. And what a beautiful place. But as you say-it sounds dangerous. Your pages are always informative and well written. Love those Christmas Flowers, so colourful.

  • gilabrand's Profile Photo
    Aug 10, 2008 at 1:39 AM

    Your flower picture in the introduction is splendid!

  • SLLiew's Profile Photo
    Oct 31, 2007 at 11:02 PM

    Wow... fantastic tips of North Island. Enjoyed your detailed descriptions. So I am embarassed to ask you to check out my North Island page for comparison. Cheers, SL :)

  • Trekki's Profile Photo
    Jul 2, 2007 at 10:47 PM

    Oh my, already so many choices here :-) Valley of Orakei Korako and the Tongariro NP are the perfect places for me :-)) I just could not stop looking at these different colours :-)) fantastic Sissi, thanks :-))

  • hunterV's Profile Photo
    Feb 24, 2007 at 1:38 AM

    Hi, Sissi! Thanks for your inspired description!

  • bijo69's Profile Photo
    Feb 7, 2007 at 4:46 PM

    Fantastic Tips!!!! I've been there twice, but still missed so many things.... Certainly will be back!

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