Although I've travelled extensively internationally, I've always made a point of seeing something new in New Zealand every year. They always say you should see your own country before you see the world – the way I see it there's no reason why I shouldn't do both! And now that I was back from my 19-month jaunt, it was time to continue being amazed by my own backyard.
For the 14 years I'd lived in Auckland, I'd always been aware the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, and how accessible they were to Auckland. Yet aside from an overnight work trip to Waiheke, I'd never actually seen any of them myself. So given that I was arriving back to New Zealand at the beginning of summer, I needed to rectify this glaring omission from my travel CV.
So where to go? Waiheke Island is the most popular, and for good reason. Food and beverage, arts and crafts, beaches, combined with regular transport both to/from and around the island. While I'd already been there, I'd barely scratched the surface.
And then there is Rangitoto, ideal for a day trip from Auckland. After all, there aren't many places in the world where you can hike up a dormant volcano within 10km of the centre of a country's largest city.
But what piqued my interest was seeing an online ad for ferries to Motuihe Island. Nice beaches and native New Zealand flora and fauna, coupled with the Department of Conservation (DOC) having a basic campground on the island and I had the makings of a great short break. So the decision was made – Motuihe, here I come!
Up early on a Saturday morning, I packed up my tent (in case you're wondering why I hadn't packed it the night before, I'm currently camping in my sister's backyard!) and grabbed a local bus to the city. Red Boats use Pier Z in the Westhaven Marina next to the CBD, familiar to me as I'd trained there for dragon boating before my trip. After a quick bag check (to check for nasties that could prey on wildlife), we were on our way.
The journey took 70 minutes, slower than Fullers faster ferries but all the better to admire the tranquil morning of Auckland's harbour. With the sun slowly breaking through the clouds over one of the world's most beautiful harbours, it reminded me why I love this city so much.
Whilst purchasing the ferry ticket online, the option of a $10 guided tour of the island was offered. This seemed great value for money, especially since I didn't know too much about the island. I disembarked and was immediately met by one of the volunteers, who then took the tour participants to the start of the trail, where we then met our guide from the Motuihe Trust (unfortunately I've already forgotten his name, I stupidly didn't add it to my notes).
As I said, I didn't know too much about Motuihe so luckily he started with a brief history lesson. The name Motuihe is a shortened version of Te Motu-a-Ihenga, which means 'Ihenga's Island' in Maori. The island has a rich and varied history; initially settled by several Maori tribes on a temporary basis (permanent settlement was never possible due to a lack of regular fresh water), it's also been a WW1 POW camp for captured German sailors, a children's health camp, a quarantine station for newly arrived immigrants and also a farm through the majority of the 20th century.
Around the start of the 21st century, the island began to transform into its current state – that of a predator-free island habitat for many of New Zealand's vulnerable native species. Most of you will be aware that New Zealand's geographic isolation has led to many of our native birds to evolve to a state of flightlessness due to a lack of predators. The best example is our iconic species and national emblem, the kiwi, but also the weka, pukeko, takahe, kakapo et al. And not forgetting the amazing tuatara – resembling a lizard but actually a distinct species that dates from the time of the dinosaurs! So come human settlement of New Zealand, which saw the introduction of predatory species such as rats, cats, ferrets and stoats, the ground-based fauna of New Zealand didn't stand a chance and their numbers were decimated.
Over the next hour, we walked the Tieke Track. It's one of 3 tracks on Motuihe but the one with the greatest concentration of native flora and fauna. Throughout the walk we were graced with the songs of birds rarely heard on the mainland. Some were familiar to me, like the tui and the kereru (wood pigeon), while others are either rare or extinct on the mainland, such as the bellbird and the saddleback. My only comparable experience had been 4 years earlier on a visit to the Zealandia sanctuary in Wellington.
But what excited me most was the chance to see a tuatara in its natural habitat. We stopped to check one of their regular hangout spots - no joy. Another 50 metres up the trail lay another spot. Our guide had a quick look, then turned with a smile on his face. It really is an amazing experience to see a majestic creature such as the tuatara in its natural environment. This one was catching the rays of the morning sun on a fallen branch. It's also eye-opening to see its size – in captivity they're often smaller but the specimen in front of us was at around 30 cm in length.
With the tour over, I headed to the campground to set up my tent and grab a bite to eat. As the only food facility on Motuihe is the small information kiosk (selling snacks, ice creams and drinks through the middle of the day), I'd bought my own supplies, in this case the remains of the previous nights' noodle stirfry. My hunger sated, it was time to set out on another walk.
Other than the Tieke Track, there are two other walking options on the island, both encompassing a mixture of beaches and walking through forest and grassland. I chose the Bald Knob track, it's unusual name derived from one the islands landmarks, a small grassy hill. Walking slowly for enjoyment rather than purpose, it took around 30 minutes to reach Bald Knob. A small fence meant I couldn't climb it but the views back to the city centre and the eastern suburbs were striking nonetheless.
Five minutes on from Bald Knob I found my first beach. Unnamed on the map, it had gleaming white sand, driftwood and, best of all, it was devoid of any other people.
After a quick swim (this is the New Zealand summer after all, even when the climate is pleasant, the water is still freezing), I carried on my merry way, a slow amble back to the campground.
After a quick dinner of cold pasta, I decided to take in the sunset. The headland above the campground had promised great views but the treeline thwarted those plans. Not to be denied, I made a beeline back through the campground and down to the pier I'd arrived at earlier that day. And for the next hour, I watched the sun sink in the sky, partially obscured by clouds that acted as a canvas for the rapidly changing hues of orange and red. There really is nothing more relaxing than watching the sun slowly set, while at the same time being thankful for a memorable day.
With that, it was back to my tent for an early night. With no electricity on the island, reading in the tent wasn't an option. As I settled in for the night, I heard a screeching call. I'd heard this before, but only in recordings. It was a kiwi!
I woke early the next morning. It was strangely quiet, no noise from people, cars or lawnmowers, just peace to ease myself into the day. Based on the advice of the guide the previous day, I was off to find tuatara. Not too early though - as the tuatara prefer to bask in the rays of the morning sun, he'd suggested around 8am. So after a leisurely breakfast, I headed up the main island path that was now becoming ever familiar. After 15 minutes, I arrived at the trail head - as it was well before the first ferry arrived, I had the Tieke Track to myself. As with yesterday I was on a tuatara mission, this time unaided by any professional help. I checked the first spot we'd scoped out the day before- again, nothing to be seen. And the spot where we'd found tuatara the previous day? Nope, no luck there either. I carried on; 5 minutes later I happened to glance to the left.
No particular reason why I looked in that particular spot but there it was – a tuatara! A juvenile around 20cm long, soaking up some Vitamin D on a log. After observing it unobtrusively for at least five minutes, I carried on up the track, feeling happy I'd been successful in my quest. Nearing the end of the trail, I happened to glance at the base of a tree on the right of the track. And there it was, another tuatara, this one peering out from a hollow in the base of the tree. It was much larger the previous one – I could only see the front half of its body but it would have been at least 50cm long. The perfect example of what our native species can accomplish in an environment free from obstacles that it has had insufficient evolution time to coexist with. I left the Tieke Track pretty chuffed, not only had I found tuatara but I'd found more than the guide the previous day :-)
After an hour relaxing by my tent with my book (thanks for asking, it was “Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All” by Jonas Jonasson, hardly highbrow but quirky and entertaining, great for a summer day), it was time to tackle the last remaining walk, the Eastern Beaches track.
As with the other two tracks, the first 20 minutes were spent walking down the middle of the island to reach the start of the trail. The trail began through gently-sloping grassland, before hitting a small forest through which to descend to my first stop, Calypso Bay. Again, a beautiful white beach with stunning pohutukawa trees down to the sandline, not deserted like the previous day's beach but still only a handful of people. Whereas the day before my views had been of the city, this time I was rewarded with vistas of Waiheke Island – a stunning island but the obvious signs of civilisation a reminder of why I'd chosen the more tranquil Motuihe.
A little further round the coast lay my next stop, Snapper Bay. I was beginning to sense a welcoming trend of deserted beaches meeting native forest, with hardly another soul in sight.
My final stop was Takutairaroa Bay, home to the longest beach on Motuihe, the imaginatively named Ocean Beach. The southern end of its 1km expanse was framed by a stunning series of cliffs, created by tectonic upheaval in ancient times. A smooth surface of volcanic rocks to walk over led to the main stretch of beach.
Before I knew it, the clock had hit 2pm and it was time to head back, pack up the tent and catch the 3.30pm ferry back. Although checkout was officially 10am, the DOC ranger was pretty relaxed about it when he'd done his rounds the night before, I was more than welcome to keep my tent up until it was time to leave.
On the pier just before the scheduled time, no boat was to be found. The ferry eventually arrived 45 minutes late, as if sensing I wanted more time to admire the view. As we slowly chugged back to Auckland, I was glad I'd chosen Motuihe, it truly is an amazing destination.
* Transport - over summer, Red Boats operate a daily ferry Wed-Sun, giving around 4-6 hours on the island (departure hours vary). Fullers operate a fast ferry, although it only visits every 2 weeks
* Food- unless you're happy with a very basic array of snacks from the info centre, make sure you bring your own, especially if you're staying overnight. Most other campers brought small barbecues (gas only, no open flames allowed), I just bought boxed leftovers from the night before, fruit and snacks.
* Water – it is recommended to bring means to treat water as tap water is not guaranteed drinkable. Luckily I had purification pills left from my Annapurna trek a few months prior.
* Facilities - a toilet block next to the campground. Seriously, that's it. Ain't no glamping here.