Notes from the North Island
There’s nothing worse than arriving late at your night’s accommodation to discover you are locked out. I reached my hostel in Ponsonby, Auckland an hour later than I’d expected, at nearly midnight and the place was fairly dark and closed up. Thankfully someone inside responded to my banging on the window and let me in the building, but then I still had no access to my bed. The manager had left for the night, and there was much phoning around and waiting before finally, someone got back to me, and I was given the code access to retrieve my key and reach my bed.
My first day in Auckland, and in New Zealand, and it was raining. The sky was grey, and I spent the day wandering around the city’s streets, getting my bearings in the incessant drizzle. It is a weather pattern that I have come to associate with Auckland – despite multiple trips here since, I seem to be cursed with the weather. After a month living on island time, Auckland seemed in a constant rush, and it took a bit of readjustment to return to the status of being a nobody in a big city. The lousy weather put a general damper on my spirits those first few days, and I really didn’t think much of the city at all. Over a year later, and I now love Auckland and look forward to those occasional visits that I make to the city. I love the sea, and am happy anytime I can wander along the shoreline and listen to the waves, the seabirds, and watch boats coming and going.
After a couple of days of bored wanderings in the rain, the sky finally started to clear a little, and after a wander around the Silo park by the waterfront, I headed up the Sky Tower for a panoramic view of the city. For the first time, I could appreciate the layout of the city, seeing the City of Sails in all it’s (albeit overcast) glory, with Rangitoto Island guarding the harbour entrance in the Hauraki Gulf. It was easy to pass the time till sunset, watching the city light up in a sea of golden lights. Rangitoto Island is one of many volcanoes in the region (Mt Eden and One Tree Hill being two others), and the most recent to erupt. Walking around the island, which is reachable by ferry from Auckland, is like tramping across a newly-cooled volcano, with large flows of scoria sweeping across the landscape with very little vegetation growing through. The highlight of visiting Rangitoto, aside from walking up to the crater rim, is walking through some lava tubes, 1 of which is high enough to stand up in.
Across the harbour is Devonport which is worth the short ferry ride to get away from the crowds of the city. Hiking over to North Head and Mt Victoria gives a great view of the city skyline, and I spent an afternoon wandering around some old barracks, and hiking through some underground tunnels in between more rain showers. After a gentle stroll along the gorgeous beach on the north side of the isthmus, there was time for a refreshing beer in a quaint little bar in the suburb, before catching the ferry back to the city.
The best thing about Kelly Tarlton’s Sealife Aquarium is the free shuttle bus. Out of nowhere in the downtown traffic comes a large shark on wheels to gobble you up and spit you out at the aquarium along Tamaki Drive. Like my home country’s most famous aquarium, Deep Sea World in Edinburgh, it is best enjoyed as a child. I am fascinated by marine life, and I remember loving Deep Sea World as a child, but somehow as an adult, these places fail to impress me. Part of it may be perspective: I remember Deep Sea World feeling huge and immense, but as with Kelly Tarlton, it doesn’t take long to go round all the exhibits, and the penguin enclosure was disappointing with it’s hurried ride in the Hagglund cabin, not to mention the poor view if sitting on the left side. Thankfully, this has been more recently altered to allow a walk-through of the enclosure instead which I’m sure makes this exhibit much better.
On my first trip out of Auckland since arriving in the country, I headed out to sea to an island where most Kiwi’s have never been: Great Barrier Island. On the outer edge of the Hauraki Gulf, is a place of paradise and tranquility. The ferry ride over was bliss in the sunshine, and I was kept company by an Aucklander who regularly came out for a fishing trip with some old friends, and we chatted the hours away. We stopped first at Port Fitzroy to the north, and then followed the coastline south to Shoal Bay. I was surprised by the size of the mountains, and the land was thick with lush vegetation. On the trip down, a pod of Bottlenose dolphins played beside the boat, breaching and entertaining us with their antics. I’ve seen this species of dolphin in both Scotland and South Africa, and I don’t remember them being as large as these individuals were.
I had planned on dumping most of my stuff at the left luggage at the harbour in Auckland, but due to a mis-timing with the bus, I had arrived at the ferry with just 2 minutes to spare, and ended up having to lug my 17kg rucksack with me. I was exhausted and sweaty by the time I hit the main road, so I was very grateful to bump into Buddy on his quad bike who lived on site at the hostel I had booked, and he drove me the rest of the way there. Unfortunately, the weight of my backpack on my back pulled me backwards off the quad, and I spent the last few metres gripping onto the quad with my legs, hanging horizontal off the back of the quad with my backpack dragging along the ground. Thankfully my new friend was a true gentleman and managed to contain his laughter quite well.
The location of the Stray Possum Lodge couldn’t have been better – it was nestled in a thick forest of tree ferns and nikau palms, and when I stood on the balcony, I was surrounded by the thrum of cicadas, and the call of kakas flying through the trees. Behind the hostel was a private path through the forest to a walking track which led to several secluded bays with aquamarine-coloured water. I lingered at 1 of these for a while, soaking up the solitude, before following the coastline north to Tryphena where I had a tasty dinner at an Irish restaurant. I stayed here too late, and the darkness swept me up as I headed home. I was grateful for the lift offered by one of the locals, and was entertained by a drunk passenger who spent most of the 10 minute drive swearing and slurring.
The following day, I trekked back to Tryphena for breakfast and followed the road over the mountain pass to Medlands beach. The east coast of Great Barrier Island is all about surfing, and I could see from the summit why this was the case – the waves pounded into the shore from the Pacific, driven inland by the curvature of the bay. I set my sights on some hot springs marked on the map further north, and continued hiking through Claris and beyond, heading along a seemingly endless road until finally I found the start of the hike. After over 4 hours walking, it was hard to hide my disappointment on reaching the hot springs to find 3 muddy pools that barely reached mid-calf in depth. But I hadn’t hiked all this way to just turn back, so I sat in the lovely warm water and contemplated the long hike home. The heavens opened and in the rain, with very sore feet, I began the long trudge home. The rain grew heavier and heavier, so I was grateful for the continued kindness of the locals, being picked up after just half an hour and returned to Medlands beach. After jumping out the car, it was less than a minute till another kind-hearted soul picked me up again and drove me over the mountain pass to Mulberry Grove. She was a lovely, chatty lady who filled me in on the goings on of the island, and it reinforced my already growing opinion about the friendliness and overall happiness of the Kiwis that I met.
The last day on Great Barrier Island was sunny, but very windy. After a hair-rising ride on a quad bike courtesy of one of the hostel workers, I spent the morning sunbathing on the beach, accidentally starting off my patchwork of lobster skin that was to develop over the coming weeks. Word reached me that the wind was putting my return sailing to Auckland in doubt, and I waited at the wharf unsure of what would happen. The waves were high, and I watched the ferry struggle to berth. Given the wind direction, the whole 2 hour ride home was a painful ride of slamming up waves and crashing down from the crest to the swell below. The staff struggled to see to the many people succumbing to sea sickness, and we were all confined to our seats, the lurching and slamming making walking around too dangerous. In the darkness we finally entered protected waters with the Coromandel coast offering some shelter, and we limped into Auckland in the dead of night.
Waiheke Island is a much more developed and populous island than Great Barrier. Popular as the weekend playground of Aucklanders, it is a hilly island, something which I hadn’t fully considered when I hired a mountain bike and set off on a trip of discovery. The bounty for slogging up the hills was the view over the coastline, looking down on some beautiful sandy beaches, and enjoying the fast descent down winding roads. From Oneroa to Onetangi and beyond, I soon realised how unfit I was on a bike. It had been over a year since last I had ridden one, and my muscles just weren’t up for it at all. On my second day of biking round the island, I had to give up and head home, after maintaining a poor average speed. Stopping in a nature reserve on route, I took a break from the bike for what I thought would be a 45min stroll. Instead, 2hrs later after discovering part of the track was closed, and having to take a detour, I doggedly climbed back onto the saddle. The delight at the hostel was a swimming pool to take a dip in on my return. Barely warm, it helped ease my muscles and sore feet after all the days of hiking and biking.
The Coast-to-Coast walk is a 16km (one-way) walk spanning the city from the Manukau harbour to the Waitemata harbour. It is an excellent day walk to meander through several suburbs of the city, joining up several of the city’s landmarks. Starting at the city Viaduct, I headed south through the city streets, past the university, and through the Domain towards Mt Eden, an extinct volcano. The crater rim was crammed with tourists on such a gorgeous hot day, and I bumped into some fellow Scots at the summit. The view back towards a now very familiar skyline was beautiful. It was a sweaty trek further south to One Tree Hill where I enjoyed a well-earned lunch break, and then a further slog up yet another extinct volcano before continuing through the outer suburbs to the end of the walk. After 5hrs walking, I opted to skip the bus ride home, and headed back the same route towards Ponsonby. My reward for all my exercise was a massive blister and a painfully cracked heel.
I bought a pass on the Stray bus network as a means of touring the North Island. Stopping for a couple of night’s in Whangerei, a place where most tourists pass through without stopping, I was rewarded with some beautiful forest walks with a stunning waterfall, and an amazing viewpoint over the city and its marina. Out of town were the amazing Abbey Caves, the poor man’s Waitomo. In the middle of nowhere are some free-to-access explore-at-your-own-risk caves. Equipped with my head torch, I ventured in for my first experience of glow-worms, following the stream through one of the caves, then sitting in the darkness surrounded by tiny blue lights. One of the caves also had a little cave lobster swimming around in the cave pool, which appeared out of nowhere in a fast dart when I put my foot in the water, giving me a fright.
North of Whangerei is a bird rescue centre where I met my first kiwi bird. The man that ran it was so passionate about his work, and the kiwi so used to people that we all got a chance to stroke it and feel its soft feathers. The drive north to Paihia at the Bay of Islands followed a stunning coastline route and I was excited to arrive at one of the places I had dreamed about visiting for a long time. I had booked a day of sailing around the islands on board a yacht skippered by a Canadian. The weather was poor when we set off but quite early on we were joined by a pod of Bottlenose dolphins cavorting through the waters in our wake. We sailed amongst some of the many islands, before anchoring off Motuarohia, and then swimming ashore. By this point, the sun had broken through the rain clouds and I naively expected the sea to be warm. I got quite a shock jumping in to the freezing cold water in my bikini, so I was glad to go for a hike once ashore to build up some body heat again. The view from the lookout at the height of the island was amazing, made more dramatic by the looming dark clouds that worked their way off on the horizon. After swimming back to the boat, a few of us went snorkelling in the bay prior to enjoying a wonderful home-made lunch courtesy of Captain Mike. The ride back we took under sail, and Mike let a couple of the passengers have the wheel. Not being a sailor, and having never been on a yacht before, I was rather unnerved by the extreme lean of the boat at times. There was more than 1 occasion when my feet came awfully close to getting a soaking, and I worried about capsizing, but Mike kept things under control, and we arrived back in Paihia in the late afternoon sunshine.
Cape Reinga marks the most northern point of New Zealand, and just like the Bay of Islands, it was a place that I had been keen to visit for a long time. Setting off on a coach tour from Paihia, we stopped briefly at Doubtless Bay, another bay of immense beauty further north, before visiting a Gumdigger’s Park to visit an exceedingly old tree. I would have happily skipped this for the sake of more time at the Cape, but as it was, we got an hour there, which was not long enough. There was a multitude of coastal walks that I would have loved to do, and I could have easily sat on the cliffs, staring out at the gorgeous scenery for hours, but alas, I felt rushed to make it back to the bus in time for its departure. We headed south on the western coast of the Cape this time, and headed onto one of the entrance ways for 90-mile beach (which is actually only 55 miles long). Parking up next to a giant sand dune, we hiked up in the hot sunshine to the dune summit, then proceeded to ride a sand board back to the bottom. It was so much fun, that I slogged up that dune a further 2 times to enjoy the ride back down again. After a drive down the seemingly endless beach, we headed to Mangonui for what is supposed to be New Zealand’s best fish and chips. Coming from the land of deep-fried food, I was rather disappointed. Give me Scottish fish & chips any day!
Around the bay from Paihia is Waitangi where the historical Treaty of Waitangi was signed. The view from the grounds back across the bay was beautiful, but my main purpose for heading this way was to hike to Haruru Falls. I had been told that the hike was better than the Falls themselves, so after over an hour hiking along the river’s edge through bushland, I was gleefully surprised to happen upon a beautiful wide waterfall. It was a popular spot, and I sat for a while enjoying the noise and the sight. One of the things I love about travelling, aside from exploring new places, is the random conversations that can be had with complete strangers. This was one such occasion where my daydreams were interrupted by a fellow backpacker who just so happened to be staying at the same hostel. As a solo traveller, I enjoy my own company immensely, but it can be lonely at times, so the company of a fellow traveller is always appreciated.
Another day of cruising the bay followed, this time on a catamaran, and straight away we came across some Bottlenose dolphins. Heading out towards the edge of the Bay of Islands, we sailed to, and then through, the ‘Hole in the Rock’ at Cape Brett. From there, I disembarked on the stunning Urupakapaka island for a day of exploring. Whilst hiking the coastal route on such a gloriously sunny day, admiring a 360 degree vista of utter beauty, I became convinced fully of my need and want to stay in New Zealand permanently. What had originally been planned as a 1-year adventure, was now, I was sure, going to be a permanent move to the Southern Hemisphere. Life couldn’t get any better than this day. There was not a single piece of this island that was not beautiful, and no matter which direction I looked or how far round the coast I hiked, I could see blue-green sea, green bushes, and sandy beaches, all gleaming under the sunlight from a cloudless sky. Catching the last ferry back to Paihia, we happened upon more Bottlenose dolphins, and I was daydreaming to myself about how perfect a day it was, when rounding the headland into Paihia I saw thick black smoke billowing from the street where my hostel was. A feeling of dread took over me as I impatiently waited to dock, then disembark. For the whole walk home, it appeared the smoke was coming from the hostel, but on entering the street, it was soon evident that it wasn’t. The house across the road was engulfed in flames, and an explosion within made the fire worse. It was a sadly public moment of grief for the home owners who ran up to the house right at the point of explosion, having been out for the day.
It had been an incredible trip so far around the Hauraki Gulf and Northland, but my New Zealand journey was just getting started…