Located in the Taharoa Domain recreation reserve on the upper west coast of the North Island, Kai Iwi Lakes is a group of freshwater dune lakes known for their crystal clear water. If you’re planning a Northland itinerary and looking for things to do and places to stay along the west coast, a stopover at these lakes is a definite must-do.
Not to be confused with Kai Iwi Beach near Whanganui, Kai Iwi Lakes is just under 3 hours drive north of Auckland and only 35 minutes north of Dargaville. Heading north from Dargaville along Highway 12, after 24 km, look for signs marked Omamari and Kai Iwi Lakes. Turn left into Omamari Road and then, after 8 km, follow the road right into Kai Iwi Lakes Road. Continue heading north until you see the big blue sign at the main entrance to Taharoa Domain on your right.
Here are approximate travel times and distances to Kai Iwi Lakes.
- Auckland to Kai Iwi: 210 km / 130 miles – 2 hours 55 minutes
- Whangarei to Kai Iwi (via Dargaville): 92 km / 57 miles – 1 hour 30 minutes
- Dargaville to Kai Iwi: 35 km / 22 miles – 35 minutes
- Paihia (Bay of Islands) to Kai Iwi (via Kaikohe and Kaihu on unsealed route): 110 km / 68 miles – 2 hours 20 minutes
- Paihia (Bay of Islands) to Kai Iwi (via Whangarei): 160 km / 99 miles – 2 hours 20 minutes
- Waipoua Forest (Tāne Mahuta) to Kai Iwi: 50 km / 31 miles – 1 hour
Bear in mind that travel times can vary significantly, particularly in popular areas during peak visitor months (December – February). For current travel times and updates on delays, roadworks and road closures, use the NZ Transport Agency journey planner before travelling.
Facts, Figures and Local History
Generally speaking, sand dune lakes are quite uncommon, occurring in only a few countries around the world. These lakes are formed when rain or spring water accumulates in depressions between sand dunes and is trapped there as a result of impermeable layers beneath the sand.
In New Zealand, Northland is unique in having over 400 hundred dune lakes and of those, the Kai Iwi Lakes are particularly special in terms of both size and depth. In fact Lake Taharoa, the largest in the group, is one of the deepest dune lakes of its kind in the world. There are three lakes within the Taharoa Domain.
Lake Kai Iwi
At the south eastern end is Lake Kai Iwi (Translation: food for the people), the smallest and shallowest of the three, covering 27.6 hectares with a maximum recorded depth of 15.7 metres. When water levels are high, there is a drain that flows from Lake Kai Iwi to Lake Taharoa.
At the northwestern end is Lake Waikare (Translation: rippling water). Covering 29 hectares, it is not much larger than Lake Kai Iwi but at 29.5 meters, it is significantly deeper.
Sandwiched between the other two lakes, Lake Taharoa (Translation: long calabash) is the largest, covering an area of 197.7 hectares, and also the deepest at a maximum depth of 38.8 metres.
There are no large rivers or streams flowing into these lakes and so they are fed by rainfall via the surrounding catchment made up of mostly native scrub and commercial pine forest that is slowly being removed. Then of course there’s the rain that falls on the lakes directly, all of which contributes to the lakes’ exceptional water quality. In fact the water in Lake Taharoa is so clear that it contains some of the deepest growing submerged vegetation in the North Island, at 24m.
Of course, being solely dependent on localised rainfall, the level of the lakes can fluctuate significantly between the wet and dry seasons and this also makes them very susceptible to pollution. Water temperatures can also vary significantly, with extremes of 12.8 °C / 55 °F and 21.8 °C / 71.2 °F having been recorded.
Kai Iwi Lakes history
Before Europeans arrived, as the name suggests, the lakes were an important source of food for the local Māori. The eastern shore of Lake Taharoa, what is now Pine Beach, was also used as a camp during the summer.
By the late 1800s, European kauri gum diggers had begun to set up camp in the area and by the early 1920s as many as 100 people were believed to have lived around the lake shores. Despite attempts to drain and bore the surrounding swamps, the diggers has little success and by the late 1920s, most had left. Fortunately today, few signs of their operations remain.
In 1928, land on the eastern shore of Lake Taharoa was set aside as a scenic reserve. Over the years, the lakes and more of the surrounding area was added to become the Taharoa Domain, which now covers 538 hectares.
Things to do at Kai Iwi Lakes
As you would expect at such a popular holiday spot, there is no shortage of things to do in and around the lakes. Most people come to spend time on the water with Lake Taharoa being the most popular lake for water skiing, wakeboarding and tubing.
While you can launch boats on Lake Waikare, because of its size, craft are restricted to 5 knots. No motorised craft can be launched on Lake Kai Iwi although you can paddle and swim in this lake.
Swimming is most popular at Pine Beach, on the eastern shore of Lake Taharoa where there is a reserved swimming area. One thing to be mindful of, particularly if you’re not confident in deeper water, is that while it’s possible to wade out quite far from the shore, the lake floor drops away steeply once you reach the edge of the shallow white sand.
Sailing and windsurfing is also popular as is kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, particularly early in the morning when you’re likely to get the best water. That said, an evening/late night paddle under the stars is still something we’d like to do.
Kai Iwi Lakes walks and cycling
There is a network of shared walking and cycling tracks that circle all three lakes and this is a good way to explore the area. Alternatively, if you just want a birds eye view of Lake Taharoa, there’s a steep by short track that climbs to the top of the hill behind Pine Beach campground. It’s well worth it for the view, particularly at sunset as you may have seen in our video.
We can also recommend the Kai Iwi Lakes Coastal Track which starts near the bottom of Lake Waikare and crosses farmland to Ripiro Beach which feels remote and untouched. You might find that you have the beach entirely to yourself plus there’s a little surprise in store when you get there.
It’s an easy 5 km walk to the beach and back if you park near the Promenade Point campground and it will take around 35 minutes each way. If you have the time, you can continue north along the beach all the way to Maunganui Bluff but that will be a further 12 km return. You can read more about this track here, Walking the Kai Iwi Lakes Coastal Track.
Rainbow trout were introduced to the lakes in 1968 and seem to have thrived, so much so that there is an annual trout fishing competition held in June/July each year. Bear in mind that a license is required if you want to fish for trout. You can pick up a license from authorised agents and sport shops in Dargaville.
Kai Iwi Lakes camping & accommodation
If you’re driving along the west coast on Highway 12, possibly having just visited Tāne Mahuta, New Zealand’s largest known living kauri tree, you should definitely stop in at the lakes, even if it’s just to take a short break from driving. However, if your itinerary allows for it, consider staying overnight at one of the two campgrounds in the domain.
Pine Beach campground
Located on the eastern shore of Lake Taharoa, Pine Beach Campground is the larger and more developed camping ground in the domain. Its location and facilities make it one of our favourite Northland camping grounds, at least on the west coast.
There are both powered and non-powered sites suitable for campervans, motorhomes, caravans and tents with two flushing toilet blocks and washing and showering facilities. As at the time of writing (November 2018) it costs $2 for hot water when showering. There are also drinking water taps located throughout the campsite. The main office for the domain is located at Pine Beach and you need to check-in here before setting up camp. There is also a small mobile shop during the peak summer season (December – February). Speaking of summer season, the campgrounds get really busy during the summer and on holiday long weekend so advance booking is definitely advisable. You can check availability and make bookings on the Kaipara District website for Kai Iwi Lakes.
Promenade Point campground
Promenade Point is a smaller campsite located on the western shore of Lake Taharoa. It’s less developed than Pine Beach and has more of a back to nature feel to it with no powered sites. There are flushing toilets and drinking water but no shower facilities. You’d have to head over to Pine Beach for a hot shower.
Nearby accommodation options
If you find that the main Taharoa Domain campsites are fully booked or if you’re not setup for camping and need some alternative accommodation don’t worry. Below is some accommodation for you to consider, all within 40 minutes drive from the lakes.
Wai Hou Oma Lodge
If you’re looking for comfortable self-contained accommodation that’s conveniently close to the lakes, you can’t do much better than Wai Hou Oma. They have 3 private lodges that can accommodate 2 to 6 guests. Check availability.
Kai Iwi Lakes Resort
Located just a few minutes from the lakes along Kai Iwi Lakes Road, the resort has 4 self-contained baches (holiday homes) that can accommodate 2 to 14 guests. Check availability.
Waiata Manu (Bird Song)
Waiata Manu is a private holiday house on Kai Iwi Lakes Road literally 5 minutes from the lakes. The self-contained cottage can accommodate up to 6 guests. Check availability.
Holiday parks offer a range of accommodation types from powered and non-powered campsites to cabins and motel style rooms and in some cases backpacker dorm rooms. Here are some nearby holiday parks to consider:
Trounson Kauri Park Campground
Trounson is a serviced Department of Conservation (DOC) campground approximately 30 minutes north of Kai Iwi Lakes. It has both powered and non-powered sites with flushing toilet and cooking facilities. Bookings are not required, it’s first come, first served. You can read more and check fees here.
As at the time of writing (November 2018), freedom camping is not permitted anywhere within Taharoa Domain. While there are a number of spots around both Lake Taharoa and Lake Waikare where it’s possible to park up, these spots are for day visitors only. Stay overnight at your own risk as campground managers do patrol the domain.
Kai Iwi Lakes weather
There’s no denying that the lakes look their most spectacular when it’s bright and sunny. To see if you’re going to have that perfect day, you can check the latest Kai Iwi Lakes weather forecast on MetService.com.
While MetService does provide rain forecast maps, these cover the entire country. To check more detailed local weather conditions and forecasts including wind, rain, temperature and cloud cover we use, and highly recommend, Windy.com.
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Northland region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Northland.