Russell, NZ to Kaikohe, NZ

24.5 mi / 9.0 mph / 1826 ft. climbing
Home: Left Bank Hotel

The closure of State Highway 1 into Northland is forcing all of that major artery’s traffic onto three detour options, and one of those options is an eastern scenic road that we would have cycled north on. That’s why we instead took a bus from Auckland to Whangarei several days ago, to “teleport” us into Northland, so we could avoid battling with all of those frustrated drivers forced onto a narrow winding road. But the highway landslide-repair was scheduled to finish a week from now, before we’re due back in Auckland, so my plan was to ride back south via the west-side detour once its traffic returned back to SH1 where it belonged. The highway department publishes very detailed weekly updates (so PR-focused that they include a human-interest interview with one of the workers), and while they weren’t explicitly saying anything beyond the fact that they were on schedule, reading between the lines made it feel like there was a chance that they could even reopen a bit early.

Well no, that will not be happening. Quite the opposite, in fact. A new active landslide has developed, and they don’t even have a schedule yet for how long that stabilization will take. The highway department made the disappointing announcement while we were still in Auckland, but I read about it while we were literally on the bus the next day doing our “teleportation”, too late to back out. We’re essentially now “trapped” in Northland, and since I didn’t have an immediate solution, I didn’t even mention it to Rett, and decided to (foolishly?) just carry on with our planned route and deviate if/when I figured out a new plan.

I’ve now decided that “teleporting” back out is the only option that makes sense. Now that we know the bus works with our bikes, taking it back to Auckland is less nerve-wracking, but we’ll still need to finish our Northland tour in a town where the bus stops. I realized that getting the bikes on-board would have been a much bigger challenge if we’d boarded mid-route (when passengers from earlier stops had their luggage already filling the hold), so it made the most sense to catch the return bus at its origination point of Kerikeri.

Our route around the north-south peninsula of Northland had been set up to look like a shepherd’s crook, starting with us heading north up the hook-end of the crook on the east side of the peninsula (which we’ve already done over the past few days), curving left over the top and crossing to the west side, and then heading south down the long end of the staff into Auckland. The problem then is that if we stuck to that route, we would arrive in Kerikeri today, well before we’ve explored all we wanted to in Northland. So instead of going through Kerikeri and then returning to it in a couple weeks, we’re going to bust that shepherd’s crook over our knee and lay the shattered pieces into a totally crazy route across Northland that no one would ever draw up unless circumstances like this forced them into it.

We’re aborting our northward progress and are now heading directly southwest to Dargaville, halfway down the staff on the west side, and then will re-draw the shepherd’s crook from there, but in a clockwise direction rather than the counterclockwise loop I’d planned. It’s a two-day ride to Dargaville, with literally only one town to stop in, so to Kaikohe it is.

Back one last time at the Russell waterfront to catch the ferry (you can see Rett’s giant fig tree ahead of her).

Even though we hadn’t crossed over the the “mainland” yesterday as I’d originally planned, the ride to Kaikohe wasn’t too long (tomorrow’s would be the long one!), so we were able to still have a relaxed morning and catch the 10am ferry. On the ~20 minute trip west across the Bay of Islands it first made a stop at Waitangi, where one of New Zealand’s founding documents, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed between the British and the Maori in 1840. In retrospect it would have made it a shorter ride for us to get off there, and then we could have better-seen some of the displays, but we know we aren’t big history/museum people, and wanted to see a bit of Paihia too, so that’s where we continued to and disembarked.

Our bikes lined up in the back of the Russell-Paihia ferry.
Hey, it’s an island in the Bay of Islands (there are many fewer than the name would lead you to believe!)
Whoa, but there is an island in the sky! After two days and nights of the radar being constantly dotted with showers, today seemed like it was finally going to be rain-free, but probably not under that thing!
The ferry returning to Russell.

We’d rolled the bikes onto the boat relatively easily, but getting them off was another matter, because there was a big piling on the newly-built high-tech wharf right where the exit door opens. The skipper rightly complained about how dumb they were when they built this thing (“I’ve had to lift people in wheelchairs up over the rail!”), and even attempted to re-park the boat to give more space (I think we got less). In the end we just needed to take all of our bags off, squeeze the bikes out, and re-load. Hey, at least they take bikes!

One nice thing about our re-route is that the Twin Coast Cycle Trail connects Paihia and Kaikohe, and checking off a third “Great Ride” in New Zealand would be cool. Except…the first part of the trail is closed, so we’d either have to take a long country-road detour, or a more-direct busy highway, and then once we got to the trail it supposedly has a bunch of the anti-motorbike gates that frequently force us to take our bags off. So if we’re going to be on busy highway for a stretch anyway, we might as well take a more-direct and all-paved route that completely bypasses the trail. Oh well!

We did a quick loop through downtown Paihia, which was nice enough, but staying in Russell was definitely the right call. Heading north and then west out of town on SH11, we had two steep up-and-down hills on the way to Haruru. Part way up the first it became clear that the wide sidewalk next to the road wasn’t going to peter out (like they often do), and in fact is an intentional cycle/pedestrian path to connect the two towns. And the traffic was annoying enough that we actually got on that sidewalk for the second hill (a rarity for us), and it made the climb much more relaxed.

The next 10 miles were the rare (for New Zealand) and unfortunate combination of “too many houses for a roadside pee-break” and “not enough houses to converge into a settlement with toilets”. So when we saw a sign for the Junction Cafe in 2.8km that explicitly advertised toilets, we couldn’t have been happier. It ended up being a perfect stop, with a couple of PB&J muffins becoming 2nd-breakfast.

The Junction Cafe, with a pretty good joke on their yellow directional arrows (it works even better with a New Zealand accent).

After that Junction (of SH11 and SH10), we were able to angle off onto a 3rd country-road option where things quieted down significantly and roadside peeing would not have been a problem. We had to do a mile and a half on the dreaded SH1, but due to another closure further north, it was the least-busy bit of Highway 1 in the entire country. We encountered only four cars in the stretch, which was just as many as we had pass us in the last half mile on the country road! Conversely, our turn onto SH15 for the final run into Kaikohe was much busier than expected, with much-worse drivers too.

Country riding across Northland.
The cool air reminds us that it’s autumn just as much as the trees do.
Church at the Te Waimate Mission, another historical place we didn’t stop at.
I guess we just prefer to learn from the landscape.

In Kaikohe we dallied at McDonald’s for as long as possible while waiting for our 4pm check-in at our hotel (there are no campgrounds anywhere near Kaikohe). That, and the subsequent cold-grocery-store trips led to Rett getting over-chilled, and the afternoon sun was no longer exhibiting the warming effect that it once had in this hemisphere.

We rang the buzzer at the side entrance and the caretaker Keith welcomed us at the Left Bank Hotel (a former bank, currently used as the main image on the Wikipedia page for Kaikohe), and it felt like maybe he wouldn’t have been as strict on the check-in as their site indicated. He even had an upgrade for us, offering the charming stand-alone cottage behind the bank rather than the more-formal B&B-type rooms inside the bank. We saw the latter when he gave us a tour of the historic, elegant, high-ceilinged building and the ill-timed conversion/restoration that the owners had done (COVID killed the bar/restaurant, but they nicely still had a small kitchen for us). They also had a separate locked shed for bikes; due to the trail, they get a lot of cyclists staying. It felt like we were the only ones staying for the night, and maybe that’s why Keith put us on the cottage, so he could have the main building all to himself, but that’s a win-win!

Our cottage behind the Left Bank hotel.
The backside of our cottage with a huge private yard.

When I was making the booking, I read a curious bit on the boutique hotel’s website: “We recognise that there is often much bad press about our town, but we urge you to lift the covers and see what Kaikohe is really like. It is an area of much wealth; well, maybe not in monetary terms, but in terms of community, culture, love and caring – all the things money cannot buy.” Wait, what? Until you told me, I had no apprehensions about coming to Kaikohe, but now I feel like I should rethink!?

A quick search revealed that it’s been somewhat of a hotbed for motorcycle-gang activity over the last few years, with actual shootings and beatings as gangs fight over drug turf. Really minor stuff compared to cities we’ve lived in like Chicago or Seattle, but big for small-town New Zealand I guess.

Keith’s take was one of genuine sadness, declaring that this town that he clearly loves is “dying”. It was once the proud “hub of the North” he says (as Northland’s biggest inland city, connecting with spokes to all the coastal towns), and he attributes its disease (in a surprisingly non-racist way for an older white guy in a town that’s 70% Maori, the most-Maori place we’ve been in) to the opening of a prison outside of town, which then brought families of long-term prisoners to Kaikohe, along with all of their troubles and conflicts.

One of the first national news stories came a few years ago when there was daylight beating on the main street, and I read a quote from a local who complained that they essentially never see any police anywhere in town. So it was interesting when we rolled in and one of the first things I saw was a couple of officers getting out of their car and walking down the sidewalk, literally the first time I’ve seen “police on the street” in seven months in New Zealand. And Keith then reminded me that we had passed an unusually-high number of closed storefronts (and low-quality businesses) on the main street. But that street also had some of the busiest traffic that we’ve seen in a town of this size. So while both things are signals of disease, they’re also signs that the town is still capable of fighting that disease, and at least this fly-by tourist would say that it’s premature to call it “dying”. To me it was in a far better place than many US Midwestern farm towns. Especially if businesses like the Left Bank Hotel can stay afloat and help steer the town back on course.

So to me the local/national reputation of Kaikohe mostly reveals what a sheltered, charmed life this island nation in a far corner of the world leads, where this perfectly-fine town (if it was in many other places in the world) stands out enough against New Zealand’s background of peace and prosperity to become national news.


Last Updated:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *