Great Barrier Island: The jewel of the Gulf

By Cliff Taylor

Great Barrier is regenerating after its destructive past, finds Cliff Taylor.

Great Barrier Island's Palmers Beach, Kaitoke Beach and Medlands. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Great Barrier Island's Palmers Beach, Kaitoke Beach and Medlands. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Everyone likes to imagine that they might come across something truly extraordinary during their adventures in the great outdoors. A mythical creature, like the yeti, or a surviving remnant of an extinct species. A moa perhaps.

Okay, that didn't exactly happen to me on Great Barrier Island, barely 100km from downtown Auckland, but I did have an encounter with an unknown animal, a creature from the deep, no less. But, more of that later ...

Great Barrier (Aotea) is the jewel of the Hauraki Gulf, a place of quite astoundingly wild natural beauty, existing side-by-side with a fascinating, if destructive, history.

The recent building of a large new hut on the slopes of Mt Heale by the Department of Conservation has opened a multi-day tramp, the Aotea Track, through the heart of the island, a three-day journey through an ever-changing landscape of wetlands, streams, heathland, mountains and dramatic gorges, set most of the time against a breathtaking vista of beaches, blue sea, neighbouring islands and the Coromandel Peninsula.

The circular route is rugged enough to satisfy experienced trampers, yet accessible to most people with a good level of fitness. It is possible to experience a true sense of wilderness, yet never be more than three or four hours' walk from the coast or a road.

The Aotea circuit can be completed in either direction and joined or exited from various access points. After arriving at the airport in Claris, I was dropped off by DOC ranger Rebecca Gibson at the start of the Kaitoke Hot Springs track, on Whangaparapara Rd.

It's an easy walk to the hot springs on a well-formed trail which crosses wetland then meanders through regenerating kanuka, nikau and ponga. A relaxing soak in the thermal waters of Kaitoke, surrounded by native bush, would probably be best appreciated after the hike rather than at the outset. But any time is good for this natural luxury.

Across the stream and the route climbs steeply to the Tramline track, named after one of the rail lines used to haul kauri logs from the bush. Aotea's kauri forests were virtually destroyed by logging throughout the 19th century and midway through the 20th.

In fact, the island was targeted by early settlers in a number of extractive industries, with scant care for the environment. For more than a century they logged and mined and whaled as hard and fast as they could, leaving the island a shadow of its former self. Today, it is still an environment in rehab, although thankfully the kauri is regenerating strongly.

The Peach Tree track climbs higher into the ranges, crossing what resembles a giant forested crater rimmed with soaring stumps of rock, like broken teeth. It emerges on to alpine-like heathland with low-growing vegetation and lichen. It is so silent you can hear the buzz of a single fly.

Three hours after setting out, I arrive at the DOC hut below Mt Heale where, quite abruptly, the view to the west is spread out at my feet, rocky ranges descending to Port Fitzroy with Little Barrier Island (Hauturu) silhouetted on the horizon. It's a spectacular place to spend a night.

The morning comes quietly on Mt Heale. The dawn chorus is surprisingly muted, a solitary tui, a pair of kaka flying overhead, compared to the avian choral masterpiece I'd heard on Little Barrier a few days previously. The difference between the two is that Little Barrier is pest-free, whereas Great Barrier, while it doesn't have possums or other browsing mammals, does have cats and rats. The latter are particularly destructive, not only devouring eggs and young birds, but also the seeds required to create the forest habitat.

The battle against predators is an ongoing, some say unwinnable, struggle. The locals do their bit. One islander in his 70s reckons he has shot more than 300 feral cats from his window in the past five years. He's also bumped off 4000 mynahs and more than 12,000 rats.

A more welcome creature the island sustains is a very special lizard, New Zealand's largest, the chevron skink, unique to the two Barrier islands. If you're lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of this elusive creature, which can grow up to 30cm long.

Back on the trail, the clockwork click and whirr of cicadas starts before sunrise. It's a half hour hike up a twisting wooden staircase, to the peak of Mt Hobson (Hirakimata) at 627m. The 360-degree view of the Hauraki Gulf is magnificent, the waves on Kaitoke Beach clearly audible and, further north, the broad sweep of Whangapoua visible .

It is possible to reach the spectacular Windy Canyon in about 45 minutes, crossing heathland through a landscape of imposing rock towers. The climb back up the steps to Hirakimata is challenging, but the forest is quite lovely.

The route to Kaiaraara Hut descends steeply, following the stream of the same name. It develops into a deep and dramatic gorge, with majestic cliffs towering hundreds of metres overhead.

The Kaiaraara kauri dam, built in 1926, is an engineering marvel and a reminder of the wanton destruction inflicted on this place. Vast quantities of water and kauri logs were trapped behind the 14m wooden structure, which was then 'tripped' to send the timber thundering down the gorge to the sea. The spectacle was said to be terrifying. The roar could be heard across the island and the flood shook the ground, obliterating everything in its path.

The following morning I awake at Kaiaraara Hut to the sound of a North Island robin singing its heart out in a kanuka tree. The final day's walk follows an old forestry road, lined with fine kauri trees. Two forest giants stand together just off the road. How they survived the bushman's saw is a mystery.

A few minutes off the trail Mt Maungapiko thrusts its rocky head through the forest. A short scramble over wind and water-sculpted stone gets you to the summit, from where the heart of the island and the western bays are laid out in panorama. The heads of slim young kauri rise all around and it's possible to grasp the extent of regeneration which is occurring. It provides a glimpse into the past and a vision of what it will look like in the future when the scars have healed.

The track turns on to the Tramline which drops towards the coast and The Green campsite, passing a route named after a man who operated a steam driven hauler to drag out the fallen kauri. It seems scarcely credible that this quiet forest could have once resounded to such an industrial din.

Before I leave the bush though, I'm tempted to take a dip in the alluringly-named Kauri Falls, just off the main track. It's paradise, sunlight lancing into a perfect, bush-framed swimming pool. I'm standing there up to my waist, enraptured by the scene, about to duck under again, when It strikes, clamping Its jaws on to my foot. With a primal yell I virtually walk on water to reach the shore. I raise my foot which is starting to drip with blood.

I never saw what bit me. My guess is an eel. But be warned - it's still out there. And it's tasted human blood ...

Cliff Taylor travelled to Great Barrier with the assistance of the Department of Conservation.

- Herald on Sunday

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