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The lion, the volcano and the pint of beer

Photo: Alistair Hall
Distance
16km
Time
4-5hr
Grade
Easy/Moderate
Access
from the viaduct in Auckland City or from Onehunga Bay Reserve
Is it really tramping if you never leave the city? Alistair Hall walks Auckland’s Coast to Coast Walkway to find out

Cape Brett has one. So does Cape Reinga. There’s one on the tip of the Coromandel and a huge 66km one down in Canterbury that takes five days and traverses St James Conservation Park. Walkways are everywhere. Even in Auckland.

The notion you can walk from one side of New Zealand to the other, from coast to coast, in the space of a few hours is a tantalising prospect for any walker. For three Aucklanders, throwing in the prospect of discovering corners of the city we had never seen before and an ice cold beer at the end of a long hot day, and the Auckland Coast to Coast Walkway suddenly became a must-do.

Onehunga Bay Reserve is not your typical trail head. Instead of chirping birds and bush-fringed isolation, you’re greeted with power pylons and the constant rumble of cars and trucks speeding along the South-Western Motorway.

We’re here to see if you can get your tramping kicks without leaving New Zealand’s largest city. The walkway is no small fry; it’s 16km – more than many, but less than the greats – and involves a little more than 300m of ascent and a bit more descent. But where boots tread groomed trails on the St James Walkway, or sand on the Te Paki Coastal Walkway, hardy Coast to Coasters in Auckland mostly pound pavements. It’s knee-jarring. That’s why we brought our walking poles and heavy duty boots. The terrain might not be difficult, but it sure is hard.

Boots laced, gaiters tied, walking poles extended, we begin our tramp by dipping our hands in the Manukau Harbour – or more accurately what would have been the Manukau Harbour had the South-Western Motorway not blocked access. The plan was to do the same when we reached the Waitemata. A ceremonial touching of water to celebrate walking from one side of New Zealand to the other.

We follow the foreshore of the Onehunga Bay Reserve for all of 20m before leaving this nominal natural setting to cross the road where the first climb of the day awaits. Normans Hill Road is steep but the lovely character villas lining the street help make it a pleasant amble.

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Ducking and weaving beneath trees. Not quite ‘wilderness’. photo: Alistair Hall

A right turn down Grey St soon has us treading the first bit of green through Jellicoe Park. There’s history here – and on other walkway landmarks – to rival the Otago goldfields. It’s one of occupation, conflict and education. In one corner of the park stands the Onehunga Blockhouse, one of 10 forts built in 1860 to protect Onehunga residents from perceived attacks by Maori who were at the time organising themselves into the Kingitangi movement. It’s possible building the Blockhouse on a Maori kumara plantation upped the perceived risk a tad. The building housed 12 militiamen for a time and then in 1870 became a private school for three years. That the brick building still stands today is remarkable – it must be one of the oldest in the country.

The park is tiny and within a minute or two we have descended the grassy northern slopes to Quadrant Road.

Wandering along Quadrant Road, I finally get my bearings. So far, it’s all been new to me. I hadn’t even visited Jellicoe Park before but now we were approaching Trafalgar Square I suddenly had a sense of déjà vu. And then I realised why. Over the road was a house my wife and I had once hoped to buy, but that was at the start of the silly season in the Auckland property market and what would have sold for $500,000 a few months earlier eventually went for almost $800,000. Editor’s salaries just don’t stretch to that kind of coin.

But what I like about this discovery is how the little pockets of Auckland I know – the Onehunga Bay Reserve and the corner of Quadrant and Trafalgar – can so quickly be enlarged just by walking for 15 minutes. I realised this Coast to Coast was going to give me a more intimate understanding and knowledge of the city I have called home for a cumulative 20 years of my life.

We crossed Trafalgar Road at the first of eight pedestrian crossings on the walkway and while Scott and Wade joked this was about as far from ‘wilderness’ as you could get, I couldn’t help but think of the new volcanic hazard warning traffic lights on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is about as far from the city as you can get. If you can take the city to the wilderness and still call it a wilderness, why can’t the city be a wild place, too?

A prime example: as we wandered up Symonds Street towards the horrendously busy Royal Oak roundabout (think Wellington’s Basin Reserve in miniature: hundreds of cars, six exits all on a roundabout roughly the size of a 50 cent coin), Wade recounted the tale of the Zookeepers Son, a pub just up the road. Back in 1912, John James Boyd decided to open a zoo in Royal Oak. It proved tremendously popular until sensitive neighbours started noticing an odious smell from the property. And while that would no doubt have done for the zoo eventually, the cause of its demise was an escaping lion which scared the locals witless. Public pressure forced the zoo to close in 1922 and the animals moved to the Auckland Zoo while today the Zookeepers Son keeps the legend of Boyd, the lion and zoo alive.

You can’t get much wilder than free-roaming lions, I suggest once Wade finishes his tale. We would have debated the point over a pint at the Zookeepers Son were it not 10am and closed.

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Taking a break on One Tree Hill, just like any tramper in the ‘real’ wilderness would. Photo: Alistair Hall

Onwards we tramp, successfully negotiating the roundabout via a pedestrian crossing to walk along Manukau Road to what we expect to be the highlight of the tramp: One Tree Hill Domain and Cornwall Park. Together, these two parks comprise 220ha and the largest section of off-road walking on the tramp. Even so, we encounter little in the way of wilderness; there’s no Spaniard grass to dodge here, but there is plenty of sheep dung. As Olive Grove turns to Bollard Ave, we breathe a sigh of relief when the Coast to Coast trail markers finally lead us into some almost serious tramping country. We duck and dive beneath awkwardly-growing trees and negotiate our way around one of One Tree Hill’s three craters on a narrow path that would send the less goat-like walkers on a steep tumble onto the rocks below thoughtfully shaped into words like ‘Love you’. Maungakiekie, as One Tree Hill is also known, was once home to Kiwi Tamaki, paramount chief of the Waihua iwi, and his 4000 warriors. That was around 1740, but even today you can see the terracing and storage pits they carved out of the volcano.

Reaching the summit of One Tree Hill, we had made good time and felt we had things well under control. So much so that we found a quiet spot on one of Tamaki’s terraces with a view that stretched over Auckland’s posher suburbs towards Rangitoto Island and boiled the billy for a cuppa. Nothing beats a brew in the backcountry. Or the front country for that matter. While I’d thoughtfully brought along three teabags, the other guys didn’t think to bring a cup. Wade won the toss and used my spare mug while Scott insisted he’d prefer a latte from the café in Cornwall Park, anyway. Wade and I could only shake our heads at his JAFA-ness. But then Wade complained of chaffing while at the same time putting a plaster over a blister that had formed on his hand from the rubbing of his walking pole.

It’s a shame there’s little information along the trail about what a momentous park One Tree Hill Domain is. We were drinking tea and lying on what used to be a fortified pa. People once lived here, were probably slain here. Kiwi Tamaki, the paramount chief, was killed in battle at Big Muddy Creek, known in Tamaki’s time as Paruroa, on the Manukau Harbour. Leading up to the battle, Tamaki’s warriors had killed members of neighbouring Te Taou iwi at a funeral feast. Seriously weakened by Te Taou, the remaining members of Waihua abandoned Maungakiekie which stayed unoccupied until Europeans began arriving. There’s so much history here, but why did I have to learn it all after the walk? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some of this information dotted around the park?

We were about a third of the way into the walk so stowed the stove, hauled on our packs and descended the hill towards Cornwall Park on the northern side of Maungakiekie.  It may only be 183m high, but Maungakikie’s grass-covered slopes are as treacherous as any tussock-filled highcountry landscape. Only Wade dared the direct route, using his walking poles to prevent a slide. Scott and I searched for an easier route and found a dirt track.

Beneath towering pines we strode to Green Lane West and crossed over to Puriri Drive – another part of Auckland I had never been to. At the end of the drive is a statue of Sir John Logan Campbell, one of Auckland’s founding fathers and the man who gifted One Tree Hill estate to the people of New Zealand. I have no idea how he came to own land that once belonged to Maori.

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On the summit of One Tree Hill. Photo: Alistair Hall

We were now back on Manukau Road and having to dodge an avalanche of speeding cars to reach the opposite side. There’s no pedestrian crossing here and it’s heart-stopping stuff when Scott spills coffee down his shirt, scalding his chest causing him to pause briefly in the path of an oncoming truck. I grab him by his pack straps and haul him to safety.

Well, it might not have been as dramatic as all that, but after the tranquillity of One Tree Hill, Manukau Road is a disorienting place of toxic exhaust fumes and impatient drivers in multi-tonne beasts. We can’t be rid of it soon enough and welcome the walk through Melville Park.

We’re meant to pass through the grounds of Auckland College of Education but find a massive construction effort underway and the route blocked by wire fences and bollards. It’s like being confronted with a massive landslip in the backcountry. There’s no signage indicating a diversion, so we do what most sensible people would and decide to force our way through the construction zone. We find a weak point and heave the fence open just wide enough to squeeze through. We wander the ruins of the deconstructed buildings looking for an out, but the fences are all strapped together and we can’t prise them open. And then suddenly our party of three becomes four, though the heavy-set security guard has no desire to go tramping.

“You aren’t supposed to be here, how did you get in?” he challenges.

“Um, the fence down there was open,” is my rather weak reply. He arches his eyebrow, clearly not believing me. “So, um, how do we get out?” I add. “We’re doing the Coast to Coast Walkway. I’m writing about it.”

Magazines obviously aren’t his thing, because he turns us on our heels and marches us back to the ‘opening’ in the fence.

 

We end up walking through neighbouring Auckland Normal Intermediate and then onto Epsom Road, directly opposite the pinnacle of the tramp: Mt Eden/Maungawhau. At 196m, this is the tallest volcano in Auckland and an absolute tourist magnet. On a quiet day you’ll share your five minutes on the summit with a hundred others. On a busy day, coach loads of foreigners will be swarming the open tops. Not too dissimilar to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, then.

We make our way up a dirt path and then spy a goat track offering a more direct route to the top. The humidity is unbearable and we soon break out in a sweat as we struggle up the steep slope, ticking off false summit after false summit and only encountering one dog walker and his daughter on the way. But any hopes of it being quiet on top are dashed when we climb the last grassy knoll and almost run straight into a couple so glamorous and beautiful they’re obviously not Kiwis. We hear some unidentifiable but sexy European language in their conversation so speculate they have been involved with the ASB Classic tennis tournament in which just the day before Venus Williams had lost to Ana Ivanovic in the final.

Time on the bustling summit is hardly enjoyable: a cool westerly wind is picking up which offers relief from the humidity, but is bringing with it rain.

“We really want to get down from altitude before the weather packs it in,” Wade says.

“Every 10 metres altitude you drop you double your chances of survival,” adds Scott, who’s been researching a trip to Nepal and obviously knows his stuff.

We quicken our pace off the hill and onto Clive Road, past Auckland Grammar School, over the Southern Motorway (SH1) and onto Park Road which gives access to the wide open expanse of Auckland Domain. Dozens of cricket gamers are in progress, but not for much longer: the clouds look really threatening now. Wade and I have rain jackets, but Scott came woefully unprepared for adverse conditions. If this were the Tararuas, he’d be a dead man walking.

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At the finish line – the Viaduct is home to plenty of pubs for a meal and pint. Photo: Alistair Hall

Luckily we’re in genteel Auckland Domain and we rush through the park to the café near the Winter Gardens to find shelter beneath a tree just as a typically heavy Auckland downpour is unleashed. Sipping our water we contemplate something sturdier, like a latte, but then the rain miraculously stops and we take our chances in the open again.

Rather than walk the official Coast to Coast route down Centennial Walk, Wade and Scott lead me down a track marked Lover’s Walk. I’m suddenly on high alert and suspicious of their motivation for joining me on this tramp. But Lover’s Walk is actually a beautiful bush trail and even crosses a babbling stream. Led here blindfolded, you’d never guess you were in the middle of downtown Auckland.

We pop out of the bush next to the ASB tennis centre where we encounter another security detail. This time the beefy guards are protecting the Heineken Open tennis players who are practising inside.

The rain starts again and the temptation is to skirt the last climb of the day, up Grafton Road. Wade can’t be poked, but I insist and say he’ll thank me for it later. He’s already walked the Coast to Coast he reminds me, he doesn’t need to do it by the book. But he comes anyway and later quietly puts another plaster on another blister.

Down Princess Street and onto Customs Street, we can almost taste the salt in the air from the Waitemata. Soon enough we’re on Quay Street and then we’re hunting for access to the water. It’s been blocked off by a German sausage stall, but we suck in our tummies and squeeze past so we can dip our hand in the Waitemata. Mission almost accomplished: just three more minutes and we’re standing at the plaque that marks the start and finish of the Auckland Coast to Coast Walkway. We’re all feeling smashed, like we’ve done some hard yards.

We pull up a seat in the nearby Waterfront Bar and peruse the menu. We’re starving and thirsty. A beer always tastes good after a tramp.

But was it a tramp?

“Depends how you define a tramp,” says Wade. “If it involves a long walk, then yeah, this was a tramp. It’s part of the Te Araroa Trail, which is a tramping trail.”

That’s good enough for me. Even in the heart of Auckland, there’s good tramping to be had.

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