Story: Landscapes – overview

Page 3. Northern New Zealand

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Northland, New Zealand’s far northern peninsula, is largely hill country, mostly less than 700 metres high. Volcanic rocks form striking peaks in some areas, such as around Whangaroa and Whāngārei harbours.

Northland’s east and west coasts are very different. On the western side, surf from the Tasman Sea has made a long straight coastline, with sandy beaches, harbour bars and dunes. New Zealand’s northernmost points – Cape Rēinga and North Cape – were once islands. They are now connected to Northland by the low-lying sandy Aupōuri peninsula, with its sweeping Ninety Mile Beach – actually only 60 miles (96 kilometres) long.

Northland’s eastern side is much more ragged, with many rocky islands, bays, inlets and mangrove-fringed tidal flats.

When the sea level rose after the last ice age, Northland’s valleys were partly flooded. This created dramatic harbours, including Kaipara and Hokianga on the west coast and Whangaroa and Whāngārei in the east. Hokianga Harbour extends more than 50 kilometres inland.

In the Bay of Islands, the rising sea surrounded hills of greywacke and volcanic rock. These now form almost 150 islands – some large enough to farm, others just wave-battered rocks.

Northland was once covered in dense kauri forests. European sawmillers plundered them for timber, leaving only patches of forest by the end of the 19th century. Today Waipoua Forest is a protected area of giant kauri trees.

Hot spot

Tāmaki-makau-rau, the Māori name for Auckland, literally means ‘Tāmaki of a hundred lovers’ – or ‘Tāmaki desired by many’. Auckland has a warm climate, fertile soils and two excellent harbours, so land ownership has often been contested by both Māori and Pākehā.

Auckland – city of sails and volcanoes

Auckland is built around two great harbours – Waitematā to the east, and Manukau to the west. The city sprawls across an isthmus at the narrowest point of New Zealand. Residents are never far from the sea, and their boats have earned Auckland its nickname, ‘city of sails’.

Auckland’s dozens of hills are basaltic volcanic cones, and much of the city is built on lava flows. The volcanoes have formed, one by one, over the last 50,000 years. Some eruptions blasted out low-lying craters, such as Panmure Basin. Others produced fountains of molten rock, forming cones of lava flows and scoria, such as One Tree Hill, Mt Eden and Mt Wellington. Rangitoto Island, in Waitematā Harbour, is Auckland’s youngest and largest volcanic cone – Māori saw it form about 1400 AD.

West of Auckland, the bush-clad Waitākere Range is made of older volcanic rocks. It provides the backdrop for popular west coast beaches such as Muriwai and Piha.

Vanishing volcanoes

Māori built on the summits of Auckland’s volcanic cones, and terraces and defensive earthworks on their slopes. European settlers used the volcanoes for earthworks of a different kind – they quarried them for building stone and road aggregate. Many larger cones are preserved in public parks, but some smaller scoria cones are completely gone, removed by the cartload and truckload over the last 150 years.

South Auckland and Waikato

South of Auckland, urban sprawl gives way to the hills and lowlands of South Auckland and the Waikato. The fertile lowlands around the lower Waikato River are some of New Zealand’s best farmland. Raglan and Kāwhia harbours are on the Waikato west coast, and the region has several extinct volcanoes, including Pirongia, Karioi and Maungatautari. To the east are the low Hūnua and Hapūakohe ranges. The Firth of Thames and the low-lying Hauraki Plains separate the ranges from the Coromandel Peninsula and Kaimai Range, further east.


Bush-clad remnants of ancient volcanoes form the dramatic skylines of the Coromandel Peninsula. Some of the most distinctive peaks are volcanic plugs – solidified magma that filled the central vents of volcanoes.

Wave erosion of volcanic rocks on the eastern side has produced a striking and varied coastline, with spectacular headlands, rock arches and sheltered bays. At Hot Water Beach, if you dig a hole in the sand it will fill with geothermally heated water, bubbling up from below.

How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney, 'Landscapes – overview - Northern New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 March 2018)

Story by Eileen McSaveney, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 1 Jul 2015