Auckland lies at the Hauraki Gulf, and parts of the city also spread north. So, taking a ferry is a legit mode of transportation. But there is not just a ferry to connect the northern suburbs; there are also ferries to get to Rangitoto and Waiheke Islands, which are the most prominent get-away destinations for the weekend. But there is yet another island. When I took a closer look at the map, a relatively big island caught my eye: it does not only work as a barrier between the Gulf and the open Pacific, but it is also, appropriately, called Great Barrier Island. And apparently, there is also a hiking trail. The Aotea Track is a 25 km long trail that loops around the island’s rugged interior and climbs up to the island’s highest peak, Mount Hobson/Hirakimata (627 m). After doing some further research on the island, I learned that it lies about 100 km northeast of Auckland, is about the same size as Auckland, but only has a bit more than 1000 inhabitants (Auckland, on the contrary, has over 1.6 Mio inhabitants). Life on the island is often described as being “life in New Zealand many decades back “. Everyone on the island lives off the grid and produces their electricity with solar panels and wind turbines, and people have their septic tanks and wells on the property. I also learned that Aotea, the Māori name for Great Barrier Island, was exploited for its minerals and kauri trees.
That was all I knew when I headed off to Aotea on a ferry from Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter, near downtown. But of course, I had planned the hike: I would stay for four days on the island. A few campsites and two huts must be booked in advance through the Department of Conservation. I booked one night at Medlands Beach campsite, one night in Mt. Heale Hut, and one night at the remote Green Campsite close by a southwest beach. As there is no public transportation, I mapped out a route that would include the Aotea Track, of course, but also allow me to keep myself busy hiking for four days.
Oh my, already, the ferry ride was amazing! There were about ten passengers on the boat, a handful of cars, and everything was very low-key. All of us were sitting together in front of the boat, enjoying the marvelous weather. 4.5 hours, we cruised through calm waters and even spotted a couple of whales, a little penguin that swiftly dived under the boat when seen, and many water birds. I liked the atmosphere: people were chatting and sharing stories. Connel, a kiwi, just bought some land on “the Barrier”, and now brings over vehicles and a crew of people who will help him to tame his land. He was excited and spoke enthusiastically about the island, even though he hadn’t been there for a few years. Eventually, we made it to the port on Barrier. A few houses were shattered along the coastline, hiding behind big trees. The water was of an unreal turquoise color. I was in super high spirits and started walking along the road. My first day would be roughly 12 km: along the shore to the tiny town of Tryphena, up and over a mountain range, and descending towards Medlands Beach, all road walk. Halfway down, I got the first glimpse of Medlands Beach! A storm-tossed Pacific Ocean beats the land and rolls its waves onto an easily 2 km long and wide beach. And my campsite was only 100 m inland from that beautiful place. Quickly I set my tent and made my way to the empty beach to spend the rest of the day there.
The following day I was headed towards Mt Heale Hut, just shy of Hirakimata’s peak. Most of the day was road-walking, and when I eventually reached the trailhead of Aotea Track, I continued on the soft forest ground and made my way uphill on literally a couple of thousands of steps. Having arrived at the hut, I understood why this one was rated as one of the most scenic huts in Aotearoa. Build on a saddle just below the peak of the islands’ highest mountain, views towards the north unfold. By having a pleasant conversation with two kiwi hikers also staying in the hut, I finished off the day.
The next day should bring me to the Green Campsite. But I was worried because I got an email that my ferry got rescheduled to leave at 2 pm now (instead of at 3 pm), and a bad weather front is approaching. The fourth and last day was planned as the longest day already (about 26 km), and now, with bad weather looming and the ferry leaving earlier, I felt some pressure to decide what to do. I could do as planned:
- Hike to the booked campsite.
- Leave even earlier on day 4 to make the ferry.
- Hope that the storm front won’t be too bad.
Or I could hike out today with having a very long day ahead to get to Tryphena and stay in an accommodation somewhere. I delayed any decision as long as possible. I started the day by climbing up to the peak of Hirakimata. Unfortunately, it was all cloudy, so I didn’t see anything. After descending, I hiked along an old rail trail and came across displays that tell the story of the logging industry back in the 19th and 20th centuries. Once, Aotea was covered by mighty kauri trees. Almost all of them were cut down because the world needed wood: after the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco needed to be rebuilt, the British needed timber to build more ships, and an embargo on importing wood to Europe through the Baltics did not help. Now, the kauri trees are almost gone, and the few left are endangered by the kauri dieback disease.
Eventually, I got to the junction of trails to the Green Campsite. I decided to hike out and spend the last night sheltered in town. I didn’t know the terrain and the circumstances and had to catch the ferry back to Auckland. I almost flew along the old forest road until I got to a gravel road. At that point, I hiked somewhat 28 km, and I decided that if I saw a car, I’d try to hitchhike. Not even 3 mins later, I heard a car approaching that gave me a ride to Claris. I visited the tiny store to get an apple, coffee, and ice cream there. Also, I used the internet and booked a room in the local pub in Tryphena, the tiny town close to the port from where the ferry would embark the next day. But only shortly after that I had to learn that the ferry was canceled due to the approaching bad weather. I automatically got booked on the alternative ferry on Monday. Oh well. So, I hiked/hitchhiked back to Tryphena, made myself comfortable in the local pub, and had a fantastic meal in the evening. It was an excellent decision to stay sheltered as the wind picked up and brought the first raindrops already in the late evening.
The following morning I decided to book a flight back to Auckland. The flight would cost me the same amount as another night in the pub. That decision took little consideration as I needed to be back at work on Monday. After having had a healthy breakfast, I checked out and returned to the main road to hitch another ride. The bad weather, in the meantime, has arrived at the Barrier: it was pouring down and somewhat changed the road into almost a little creek. It did not take long before a car stopped and offered me a ride to Claris, where the airport is located. My flight was scheduled for 4:30 pm. However, as I arrived at the airport early, the lovely lady at the check-in counter offered to reschedule for 2:30 pm. To make a long story short: after more cancellations, and rescheduling, I was on the last flight to Auckland at 6:30 pm. The 30 min flight in the tiny propeller plane was terrific! The weather improved, and we had a splendid view from above of Aotea, the Hauraki Gulf, and Auckland at sunset.
So, this trip, which I had planned so nicely, turned out way differently. But I loved every second of it! The island feels very special and remote, has an exciting history, and is one of the few premium stargazing spots on earth; people are amazing, and it is an excellent place to get away from the urban hustle of Auckland. Aotea, I will come back!