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Best of the west

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November 2021 Issue

Having neglected his local tramping ground for too long, Matthew Cattin set out to walk every reopened track in the Waitākere Ranges.

It started as an offhand idea, but quickly became an obsession; to walk every open track in the Waitākere Ranges. Despite living my whole life in Tamaki Makaurau, I’d logged most of my tramping miles beyond the city limits, and decided that ought to change. 

I’ve always loved the west coast – I guess it’s in my genes. My parents grew up in the western suburbs and dad spent weekends of his youth launching himself off the cliffs beneath the wings of homemade hang gliders – a hobby he quickly gave up when he had children. 

My 20s weren’t quite so daring, but I did spend many summer days getting railed in the unforgiving surf and burning my feet on the coal sands. In terms of tramping, I had accomplished very little – a small overnight section on the Hillary Trail as a teenager, and a few day walks here and there. 

But this year, I found myself a student again and with newfound flexibility to explore on quiet weekdays, so I decided to make the best of the west. Though the lockdown cut short my goal of walking every track, I did manage to walk all but 10 of the tracks open at the time of publication.

Mercer Bay Loop shows off Auckland’s highest cliffs. Photo: Matthew Cattin

But aren’t the Waitākere Ranges closed?

Let’s open with the bad news; no matter which way you slice it, the glory days of the beloved Waitākere Ranges are over. According to Auckland Council, the ranges contain the highest density of kauri trees infected by kauri dieback of any forest in Aotearoa, and in an effort to contain the spread, many of the tracks will never reopen. The once extensive network has been reduced to a fraction of its former self. And the freedom of off-track exploration is off the cards completely. It’s not ideal, but neither is the loss of kauri. The good news is Auckland Council has been spending millions of dollars upgrading selected tracks to be somewhat dieback-proof, so many of the most popular – and best – tracks have reopened.

So they’ve reopened, but what are they like?

The kauri dieback pathogen spreads via the movement of soil, so this has meant huge upgrades to infrastructure, with extensive drainage, gravel and boardwalks. For some trampers, this has felt like the sanitisation of the outdoors – a violation of the connection trampers cherish with nature.

I understand that viewpoint but there are positives to consider, too. The upgraded tracks are more accessible to all trampers and due to the gravel and numerous dieback stations, boots will rarely need a deep clean at home. I walked the majority of the tracks during winter and only once did I encounter serious mud.

Regardless of opinion, however, I feel that any level of access that protects kauri is worth gratitude, as the alternative is a choice between the complete closure of Auckland’s greatest green playground or further loss of kauri.

Where should I tramp if I am missing the mud?

If you tend towards Type 2 fun or crave a more authentic wilderness experience, Te Henga is the track to tackle. Stretching between Te Henga/Bethells Beach and Muriwai, the 10.3km walkway is the longest single track still available in the Waitākere Ranges. It’s hugely popular, but few venture past the viewpoint at Raetahinga Point, if walking north. Perhaps it’s due to the sudden transition from well-groomed track to mud-fest, or it may be that few trampers are willing to walk 20.6km of exposed track to make it a return journey. Whatever the reason, the section north of Raetahinga tends to be isolated, save for hardy trampers or trail runners.

The views are open and expansive as the undulating track crosses coastal farmland and small sections of native bush. Though it’s rated as 3hr 20min one way, I was back at the car within 6hr and barely saw a soul.

The view from Mt Donald McLean illustrates just how much the Waitākere Range is all of Auckland’s ‘backyard’. photo: Matthew Cattin

And what if I’ve got just a few hours?

If you’re short on time, combining the Mercer Bay Loop Track with Comans Track to link South Piha with Karekare is worth considering. The loop shows off the highest cliffs in the Auckland region and is a sure way to be humbled by the grandiose coast. It’s a heavily trafficked route – especially on weekends – so tackle it at sunrise or sunset, and avoid peak weekend hours if possible. From the Karekare car park, tacking on the short walk up the road to Tairere Track is worthwhile. It leads to Karekare Falls, a pleasant 30m horsetail falls.

What is the best adventure hub?

If you want a base in the Waitākere Ranges that allows you to tick off a number of hikes over a weekend, it’s hard to look past Piha. To the north, the Marawhara Walk climbs into the hills beyond the beach. This walk has nīkau groves and views to the ever-prominent Lion Rock. Linking with White and then Rose tracks, the route leads to the private and spectacular Whites Beach. Trampers can return via Laird Thompson Track, which descends from the clifftops to the northern end of Piha Beach. East of the quaint town centre, walkers can climb to Kitekite Falls, and either walk through to Piha Road or return via the Knutzen Track loop.

Southwards, Tasman Lookout Track has arguably the best vantage point of Lion Rock, Puaotetai Bay and Taitomo Island, and is a wonderful spot to catch the evening’s golden hour. Drive several minutes over the hill, and Karekare welcomes with a vast expanse of sandy valleys, hazy sea spray and staggering cliffs.

Most Waitākere Ranges tracks are okay for competent, accompanied youngsters as none of the reopened tracks are overly long or strenuous, and, if needed, many can be shortened. For the littlest legs, however, I would recommend visiting Arataki Visitor Centre on Scenic Drive. I’ve been to many visitor centres and this remains one of my favourites. There is plenty to explore inside for kids and gorgeous views to digest, overlooking the Lower Nihoputu dam and Manukau Harbour. A short jaunt on the Arataki Nature Trail provides an informative what’s what of native flora, and kids would have a great time ticking off the species. Best of all is the kauri cathedral – a quiet viewing platform amongst a towering stand of sizeable kauri.

If bigger leg stretches are needed, pack a lunch and combine the Beveridge, Pipeline and Slip tracks for a decent 2-3hr loop, or take Exhibition Drive to Titirangi for lunch.

Several walks are accessible from Piha, including Tasman Lookout. Photo: Matthew Cattin

What is the best track for families?

Most Waitākere Ranges tracks are okay for competent, accompanied youngsters as none of the reopened tracks are overly long or strenuous, and, if needed, many can be shortened. For the littlest legs, however, I would recommend visiting Arataki Visitor Centre on Scenic Drive. I’ve been to many visitor centres and this remains one of my favourites. There is plenty to explore inside for kids and gorgeous views to digest, overlooking the Lower Nihoputu dam and Manukau Harbour. A short jaunt on the Arataki Nature Trail provides an informative what’s what of native flora, and kids would have a great time ticking off the species. Best of all is the kauri cathedral – a quiet viewing platform amongst a towering stand of sizeable kauri.

If bigger leg stretches are needed, pack a lunch and combine the Beveridge, Pipeline and Slip tracks for a decent 2-3hr loop, or take Exhibition Drive to Titirangi for lunch.

Are there any underrated gems?

The dam tracks don’t sound appealing, and it’s hard to feel immersed in nature when trotting down a road rather than a track. But I thoroughly enjoyed the Waitākere Dam Track, a short, but steep, accessway to the historic dam, completed in 1910. The surrounding forest is stocked full of kauri and, surprisingly, more birdlife than I saw anywhere else, including an enjoyable encounter with a friendly North Island tomtit.

Views from the dam are quite something, and there’s a dramatic viewpoint at its base. As for beaches, Anawhata would be one of the least-visited though underrated on the west coast, perhaps due to its gravel access road. Trust me when I say it’s well worth the dusty back window.

The historic Waitākere Dam was built in 1910 and the surrounding forest is stacked with kauri. Photo: Matthew Cattin

And the best of the best?

The newly reopened Omanawanui Track is sensational. It ranks as arguably the most jaw-dropping section of track in the whole Waitākere Ranges. However, those who turn around at the trig station are missing out on what I believe is the best day of tramping in Auckland – the (unofficially titled) Whatipu to Huia traverse.

We’ve all seen the views on the popular Omanawanui section, but relatively few day walkers continue on the Puriri Ridge, Donald McLean and Karamatura tracks to reach Huia. It’s a bit of a hike and you might want to arrange transport at either end to avoid a 10hr-plus day, but boy, is it worth the effort.

Puriri Ridge Track snakes through some of the best kauri forest I’ve encountered in Waitākere and provides stunning glimpses west up the Omanawanui Valley. A junction provides a short detour to Mt Donald McLean, a 389m summit with two excellent viewing platforms; one gazing east to a distant Auckland City skyline with Rangitoto beyond, and one looking west to Whatipu.

Karamatura Track offers something different again; a dynamic valley descent alongside Karamatura Stream which encounters a waterfall, caves and historical artefacts. It’s a brilliant day walk I couldn’t recommend enough.

A quiet viewing platform among kauri on the Arataki Nature Trail. Photo: Matthew Cattin