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A world away

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March 2022 Issue

The Aotea Track is far from the bright lights of New Zealand’s largest city and it’s bursting with birdlife and adventure.

As our shuttle wound to Windy Canyon, our driver Nic described the sounds we would tune into on Aotea/Great Barrier Island; the waves, wind, manu and generators. Anything more, as she discovered on trips to the mainland, became sensory overload. “You’ll see,” she said, knowingly.

Our group of eight had touched down on the grass of the island’s Claris airport to find a green paradise veiled in sticky summer clouds. Despite it being only a 30-minute flight, the stresses of Auckland City, with its mall crowds and 1pm updates, seemed a world away. The summer holiday had been planned four months ago and was a compromise between my partner’s longing to relax at a beach and my eagerness to tramp. Aotea, containing world-class beaches and Auckland’s only open multi-day tramp, ticked every box. After a lockdown-induced cabin fever, I was overwhelmed to arrive at all and ready to savour my first tramp in four months.

Established in 2015, Aotea Conservation Park is the largest in the Auckland Region and as I’d discovered in my planning, the Aotea Track – or some iteration of it – is a choose-your-own-adventure. The route chosen prioritised diversity, short days and swims (to escape the summer heat), and began with an ethereal climb through Windy Canyon on Palmers Track. 

Carrying summer packs and beneath towering canyon walls, we got our first taste of the motu’s infamous stairs, which, although testing for lockdown legs, were an early highlight not five minutes from the track start on Aotea Road.

Mt Heale Hut offers jaw-dropping views to Hauturu/Little Barrier Island. Photo: Matthew Cattin

On a fine day, the views from the top of the canyon reveal the pale crescent of Whangapoua Beach and a stunning 360-degrees of rugged ngahere/forest and rhyolitic spires. Ironically, on the first cloudy day after a stunning Christmas period, we were left hungry in a whiteout and we were compelled to return for sunset a week later.

Moving quickly through the soupy fog, we met the junction for Hirakimata/Mt Hobson (627m) surprisingly quickly but opted not to waste energy on a hemmed-in view when we would be passing by the next day. A steep decline on slippery, narrow stairs sent us down the southern side of Hirakimata beneath dripping kauri forest, before we sidled across Mt Heale to the hut carrying its namesake.

Mt Heale Hut, built in 2010, sits snugly on the western puku of the maunga, which is shaped like an upside-down funnel. Its generous deck faces west, overlooking Port Fitzroy, Hauturu/Little Barrier Island and, far in the horizon, across the sea, a distant sliver of Northland. When we arrived, the view was the same as any we’d seen so far: a disappointing gradient of grey.

My group bagged a bunk room to ourselves, always a tramping luxury, and settled into an afternoon of cards and camaraderie. Though I had organised the tramp, nobody in our group of eight knew everyone, me included, but, as is usually the way with new hiking companions, we had no shortage of things in common to yarn about.

“I think it’s clearing,” became the most used phrase of the day, as cabin fever and optimism kept our heads swivelling to inspect the would-be view. Finally, around dinner time, the curtains began to part and inch by inch the view was revealed. After so much anticipation, it didn’t disappoint and the remaining hours of daylight were spent watching a dynamic display of peach sunbursts piercing pale pockets of fog. Had an emergency lockdown sent us packing that night, I’d have gone home full.

Gnome-like giggling erupted from the forest when darkness fell, seemingly from everywhere at once. From the deck, we aimed headlamps into the clouds and caught fleeting glimpses of the cackling culprits; tāiko/black petrel, which during summer nest in burrows on Hirakimata. Their unfamiliar calls added to the sense that despite our proximity to home, Aotea was a world away.

Descending the Kaiaraara Track offers stunning views on a fine day. Photo: Matthew Cattin

The next day’s route would see us backtrack to Hirakimata summit junction to take Kaiaraara Track west to Kaiaraara Hut, near Port Fitzroy. The cloud was lifting and some of the previous day’s views were revealed, so we took a quick detour to Hirakimata summit. The highest point on Aotea is a place to take stock of the motu and fully understand the topo map I’d spent weeks studying. On a fine day, we’d have lingered but with the wind tugging at our hats and whipping clouds across the sky, we started the knee-rattling descent.

Within an hour, after passing the remains of a kauri dam, the clouds lifted for good and we emerged from the forest to a spectacular set of stairs overlooking the valley and descending to Kaiaraara Bay. The sharp rate of descent eases as the track meanders alongside the river. Several slips revealed cliffs and spires across the valley.

The 28-bunk Kaiaraara Hut stands on wooden piles in a clearing of tall kānuka. It’s older than Mt Heale Hut but is a charming abode reminiscent of school camps. Kākā are frequent visitors here and can be heard shrieking overhead or chasing one another through the canopy.

After lunch, we set off in search of a nearby pub, word of which had reached our ears on the trail. After a half-hearted attempt, however, and having consulted topo maps and Google Earth, we decided no beer would be worth the long walk on a dusty gravel road and given what we’d soon learn about Aotea, it would likely have been closed anyway.

The one person swingbridge on South Fork Track is higher than it looks. Photo: Matthew Cattin

The tide was full, the weather now gorgeous, and we opted to walk to nearby Bush’s Beach for a swim; a decision that was immediately validated by the sighting of two ruru watching us with alarming personality from punga perches. So pleasant was the weather, we returned to the hut and followed up our beach swim with a golden hour soak in Kaiaraara Stream. We returned at dusk for dinner and beneath the swaying trees (and on double mattresses), fell quickly into a restful sleep.

The biggest walking day was next – in perfect weather. Taking the South Fork Track, we followed Kaiaraara Stream for the better part of a kilometre, the rugged terrain in contrast to the well-graded tracks of the first two days. An awkward and gnarly ridgeline climb took us to fantastic views of Coopers Castle, Hirakimata and Mt Heale.

A short detour brought us back to Mt Heale Hut where we ate lunch before heading along Peach Tree Track, arguably the favourite track of the tramp. It is an exposed sun-bleached path winding amongst a diversity of colourful knee-high shrubs, and with open views to the east coast.

Finally, we joined the Tramline Track for a spell in the bush before joining the Kaitoke Hot Springs Track. We were almost out of time to meet our shuttle, but managed a cool dip in a side stream and a few minutes in the hot pools before power walking the final half-hour to where Nic and the shuttle were waiting.

Total Ascent
Easy / Moderate
Three days
Mt Heale Hut ($15, 20 bunks); Kaiaraara Hut ($15, 28 bunks)
Aotea Road or numerous other access points.

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Aotea Track via Aotea Road (gpx, 24 KB)

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