Going North is in my blood. It comes as a relief, like a hit straight to the heart. North America, Northern USA, Northern Ireland, the North of Spain: all of these places are home. In so many ways, I belong to the House of Stark. So when Damián said we were going to Northland, the northernmost tip of the North Island of New Zealand, my eyes danced. Once more, I was filled with incredulous admiration for this man. He had done what he always does, without really even trying: he read my heart.

How, I’ll never know. Because leaving (F)Auckland, my heart was cemented shut. I brooded over our bad car deal and the U.S. election results like a child who had been given coal for Christmas. Even when the wild landscapes of the island leapt up at us from all sides – a green silver fern tiger pacing around our car – I could not trade my anger for the wonder and surprise that one should feel when first confronted with New Zealand’s grandeur.

Whangarei Falls

We were heading into “the bush”, leaving the world behind us, and yet I had chosen to drag its most undesirable parts with me. To me, our car felt like we were driving trapped inside a man with no moral compass – probably the exact same feeling my countrymen were experiencing back in the U.S. at that moment. What have we been sold? Every twist and turn we took, I sucked in my breath in anticipation of further betrayal.

“Get over it,” Damián instructs sternly, keeping his eyes set on the road. He is referring to the bad car deal, I suppose. Always so real. “There is nothing we can do about it now.”

“We could go back to Auckland and egg his house,” I suggest. “We know where he lives.”

“OK. I’ll turn around,” he says, challenging.

I back down. “No, no, no. It’s fine. I’m over it. Let’s keep going north.” My adult self resumes control.

Eventually, we arrive at Cathy’s place. Cathy lives on one of the small cusps of land that jut out from the coastline of Whangarei, near a tiny airport runway. Whangarei is a little town tucked into a bay with a laid-back vibe. At the supermarket, we counted at least six people grocery shopping barefoot.

Cathy is our Couchsurfing house for the next two nights. We find her wandering along her property line with her old, hobbling dog Tama, trying to get a good look at the spectacular sunset.

“Oh hey guys,” she greets. “It’s a beautiful one tonight, isn’t it?” We smile. Nobody can disagree with a good sunset.

She gives us a tour of her eclectic, 70’s style home, currently under construction, and introduces us to the two Swedes who are working via Helpx with her. Cathy’s kitchen is being torn apart and remodeled, but we had been forewarned. She said that if we were OK with the chaos, she would be willing to host us anyway. So we came to embrace the chaos.

For those of you who are new to these travel alternatives, Couchsurfing is a platform where people offer accommodation for travelers for free in exchange for a cultural experience and Helpx is a few hours of work in exchange for accommodation and/or food. Both platforms were around long before Airbnb came in and decided to monetize these exchanges. And while Airbnb may have found its niche for deep-pocketed, independent travelers, Couchsurfing and Helpx still make up the backbone of possibilities for people who seek culture and kindness for the sake of culture and kindness, with no gold standard wedged between to determine its worth. We feel lucky every time we find these people.

Cathy’s home is a kaleidoscope of colors, knick-knacks, and art. Her stereo pulses out music from dusk until dawn, alternating between reggae and Amy Winehouse. She is the first of many Kiwis that we would meet that leave their front door open all day long. She speaks to us in corrugated Spanglish because she used to have a Chilean lover. She often walks out into the yard to have a cigarette and a quiet talk to herself amongst her plants and the starlit sky, and a stray thought will occasionally drift our way.

“Super moon coming soon, you know?” she says.

“The caves…the Abbey Caves, you should go there. Man, I haven’t been there since I was a little girl. School trip. But you can crawl around in there, have to dress warm, and you can get a good look at the glowworms. Don’t have to pay anything.”

“Yeah…that plant. That plant should probably get cut back. What do you think?”

I understand these seemingly random, disconnected thoughts because I often catch myself thinking in the same way. Half of it out loud, the other half inside my head. It’s not crazy. It’s just a way of letting go of order once and awhile.

Cathy shows us her bookcase full of travel guides from all over the world.

“There only $2 down at the op-shop,” she explains. “So I pick them up. Just in case. They’re still good. They’re not that old. And I’d like to go to all these places. I’ve had so many Couchsurfers come through here, I’ve got good people all over the world.”

Later, she shows me a binder of all the momentos she has received from travelers over the years. It’s a beautiful collection of human kindness and she asks us to add to it. We happily agree. Damián writes out in Spanish the recipe for the vegetable quinoa dish he prepared for dinner one night and I give her a list of our contacts in Bilbao, in case we’re not there when she decides to go.

I go to bed thinking: YES. This is how the world should work. And slowly, my heart begins to open again.

Baylys Beach

I leave with the words of the Swedish girl soothing out the kinks in my pride. “You know what I think when bad stuff like that happens?” she responded, reacting to our bad car deal story. “I think that bad stuff happens to us because it prevents something worse from happening. For example, it’s good you found out about the car before you got into a serious accident or something…Or…like…once we lost all this money on the bus in Cambodia when we were traveling and it was truly awful. It was a lot of money. But then like two months later we received a paycheck that we weren’t expecting and it all worked out. The universe corrects itself, you know?”

The universe corrects itself. OK. Sure. I’ll accept that. It’s a belief that people have been surviving on for thousands years so there must be some truth to it.

Damián and I disappear into the North. We visit Bayly’s Beach on the west coast and we are surprised by its crudeness. There is a muddy car access point, a lone Maori fishermen untangling his nets, and sand that stretches in either direction with no intention of stopping. We are not used to such a profound absence of the human being. We walk along the shoreline uncertain if it is appropriate to fill the silence with words.

We travel to the Te Paki sand dunes, where the effect is multiplied. These dunes tower over the Tasman Sea with incredible imperialism. Again, we are lucky to arrive when no one is around. In high season, these dunes can be quickly diminished by the crowd of sand boarders trying to get a short-lived adrenaline rush. You can rent a board for $3 NZD and hike to the top, but we are much happier scaling and descending these monsters at a snail’s pace. It’s how they demand to be conquered, with pain.

We have sand dune experience. Neither of us will forget the epic climb to the top of the sand dunes of Merzouga, Morocco. We were basically eating sand from exhaustion, but the Te Paki dunes are different. With the wind as their devilish companion, the sand lashes out at our legs and back with surprising precision. You’re not supposed to be here, it hisses in our ears. And when we try to cry out in pain from the sting of the sand, we find that the wind had robbed our voices as well. I scream and I scream, but Nature refuses to listen. It is unexpected, momentary release from life’s obligations. If a girl screams on top of a sand dune and nobody hears, is she really there? So naturally, I ask Damián to take my picture, just to be sure.

Te Paki Sand Dunes Ashley

Te Paki Dunes Damian

We “discover” Ninety Mile Beach, which offers another empty (of humans) landscape, with the exception of a little lost dog. Later, Sandy Bay is yet another altar to solitude, uncovered after traversing serpentine dirt tracks and a few missed turns. It is noon on a Sunday and the immaculate beach is so devoid of the human footprint, the human sound, and the human nuisance, that we begin to feel self-conscious about our own existence. Are we supposed to be here? Are we supposed to be anywhere?

And I want to be clear. Nothing is out there is the wrong way to describe Northland because everything is out there. Its everythingness is what grabs you. With humans out of the way, there is so much more to see in every landscape. I ran my fingers along the bark of every tree, I dug my toes deep into the sometimes black, sometimes white sand, and I stared for minutes on end at plants I had never seen before, until Damián would lose his patience, backtrack, and wave his hand in front of my face.

“Could you stop being such a hippie?”

I could not. “But this tree!” I would exclaim. “Look at that avant-garde leaf pattern! This belongs in a museum! Damián, you have to appreciate this for more than five seconds!”

Ninety Mile Beach

Finally, we reach Cape Reinga. Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand and it marks the separation of the Tasman Sea (to the West) from the Pacific Ocean. For the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, this was the place where the male sea (Te Maoana Tapokpoko a Tawhaki) meets the female sea (Te Tai o Whitirea). Many white whirlpools can be seen where the currents of these two great bodies of water clash, a Maori representation of the coming together of male and female and the creation of life. Maybe that’s where the expression “let’s make waves” was originally derived.

Cape Reinga is a sacred site for the Maori. The first known map of New Zealand, drawn by Tuki Tahua in 1793, depicted a dotted track that ended here. This track was Te Ara Wairua, the path that the spirits of the dead travel to where they depart from this world – Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairua). In fact, a rocky point that extends out from the coast is considered to be the exact location where the spirits descend into the underworld. There is an ancient Kahika tree that clings to this rocky point, which creates the steps that the spirits use to make their way to their spiritual home, known as Hawaiki.

Kahika TreeThe Maori are right to call this a magical place. The unending view of the sea provides a sense of peace. It seems like the perfect place to talk the dead. You can’t see what’s out there, so you can assume they’re out there. And if I had to leave the world, I wouldn’t mind at all letting go on this beautiful coast. There is a lighthouse, in case your loved ones ever need to find their way back to say goodbye in a better way. I could see myself coming here, much more than to a cemetery, if I ever had a prayer to make. Nature has always been my religion.

And the North – no matter what continent – will always be my home.



By far, the best way to experience Northland is camping. We stayed at two extremely scenic, well-kept Department of Conversation campsites and one very nice private camping ground.

Otamure Bay

  • Approximately 30km north of Whangarei, ocean views
  • Reservation recommended in high season, $13 per person, very nice facilities, campers are also required to purchase a $2.00 rubbish bag to assist with the disposal of rubbish and recyclable items.
  • This campsite has a ranger house and you can call ahead to ensure the proper storage of your insulin.
  • Website link

Tapotupotu Bay

  • Approximately 1 hour 30 minutes travel time from Kaitaia.
  • No booking required, $8 per person, basic facilties, but breathtaking beach & forest views.
  • This is a remote, unpowered campsite and you should bring a cooler and plan accordingly for your insulin storage needs.
  • Website link

Bay of Islands Holiday & Campervan Park

  • Paihia, located on a 2 acre olive grove
  • Tent sites are $20 per person, free WIFI, excellent cooking facilities, $2 showers, supermarket within walking distance
  • Refrigerator is available in the camp office for insulin storage upon request
  • Website link

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