Many visitors to New Zealand mistakenly believe that Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand. Technically speaking, the Hikurua / de Surville Cliffs 30 km to the east of Cape Reinga are further north but few visitors get there. In reality, Kapowairua, or Spirits Bay, is as far north as most of us can travel.
On our most recent Northland road trip, we had every intention of visiting de Surville Cliffs. Doing some research beforehand, we saw that the road to de Surville was off Spirits Bay Road so we headed in that direction in high hopes. Unfortunately our plans were ruined by a locked gate.
As we found out later after speaking to the manager at the Spirits Bay campsite, everything to the east of Spirits Bay (the real far north as he described it) is effectively private land so to access, you either need to have a key, or know someone with a key. We were obviously quite disappointed but as it turned out, Spirits Bay itself was well worth the trip.
Back in 2011, the New Zealand Herald newspaper ran a competition for kiwis to nominate their favourite camping spots. The Spirits Bay DOC campsite was the fourth most popular spot and now having visited, we can see why.
If you’re in Auckland having just arrived in the country, you’ll soon realise that this is called the far north for a reason. As you’ll see below, Spirits Bay is far away from anywhere but then again, that is part of the appeal.
Here are approximate travel times and distances to Spirits Bay from some of the main centres to help you plan your visit.
- Auckland to Spirits Bay: 420 km / 260 miles – 6 hours
- Whangarei to Spirits Bay: 260 km / 162 miles – 4 hours
- Paihia (Bay of Islands) to Spirits Bay (via SH1): 210 km / 130 miles – 3 hours 15 minutes
- Ahipara to Spirits Bay: 120 km / 75 miles – 2 hours
- Kaitaia to Spirits Bay: 110 km / 68 miles – 1 hour 45 minutes
- Pukenui to Spirits Bay: 65 km / 40 miles – 1 hour 10 minutes
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. It’s always a good idea to allow extra time for photo stops and, when travelling longer distances, rest stops.
Driving up on Highway 1, there is a petrol station and shop/cafe at Waitiki, approximately 80 km north of Awanui. This is the last petrol station before Cape Reinga and also a good place to stock up on refreshments before you get to Spirits Bay. The turnoff to the bay is immediately after Waitiki and it’s worth mentioning that it’s a gravel road from this point for the next 16 km. You don’t need a 4×4 to drive this road and we didn’t think the condition was too bad but then we were in our VW UTE/truck.
Spirits Bay Camping
The Spirits Bay campsite may be popular but kiwis don’t come here for luxury. That means you get the basics, or what the Department of Conservation calls a ‘scenic’ campsite with flushing toilets, cold water showers and taps for water – that’s it. There are 45 non-powered sites suitable for caravans, motorhomes and tents and as the camping ground is quite large, you don’t have to be on top of each other.
When we last visited just after Christmas it was quite busy but compared to nearby Tapotupotu Bay, still relatively uncrowded. Bear in mind however that you can’t book in advance and it’s first come first served so there’s no guarantee of getting a spot, particularly in peak season, December to February. Fees as at December 2018 are:
- Adult (18+ years): $13 per night
- Child (5 – 17 years): $6.50 per night
- Infant (0 – 4 years): free
The campsite is set slightly back from the beach behind dunes and it’s only a few minutes walk to the beach. While the dunes will give some shelter, we imagine that this campsite would take a bit of a pounding when the wind is blowing from the north west. Worth considering when you set up your site.
Things to do at Spirits Bay
As you would expect from such a beautiful location, there’s lots to do in Spirits Bay from just lounging around on the beach to surfing and swimming although, as with many New Zealand beaches, be mindful of strong rip currents.
We also noticed tyre tracks on the beach and a boat trailer parked up above the high water mark so this is obviously a popular spot for launching boats and we imagine there’s some good fishing off the coast. There’s also a small island, Pananehe Island, at the mouth of Kapowairua Stream. The island is easily accessible around low tide and there’s a rock shelf right around it which no doubt makes for some good land-based fishing.
Then of course there’s the white sand beach itself, Te Horo Beach, all 7 and a bit kilometres of it. So if taking long strolls along deserted beaches is your thing, you won’t be disappointed. In fact Kapowairua is the start of the 48 km / 30 mile Te Paki Coastal Track, a multi-day hike that follows the coast all the way past Cape Reinga to the giant Te Paki dunes.
Spirits Bay Weather and Tides
The nearest New Zealand MetService forecast for this far north region is for Kaitai which is some distance away from Cape Reinga. To check more detailed local weather conditions and forecasts including wind, rain, temperature and cloud cover we use, and highly recommend, Windy.com.
If you’re planning on doing some fishing or on launching a boat, you’ll want to check the tides. The nearest tide chart location for Spirits Bay is Cape Maria van Diemen, just west of Cape Reinga.
Māori Cultural Significance
You may be wondering why this area is referred to as Spirits Bay or Kapowairua in Māori. The bay itself is officially called Piwhane but it’s the far eastern end of the bay that’s called Kapowairua which means “to grasp or catch the spirit”.
Considered to be a sacred place in Māori culture, local legend has it that spirits of the dead gather at an old pōhutukawa tree on the headland above the bay before travelling to the afterlife to meet their ancestors. We didn’t see any spirits but then it was day time. Who knows what goes on there at night ;-).
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.