Mangawhai Cliffs Walkway, Mangawhai- Northland

We all know that the best laid plans of mice and men go awry. A fact of life it seems. So after meticulously planning a weekend of hiking on the foot-hills of the Southern Alps, it shouldn’t have come as surprise to me to see the departure board at Auckland airport display the word cancelled next to my flight to Christchurch. Not that I’m complaining, I’ve caught endless amounts of flights and this is the first time I’ve had a cancellation. A good ratio, really. I was due a cancellation. It doesn’t stop the urge to get outside though, and with my heart set on getting into the hills, I had to come up with an alternative as to not waste that most precious of things, two days off.

So, I would be looking for a walk to do nearer to home. Something that meant I wouldn’t waste my weekend driving, but wouldn’t be a disappointing alternative to the drama of the South Island. In the end, I decided on a walk that I’d wanted to do for a little while. Not a mountain ascent with snow dusted peaks, but a completely different type of walk altogether.

Elishea and I would head to Mangawhai Heads. I knew of a popular walking track there that would head along cliffs and back along the beach. Nothing like what I thought my weekend’s walking would be like, but not necessarily a bad thing. Coastal walks, just like tramps in the hills, provide the platform to observe nature on a grand scale.

We parked at the Surf Club near the foot of the walk. Straight after getting out of the car, it was clearly a good decision to have come. The ocean and beaches along this coast are stunning. Soft and golden sand with a more tropical feel than the rugged wild coast to Auckland’s west.

The walk is only a 6 mile or so ramble and if you time it correctly (which we had) it means a walk along the cliff tops and a return along the shore. Soon after leaving the car park we headed for a short section along the beach before climbing a path the led up the cliff.

Ascending the cliff gave great views of the ocean to our right. The scattering of islands out to sea looking like wild out-posts and storybook treasure islands. To our left is a typical Northland scene; the terraced hillsides of luminous-green grass being munched by herds of cows.

In between these two landscapes was the habitat in which our track took us through. We walked along the cliffs in a narrow strip of bush that seems sandwiched between sea and farm. Gnarly pohutakawa trees cling to the side of the rock- some of a great size that must be ancient. Nikau palms line the sides of the track that leads along the edge of the cliffs. Every now and then, we were treated with a beautiful view of a cove way-down below. Each one empty of people and a reminder of New Zealand’s fantastic emptiness of people.

Eventually, the path began to wind steeply down to the water. Brought down to the water’s edge, we now had the pleasure of a gentle walk back along the shore. With the tide on it’s way out, this was easy enough. If you are planning to do this walk, you will need to check the tide times and make sure that you have enough time to walk along the shore without getting caught out by the incoming tide.

Luckily for us, the tide had retreated and left behind a series of rockpools and their inhabitants. Crabs scuttled under rocks as our shadows loomed over the pools. Star fish of various sizes lay at the bottom patiently waiting for the return of the tide. All of this life attracted lots of seabirds. Shags sat on the rocks looking as though they were admiring the views out to sea. White-faced herons and kingfishers stood over pools waiting for a unlucky creature to scurry within reach.

With the light gradually fading, we began the last stretch of beach at the end of our walk. As dusk developed and the shadows lengthened, the nocturnal animals began to stir. Just as I had started to day dream about seeing a kiwi plodding along the beach, there was a rustle in the bushes. Where the bushline met the sand. A brown lump. Perfectly kiwi-sized. Could it be? Of course not! If anything, it was the very enemy of the kiwi. A plump possum stood staring right at us. Mouth wide open, mid-chew, a petrified possum sculpture.

Possums are a real pest here in NZ and their introduction to Aotearoa in 1837 has been catastrophic for native wildlife. First introduced to NZ to establish a fur trade, they rapidly got out of control and are now trying to be managed with the hope of one day eradicating them. With no natural predator and an appetite for bird eggs, leaves and even native insects and invertebrates such as weta and land snails, it’s meant that possums have had little control. An alcoholic left behind the bar, if you will. Hopefully, with DoC setting the goal of being predator free by 2050, NZ will one day be free of these cuddly-looking (if not damaging) balls of very soft fur.

With the sun below the horizon, we ended our walk. A fantastic stretch of coast. Completely unique and as diverse as it gets. From the disappointment of missing out on peak-bagging in the mountains came a walk in quintessential New Zealand. I missed the chance to see rock and snow and instead got sand and water. Two different states of the same thing. This weekend reminded me of the everlong feud between North Islanders and South Islanders. Both so sure that their island is the best. The south championing it’s mountains and fiords, while the North shout of it’s volcanoes and beaches. I must say, that I completely agree with them both.

On Foot Note

  • Map Used: TopoNZ50- AY1 Mangawhai
  • This is a good opportunity to pick up a few bits of plastic you might see along the shore. We managed to grab a handful while walking along the beach. It’s easy to do and that little piece of plastic you stop and pick up might just save a seabird’s life.

Lake Wainamu, Waitakere Ranges- Auckland

I’m not a New Zealander. I’ve spent enough time here to grasp some of it’s quirks though, and having a Kiwi partner for many years has meant that I’m lucky enough to now live here and have visited multiple times in the past. I’ve seen a lot of the country and walked through spectacular scenery. One thing that never gets old for me, though, is the sheer quantity and diversity of the landscapes within this cluster of islands in the South Pacific. Nature seems to be on steroids in this part of the world. You don’t have to travel for long before you’re confronted with some sort of mountain, gorge, volcano, beach, lake, cove, glacier, fiord, hot spring or waterfall. My recent trip to a popular and relatively local walk recently reminded me of this.

Although much of the walking tracks west of Auckland are closed due to Kauri Dieback, I thought that I’d still make the most of the tracks that are still open. One such track that has remained open is Lake Wainamu. Less than 40 mins from Auckland CBD, it was an obvious choice for a relaxed day walk.

A real contrasting landscape of different textures and colours. It would be the second time I’d visited the Lake- the first time nearly 5 years ago. I remembered the expanse of black sand dunes and impressive lake, but at the time I didn’t know about the track that skirts the edge of the water. So, Elishea and I would do the route that would take us over sand dunes and around the lake’s edge.

Piwakawaka (Fantail) introducing us to the area

Parking at the car park on Bethells Road, we were pleased to see spaces and that the walk would be relatively quiet. From the car park, we followed the stream for a short while before beginning the section across the dunes.

These dunes are seriously big. Created over the last 4500 years, they have gradually hemmed in a series of lakes, of which Wainamu is one. It’s an interesting landscape that you don’t come across everyday. In the centre of these dunes you’d be excused for thinking you were in a desert. They have the rolling wave-like look of the arabian deserts in films. Although, once we made our way over the crest of a large dune, the lake came into view. The stark black sand is in complete contrast with the other sides of the water. All around the lake is a vivid green, made up of nikau palm, kanuka and manuka bushes, while the direction from which we came is void of colour.

Once we’d walked to the lake’s shore, we began the track that leads around it’s edge. It’s a nice and easy amble along a fairly well maintained path. Every now and then, glimpses of the lake are framed by foliage.

I was expecting the rest of the walk to be similar until we reached the sand dunes again. But, because this is New Zealand, the walk would have another trick up it’s sleeve. Once we arrived at the opposite end of the lake, we were greeted to a waterfall that I hadn’t clocked on the map. Waitohi falls is a series of cascades, that after much rain I can imagine are quite impressive. Our visit, being after a particularly dry spell, meant the falls were modest, yet still relaxing and a lovely quiet spot to stop for a while.

Overlooking the falls is a Maori pou- a beautifully carved post that portrays the ancestor Kowhatukiteuru. Kowhatukiteuru was a skilled pa (fort) builder, who belonged to the Te Kawerau a Maki, the iwi of this area. He built some of the last remaining examples stone pa that sit above Lake Wainamu.

We ate our lunch in the good company of Kowhatukiteuru overlooking the falls. With lighter backpacks we said farewell and continued our circumnavigation of Wainamu. More manuka and fragrant kanuka trees were lining the sides of the path back to the dunes.

Once we approached the dunes we could see them from a different angle. No longer on top of them, from this perspective, walking towards them was like heading towards a giant tsunami of sand. A wave frozen in time just before it breaks.

Back at the dunes edge, with the wall of sand towering over us, we decided to follow the river back to the car instead of heading up and over. What a good decision it was. Following the river really accentuates the contrasting colours and textures that sit side by side. The river creates the border where sand stops, and grass and trees begin. On our left, a formidable wall of sand. On our right, a small farm surrounded by bush. To the left sand. To the right green. The only thing separating them, the small river bed we walked along.

It’s not long before the river led us back to where we began our walk. A walk of contrasts, colours, history and natural beauty. A walk where elements meet and make vivid distinctions. A walk that surely could only be done in Aotearoa.

On Foot

Route

Map Used: NZTopo50-BA30 Helensville

History of the Te Kawerau a Maki Iwi

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Rotoroa Island, Hauraki Gulf

Hiding from Auckland City behind the mass of Waiheke Island is a jewel. Golden beaches, turquoise waters and emerald slopes of native plant life. Rotoroa Island is the proof that good things come in small packages.

After a scenic 75 min ferry ride from downtown Auckland, Elishea and I were at the wharf at Rotoroa Island. It was to be a day of walking, relaxing and observing wildlife. Before we could get on our way however, there was a talk to be given to all who were visiting by one of the island’s rangers. The ferry passengers all gathered in the shed at the end of the wharf to be given the lowdown by the island Ranger on what we could and couldn’t do that day. It was a short, friendly and reasonably informative chat about some of the pests that they want to keep off the pest-free island. There are a few islands in the Hauraki Gulf that are pest-free and when you visit you get asked to check bags and footwear for any unwanted hitchhikers such as mice, rats and ants. It’s easy to check, so even if you’re really sure that your stuff is pest-free, check it anyway.

Pukekos roam throughout the island

Leaving the shed, we had the entire day ahead of us. With the only ferry home leaving at 5:15pm, we had 7 hours to explore the island. With Rotoroa only covering around 82 hectares, we decided we’d walk around the whole island and try and see as many of Rotoroa’s famous residents as we could before the ferry.

Rotoroa’s chapel

As far as wildlife is concerned, Rotoroa has some of the heavyweights of New Zealand birdlife. While you’ll still find the more familiar NZ birds such as Tui, Fantail, Kingfisher and Pukeko, you also have the chance to see some rarer species- but more about them later. The island is now a sanctuary for endangered species and native NZ wildlife.

Although Rotoroa is now a paradise for tourists and birdwatchers, it hasn’t always been the case. Rotoroa has had an interesting history. The island is owned by the salvation army and was used as a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics since 1911. After nearly a hundred years the salvation army decided to move their services onto the mainland and therefore vacate the island. After the Salvation Army left, the Rotoroa Trust was established and leased the island for 99 years from the Sallies. The trust focused on making a sanctuary for wildlife and a place that would educate visitors on New Zealand’s fantastic flora and fauna.

Walking down the road from the wharf, we approached the main visitors centre. A modern structure with a small museum about the salvation army’s time on the island. It was all very interesting and well laid out. It’s also a good place to fill up water bottles and use the toilets. Around the visitors centre are also buildings that were from the rehabilitation era of the island. A chapel is perched on the hill, along with a small jailhouse and other wooden buildings. As interesting as this all is, it wasn’t the reason for visiting the island. We came to see some birds and get a decent walk.

Cheeky Wekas can be found all over the island

The great thing about the island is that it’s not a difficult place to walk. With no real hills and the fact you can’t get lost due to its size, it’s easy to follow the network of footpaths that criss cross the island using the small map available from the visitor’s centre. We decided we’d head off to explore the southern side of the island first. A good decision it seemed as we soon came across one of the reasons that we’d come to Rotoroa.

Takahe. A bird that has not only come back from the brink of extinction, but actually come back from extinction. It was presumed extinct as no Takahe were spotted for many years. Until, one Invercargill doctor rediscovered the bird in the remote Murchison Mountains of Fiordland in 1948. Now, thanks to that rediscovery and conservation efforts throughout New Zealand, numbers of the bird are up to around 347. This makes it an extremely rare bird and a privilege to see. Some birds are moved from the Murchison Mountains to predator free islands such as Rotoroa for breeding and then re-releasing back to their alpine homes.

Takahe

As we walked along the path, in a grassy area only metres away was one of New Zealand’s rarest birds. It’s a striking bird of considerable size. Petrol-slick colours of purples, blues and greens on a big round body with a powerful, bright red and rounded beak. We watched this particular Takahe for a little while before getting a few photos of it feeding on the grass. Then, sure that we were in for a good day, set off on the rest of our walk.

The next stop was at one of the island’s stunning beaches, Men’s Bay. A curved golden bay that looks out across the Hauraki Gulf to the Coromandel. At this point, standing on the deserted beach, it was hard to believe that Auckland City was only a 75 min ferry ride behind us. The beautiful beaches of Rotoroa Island certainly are a fitting place for rehabilitation.

Men’s Bay

Pulling ourselves away from the beach, we continued on our walk around the edge of the island. The amount of life around Rotoroa is truly awesome. Fantails flew around our heads in numbers I’ve never seen before, while Wekas ran in front of our path as we walked. The characterful Weka seem to love their predator-free life on the island. Known for being curious and cheeky, the island’s ranger mentioned they have a tendency to make off with people’s belongings on the beach while their victims are swimming in the sea- apparently they especially have a thing for watches!

Not that we would see them in the middle of the day, but the island boasts a population of Kiwi that have been released on the island. There are a few accommodation options for the island including a bunk-style building and a small amount of holiday homes. So, perhaps if we decided to stay one night, we might come across one then.

It didn’t take us long before we had walked around the whole of the southern side of the island. A quick refill of our water bottles and stopping for some lunch near the visitors centre, we were ready to explore the northern half.

From the visitors centre, we headed to Ladies’ Bay. Yet another amazing beach with views across the length of the Coromandel Range. These beaches are perfect for swimming in the summer and had it have been slightly warmer I would have got in.

Sat on the northern edge of Ladies’ Bay was a beautifully positioned cemetery. Used for the patients and staff that lived on the island during it’s time as a rehabilitation centre. I can’t think of a better position for such a place. A white picket fence enclosed a small number of burials all looking over a lush valley. An interesting piece of the island’s history and amazing views along the coast.

Rotoroa’s Cemetery

From the cemetery, it was a small climb up to the highest point on the island, North Tower. A grassy knoll that gives 180 degree views of Rotoroa and all the surrounding islands. A great place to sit for a while and take it all in. It isn’t much of a climb and is definitely worth the short hike up.

We descended from North Tower down to our final beach for the day, Cable Bay. What a beach it is. It reminded me of a beach in the Abel Tasman with its golden sand and crystal clear water. The great thing about making the effort to go to Rotoroa is that, because of the limited number of people on the ferry, you can have a beach like Cable Bay to yourself for the day.

Cable Bay

Between Cable Bay and the walk back to the visitors centre was another surprise from the island. A small pond next to the footpath held a very special pair of ducks. The endemic pateke, or brown teal as they are also known, are the rarest waterfowl in New Zealand. Numbering only 2000-2500 in total, this pond held some pretty important residents. Due to hunting, habitat loss and a number of other factors these birds are still at risk of extinction. It’s yet another reason why places like Rotoroa Island are so important.

Brown Teal

The last thing to do from here was to make our way back to the wharf for the ferry. Slowly and reluctantly we dragged our feet back to our departure point. After having visited a few islands in the Hauraki Gulf now, I have to say that there was something particularly special about Rotoroa. It’s not only the array of rare wildlife that’s easily seen and the interesting history of the island. Rotoroa’s modest size makes it feel like an island getaway and the small number of people on the island make it feel as though it’s your own.

It was with heavy hearts that we pulled away from the wharf and watched the small island of Rotoroa get even smaller on the horizon. Back to the city and normal life. The only consolation, knowing that it’s only a short ferry-ride away.

On Foot Notes

Map used: Rotoroa Island Trust Map

Ferry times and prices

Rotoroa Island Trust information

Takahe information

Volunteering on Rotoroa