Camping on the DOC of the bay

By: Heather Whelan, Photography by: Heather Whelan


Looking for a DOC campground by the beach in Northland? From Tāpotupotu Bay in the Far North to Uretiti, south of Whāngārei, Heather Whelan finds the best spots.

New Zealanders are fortunate in that they can visit and stay in beautiful parts of the country run by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

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Northland has possibly more than its fair share of DOC campgrounds in pretty bays and beside gorgeous beaches. Most are accessible to motorhomes and are an excellent base for outdoor activities, or just chilling out and relaxing.

Away from it all in the Far North

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Tāpotupotu Bay

When my partner Malcolm and I visited Tāpotupotu Bay, DOC’s most northerly campground, we loved the sense of being so far from the hustle and bustle of town and city life. Although it was close to Cape Reinga, where tourists thronged, Tāpotupotu Bay was quiet.

While day visitors might come and go, it was only those campers who, like us, enjoyed the remoteness of the site and the pristine natural beauty of the area who stayed overnight or for longer. We parked on the grass beside the beach and drank in the scene - sandy beach, sparkling water, a shallow lagoon, and bush-clad headlands standing guardian at either end of the bay.

The location is popular with those who like boating, fishing and diving. There was enough swell for a group of young campers to enjoy some surfing. I decided to swim in the more protected water behind the dunes, where the stream widened to become a lagoon.

For us, one of the attractions of Tāpotupotu Bay was that it was right on the Te Paki Coastal Track. One morning we walked part of the track, which took us along cliff tops to Sandy Bay and up to Cape Reinga. The views along the coast were stunning, and Cape Reinga had a spiritual quality.

We stood watching the rippling line of foamy surf where the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea met and mingled. Nearby, an ancient pōhutukawa clinging to a headland marked the place where the spirits of the dead are thought to enter the underworld.

Birdwatchers’ paradise

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Rarawa Beach

Another remote Far North DOC campsite worth a visit is Rarawa Beach. It is a short walk from the campground to the beach, past a stand of pine trees and along a sandy track through the dunes. The dunes are home to dotterels and variable oystercatchers during their breeding season (August to March), so it is important to look out for their nests and to give the birds a wide berth.

The dazzling white sand of Rawara Beach seems to stretch forever. We explored the stream mouth and fossicked along the high-tide line. The beach is popular with swimmers, though rips can form, and those who are not confident may prefer to take a dip in the lagoon that forms at the stream mouth. Fishermen surf-cast at low tide, while small boats and kayaks can be launched from the beach.

Bushwalks and fishing galore

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Puriri Bay campsite

A little further off the beaten track (and don’t let the name 'Bland Bay' put you off), the Puriri Bay (Whangaruru North Head) DOC campground is a gem. Nestling beneath bush-clad hills and with views across the Whangaruru Harbour, the area is anything but bland. On a particularly hot day, it was wonderful to head into the cool of the bush above the camp and walk one of North Head’s tracks.

The path meanders uphill and along the cliffs on the seaward side of the peninsula that separates Whangaruru Harbour from Bland Bay and the ocean beyond. After dropping down to some secluded bays, the path turns inland, and we made our way over a boardwalk through reedy wetlands.

Then it was back through more forest before we found ourselves looking down on Admirals Bay, a pretty beach on the harbour. From here, it was a wander through farmland and back to Puriri Bay. The camp is a great place for fishermen - we were impressed to see a kayaker load a huge snapper into his chilly bin. The water was calm and great for swimming. And at night kiwi could be heard in the bush. Not so much bland as blissful.

Lots to do in the Waipū area

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Fun at Piroa Falls

For a change from these remote beaches, we spent some time with friends at Uretiti Beach. This is a popular campground, among trees and dunes, about 30km south of Whāngārei and close to the little town of Waipū.

Some campers choose Uretiti because to the south of the camp is a naturist beach, although there is plenty of space to the north for those not looking to get an all-over tan. Waipū has shops, cafés and a museum that tells the story of the Scottish settlers who made the area their home. Inland are the Waipū Caves and a popular swimming spot at Piroa Falls.

Plenty more to explore

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Mimiwhangata

There are several other DOC campgrounds in Northland that have beautiful beaches, great swimming and pretty bushwalks. We have enjoyed spending time at Maitai Bay and Otamure Bay at Whananaki. All campgrounds have vehicle access for motorhomes, and the DOC/NZ Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA) campsite pass can be used except in midsummer (December 20 to Waitangi weekend). Mimiwhangata Coastal Park, about an hour's drive from Whāngārei, is another

place we love to visit - but by car, as the road is windy, steep and unsealed. The campground here isn’t accessible to vehicles; campers have to carry gear over the hill from the car park. But, for a day trip, Mimiwhangata has it all – beautiful sandy beaches, bush walks and a longer loop track around the headland. Last time we were there, the pōhutukawa trees were in fiery flower - a picnic lunch in a perfect spot, courtesy of DOC Northland. 

Find out more

  • The DOC website has full information on its campgrounds, including details about access, facilities and costs, doc.govt.nz
  • The CamperMate mobile phone app and the NZMCA travel app also provide helpful information.
  • DOC has two types of pass worth investigating — the campsite pass for rental campervans and the DOC/NZMCA pass (details on the NZMCA website, nzmca.org.nz).

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