The township of Opononi is testament to the adage, ‘less is more’. With a population of less than 700 and just a handful of shops, this is a place you can catch your breath, unwind, reconnect with nature, and enjoy simple pleasures. Claire Smith visits this northern gem.
Nestled in the south shore of the beautiful Hokianga harbour, Opononi sits ralongside the dual settlement of Omapere. Aside from its breathtaking scenery, Opononi’s claim to fame dates back to the mid-50s when a wild but friendly dolphin spent her summer holiday in the harbour, swimming and playing with locals and holidaymakers. Given the name Opononi George, or ‘Opo’, the bottlenose dolphin spent almost a year here before passing away, but her memory is honoured with a bronze statue outside the Opononi Hotel.
Dolphins are still regular visitors to the harbour, along with pods of orca who can often be spotted chasing fish and showcasing their deft hunting skills. And while sitting on the beach and watching the wildlife cruise by is an unforgettable experience in itself, there’s plenty more on offer in and around this northern haven.
Hit the sand
The monster sand dunes of Opononi are a magnet for thrill seekers of all ages, in summer and winter alike. Grab a boogie board, kick off your shoes, and throw yourself down a dune…then climb back up and do it all again. It’s a guaranteed way to exhaust energetic kids, and it’s great fun for the grown-ups too – just be sure to take your keys out of your pocket first! Losing them in a mountain of sand makes for a somewhat stressful treasure hunt that can last for hours.
Opononi’s sand dunes are on the northern side of the harbour, so to get there you’ll need to jump on board the Hokianga Express Charter for a short boat ride to the other side. Boogie boards are included in the cost of the trip. Visit hokianga.com/activities/adventure/hokianga-express-charters for more information and to book your trip.
Check out the Koutu boulders
Just a two-minute drive from Opononi, the Koutu boulders are a curious sight indeed. These massive round rocks look like giant bowling balls – some as big as 14 metres in diameter – making for some impressive photos. The boulders are millions of years old and thought to be some of the biggest visible spherical concretions in the world.
To see the boulders, drive down Koutu Loop Road, turn left onto Waione Road and drive for about 180m to the carpark (at my last visit the carpark wasn’t signposted, so watch you don’t drive past). The best and biggest boulders are about a 20-30-minute walk along the beach. Plan your visit for low tide.
Go for a bush walk
Pack a picnic lunch and some binoculars, put your walking shoes on, and discover some of the region’s fantastic walks. First on the list is the Waimamaku Coastal Track where you’ll find some of the best views of the Hokianga. Take the easy option and walk to the Signal Hill scenic outlook and back or do the full track which is about 10km each way. Head down Signal Station Road and park up in the designated parking zone. The track itself starts in the Arai Te Uru Recreation Reserve at the end of the road and leads down to the coast before climbing up to the bluffs and back down to the beach, over the headlands and along the clifftops. Because parts of the track are on the beach, be sure to plan your walk for low tide. Find out more at doc.govt.nz.
For a shorter, but just as enjoyable walk, try the Waiotemarama Waterfall Walk. This scenic walk takes around 15-20 minutes each way and follows the Waiotemarama Stream through native bush and to a beautiful waterfall. It’s particularly impressive after a rainfall, just be sure to wear shoes that can cope with getting wet because you’ll be crossing a stream. If you feel like walking a bit further, you can carry on around the loop walk which takes about 2.5 hours in total. It can be slippery in places though, especially in wet weather, so watch your step.
Take a day trip to Rawene and Kohukohu
A visit to the neighbouring township of Rawene, just 15km drive along SH12, makes for a nice day trip from Opononi. Check out the boutique arts and crafts shops before stopping in at the Boatshed Café and enjoy a fabulous lunch overlooking the harbour.
After lunch, catch the vehicle ferry from Rawene to Kohukohu, another of the Hokianga’s hidden gems. In its kauri milling heyday, this historic village was once the largest town on the harbour. Today this laidback village is home to writers, artists, and musicians and is a great spot to visit if you’re keen to check out the galleries and meet the local talent. The village also has an outdoor market on the third Saturday of the month in the town hall. And if you enjoy a look through historical buildings, be sure to visit Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Kohukohu. Built in 1910 this grand old church is simply beautiful and worth a visit just to marvel at the impeccable workmanship.
For the ferry timetable and pricing, visit northlandferries.co.nz/hokianga-ferry.
Grab a bite to eat
Dining options are few in Opononi, although there is a Four Square for stocking up the fridge and cupboards. If you fancy a good dine-out meal, head to the Boar & Marlin Restaurant at Opononi Hotel where you can tuck into stonegrilled steak or local seafood or choose from the tasty offerings on the menu. Visit opononihotel.com.
Where to stay
Although the holiday park in Opononi is now closed, for just $10 a night you can stay at the Koutu Mangeroa campsite – take Koutu Loop Road and turn left onto Koutu Point Road. You’ll need to be self-contained as there’s no water or power, but the views are fabulous.
The Rawene Holiday Park is another great option. Powered sites are currently $20 per person, per night. Check up-to-date pricing and book online at raweneholidaypark.co.nz.
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