Auckland: The Barrier really is Great

Elisabeth Easther pitched her tent on Great Barrier Island and was very reluctant to leave.

The beautiful Great Barrier Island.
The beautiful Great Barrier Island.

There were schools of fish so vast, the ocean's surface appeared to be boiling and, as the birds worked the buffet, the Sealink ferry ploughed its way across the sea. Occasionally the captain would reduce the throttle, so we could admire little blue penguins or a pod of dolphins that cavorted at the bow.

Following four and a half hours of smooth sailing, we disembarked at Tryphena, ready to negotiate the Barrier's bendy, slender roads.

Choosing a campground on Great Barrier isn't easy, because there are six Department of Conservation camping sites to choose from. Following a bit of research, we settled on Akapoua Bay at Port Fitzroy, 45 minutes drive north of the ferry - and what a winner. Picture a pastoral patch of green grass folded around a pretty little bay, pohutukawa along the banks, and rocks for paddling and hunting for crabs. Troops of waddling pateke (teal ducks) were keen to befriend us; clearly they have no idea they're endangered. Above our heads kaka flitted, the red beneath their wings lighting up the sky - boy, can they make a racket.

As the children tumbled about, exploring excitedly, the adults set up camp. Thanks to Adventure Capital who rent out the whole camping kit, we had one heck of a set-up. Everything we needed from bikes to bowls, head torches to kitchen sinks was in the kit. Having the place pretty much to ourselves, the kids used the expansive, well-manicured grounds to practice casting their fishing lines while clumsy kereru practiced crash landing in cabbage trees.

Keen to check the place out, we headed for Whangapoua Beach, 11km off the main drag along Mabey Rd. It's the most startlingly beautiful beach. Miles of soft white sand, a decent beach break, Rakitu Island decorating the horizon and the sea as clear as cut glass. Snorkels, boogie boards, sustenance and sunscreen - you don't need much here to make you happy.

Our alarm, bright and early the next morning, was the sound of the zip zip of our gang getting up for the day. Heading straight to the wharf at Port Fitzroy, the kids were keen for a morning fish. Lined up along the wharf, they cast their lines and reeled them in, while lavish boats came and went at the wharf - chaps on fishing charters looking a little worse for wear on a Saturday morning, clanking sacks of empties to the recycling stations.

Taking advantage of the kids being occupied with angling, I hotfooted it up the hill to knock off a walk that'd caught my eye, the Old Lady Track - how could I resist? Walking 35 minutes up the deserted road to get to the start of the track, I took a little less time to trundle down through bush at a steady trot. Morning birds, my kind of twitter, gossiped above my head, the lush native bush formed a protective canopy above my head. Several times the path criss crossed the creek - this may be called Old Lady Track, but I wouldn't suggest tackling it with a Zimmer frame.

Despite the island being our oyster, later that day we just wanted to return to Whangapoua: it's so lovely we had to go twice. Al though Okiwi Park by the school at the turn off to Whangapoua is stunning too. The little sign pointing to a reserve modestly understates what's there - a grotto of untold charmingness, green fields, a barbecue, picnic tables plus a rope swing, birdsong filling the air as eels cooed in the creek. The students' artwork was elegantly displayed in big wooden books, open them up and inside you'll find pictures and poems. This is the real country: the school not only leaves its grounds open to be respectfully played in, it even leaves the balls out too. Which is quite a comparison to our city schools where even the hoops are locked away.

Another must-do for us was Warrens Track. Starting at the back of the Akapoua Campsite, we walked for 15 minutes up stunning bush paths, more creek crossings, to the top where a crystal clear pool of icy cold water begs to be swum in. Nothing like a frigid dip to get the heart thumping - our skin tingled like it was hot, but our purple nails told us we were not. We had competitions as to who could stay in longest until, shivering and giggling, we tore back down to dinner, to warmth and to bed.

Far too soon, it was time to go home. Pins pulled, camp struck we still had time for a dip at Kaitoke Beach. The Mermaid Pools there are beyond gorgeous and once again, there wasn't a soul on the beach.

Back on the ferry, chaps argued the physics of dolphin propulsion as our mammalian friends played again in the bow. Goodness, how we love Great Barrier Island.

Elisabeth's party were guests of Sealink Ferry and the Department of Conservation.

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