Local Tourists - Super Spots so Close to Home

Before we knew we would end up settling in Northland we would often talk about the concept of 'local treasures'. The idea that no matter where you found yourself in this beautiful country, you often don't have to look very far to discover a wonderful bounty. Whether it's stunning sights, adventures to be had, fabulous food grown or created, or inspiring individuals with unique perspectives and stories to share.

Previous to house hunting around Whangarei, I have to be honest and admit that I'd never even visited before. I was one of those tourists that made a bee line for the other well known attractions; Cape Reinga, Bay of Islands, Tane Mahuta, Ninety Mile Beach - yep, all without doubt very much worth a visit, I have wonderfully strong memories from each destination. So while I totally believed in our local treasures theme, I had no idea where or what we were going to discover just down the road from our new home.

Now, after more than two years here I can happily report that the treasure is here alright. As explorers though, I have to admit that we really need to up our game a bit! Partly because the bounty on our doorstep is abundant beyond expectations, and partly because we've been 'doing life' since we got here, so it all takes time I guess. When friends and family visit, it's always the perfect opportunity to check out new places. Over Summer, I took friends to a really special place, I had visited before but it was a great chance to head back...

Abbey Caves, 10 minutes from the Orchard Cottage

We pass the sign most days on our journey to and from our home just on the outskirts of central Whangarei, Abbey Caves. Curious, we'd also taken this alternative route to town a few times, driving past a very unassuming lay-over on the side of the road that marked the spot. Not much to see from the roadside so it was high up there on the list of places to discover in our first Summer.

Information online describes the reserve as over 18 hectares of pasture with naturally sculptured limestone outcrops, bluffs and enclosed depressions. The land was gifted to the city of Whangarei in 1989 by Golden Bay Cement, which had initially been purchased with the intention of mining it. Some serendipitous change of plans led to this beautiful piece of land being left to be enjoyed by the many visitors it receives on a regular basis. The name Abbey Caves came from it's original owners, Nathaniel and Amelia Clotworthy. They settled here in 1860 on 409 acres (of which the reserve as we know it today was part) from their homeland of Ireland. They discovered these caves and felt the land with it's natural outcrops reminded them of an Irish abbey.
I find the history of this place, on the surface, to be intriguingly simple, much like the entrance. It's just here, always open and waiting to be discovered. There's no fanfare on arrival, it's not man made or even maintained to preserve it's existence, but as you descend down the steps there is this feeling of entering another world. An informal pathway curls through swaying wildflowers, meandering around ancient stands of native bush with enormous, gnarly creature-like trees that seem to inhabit small worlds in themselves. The rolling pasture leads through large rocky clusters, transporting thoughts to almost medieval moments in time.
So while the attraction bringing most here is most definitely the caves, this lovely locale really is a stunning place to visit armed with a blanket, well stocked picnic basket, a book and a few hours to kill. The looped walking track leads around the perimeter with cave entrances along the way, and towards the end there are also remains of the Clotworthy family home, which was sadly destroyed by fire in 1920. Once again transporting visitors to a bygone era.

As mentioned, there are three caves on the reserve and to date I've now ventured into two of the three. First visit was with some littles in tow, they had a thirst for adventure so we chose the shortest 'Middle Cave' to try out. Now it's at this point that I need to highlight the cautionary messages that are clearly provided. 'The Abbey Caves are completely undeveloped and unguided. Entry is at your own risk. It is recommended for experienced cavers as there are risks from rapidly rising water and roof falls'. With only two kids and three adults, we proceeded with due care. Quickly descending into pitch blackness, cold water echoing around us as we waded through.

Once in and over the initial scared and excited squeals from the littles, our torches lit the primitive walls, towering above. Then, dimming our lights, the sparkling glow worms appeared putting on an impressive light show of their own. Making it to the end, and what is described as a 'slightly tricky climb out', I fully endorse the warnings. It tested the dexterity of all the adults, thankful at this stage that the kids were little enough to pass, chain gang style up and out. Let's just say we were all pretty relieved to be on top of the land again and our picnic lunch under the trees tasted like victory!
On my second, more recent visit, we headed into the larger Organ Cave, one adventurer has described the experience, "like being in the bowels of a Bengal tiger - go see, the orange striping will amaze you!" This one you need to enter and exit from the same point, and because of a few rocks dislodging, the entry is by far the most challenging part. Once down, it opens up into several huge caverns with thousands of glow worms and mighty overhanging stalactites. The water can get pretty deep in this one but the courageous will be rewarded, it's well worth it.

Its wonderful to have this natural adventure park nestled so close to home. I'm not a huge caving or rock-climbing enthusiast but there's something about this place that simply urges participation.

Mount Manaia, 15 minutes from the Orchard Cottage

We are absolutely spoilt for walking tracks around here, in fact heading out east, the peninsula known as Whangarei Heads is literally a walkers paradise! It's possible to walk for days (and many do) taking in the breathtaking views, coastal air and a natural soundscape. A lot of this area also boasts some incredible biodiversity. Our cute national bird, the Kiwi is prevalent here, as is a vast population of native birdlife, threatened invertebrates, bats, skinks, geckos, and lots of nationally significant plants. The stunning coastal reserve of Bream Head takes in 800 hectares, and it's only in this seemingly un-spoilt state due to an army of local volunteers who continue to work tirelessly to restore and protect the environment against predators.

To date however, our local walking passport really hasn't seen the light of day! So it was high time that we got ourselves out there this summer to conquer one of the more striking summits of this coastline. Mount Manaia sits prominently, a magnificent 420 metres above sea level, bush-covered cluster of jagged peaks punctuate the landscape.
So Holly and I tied on our walking shoes recently and started the ascent. The track is incredibly well maintained and consists of many, many steps (a thousand and something I believe!). But we were keen and in no rush, which is just as well because the photo opportunities along the way are plenty!
The winding track is well worn and being the height of summer I expected to be sharing the path with a number of others, but we only meet a few fellow walkers heading in the opposite direction both on our journey up and back down. The bush and bird song are simply beautiful, some impressive Kauri line the path and my favourite Nikau seem to frame the views around every corner.
Just as I was really feeling the burn of this massive stair climb, we reached the summit. One last wooden staircase leads to the highest accessible point and the vistas are absolutely stunning! It's hard to resist the obligatory selfie but also to just sit and take it all in.
So the steep walk up this giant volcanic structure is certainly worth the effort, visual treasure is revealed around every bend and over every set of stairs. The descent is also rewarding, clearly less effort is required but it's also an opportunity to catch the perspectives you may have missed heading in the other direction.

So with another taste of all the goodness to be discovered in this superb part of the country, what are you waiting for? 😉

For more information about other awesome walks in the area check out discoverwhangareiheads.nz


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