Like a giant finger, the narrow peninsula of Northland points far into the Pacific. To the west lies the Tasman Sea, and to the east the Pacific Ocean.
The sweeping west coast is pounded by huge ocean swells. Immense sand dunes stretch along a coast broken by the two large harbours of Kaipara and Hokianga, and the two small harbours of Herekino and Whāngāpē.
In contrast, the east coast is more gentle territory, with numerous headlands, bays, beaches, harbours and tidal inlets.
A warmer climate than the rest of New Zealand provides a hospitable environment for flora and fauna. The vegetation ranges from wetlands to kauri forest remnants, while wildlife includes some rare and endangered native birds such as the kōkako and the New Zealand dotterel, and other animals such as giant flax and kauri snails, and the unusual Hochstetter’s frog.
Northland is often called the nation’s birthplace. It was one of the first landing places for the Māori canoes voyaging from Polynesia, and an early area of European settlement. The first mission stations were established there. On 6 February 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi (named for the site in the Bay of Islands) was signed by Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown, allowing two peoples to form a new nation.
The region is rich in historic and archaeological sites. They include massive pā sites such as Pouērua near Kaikohe, and New Zealand’s oldest European buildings, at Kerikeri. Distinctive to the region are the many small white churches, whose graveyards sometimes contain carved wooden headboards.
Māori refer to Northland as Te Tai Tokerau (the northern tide). They are more numerous than in most other regions, and their language and traditions are strong. Yet many northern Māori have migrated or moved temporarily to Auckland – Northland is known for its fluctuating population. City dwellers and globe trotters come and go like the migratory birds who visit the region.
Other cultural influences have left their mark on the north. While most settlers were British, many Dalmatians came to dig kauri gum after 1880. Religion was also influential. From the 1850s, Scots from Nova Scotia established a Presbyterian settlement at Waipū. The nonconformist settlers of Albertland on the Kaipara Harbour dispersed, but the French Catholic and English Anglican missionaries based at the Bay of Islands had a lasting impact.
Where New Zealand begins
The artist Colin McCahon wrote of the furthest reaches of Northland: ‘The real Far North of New Zealand is unlike any other part of the land. I can’t talk about it. I love it too much … It’s a painful love loving a land, it takes a long time. I stood with an old Māori lady on a boat from Australia once – a terrible rough and wild passage. We were both on deck to see the Three Kings – us dripping tears. It’s there that the land starts’. 1
Society and economics
Northland has the most rural population in the country, and one of its poorest, despite pockets of wealth and economic growth since 2011. Remoteness, transport difficulties and low skill levels among the population affect the development of its agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Unemployment is high, and median incomes lag behind the national average. In some parts of the region, housing and health problems present a challenge for central and local government.
An isolated region
Northland has numerous small settlements, each with a strong local identity reinforced by community, sporting and cultural activities. But despite modern communications that have brought people closer, isolation remains a feature of northern life. For visitors, the many wild, empty landscapes convey a sense of Northland’s remoteness from the rest of the country.