The resident adrenaline junkies worked their way up the waterfall. (Photo: Andy Day)

Intrepid summer road trip: Auckland’s secrets hiding in plain sight

In the final part of our series exploring adventures around Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, our writers take a trip through Auckland’s backyard, and further beyond. 

Scroll to the end of the story for a chance to win a weekend exploring in the new Hyundai Kona.

I once fake proposed to my then girlfriend. It was in the most idyllic location we’d ever visited; it couldn’t have been more romantic. We were hiking through Tiger Leaping Gorge deep in the Yunnan province of China. Far below us the Jinsha River rushed through its rapids, above us the gorge climbed to sharp snow capped peaks. The track turned to stepping stones that lead across a river created by a waterfall. I asked her for help across the stones and dropped to one knee when she offered me her hand. As I looked up into her eyes the mist from the waterfall created a rainbow above us. “Really? Really?!” she asked, her voice quivering. “Just joking, keep walking,” was my response.  

Three years later when I proposed again it was in the middle of Auckland city, yet it was almost as beautiful. On the western side of Northcote Point a small track leads through tangled pohutukawa to the sea. It was high tide and the water was completely still. The sinking sun framed the city which rose from behind the Harbour Bridge. She said yes. It was nearly as stunning as the wilderness of China (except for Northcote’s public toilet).

While it is undeniable Auckland’s beauty and appeal exists in the accessibility of the wilderness and beaches of the Waitakere ranges, the Coromandel, of Rodney district and the far north, we shouldn’t miss what is right under our nose. – Simon Day

Make the most of summer and explore Auckland (Photo: Joel Thomas).

Historic Northcote Point’s romance, by Simon Day

I was always fascinated by Northcote Point. I would gaze into the houses that line the northbound lane of the Harbour Bridge; they’re so close it feels like you could reach into their kitchen and test whether dinner was well seasoned. I discovered the tiny peninsula is a concentrated piece of Auckland’s heritage full of colonial and Māori history, and a vibrant community that feels like a vision from the city’s past. These are my favourite spots.

Halls Beach Reserve is where I asked my wife to marry me. If you’re planning on doing the same, or planning on having a swim, make sure it’s high tide. The water comes up to the sea wall and the branches of the pohutukawa hang into the bay. It’s peaceful and private and the view of the Harbour Bridge is perfect. Take a picnic or hide a bottle of Champagne in a paper bag pretending it’s a cheap bottle of red.

Directly opposite the path down to the sea is The Engine Room, probably my favourite Auckland restaurant. It’s both a community bistro and destination restaurant you should travel a long way to eat at. The goat’s cheese soufflé is peerless. I plagiarise their veal schnitzel with caper butter when I need to impress someone. The service makes you feel important. Choose here next time you’ve got something special to celebrate.

Almost as beautiful as the Chinese wilderness.

The Bridgeway Cinema is the best place to make going to the movies special again. Originally the Onewa Picture Drome, it was built in 1927, became the Palais in 1929 when it hosted fancy dress dances after the “pictures”.

The Northcote Tavern is a postcard from from the 1880s. Built in 1882 the beautiful pub was originally a hotel designed in “the Italian order of architecture”. Spend a long sunny afternoon at the outdoor tables with deep fried seafood, cold beers and some lawn sports.

Park under the Harbour Bridge and explore Stokes Point Reserve. Before Pākeha arrived the tip of the peninsula was the site of Onewa Pa, an important strategic location for a number of local iwi. I felt like Darryl Kerrigan as I admired the architecture of the Harbour Bridge from beneath. Built in 1959, and extended in 1970 with the famous bolt on section, I’ve always felt the bridge doesn’t get the love it deserves. I look forward to it being lit up at night, and I hope to one day walk from the central city to enjoy Northcote Point.

Auckland’s urban oases of native bush are some the city’s best kept secrets. Northcote’s Le Roys Bush is a ecosystem of raupo wetland and indigenous forest full of kauri and a swift little river. There are number of tracks for exploring, one leading to the highest point on the North Shore. Keep to the tracks and dogs on a leash to stop kauri dieback from spreading to the Le Roys Bush.

Ihumātao peninsula’s histories collide, by Simon Day

Hidden in plain sight, out the back of the airport, past the Sistema factory which looks like a giant lunch box is the Ihumātao peninsula – a stunning landscape and living exhibition of Auckland’s history which protrudes into the Manukau Harbour. Here New Zealand’s colonial and indigenous stories intersect. We leaned on one wall built from stone by Māori, a paddock formed by another wall built by Scottish colonial farmer.  

The Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve is a trip back in time (Photo: Andy Day).

The Ōtuataua Stonefields historic reserve is a microcosm of Auckland’s geological, indigenous and colonial past. Two of the city’s smallest volcanic cones give the area its rich soils. When the Tainui waka landed here an estimated 800 years ago, the Ōtuataua Stonefields became a fertile farming area, and strategic location for Māori. The area is an artefact of how Māori adapted to their new home: “New Zealand’s shorter growing seasons and colder mean temperatures ruled out many Polynesian staples. The settlers salvaged only a few crops – kumara, taro, yams and gourds, all plants with short growing seasons and small or tough leaves.”

Exploring the site is divided into three thematic trails – the geology walk, the botany walk, and the history walk. Walking over the rocky grass hills the peninsula’s past is palpable. The kumara pits, and relics of pa let you imagine early Māori flourishing here with abundant kaimoana on their doorstep. With the arrival of Europeans in the 1840s Scottish and English farming techniques were introduced to the area, and many of the dry stone walls which still carve up the peninsula hills were built to pen in stock. The exotic fauna is another tip to the colonists influence in the area with Moreton Bay Fig trees providing shade on a hot morning walk. The land was later quarried to fuel the city’s development – sadly destroying sacred Māori sites.

Our collective histories collide at the Ōtuataua Stonefields historic reserve (Photo: Andy Day).

There’s a community avocado orchard at the entry to the stonefields planted by the former landowner in 1980. You’re welcome to take a limit of five per person. Despite visiting during the season which runs from November to March the fruit we saw was too high to reach.

Following the trails around the stunning landscape you feel transported back to another time – to 1,000,000 years ago, to the 1700s, to 1840, to 1950. Until a plane appears from behind the horizon, dragging you back into 2018.

The Ōtuatua Stonefields Historic Reserve is the country’s newest reserve, it required a fight to have the lands significance officially preserved. The region’s dynamic history continues today as the local Māori community fight to stop their historic tribal lands being developed.

The long road east to west, by Simon Day

Sometimes the journey is as important as the destination. Take your time. Stop when you see honesty boxes with vegetables for sale, or signs for real fruit ice cream. Take the long road home. It’s why summer is better. And you might discover a gem.

My brother and I took a trip to Puhoi, traversed from the east coast to the west, and took State Highway 16’s beautiful northern route along the Kaipara Harbour back to Auckland via Helensville. Along the way we found ourselves transported back in time, a super secret swimming hole, and an amazing antique store.

I’ve driven past the Puhoi sign hundreds of times on my way to and from Auckland. This time we decided to visit. In 1863 the village was originally settled by immigrants from Bohemia, (now a region of western Czech Republic). Definitely stop at the pub for a beer, and to people watch the modern Bohemians with cowboy hats, and dreaded beards, their motorbikes parked outside. Explore the settlement which feels like it hasn’t changed much since 1863, where the locals know the name of the cat rolling around the general store, and the library has a beautiful red door, and the cheese is famous.  

Take the long way home, and you might find something special (Photo: Andy Day).

We continued west through native bush and pine forest on a dirt road before we hit SH16. The gargantuan art of Gibbs Farm sits on the horizon. We needed to use the bathroom and saw signs for a rest stop so decided to stop. This was Omeru Scenic Reserve. It’s home to a well preserved pā site and a small cascading waterfall.

But across a few stepping stones and down a hidden bush track we discovered a secluded swimming hole at the base of tall, rushing waterfall bathed in sunlight. Big Māori men with dreads down their back were doing bombs from different degrees of adrenaline inducing heights. It’s an amazing place to spend the day, private, tranquil but full of laughter.

We continued down to the coast to Helensville, another location fabled in my mind as John Key’s electorate, but a place I had never visited. It was another village trapped in time, its shop fronts a vision into what New Zealand once looked like.

At Global Village Antiques you can pick up a piece of the past from this unique shop set in the town’s old Regent theatre. But even more interesting is a conversation with the shop’s owner and curator John Perry. Take your time, John’s got lots of stories. And remember there’s no hurry to get on the motorway that’s just around the corner.

Stop for a conversation with John Perry at Global Village Antiques (Photo: Andy Day).

Read part one, on the great Auckland summer road trip, here.

Read part two, on the where to go on a good day in Wellington, here.

Read part three, on Christchurch’s best drive, cheese and second hand shop, here.

Pink Beach discovery, by Askew One

I recently returned home for the summer after 14 months abroad, mostly in New York but also a couple of months in Paris amongst other places. While I’m overseas I get asked a lot about what I miss, what makes me feel homesick. I’ve got a couple of answers to that question, the first being ‘people’, because the genuine and understated nature of people here is both hard to explain and hard to find elsewhere; it’s truly special. The second thing is the natural environment. Growing up mostly in Auckland it’s easy to take this for granted, but the access we have to so many beautiful spaces within driving distance is phenomenal. It’s a blessing.

The crazy rock formations of Pink Beach (Photo: Askew One).

I’ve always had a strong affinity with Auckland’s west coast. That’s particularly true of the beaches, but I hoped to spend much of this summer hiking the wider west Auckland area. Last year I’d feel a strong sense of yearning every time I’d see friends’ photos of their epic hikes through the Waitakere Ranges and along the cliffs looking down the coast. I hyped up my American wife with those photos. When you spend your time working 13 hour days in Manhattan, that’s probably the most convincing way to lure her across the world – oh, and the prospect of escaping the current polar vortex!

When I got back to Auckland ahead of her just before Christmas and tuned into the local reality I started to learn more about the situation with the kauri dieback. This is obviously not an overnight development but I wasn’t aware of just how serious it had become. When local iwi performed the rāhui ceremony and called for us all to give the forests time to heal, I knew this was not to be taken lightly. We need to respect that because if we are complacent, ignorant, entitled or belligerent in this situation we will lose something so incredibly invaluable. The small sacrifice we make now could help manage this situation for years to come.

If anything this has made me start investigating alternative places to hike and this was how we ended up at Shakespear Regional Park on a brilliant Sunday afternoon and ultimately standing on Pink Beach. There are a multitude of tracks in the reserve but the Tiritiri track allows the option to climb down onto this beach which is located in the east side of the reserve and only accessible during low tide. It’s a complete sensory overload, like exploring an alien landscape. From the weird plateaued lava formations to the odd shaped rocks encrusted in oyster shells, the beach is teeming with all sorts of fascinating life. Pink beach does in fact have pink sand in places, which are from the broken fragments of cockle shells. What with the bizarre cave formations, twisted native trees dropping down from the cliffs and the crazy colour palette of deep greys and greens, I was blown away. It had me wondering how I’d lived in Auckland for so much of my life and yet there were still spaces I’d never seen before.

We are blessed to have these places to explore and enjoy – as long as we are respectful and don’t take them for granted. Pink beach brought my appreciation to a whole new level, I feel so grateful and can’t wait to find other places to explore over the next two months.

Awhitu Peninsula’s quiet paradise, by Toby Morris

Some people say you’ve got four choices on a sunny Auckland weekend: Go north, east, south or west. That’s a good start if you’re OK with crowds, but for a real hidden gem try this cheat code: south, then west, then north.

It’s called the Awhitu Peninsula – the headland that snakes around to form the bottom lip of the great mouth that is the Manakau Harbour. Great beaches and beautiful views, just a bit over an hour away from town. And it’s quiet.

You drive south towards Pukekohe, then west to Waiuku, then start winding your way back northwards up the peninsula. To your right are rugged hills, windswept trees and proper wild west coast beaches. Sloping away to your left are rolling green hills and the sheltered harbourside white sand bays. In parts the road follows the ridgeline, dropping away to show off two contrasting water views of either coast. You wind past farms and sweet little villages and a tiny old church that looks like Slash might walk out any moment and play the first and arguably inferior guitar solo from the ‘November Rain’ video, except with green grass everywhere.

All along the way there are beaches on either side but I like Orua Bay, right at the end of the peninsula. It’s up in the harbour mouth, facing north towards the Waitakere Ranges. It’s not as tidal as the harbour beaches, not as wild as the west coast ones and the view is a stunner, so it’s perfect spot for a swim. And did I mention it’s quiet?

There’s a friendly little campground, a few baches, and one tiny little dairy. Well, a shed in someone’s driveway. If you ring the buzzer someone will pop down from the house and you can buy milk or an iceblock or a dollar mixture.

The Awhitu Lighthouse is accessible to visitors (Photo: Auckland Council).

Then after a swim and an iceblock it’s on to the main event. Follow the signs to Manukau Heads and at the end of another short drive that’ll make you feel like you’re in a car ad, you’ll come to a postcard-perfect wooden lighthouse looking out over the harbour entrance. It’s the kind of place that feels like the edge of the world, and your allowed a direct look into the past.

It’s one of the few New Zealand lighthouses completely accessible to visitors. At the bottom of the lighthouse they sell tea towels, but there’s no one there to take your money – you just grab one, and have to promise to pay for it later via internet banking. Drop a coin in the old letterbox and you can actually climb up the spiral stairs inside the lighthouse and onto the balcony where the lighthouse keeper would have patrolled the 360 degree views. To the west you see the churning harbour mouth, to the north the Waitakere loom and to the south you have great view back along the peninsula.

And yeah, looking northeast you’ll see the Sky Tower and the city in the distance. Oh well.


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