Auckland’s greatest asset is the island-studded Hauraki Gulf, a 70km-square patch of ocean to the northeast of the city. In Maori, Hauraki means “wind from the north” – though the gulf is somewhat sheltered from the prevailing winds and ocean swells by Great Barrier Island, creating benign conditions for Auckland’s legions of yachties. Most just sail or fish, but those who wish to strike land can visit some of the 47 islands, administered by the Department of Conservation, designated either for recreational use with full access, or as sanctuaries for endangered wildlife, requiring permits.
Auckland’s nearest island neighbour is Rangitoto, a flat cone of gnarled and twisted lava that dominates the harbourscape. The most populous of the gulf islands is Waiheke, increasingly a commuter suburb of Auckland, with sandy beaches and some quality wineries. Wine was definitely verboten at nearby Rotoroa Island, once a Salvation Army de-tox centre and now open for day visits.
Waiheke’s sophistication is a far cry from laidback Great Barrier Island, the largest hereabouts, with its sandy surf beaches, hilly tramping tracks and exceptional fishing. The Department of Conservation’s policy of allowing access to wildlife sanctuaries is wonderfully demonstrated at Tiritiri Matangi, where a day-trip gives visitors an unsurpassed opportunity to see some of the world’s rarest birds.Read More
Rangitoto and Motutapu islands
Rangitoto and Motutapu islands
The low, conical shape of Rangitoto, 10km northeast of the city centre, is a familiar sight to every Aucklander. Yet few set foot on the island, missing out on a freakish land of fractured black lava with the world’s largest pohutukawa forest clinging precariously to its crevices. Alongside lies the older, and geologically quite distinct, island of Motutapu or “sacred island”, linked to Rangitoto by a narrow causeway.
A day-trip is enough to get a feel for Rangitoto, make the obligatory hike to the summit (from where there are magnificent views of the city and Hauraki Gulf) and tackle a few trails, but longer stays are possible if you pitch your tent at the primitive campsite at Home Bay on Motutapu.
Rangitoto is Auckland’s youngest and largest volcano. Molten magma probably pushed its way through the bed of the Hauraki Gulf around six hundred years ago – watched by Motutapu Maori, who apparently called the island “blood red sky” after the spectacle that accompanied its creation.
The government purchased Rangitoto for £15 in 1854, putting it to use as a military lookout point and a work camp for prisoners. From the 1890s, areas were leased for camping and unauthorized baches were cobbled together on the sites. Over 100 baches had sprouted by the late 1930s when legislation stopped any new construction. In recent years, the cultural value of this unique set of 1920s and 1930s houses has been appreciated and the finest examples of the remaining 34 are being preserved for posterity, their corrugated-iron chimneys and cast-off veranda-railing fenceposts capturing the Kiwi make-do spirit.
Great Barrier Island
Great Barrier Island
Rugged and sparsely populated, Great Barrier Island (Aotea) lies 90km northeast of Auckland on the outer fringes of the Hauraki Gulf and, though only 30km long and 15km wide, packs in a mountainous heart which drops away to deep indented harbours in the west and eases gently to golden surf beaches in the east. It’s only a half-hour flight from the city but exudes a tranquillity and detachment that makes it seem a world apart. There is no mains electricity or water, no industry, no towns to speak of and limited public transport.
Much of the pleasure here is in lazing on the beaches, ambling to the hot spings and striking out on foot into the Great Barrier Forest, a rugged chunk of bush and kauri-logging relics between Port Fitzroy and Whangaparapara that takes up about a third of the island. The forest is New Zealand’s largest stand of deer- and possum-free bush, offering a unique walking environment. Because the area is so compact, in no time at all you can find yourself climbing in and out of little subtropical gullies luxuriant with nikau palms, tree ferns, regenerating rimu and kauri, and onto scrubby manuka ridges with stunning coastal and mountain views. Many of the tracks follow the routes of mining tramways past old kauri dams. Tracks in the centre of the island converge on 621m Hirakimata (Mount Hobson), which is surrounded by boardwalks and wooden steps designed to keep trampers on the path and prevent the disturbance of nesting black petrels. If you’re looking for more structure to your day, a few small-time tour and activity operators can keep you entertained (see Kaiaraara kauri dam).
The vast majority of visitors arrive from Auckland between Boxing Day and the middle of January, many piling in for the New Year’s Eve party at the sports club at Crossroads. The rest of the year is pretty quiet.
Great Barrier is formed from the same line of extinct volcanoes as the Coromandel Peninsula and shares a common geological and human past. Aotea was one of the places first populated by Maori, and the Ngatiwai and Ngatimaru people occupied numerous pa sites when Cook sailed by in 1769. Recognizing the calming influence of Aotea on the waters of the Hauraki Gulf, Cook renamed it Great Barrier Island. From 1791, the island’s vast stands of kauri were seized for ships’ timbers, and kauri logging didn’t cease until 1942, outliving some early copper mining at Miners Head and sporadic attempts to extract gold and silver. Kauri logging and gum digging were replaced by a short-lived whale-oil extraction industry at Whangaparapara in the 1950s, but the Barrier soon fell back on tilling the poor clay soils and its peak population of over 5000 dropped to around 1000.
A visit to Tiritiri Matangi is the high point of many a stay in Auckland. About 4km off the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula and 30km north of Auckland, Tiritiri Matangi is an “open sanctuary”, and visitors are free to roam through the predator-free bush where, within a couple of hours, it’s possible to see rarities such as takahe, saddlebacks, whiteheads, red-crowned parakeets, North Island robins, kokako and brown teals. To stand a chance of seeing the little-spotted kiwi and tuatara, you’ll have to stay overnight.
Four of the species released here are among the rarest in the world, with total populations of around a couple of hundred. The most visible are the flightless takahe, lumbering blue-green turkey-sized birds long thought to be extinct (see Te Anau Wildlife Centre); the birds were moved here from Fiordland, have bred well and are easily spotted as they are unafraid of humans and very inquisitive. Saddlebacks, kokako and stitchbirds stick to the bush and its margins, but often pop out if you sit quietly for a few moments on some of the bush boardwalks and paths near feeding stations. Northern blue penguins also frequent Tiritiri and can be seen all year round but are most in evidence in March, when they come ashore to moult, and from September to December, when they nest in specially constructed viewing boxes located along the seashore path west of the main wharf.
The standard loop along the east coast then back via the central Ridge Track passes Hobbs Beach, where you might want to indulge in a little swimming from the only sandy strand around.
Evidence from pa sites on the island indicates that Tiritiri Matangi was first populated by the Kawerau-A-Maki Maori and later by Ngati Paoa, both of whom are now recognized as the land’s traditional owners. They partly cleared the island of bush, a process continued by Europeans who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century to graze sheep and cattle. Fortunately, predators such as possums, stoats, weasels, deer, cats, wallabies and the like failed to get a foothold, so after farming became uneconomic in the early 1970s Tiritiri was singled out as a prime site for helping to restore bird populations. The cacophony of birdsong in the bush is stark evidence of just how catastrophic the impact of these predators has been elsewhere.
Since 1984, a reforestation programme has seen the planting of over 300,000 saplings, and though the rapidly regenerating bush is far from mature, the birds seem to like it. Most are thriving with the aid of feeding stations to supplement diets in the leaner months, with nesting boxes standing in for decaying trees.