Guide to the Kaipara Harbour

white lighthouse on sandy dunes with a long bay and sea in the background

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The Kaipara Harbour is the largest harbor in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the largest in the whole world. It spans 37 miles from north to south. Although it was once the busiest port in New Zealand, carrying kauri timber and gum, it's not very commercially developed these days. It remains a rural place where visitors can enjoy the natural landscapes and outdoor activities.

The Kaipara Harbour is located on the west coast of Northland, the peninsula that extends north from Auckland. The administrative Kaipara District is wholly within Northland and extends almost up to the Far North's Hokianga Harbor. The southern half of the Kaipara Harbour itself is within Auckland and is easily reached from the central city. So, the attractions of the Kaipara can be enjoyed on a trip from Auckland or as part of a larger journey around Northland. It's a largely rural area with dramatic beaches and dunes, sparkling lakes, rolling farmland, and vineyards, and offers an insight into Kiwi country life.

How to Get There

Getting to and around the Kaipara area is really only possible if you have your own vehicle. If you are reliant on public transport, it is possible to get one long-distance bus from Auckland to Brynderwyn (on the Auckland to Whangarei/Bay of Islands Intercity line) and then another from Brynderwyn to Dargaville. However, this is slow and only a last-resort option.

When leaving Auckland, instead of traveling along the busier State Highway (SH) 1 up the eastern coast of Northland, take SH16 via Henderson in the direction of Helensville. The small town of Helensville is right on the southern edge of the Kaipara Harbour, 26 miles from central Auckland.

Alternatively, if you are making your way to the Kaipara Harbour from Whangarei city, take SH14 west to Dargaville (34 miles).

Things to See and Do

What you choose to see and do in the Kaipara area will largely depend on whether you're focusing on the southern parts, most accessible from Auckland, or the northern parts around Dargaville, which can be incorporated into a Northland road trip that includes the Hokianga Harbour (north of the Kaipara) and Whangarei.

  • Bird watching: Around half of the Kaipara Harbour area comprises coastal mudflats and sandflats, and the rest is a mix of freshwater swamp, reed beds, scrubland, mangrove forest, seagrass, and rushes, making this ecosystem an important breeding ground for migratory and local wading birds. Godwits, fairy terns, dotterels, and oystercatchers are just a few of the many birds that can be seen in the harbor area.
  • Beaches: Although the east coast of Northland is better-known for its white-sand swimming and surf beaches, as the west coast is much more wild and treacherous in places, the Kaipara district does have some great options. The Kaipara Harbour itself is a large mudflat, but the coastline that extends north of the Pouto Peninsula (the northern head of the Kaipara Harbour) is a remarkable 41-mile sweep of sand, Ripiro Beach. Bayly's Beach, just west of Dargaville, is a section of this long beach popular with surfers.
  • Sculpture Gardens: Travelers who like outdoor sculpture gardens are in luck in the Kaipara Harbour, as there are two very different experiences to choose from. Gibbs' Farm is roughly half-way between Kaukapakapa and Wellsford on SH16 and is open by appointment only. It features such famous artists as Anish Kapoor, Andy Goldsworthy, Sol LeWitt, and Ralph Hotere. The Kaipara Coast Sculpture Garden has walking trails through beautiful gardens and is located just outside Kaukapakapa. The sculptures on display are for sale and changed every year in November.
  • Kaipara 2 Kaipara Walk: This 19-mile self-guided walking trail is classified as an easy/medium-level walk that starts at Kaipara Flats in the south and ends at Glorit in the north. It's a one-way walk that takes three days to complete. It encompasses farmland, native bush at Mt. Auckland (Atuanui), saltmarsh wetlands, coastal forest, and the rolling Kaipara Hills.
  • Cruises: Harbor and river cruises aboard the M. V. Kewpie Too depart from Parakai, just outside Helensville, and offer different excursions. Day trips to Shelly Beach, on South Head, or two-day cruises follow old steamer routes up to Dargaville, stopping overnight at comfortable accommodation.
  • Parakai Springs Hot Pools: While it's not quite on the scale of the hot spring baths in Rotorua or Hanmer Springs, the naturally heated Parakai Springs offer family-friendly fun if you're in the area. There are indoor and outdoor pools so that they can be enjoyed year-round.
  • Mount Auckland Atuanui Walkay: The hike up to the summit of this 1000-foot mountain passes through a native forest regenerating bush that was once used for logging. The lookout at the top offers great views of the Kaipara Harbour and Hoteo River estuary. It's best suited to experienced hikers as the path is mostly unformed and can be rough and steep. The return trip takes around 3.5 hours. The mountain is about 43 miles north-east of Auckland.
  • Omeru Pa Scenic Reserve: This scenic reserve has three beautiful waterfalls: Omeru Falls, Waitangi Falls, and Waitangi Stream Cascade. There are also swimming holes and a barbecue area. It's north of Kaukapakapa.
  • Kauri Museum, Matakohe: Northland is renowned for its forests of kauri trees, a species native to New Zealand. Although kauri forests do still exist in pockets, the area was once covered with millions of acres of magnificent trees, which can live for thousands of years and grow up to 160 feet tall. Logging in the 19th century changed the natural and cultural landscape of Northland, and visitors can learn about this fascinating part of local history at Matakohe's Kauri Museum. Matakohe is on the many-armed Arapaoa River, on the northern side of the Kaipara Harbour.
  • Pouto Lighthouse: At the southern end of the Pouto Peninsula, the Pouto Lighthouse was built in 1884 to help ships navigate past the Kaipara Harbour's treacherous sand bar. It's no longer functional but can be seen on sand safaris from Dargaville or if you'd prefer to walk the four miles from along the Kaipara Harbor's northern shore.
  • Kai Iwi Lakes: North-west of Dargaville, the three gorgeous Kai Iwi Lakes are a trendy spot with locals in the summer. The shallow clear waters, fringed by white sand, are ideal for kids to swim and play in. Lakes Taharoa (the largest), Kai Iwi, and Waikere are natural lakes formed around 1.8 million years ago. Staying at the adjacent campsite is an ideal way to enjoy the lakes.

Where to Stay

Kaipara is a rural area with just a few small towns. Dargaville is the largest town in the region, with only around 5,000 inhabitants. Camping is a good option for overnight trips around the Kaipara, and the Kai Iwi Lakes are a particularly popular place to do so (book a spot in advance if you're traveling in the peak summer season). Alternatively, motels and small boutique hotels/B&Bs can be found around the area, particularly in and around Helensville and Dargaville.

What to Eat and Drink

The area just south of the Kaipara Harbour, between Helensville and Kumeu, is where many of the Auckland region's wineries are located. Visiting a winery (or two) for lunch or dinner is particularly convenient if you're exploring the southern parts of the Kaipara area on a day or overnight trip from Auckland.