In the first part of a four piece series exploring the surrounding environments of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch by road trip, Spinoff writers Simon Day and Don Rowe head north, east and west from Auckland’s central city.
Exploring New Zealand’s glorious natural beauty by car is a rite of passage for any Kiwi. The great summer road trip. Elbow on the window, t-shirt line tattooed on your arm by the sun. Music up loud.
New Zealand owns some of the great overland journeys. The grandeur of the Waipoua Forest’s kauri on State Highway 12. The exposed ridgeline that leads you to the tip of Cape Reinga. State Highway 6’s dissection of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea.
But when your short holiday is stolen by Christmas and the inevitable early January rain, suddenly you’re back at your desk gazing out the window at the long days disappearing behind your monitor. The best of summer wasted on work.
So don’t let the window for a road trip pass you by. The best things about New Zealand’s cities are the extraordinary adventures and environments on our doorstep. A road trip need not be a journey of hundreds of kilometres because beauty and remoteness are hidden just beyond the burbs.
To help you get intrepid this summer The Spinoff has made the brave move of revealing some of our favourite spots within a short roadie of our cities. Our special secret one-day getaways. Go after work. Steal a Thursday. Leave early on a Sunday. We’ve provided the maps and written the guidebook – because the journey is as important as the destination. We’ve even provided the soundtrack because music sounds better on a road trip.
Get in the car and just drive.
West to the Whatipu Caves – by Simon Day
The Waitakere Ranges are my favourite natural resource in Auckland. It’s labyrinth of trails suck you into an ancient world of waterfalls and trees hundreds of years old. But on December 2, a rāhui was placed over the Waitakere by local iwi to try to stop the spread of kauri dieback disease that is killing the mighty kings of the forest. The disease, which has no cure, increased rapidly in recent years, and extinction of kauri is feared.
Unless we care for the forest we will lose these stunning indigenous flora, so please respect the rāhui this summer.
And there are still amazing Westside adventures that are open.
The rāhui doesn’t extend to the coastal environment. So on the first Thursday in December, I left work at 1pm and went to explore the Whatipu caves. The journey westward is an expedition in itself.
Titirangi is the most beautiful suburb in Auckland (full disclosure, I live in Titirangi). Turn down Park Rd and suddenly you’re surrounded by ancient Kauri trees and native bush. Between their giant trunks you can see across the Manukau Harbour. This bush was muse to modernist master Colin McCahon, the kauri inspiration for some of his most prominent works. The small cottage where McCahon lived and worked is the smallest museum I’ve visited. You can feel why the bush inspired him, and learn about the darker side of the painter from the walls of his family home.
Up the hill into the Titirangi village, which reminds me of a European alpine settlement, the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, is best small art gallery in the city. Spread across four levels looking out to the Manukau heads the beautiful building was designed by Mitchell & Stout architects and opened in 2014. The Kushana Bush exhibition “The Burning Hours” means you need to make this trip before 18 February. Her intense detail explores social interaction across cultures through our unique human rituals. We were drawn as close to the paintings as we could to admire the intricacies of each figure.
Down the Huia Rd hill the bush gives way to the sea. Dogs run in the black sand of Huia’s long low tide beach. Don’t stop at the Huia store yet – reward yourself with the retro lollies and Tip Top scoop on your way home.
Whatipu Road is a dusty drive down to the wildest of the West Coast’s beautiful black sand beaches. At the northern entrance to the Manukau heads Whatipu beach is remote and rugged. This now desolate place has a dramatic and famous history.
It’s strategic position and its rich natural resources drew Māori to Whatipu from when Aotearoa was first settled, and the physical and spiritual marks remain on the landscape. The name Whatipu comes from an ancient taniwha who came from Tūhua in the Bay of Plenty and made its home in the mouth of the Manukau Harbour. Look out for the ancient pa sites. With the arrival of Europeans Whatipu has carved a colonial history of “native insurrections”, timber milling and family tragedy. The Whatipu Lodge remains as a humble tribute to these stories.
The track to the caves runs north from the campground parallel to the beach. There are eight caves in total, carved from the extinct volcano by the sea. Some are small, some large, but only one is known as the Ballroom. For 60 years dance parties were held annually in the Great Cave at Whatipu. People would ride from Karekare and ferry from Onehunga for these legendary parties. If these volcanic walls could speak!
Take a headlamp and shoes that can get wet because shining your phone’s torch into these deep crevices is slightly embarrassing when you bump into a real deal Swiss caving couple. And there’s some awesome amateur caving to be done. We squeezed through a small crack and found ourselves in knee deep water in an echoing cavern. The Swiss couple had come from even deeper in the cave.
Stay the night at the caves campsite. Set beneath a pohutukawa forest it’s an impressive place to sleep.
As you return to civilisation stop one more time in the Titirangi village for the best fish and chips in the world. Fish and Friends was opened last year by former O’Connell St Bistro head chef, Stephen Ward. They hand cut their chips, hand make their sausage served in hot dog buns, and their fish is as fresh as it gets. Make sure you finish with a punnet of Duck Island ice cream – it’s the best thing to come out of Hamilton.
Go west, young man. Just stay out of the bush.
East to the beach and a hangover in the Hunua ranges – by Don Rowe
Growing up in Hamilton there was one golden consolation – it was always on the way. Just over the hills to the west was Raglan, a coastal town of salty hippies and a surfing mecca. East through verdant green fields, the breadbasket of the Waikato plains, and over the Kaimai ranges is Mount Maunganui, itself an idyllic beach in the shadow of a volcano. To the north east the Coromandel, with its rainforests, golden beaches and hidden fortunes scattered under the mountains.
Now that I’m in Auckland full time I spend a similar amount of time thinking about how to leave. Obviously there are a few little concerns these days though, like having to be back for mahi. But praise be for a day at the beach, because there’s something so decadent about being where everyone else would like to when nobody is; especially on a dusty Monday, still reeling from a weekend lived most enthusiastically.
And so we fled the city.
The Pohutukawa Coast stretches curving around southeast Auckland, all the way to the Firth of Thames. It’s a delicious escape. Although it begins only twenty minutes from Howick village, it’s like stepping through a portal to the East Cape. The cicadas are louder, the water warmer and everything seems to just glow.
It was still early, the breeze just a whisper and the tide still in bed, lapping sedated against the wharf. “No diving” read the sign. I dove. When you’re breaking all the rules what’s one more? “How would you explain swimming to somebody who’s never been wet?” I asked her. Stoner philosophy at Maraetai beach.
Further along the Coast Road to Magazine Bay and perhaps New Zealand’s most idyllic marae, Umupuia. Principally associated with Ngai Tai from the Tainui waka, Umupuia sits opposite the ocean, set back from the expansive ātea. Today it seemed sunbaked and deserted, with only cicadas and a rogue sparrow to mihi.
Onwards to Kawakawa Bay. The privately owned Pakihi Island sat offshore, just far away enough to seem hazy through the heat, and we floated in the shallows discussing the merits of privatisation before it seemed almost blasphemous on such a morning.
Later now, the sun biting, we headed inland to Hunua. Many of the roads were closed, the kauri tree a taonga too precious to risk, but the falls were open and we drank a beer on an old beach towel. ‘No swimming’ said the sign. This time I listened.
Into the shade then, climbing to the lookout point high above the pools. There’s an opening here where the breeze rose through the canopy and across my skin, colder where the sweat had run down my nose and forehead. We talked about friends, love, complications and the smell of the trees. For a moment the world breathed in.
Passing again through Maraetai, we stopped for fish tacos and salt and pepper squid. The tide was out now and the light had changed. There were fewer possibilities than before. On a hidden beach we swam again, drifting towards the sea wall. She threw sand and laughed. I blinked and the moment was gone.
There’s a lot of beauty in this world and many ways to see it. Even the familiar looks different under summer light. Climbing Maungakiekie as the sun set, where once 5000 Māori lived under the leadership of Kiwi Tamaki, is one such method. People thronged about, gorging themselves on the image of what really is actually quite a nice city, slaking their thirst for a bit of beauty in the concrete jungle. The obelisk bequeathed to the city by Sir John Logan Campbell was bathed in gold, the sort of light you drink wine to. Originally a memorial to the Māori people Campbell thought were on the way out, it’s now a potent symbol of resilience and a reminder of tangata whenua and their connection to everything the light touches.
Most people probably weren’t thinking about that though. Lovers kissed, tourists posed and hordes of joggers ran about like paragons of health and virtue. In a particularly Kiwi touch the lambs frolicked, cute as anything and almost cherubic with the sunset framing their funny little heads.
And then, a blessing, a Christmas miracle: my phone died, leaving me free to enjoy the moment in all its richness. How great is God, and even a temporary escape.
North to Ti Point Coastal Walkway – by Simon Day
At the Ti Point wharf a Māori dude cracked into the pile of fresh kina he’d pulled from the perfectly clear blue water. T-shirt tied on his head, his pounamu resting on his ample puku he generously shared their loot of kaimoana with me, my first taste of the creamy, rich, saltiness of the kina. “You’re a Māori and you’ve never tried kina?” he said in utter disbelief.
It was an immaculate Sunday afternoon. We needed to get out of the city. Shaded in the bush of the Ti Point track looking out across sparkling sea, it felt like we couldn’t be further from the Sky Tower. But we were just an hour from the city.
Concealed down a random dirt road it shares with a reptile park, the Ti Point Coastal Walkway sits between two of Auckland’s most popular northern destinations – Omaha Beach and Goat Island. Yet here you can find a tranquility and remoteness away from the crowds of the marine reserve and development of Omaha.
In the two hour walk the landscape changes from deep native bush to rolling grassland that looks like the Scottish Highlands. Pohutukawa just finding their first scarlet flowers of summer climb out over the tropical turquoise water and we climbed over their roots.
When you reach the sign: “Congratulations, you’ve reached the end”, you have merely begun. We scrambled over the rocks, through a natural stone arch to the point where groups of rock climbers scaled the cliff. We jumped between crashing waves, inevitably failing to keep our shoes dry, finally reaching the tip of Ti Point. Across the sea to Little Barrier Island, there’s nothing but nature’s greens and blues in sight. Silence expect for the cacophony of the waves on rocks and the song of the tui.
We looped back over the hill through the flax and past the climber who’d reached the top of the rock face and over a fence. In the open field above the track it was hot, a perfect early summer’s day. The water appeared to laugh at us as it rolled over the rocks. Near the start of the track the bush opens onto a small beach with the clearest water I’ve ever seen in Aotearoa. Bring your snorkel and even your speargun, the sea here is fecund and kind.
We slept on the beach, disturbed only by the dog and her stick, until it was time for a beer. Just around the corner – in the Kiwi road trip sense of the concept – is the Sawmill Brewery. Here they make some of the country’s most fun beers served from taps right in front of the brewery’s tanks and hops. We had a white stout, which tasted like chocolate and coffee, but crisp and clean for a hot day. We lay back in the outdoor couches as the sun came down.
Next door is the Vivian Gallery. This unique gallery was established to allow local artists to exhibit in their own community and it’s a must visit on any journey north of Warkworth. It’s revolving exhibitions of New Zealand and international artists are impressive. Purportedly a simple weatherboard shed from the road, inside the gallery is curious combination of leather couches and chandeliers with the warmth of a friend’s home who has the best contemporary art collection you know. Outside the garden is full of sculptures. A “hidden gem”.
Summer hours are misleading, it seemed early it probably wasn’t. I wanted fish and chips from Point Wells store, a classic Kiwi takeaway joint with access to the best fresh fish (be warned, they often sell out of everything!). But according to texts from our wives we’d already been gone too long, and they were hungry too. Luckily it was only a short drive home.
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