Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf
Feeling sick has to have its perks. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself after wasting the whole weekend lying on the couch at home with a virus. Due to a mix of life, travel and mental health lows, keeping up with my blog has been very hit and miss this past year, and as such, I’m a whole year behind in recounting my travels. So I might as well take the opportunity that the virus has provided me, to try and catch up.
I had the luxury of having my birthday off work for several years in a row, so when last March I worked on my birthday for the first time in a while, I decided to try and get a weekend away to make up for it, booking flights to Auckland and a trip to do something I’d wanted to do for some time. My partner had been up to Auckland two months prior for a family event so I was supposed to be heading up on my own, but after he decided later on that he’d join me, we found ourselves at Christchurch airport booked on two separate flights with two different airlines. We effectively raced each other up the country. My flight was scheduled first but was delayed causing a bit of jovial banter between the two of us. In the end though, it didn’t matter. We made it to Auckland well enough and were met at the airport by my partner’s friend who drove us into the city.
It was a scorching sunny day in the City of Sails, and New Zealand’s largest city was living up to its name that weekend as the Volvo Ocean Race, the World’s biggest ocean race was currently taking place in the city. It brought back memories of my time in Cape Town in 2005 when the race had stopped by there, and the vibe around the harbour front was incredible. The race itself was on a break the day we arrived, but there was plenty of action on shore with the teams milling with the sponsors, drinks flowing and exhibits for city goers to have a look at. This event oozes money, and it was very clear to see this walking around, but it was still really interesting, and even without the event running, I just love the views of the Auckland skyline with the sails in front of it.
We spent the morning walking around the Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter where we grabbed some food at one of the pop-up venues that had been erected. I had been living with anxiety by this point for nearly 2 years and a message from work put an end to my buzz. For all that social media can do to suggest that people are constantly on a travelling high, I’ve had several trips away tarnished by having to fight through some rather low bouts of mental health. My partner and his friend did their best to buoy me up, and thankfully there was plenty going on to distract me and pull my mind away from my thoughts. Before heading into the city to check into our hotel we managed to squeeze in amongst the crowds to see some boats take off on a race around the harbour. Beyond that we had an evening planned out at Western Springs for the Speedway, an event which I’ve been to a few times with my partner and his friend. It’s a fun night out with a variety of race styles and good family entertainment. Sadly, at the time of writing, Auckland City Council has very recently made the Speedway homeless, and its future in the city is unknown.
I had an early rise the next morning to head off for the trip that was my whole reason for coming up. My partner was to spend the day hanging out with his friend, but I headed down to the ferry terminal to catch the Fullers ferry out into the Hauraki Gulf. One of my favourite things about the region is the myriad of offshore islands that can be visited, offering anything from wineries and swimming to camping and volcanoes. In the first few weeks of my time in New Zealand, I explored the wilderness of Great Barrier Island (to this day, still one of my favourite parts of the country), cycled around the popular Waiheke Island, and explored the volcanic landscape of Rangitoto Island. This time I was headed to Tiritiri Matangi Island, one of the country’s pest-free islands that is open to visitors. Like Ulva Island in Southland that I’d visited the month before, Tiritiri Matangi is promoted as a bird-lovers’ paradise, and being a bit of a closet birder, I was keen to get out there and see what was on offer.
As always, getting out on the water in Auckland is a delight, seeing the city skyline from an alternate viewpoint as well as getting amongst the myriad of boat traffic that plies the busy waterway. Leaving the city behind, we passed Devonport then Rangitoto and headed up to Gulf Harbour where we collected more passengers. From there, it was just a short hop across to the island itself. I’d left the city in sunshine and unfortunately arrived in a bit of a haze. Being a Sunday, the boat was also very full and as we all disembarked, I was keen to get moving and leave the crowds behind, but the rangers stopped us at the wharf to give us a briefing on how to conduct ourselves on the island, taking up a bit too much of the precious time that we had before the sailing home.
From the wharf, there were several routes to choose from: a direct road to the lighthouse to the south, a meandering route along the headland to the same destination, or a beach walk to the north. This meant that there was at least a bit of immediate dispersal of the large amount of people that had arrived on the boat, and it was possible to start seeing some wildlife quite early on. I took the Wattle Track, the non-direct route to the lighthouse, and straight away saw some Hihi, or Stitchbirds, and some large Weta, a rather incredible insect that is endemic to New Zealand. Although we’d sailed a good bit away from Downtown Auckland, it was still possible to see the distinctive Sky Tower in the hazy distance, and the volcanic dome of Rangitoto Island stood off to my right.
I detoured just before the lighthouse to follow the Ridge Track to the nearest high point to survey my surroundings. I spotted a Sacred Kingfisher on a flax bush, a shy bird that I’ve found difficult to photograph in the past, and I could see across to the dramatic cliff face of Gulf Harbour. The island’s visitor centre is next to the lighthouse, and here was the busiest place I came across on the whole island. I didn’t hang around long, passing it by to skirt behind it to the lighthouse itself. Although it’s not open to the public, it has a commanding presence on the headland and the lawn around it was filled with a mix of people and birds.
Round the corner was a house used by staff that had a glorious viewpoint out over the ocean, and from here the east coast track took a northerly route. This track was glorious. Leaving the lighthouse behind, it stuck to the cliff top and skirted round the various coves as it went, losing and gaining altitude as it needed to, and providing a fantastic and near constant view of the rocky coastline and the pounding waves below. There were various viewpoints on route and I caught glimpses of pied shags in the trees and got close ups of the melodic birds that live in the New Zealand bush, such as the tui, one of my favourite birds to hear whilst out hiking. Tui are present in pockets of the South Island, but aren’t common around Christchurch where I live, so it’s always a novelty to see and hear them when I’m somewhere away from home. I’m yet to capture a photograph of them that truly displays their shining feather colour, but I did finally manage to get one that showed off their pretty ‘bow-tie’ feathers.
On the headland before Pohutakawa Cove I spotted another Sacred Kingfisher, and beyond here, I took the option to skirt round a couple of lakes that created a small wetland. It was peaceful here with surprisingly little visible life compared to other parts of the island, but it did provide a bit of shade. There may have been some wispy high cloud and haze but it was hot and there hadn’t been much in the way of shelter from the strong sun overhead. Just beyond here the path came to its end at the most northern end of the island, and then it was time to work my way back to the pier via the west coast.
As I followed the Ngati Paoa track to the Ridge road, I was in a little bit of a reverie when I was startled by the movement of two grey birds in the bush to my left. It was a fleeting glance that was over before I knew it, but I was excited to realise that what I’d just seen was the North Island Kokako. This bird is really rare to see in the wild, and its South Island variant is thought to be extinct. That being said, suspected sightings in the not-too-distant past have resulted in a $10,000 reward being issued to anyway who can provide verifiable proof of the South Island bird’s existence.
I was only on the Ridge road for a brief while before I cut down to the Tiritiri Matangi Pa where I once again had a view across to Gulf Harbour. I took a bush walk round the Totara track where I found a quail with her chicks, and then followed the Kawarau Track through thick bush past the loud North Island Saddleback, and down a steep decline to reach Hobbs beach. The clouds had moved in by now turning the water a cold shade of grey, and here I found a lot of the people that I’d come over with, who were lounging on the beach with their picnics whilst their kids played around the rock pools and the shallows.
As I meandered along the Hobbs Beach Track towards the wharf, the other visitors began to gather up their gear and join me on the meander back. I could watch the Fullers ferry draw in from afar as we plodded our way to meet it. There wasn’t an immediate need to board, so as the crowds gradually materialised from the various paths to congregate at the pier, I cut back up the road a little and found myself face to face with pukekos, dust-bathing sparrows, a lone kakariki and more quail. When I returned to the pier, the ferry was well through the process of boarding, and I frog-marched down the pier to head on board. I left the island very satisfied with the chilled-out day that I’d been much in need of, and a multitude of endemic birds spotted.
It was just a quick jump across the gap to Gulf Harbour where I disembarked. A large marina here seems to scream about the riches that live around here, but it was a more convenient location than downtown to meet up with a friend that lives away from the city. When we eventually reached her place I was quite jealous of the bird song that serenaded her back garden, and after tea and a catch up, she ran me to Albany where I met up with my partner and his friend for a belated birthday dinner at a much loved Mexican-themed restaurant. By the time we were heading back into the city, the light was dulling and we crossed the Auckland Harbour bridge as the city lights came on.
As I like to make the most of my weekends away and as I had been originally coming solo, my return flight wasn’t until late in the evening on the Monday. My partner would have preferred to return earlier, and when we woke to torrential rain that continued for the entire day, I was a little deflated to see that on this occasion, he would have been right. As it was, we hid out in shops and then at the cinema, trying to kill time before grabbing our stuff and heading out to the airport. It was a shame to lose the benefit of the third day, but I returned home satisfied. I always try to do something new whenever I return to Auckland, and bagging Tiritiri Matangi had been just the ticket.