Nature walks near Auckland

To new comers, New Zealand may appear as Nature's promised land. The sort utopia where humans finally figured out that cooperation with the "wild things" wasn't such a bad idea after all, and if the old Alliance was restored, taken care of, nurtured, then rewards would be plentiful.

It wasn't always the case. Quite the contrary in fact. From early Māori settlers in 1250 AD who had to turn to fishing for food - after all large birds had been hunted - to Europeans clearing lowland forests for farming in the 19th Century, this small nation is still trying to fix damages made centuries ago. If anything, taking Nature's gifts for granted was their only mistake, and should be a cautionary tale to all of us.

Ask a young Kiwi what's her motto, and "outdoorsy" will soon popup. That's the key. Over the years, Nature has become part of the nation's identity; this helped turn the tide in favour of comprehensive conservancy schemes, and the development of protected areas network. More importantly, wherever possible, the goal was to allow communities and nature to coexist.

Auckland, in the North Island of New Zealand, is one such example and offers attractive hiking trails less than an hour away from its city centre. Waitakere Ranges in the West, and Tawharanui regional park in the North (pronounce 'tafaranuee') are excellent locations for a week-end break amidst dramatic landscapes, or short day-trips for nature enthusiasts.

Waitakere Ranges, explore the rugged coast

Drive West on SH 16 for about 30 minutes from downtown Auckland, and reach Waitakere Ranges, a conservancy area covering over 16,000 hectares of native forest and coastline. The Park results from plots of land purchased by the municipality since the 1900s, and gifts of land by private donors. It was officially established in 1940 under the name of Auckland Centennial Memorial Park, and consists of 9 distinct areas.

Among them, Cascade Kauri Park, in the northern half of the Waitakere Ranges, retains much of its original character, despite former logging, with dense vegetation consisting of tree ferns, sedges, vines (lianes), and giant Kauri trees.

Giant Kauri tree, in Waitakere ranges.Giant Kauri tree, in Waitakere ranges, North Island of New Zealand.

The area is also an important ecosystem for native New Zealand birds, and is closely monitored by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. If you're lucky to spot Kaka (a colourful parrot), tomtits, tuis, and wood pigeons, Auckland's Ornithological Society uses crowd-sourced reporting to monitor their population.

For hikers, the park provide access to 29 tramping tracks, including the Montana Heritage Trail, a half-day easy nature walk through the ranges.

Continuing from Cascade Kauri park further West on Te Henga / Bethells Road is Bethells beach. With a wild surf, craggy headlands and inky black sand, the location is a good example of the west rugged coast, boasting a variety of waters and landscapes. While surf-sized swells might put off regular swimmers, the beach has several small natural pools, and behind the sand dunes, Lake Wainamu, all popular alternatives where kids can paddle in safety.

Bethells Beach, Waitakere Ranges, New Zealand.Bethells Beach and its characteristic inky black sand, just 35 km away from downtown Auckland.

The braves can join the Hilary trail via the Te Henga walkway; here, it's only a 10 km long tramp, and offers stunning views over the ocean, goes through coastal forest, and ends in Muriwai. Approaching the beach from the cliffs, hikers will enjoy a plunging view over the region's only Gannet colony, in residence from August to March, when they lay their eggs and raise their chicks.

Muriwai beach in Waitakere Ranges, New Zealand, at dusk.Muriwai beach in Waitakere Ranges, at dusk. Note the Gannet colony, atop the cliffs.

The sight of thousands of birds flying and feeding never fails to impress even the most seasoned travellers. On the backdrop of splendid ocean views, there's indeed a raw, untamed element, a sort of David Attenborough documentary unfolding before you, 10 meters away from Gannet chicks readying for their first flight, or hiding like small fluffy cotton balls in their parents' feathers.

Rolling hills in Tawharanui

New Zealand has a large diversity of landscapes, from subtropical islands in the Far North, to snowy peaks of the Fiordland National Park in the South. Auckland's region is no exception, and Tawharanui regional park couldn't be more different from Waitakere Ranges.

Tawharanui is located on a peninsula, 75 km north of Auckland. It was created in 1973, and established in 2000 as an open sanctuary, to represent a broad range of natural communities. Man-made landscapes such as pockets of farmland and rolling pastures, coexist with regenerating coastal forests, native bushes, on the backdrop of stunning ocean views with turquoise waters, and white sand beaches.

Tawharanui regional park near Auckland.Tawharanui regional park, near Anchor Bay.

Anchor Bay is a marine reserve, with opportunities to swim, surf and snorkel. Pods of orcas and dolphins are occasional sights in the area, and if you came with your Kayak, it's possible to watch them up close.

If you prefer taking a stroll along the beach, small caves are uncovered at low tide, and can be visited or you can also walk to small bays of pure beauty.

There are 5 different hiking trails managed by Auckland City Council, and designed to take hikers through different habitats. With the ecological trail being everyone's favourite, hikers will enjoy a diversity of landscapes, including seashore, costal wilderness, pasture and native bush. Trails going over hill tops offer wonderful vantage points, with striking view of the coast, and at a distance, Kawau Island.

The park is completely free of buildings, with grazing sheep here and there to remind us of its farmland origin. During the tourist season, you might bump into another group of hikers once in a day, and that would be all: despite its proximity to the capital - and flattering reviews -, Tawharanui remains Auckland's best kept secret.

A Tui, a passerine endemic to New Zealand, with its characteristic multicoloured iridescent feathers, and small tuft of white feathers at its neck.

Lesser known to New Zealanders, is the importance of this park to Biodiversity. Following an intense conservation program initiated in 2000, and the deployment of predator-proof fences, the bird life has been picking up and the park is now home to a number of endemic birds.

The area is perfect for bird watching and provides some of the best opportunities to see Brown Teal, Dotterel, Kaka, Saddleback, Kereru, the nocturnal Kiwi and most recently reintroduced, the Takahe. This critically endangered species is slowly raising the overall park popularity through public releases, and a growing number of visitors on the look out for any of the 256 specimens that are left.

Hike with a gourmet spirit

Both parks have recreational purposes with lots of well established hiking trails to explore on your own. There are also basic camping grounds if you want to spend the week-end under the stars; be aware however that they are for the hardy and the purist ! Facilities can be reduced to a strict minimum, and camp sites are not always accessible by car.

If your goal is to really go off the beaten track, cutting on your backpack load is an unevitable requirement. When solving this equation, food has to be invigorating and light-weight, being mouth-watering is all too often not the goal.

But what if you could add a great home-cooked menu to your day hike? A special something to eat with a lot of tasty bits thrown in?

Let's say an Italian approach to food, with a touch of kiwi savoir-faire.

Home-cooked feta quiche by Pamela Cullen (yes, Tristan's mom!). Be prepared for a picnic like no other.

There you go. Even their French guests nodded in respect. Tristan, the guide we're talking about (and also a promising photographer), paired with his mom, now in charge of meals.

We suspect it won't be long before his excursions are advertised with a copy of today's menu, as Pamela makes a point of having everyone smiling & well fed. Healthy, tasty, and inviting, that's her goal.

Of course, if you have a food allergy, simply let her know, there's a menu just for you.

Pictures Tristan Cullen ©
Text kimshi ©

Getting there (and why)

With the West or East coasts reachable from any point in town in less than 35 minutes, Aucklander's 'Outdoorsy' culture didn't come out of thin air. It's not to say that all its citizens know their parks like the back of their hands; in particular, Tawharanui has a lot of secluded beaches worth the walk, and quiet trails even at the height of the touristic season.

If you have a car, Waitakere Ranges and Tawharanui are accessed from the SH 16 West and SH 1 North, respectively.

Holidays are as much about enjoying a place, as to engage with a local culture. If you decide to trade your last minute day of shopping for a hike, you will better understand why in 2014, Auckland was ranked in the top 10 of the world's most liveable cities for the fith time in a row. And you'll spend a great day, filling your lungs with fresh air right from the Pacific Ocean.

    Guided walks in Waitakere Ranges and Tawharanui Regional parks

Tristan lives near Auckland, he has worked and lived abroad during a gap year, and returned to New Zealand to share his passion for Nature and conservancy. He operates eco-walks in Waitakere and Tawharanui regional parks.

If you have kimshi iPhone App, you can send him a direct message : Open in App or take a closer look at his Waitakere and Tawharanui guided walks.

Already a kimshi user? Send Tristan one quick 'hello' using the app messaging - that's how we make sure you're a human - and you're good to go! You can use tristan (at) kimshiapp (dot) com.

None of the above and a day hike with a gourmet picnic break sounds appealing? We're currently testing a web version of kimshi; in the interim, non iPhone users can contact hosts through emails by simply dropping us a message here.