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.