Sunday 26 May 2019

History at Houhora Heads


From the DOC Camp at Rarawa Beach we travelled 22kms south to our next stop at the Wagener Holiday Park at Houhora Heads.

Houhora Heads Sunset (looking east)
David was keen to go fishing, it had been a few weeks since he'd had the Takacat dinghy up, and as we had a week or so to fill in before Christmas, we decided to have a short break from exploring and make the most of the stunning weather. The boat ramp beside the camp allowed access to the beautiful Houhora Harbour with it's deep channels and shallow sand banks and further afield, out to the open ocean through the Heads.

The Wagener Holiday Park gave us a great deal for a week's stay, the park was virtually deserted although the managers & staff were in preparation mode getting the camp ready for the huge influx of holidaymakers due from December 24th onwards.  

The Park is a very popular and busy camping ground over the summer holiday period. We were hoping that we might have been able to take advantage of a late cancellation and be able to stay on longer but the best we could do was check-out on Boxing Day. This at least meant we wouldn't be moving on Christmas Day.

The Park is HUGE with several large open areas including one on the other side of the road where bigger rigs and campers with dogs are able to stay (middle right). The main camp itself has many areas for camping in amongst the dips and rises of the sandy ground along the edge of the harbour and overlooking a wide estuary that enters the harbour at the eastern end of the camp.

Dozens of  classic Kiwi baches and semi permanent caravans line up side by side under the huge pohutukawa trees or form a semi-circle around the main casual camping area and kitchen & ablution blocks. More baches line small alleyways behind the buildings and newer cabins have prime views looking down the harbour from the higher areas at the back of the camp...

...although there are still several prime sites available for those that prefer caravans & tents. This site would be my pick-of-the-bunch; a handkerchief sized platform right on the edge of a small cliff overlooking Mt Camel (which forms the northern side of the entrance to the harbour) and the estuary.

It's where I went to catch the sunrise one morning, it was quite dark as I waited and I could hear voices below me. I looked over the side to see a couple of small boats heading out fishing. Launching boats from the boat ramp and here, from below where this group were camping (tent city in the photo up above), was very tide dependent. A few minutes later and just as the sun was coming up I captured them returning; they must have forgotten something.

Huge gnarly old pohutukawa trees- many in flower and making a spectacular display- line the harbour's edge, their low limbs overhanging the mud flats and just skimming the salt water at high tide.

Commercial fishing boats regularly passed by as they headed out to their fishing grounds at sea or back to base further up the harbour at Pukenui (which most people refer to as Houhora). David also headed out to sea a few times but while it was calm and sheltered inside the harbour, an easterly wind whipped up a sizeable swell outside. So he spent much of his time fishing in the harbour where luckily, with a couple of tips from some obliging locals, he managed to catch a few fish.

The last time I visited Houhora Heads was on a family holiday when I was 12 years old (let's just say a very long time ago). The one abiding memory I have of the area was visiting the Wagener Museum. 

I recall that the museum was a rabbit warren with lots of rooms, narrow alleyways, nooks & crannies, pokie little corners, low ceilings, items hanging off the roof and out from the walls, display cases and loads of cabinets with drawer upon drawer of butterfly, shell and kauri gum collections. The museum seemed to hold an absolutely astonishing collection of 'stuff'. I remember being especially interested in the shell collection, easing each drawer out carefully to see what it held and being amazed at the variety of shells (we used to collect shells ourselves).  When I heard a few years ago that the museum was to shut and the collections sold and/or disposed of, I was a little sad that I'd not be able to visit again & refresh those memories. 

So it was with some dismay when I realised that this sad, sorry looking building sitting across the road from the camp and overlooking the harbour, was the same one that housed the museum. It definitely didn't ring any bells; I even asked around to double check and everyone I spoke to said yes, that was the museum building (although me being me, I'm still not convinced). I was very disappointed to have my childhood memories of the museum well and truly squashed (although I could possibly add it to my church collection, I'm sure it looks more like a church than a museum)

And the front view was just as unfamiliar although I suspect that this has been added on since my childhood visit. 

It's now a cafe that is open a few days a week and also hosts some of the Great Sights bus tours for lunch. It's certainly a spectacular setting for tourists especially on warm, sunny, blue sky days like this one.

And with the nearby pohutukawa in full bloom they made great photo subjects for the visitors.

At low tide I walked up the harbour a way and then made my way back along the top edge of the rocks and grassy bank behind the overhanging pohutukawa. Through a gap in the trees I spied this beautiful old homestead which I knew must be the historic Subrisky-Wagener Homestead.

I wasn't sure if it was private property or not but thought I'd get closer to see if there were any signs. I made my way around the outside edge past several old buildings... the back of the homestead. Still no signs and no sign of anyone about either. I could see some of the campground and a few vehicles just through the trees and a vehicle track from the campground passed close by too. 

The house was obviously unoccupied, the gardens abandoned and there were several broken windows. I still felt a little apprehensive that I might be trespassing but justified my quick walk through with the fact that I was taking photos for the files of Heritage NZ. 

And that's when I saw the sign, at the entrance to the large open garden and grassed area that I'd just walked through from the other side. Phew, now I felt more comfortable and made my way to...

...the front gate of the homestead. The homestead was built in 1860 for the Subrisky family who were early settlers to the north. There are over 3500 descendants of Sophie Subrisky (who lived & died in the homestead), many of them notable New Zealanders. A list of them and the history of the homestead can be found in this link

It's such a shame but I have the feeling that without some serious repair work and ongoing maintenance this beautiful old & historic homestead will quickly deteriorate. I was pleased to have captured the homestead in it's still charming but slightly disheveled state. 

We did manage to do one spot of exploring while staying at Houhora Heads. I really wanted to drive a section of 90 Mile Beach and persuaded David (who is forever reluctant to drive on sand) that we could drive the 20km section from Hukatere to Waipapakauri Beach. What I forgot to tell him was that there was 10kms of gravel to drive before we reached Hukatere.

A 10km dusty, very corrugated gravel road through a large pine plantation interspersed regularly with great piles of horse dung. Ah-ha! I had found the famous wild horses of Aupouri Forest, or at least their calling cards. Now, not only were we playing pin-ball with the piles of horse poo but we had to slow as we neared each forestry side road so I could check to see if there were horses down them.

I was disappointed not to see any horses up the side roads but we did stop to have a look when we came across a roundabout! A very solid roundabout on a gravel road in the middle of a forest. Well, that's a first. But at least it had a sign pointing the way to 90 Mile Beach, we were beginning to wonder if we were on the right road.

And then when I looked up the side road I spotted them, hazy brown lumps on the side of the road. Grazing horses! (top right photo, zoomed in and cropped to within a inch of its life). They were too far up the road to creep up on them- they are wild and will take off when disturbed- so I made do with a distorted photo and we carried on to the end of the road. Which was just a short sandy section that disappeared onto the beach. Though there are two very rustic camping grounds in amongst the dunes, one on either side of the road. A wild and remote place to hang out and a place for Te Araroa walkers to stay overnight.

We drove out onto the beach (I'd already checked the tide times; it was not far from low tide), David wasn't too happy to see some heavy tyre marks disappearing off down the beach in the soft sand but I suggested we go lower down where it wasn't so soft...

...and we headed off, down a totally deserted beach for mile after mile until we spotted another vehicle approaching us out of the gloom. 

It really is a great way to travel; straight, smooth, scenic and with very little traffic. I can see why locals use the beach to get from A to B quickly, it would be a quick trip into town, either to Kaitaia or Ahipara to get groceries or visit friends.

Ninety Mile Beach is classified as an open road and as such the speed limit is 100kph although that is a bit ambiguous as there are signs saying 30kph at the entry points. This would make sense for a few hundred metres either side of the entries as there can be a few vehicles and people visiting the beach at these areas. But I can't see many vehicles sticking to 30kph on these deserted stretches, although 100kph seems way too fast as well. We stayed somewhere in the middle.

Half way along the beach we stopped for lunch, backing into the dunes and off the 'road'. Obviously someone came through when the tide was high as their tracks passed by at the foot of the dunes. While David finished his lunch I set about photographing my sparkly Christmas Tree for my Christmas Wishes blog post.

After lunch we headed off and once again the beach ahead was deserted (and the cloud cover dispersing)

But it wasn't long before we spotted several vehicles ahead moving in both directions and also people walking along the beach and in the sea. 

We thought we must be nearing one of the entry/exit ramps.

As we got closer to the activity this large truck came speeding past, obviously driven on the beach often going by the fat tyres it sported. And the people walking turned out to be TA Walkers laden down with their packs. They must have wondered at all the activity whizzing past them. 

And then there is was, the exit ramp to the Waipapakauri Beach settlement. We had to take a bit of fast run up at it as it turned out to be the only area with soft sand.

Once up and through the gap we stopped for the obligatory sign post photo and then it was back onto sealed roads and a 30km trip back to camp. Another great experience ticked off the list! 

As I mentioned earlier we were due to leave Houhora on Boxing Day but a major weather bomb was forecast to arrive on Christmas Day and we decided we'd rather not be packing up and leaving in the rain and possible flooding on Boxing Day, so we decided to bail early and get set up somewhere else before the rain set in. And for once, what a wise decision that turned out to be.

Sunset behind camp


  1. We remember visiting the Wagener Museumn quite some tears ago. I was rather intruiged with a huge collection of Toby jugs hanging from hooks above our heads.

    1. I don't recall the Toby Jugs but they'd suit the place down to the ground! :) Obviously they used every available bit of space to display items.

  2. Another great read as I dream of maybe travelling longer in our motorhome that the usual few days.

    1. Thanks, glad you enjoyed the blog. At least you are managing to get out and enjoy some of the countryside even though it's only for a few days. Others dream about it but never do it.

  3. Lovely blog. Thanks for sharing with us.This is so useful.

    1. Thanks for your comment Dash, much appreciated & I'm pleased you are finding the blog useful. Keep an eye out for the rest of the Northland blogs, which will be returning soon.


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