Stadium: Northland Events Centre
Location: Okara Drive, less than two-kilometres from the central city
Tonga v Canada, Wednesday September 14
Tonga v Japan, Wednesday September 21
If the name Northland Events Centre doesn’t ring any bells, it’s probably because most rugby folk know it as Okara Park. Situated in Whangarei, the northernmost city in New Zealand, the stadium underwent a major upgrade ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. When the dust eventually settled and the cranes were taken off, a shiny new multi-purpose venue that caters for conferences, dinners, weddings, festivals, concerts and sports events appeared on the other side.
Okara Park, sorry Northland Events Centre, is the home of the Northland Rugby Union. Although the stadium is yet to host the All Blacks in an official Test, international sides like the British and Irish Lions, and Tonga, Samoa and Fiji have all played there in tour matches. The ground hosted the New Zealand Maori team’s 66-7 win over Tonga in 1998.
Although the official capacity is listed as 18,000, about 40,000 people packed the stadium in 1979 to watch North Auckland defend their Ranfurly Shield against Auckland.
The rest of the city:
Whangarei is situated in New Zealand’s Northland Region and is a subtropical city with air temperatures ranging from 12 to 17°C during the winter. Northland is considered the ‘Birthplace’ of Aotearoa (New Zealand) by many. Some of the oldest traces of Maori fishing villages can be found in the region. Northland wasn’t just a first for the Maoris as Captain James Cook - yes, THE James Cook - and his Endeavour crew were the first Europeans to contemplate the Harbour entrance in 1769. Less than a century later, several European started to settle in the region.
Whangarei district has a population of just under 80,000 people, but that figure swells to roughly 155,000 for the whole Northland region. Whangarei is the largest urban centre in Northland and is considered the commercial hub for the region.
With the Bay of Islands and historic town of Kerikeri right on the door step, it’s easy to see why it’s a tourist hotspot. When you add the more than 100 bays and beaches and over 200km of coastline, it turns into an aquatic playground.
Fun things to do and see:
On the one hand you have Mount Parahaka - an eroded volcanic cone rising above the city - and on the other hand you have some spectacular beaches. Tackle Mount Parahaka - all 241m of it - via hiking trail or car for some spectacular views of the city centre and harbour. There’s also Whangarei Falls with the Hatea River dropping 26 metres over a basalt lava flow. If nature is your thing and you love listening to the sound of water just before you go to sleep, then there’s a holiday park for campers and backpackers just two minutes away from the Whangarei Falls. The Whangarei Museum/Northland Regional Museum, Claphams Clock Museum and Poor Knights Islands - a favourite with divers - are also popular with the tourists.
Where to quench your thirst and fill your belly:
McMorrissey’s Irish Pub & Eatery in the central city claims to be “the best little pub in Whangarei”. A Lonely Planet review describes it as “a better-than-average Irish pub with cosy old-world decor and live music”. Tourists often frequent the place and there’s something on just about every night. Whether you’re into traditional Irish music, easy listening acoustic or rock, they’ll have something that floats your boat. Don’t forget their famous quiz night on the first Thursday of every month. If you know your stuff, then you could walk away with $100. Oh, and there’s some “delicious pub grub” and “bevies” of course.
Getting there and around:
Whangarei is 160km north of Auckland and it will take you about two hours to get there via the State Highway 1. The drive won’t be too unpleasant as the views are spectacular. If you are travelling via plane then you’ll have to make use of Whangarei Airport, which caters for domestic travelling from Auckland and Wellington. The airport is a 10 minute drive from the city centre.
Once you have hit the centre Whangarei city centre, it will take you roughly 15 minutes to get to the Northland Events Centre by foot. If you’re too lazy to walk and prefer to drive or take the Route 1 bus, then it will take about half that time.