Dougal Burfoot feels lucky to be living in one of Auckland's nicest rural havens. He tells Elisabeth Easther why.
If you don't live in Stillwater, or know someone who does, you probably haven't been there. It's the best kept secret in Auckland so I'm a little loath to tell people about it, but here we go.
Auckland's northern urban sprawl once stopped at Long Bay on the North Shore and then, 10km further north, it began again in the town of Silverdale/Orewa. The green belt in between, the Weiti Forest and Station, remained largely undisturbed for years and, right smack in the middle of that green belt is the small town of Stillwater - although I don't know if you can call Stillwater a town, as it's really just a smallish cluster of about 400 houses.
The jewel of Stillwater is, as the name implies, the tranquil waters of the Weiti estuary, which are a mecca for kayaking, snaking from the sea entrance just north of Long Bay to the town of Silverdale about six kilometres upstream.
Stillwater lies at one end of the Okura Walkway, which is a three-hour walk through large tracts of quintessential northland native bush, brimming with mature kauri and thick groves of nikau.
The area also offers magnificent views of the Hauraki Gulf and islands and you can see countless varieties of rare sea birds including the New Zealand dotterel.
You cannot cycle the Okura walkway, so for cycling we head into the back roads of Waitoki and Puhoi. The Weiti estuary used to be the main method of transport in and out - from as far back as 1860 the boats carried the local produce, mainly fruit and kauri gum from Silverdale down the navigable river to the open sea.
Apart from domestic orchards, the only remaining evidence of our horticultural beginnings is a solitary tree outside the gate of the camp ground. The "Big Old Pear Tree" (named for its three significant features) still bears fruit.
We have lived here now for more than 17 years, in the same house, so we are almost considered locals. We have a large property that slopes down to the water's edge, the song of countless tuis and the occasional bell bird can be heard most mornings and evenings and the wood pigeons use the spaces in our garden as high speed flight corridors.
Luckily we hear them coming, so can generally duck to avoid a hit.
Our three children have spent all their lives here, and the area caters well for children.
There's a kids' playground in the park at the end of the road and a great wharf for swimming and fishing off, and an abundance of trees to climb - not to mention the estuary for adventures. There are great schools nearby with buses to all of them. All our three went through Silverdale Primary, Northcross Intermediate, and now Long Bay College.
In the holidays and long weekends the camp ground swells with Auckland escapees; a lot of them stay all summer as the commute is just 30 minutes from downtown.
At the moment, the community focal point is the Stillwater Boat Club. They hold various social functions, formal winter dinners, Christmas parties, dinghy races, and themed parties as well as boating-related workshops. They have a bar and do light meals, and there's an all-tide launching ramp, trailer parking and wharf. Stillwater also has a weekend radio station - Blenz 107.7 FM, with plans for the future to broadcast fulltime.
There's a strong Ratepayers Association, currently working hard towards providing a new community hall. The Reserve has been chosen as the site with some funding promised by council.
Apart from the boat club, there are no cafes or restaurants in Stillwater, so the nearest cafe I would recommend is the newly refurbished historic Wade Hotel in Silverdale. It's open for wonderful lunches and dinners and we rate it very highly.
With limited eating out options, a midweek lunch date can often mean loading up the double kayak with my wife, Michelle, Rocky the cocker spaniel, and taking a hamper of food for the 40-minute kayak to Dacre Cottage at Karepiro Bay.
I am inspired by Stillwater's old world feel, its tranquillity, and its silence. The type of silence you notice, pierced only by birdsong, the bark of a dog or the laughter of people. When people discover Stillwater, they tend to stay for the long haul although we think the secret may be out, as the number of BMWs and Audis cruising our streets is slowly increasing and there are rumblings in the hills behind us from big developers.
But with that comes their promises of mountain bike and walking trails and perhaps even a cafe. We shall see.
Dougal Burfoot is a noted photographer who lives in Stillwater with wife Michelle, their children Jacqui (17), Megan (15), Scott (13), and Rocky, the spaniel. One of Dougal's photos features in NZ Life: NZ Geographic Award Winning Photography, at Auckland Museum till October 22. More of Dougal's photos can be found at his website.
* Stillwater Boat Club: 70 Duck Creek Rd, Stillwater 0993. Supports the local community with a wide range of events, and also a weekly playgroup.
* Stillwater Motor Camp: Duck Creek Rd, RD 3 Silverdale, Orewa. Ph (09) 424 7518. Heaven on Earth, but shhhh, don't tell anyone.
* Wade Hotel, 2 Tavern Rd, Silverdale. Ph (09) 426 4311. Great food, great service and reasonably priced.