I just spent a weekend visiting Aotea Great Barrier Island, roughly 100 km northeast of Auckland. This is the sixth largest island of Aotearoa New Zealand, approximately 285 square kilometers (110 sq mi). With 60% of the land area managed as a nature reserve and only 950 residents who live without reticulated power and water, the island is considered by many as what life in Aotearoa New Zealand was like many decades ago. This off the grid lifestyle leaves little light pollution and the island was recently designated as one of only three Dark Sky Reserves.
I couldn’t wait to spend a weekend stargazing, running through the bush, and relaxing on the island’s many beaches. There are two ways to get to Aotea, by air or by sea. The journey by sea is often very rough, so if you are prone to seasickness I would highly suggest the plane. I chose the ferry, because I absolutely love time on the water. The journey by ferry takes nearly 5 hours, The ship can hold ~ 10-15 cars and while it is fairly basic it has an area to watch movies (so I hear, I haven’t confirmed this) and a little shop selling food and drinks. The SeaLink ferry and its hitchhikers are shown below.
I arrived on the island mid-afternoon at Tryphena Wharf. Tryphena is a small settlement where most of the permanent residents reside. Without a bicycle or a car and the sun setting in a few hours, I took the time to settle into the little cottage I was renting, purchase some food and drinks, and relax on the nearby beach. A few things to note about the island:
- there are no banks or atms so having some spare cash is helpful.
- the local general store, social club, and cafe (the only three places open during the winter months in Tryphena) do accept EFTPOS, but not credit.
- if you are hoping to rent a mountain bike, make arrangements before you arrive. I made this mistake and learned that the only bicycle rental place, Paradise Cycles, was up north in Port Fitzroy. The owner had no plans to travel south for the weekend so my transportation options included running, hitchhiking, and hiring one of two local drivers…all fairly easy options, with the driver hire requiring cash.
I rented a little cottage, the Kaka Cottage from seasonal residents that I found on Air BnB. Located just up the hill from Tryphena, it was an adorable little place nestled in the trees with views of the bay below. The cabin was equip with all of the basics and plenty of games and books to keep you occupied on rainy days….just don’t expect too many empty code cracker puzzles, I was addicted and selfishly completed about 1/3 of the book. The pictures below highlight the character of the cottage, a bed in the main living space (which I chose over the separate bedroom), signs through the bush near the entrance, and hotties…the New Zealand heater. I should note there was a small gas heater that kept the cottage warm and toasty at night.
I spent my first few hours on the beach waiting for the sun to set, playing on a swing and walking the exposed sandy areas during low tide….just me and the birds. The sunset that evening was spectacular. The sky was a brilliant orange and just as the sun was setting a small, but heavy shower passed through nearly soaking me. I laughed out loud in joy!
The same beach at high tide the next morning.
Day two was dedicated to checking out the Great Barrier Forest, a large regenerating broadleaf forest once logged for its kauri trees in the early 19th century. Located in the center of the island and somewhat far for me to run to, I arranged for a ride with a woman who was headed that way to deliver newspapers to Port Fitzroy. She dropped me off at the northern entrance at Windy Canyon where I had a planned to run up and over Hirakimatā Mount Hobson (elevation 621 meters), traveling south to the wetlands and hot springs, and finishing with a rest at Medlands Beach.
As I set off on the trail, the clouds were moving quickly covering the tips of the highest peaks. I felt a tiny bit of fear as I was isolated and didn’t have any options to turn back to shorten my journey if something went wrong, I absolutely had to travel south. I was quickly relieved to notice that there is cellular service along most of the track, the times estimated for walking could be reduced by 2/3 when running, and I reminded myself that I had gone on trail runs alone for hours so many times in far more rugged conditions with dangerous animals than I was about to experience. Within minutes, I felt settled and focused on the beauty surrounding me.
I chose to begin my journey at windy canyon, because a local told me it was the most beautiful of all of tracks to Hirakimatā Mount Hobson. I most definitely concur with this, it was stunning. Endless steps guide you through tall and narrow green canyon walls, leading you to expansive vistas containing rock formations and views towards coastal beaches on both sides of the island. It was windy, but dry until I climbed into the wet clouds that remained over Hirakimatā Mount Hobson. While my views here were limited, the clouds moved quickly revealing glimpses of Port Fitzroy to the west and Whangapoua Beach to the northeast. Again, stunning!
Within minutes of the decent from Hirakimatā Mount Hobson, I emerged from the clouds and was greeted by more stairs, sunny skies and views of some interesting rock formations. I stopped briefly at the Mount Hobson Hut, it was empty, which felt creepy despite the sweeping views from the attached deck.
Descending deeper into the canopy, the terrane flattens and the vegetation was is by tree ferns, nīkau, mānuka, and kānuka. I took a break at the natural Kaitoke hotpools, the waters of healing portion of Wai Te Puia Kaitoke Wetland. I didn’t dare go into the main pool as it was filled with a frothy foam, but I did put my legs into a pool further upstream. I wasn’t sure what this froth meant for water quality, it could have been natural, but one thing I did notice is that despite the island’s lack of waste and consumption, it was littered with agricultural practices with little regard for water resources so I was fairly careful about how I interacted with water. At this point, nearly done with my loop, I had my first human sighting.
The rest of the trail followed along the edge of the main body of the Kaitoke Wetland, Waiparera (waters of essence), an expansive wetland extending to a coastal estuarine. Kaitoke is named for coastal rocks marking the eastern boundary of Ngātiwai sphere of influence. Upon finishing the loop (and before entering the forest) it is important to scrub your shoes of soil that could be harmful to the Kauri Forests.