It came as a bit of a surprise to me to learn that, as a visitor to Waiheke, I could avoid the hot, noisy slog up the busy road from the Matiatia ferry terminal to Oneroa village by exchanging it for a shady wander through a stretch of native bush. Thanks to volunteers from Forest & Bird over the past 20 years, regenerating bush now covers the valley on either side of the road, almost to the waters' edge.
And thanks to Auckland Council, a local guide and nature expert, Janine James from digiadventure, was contracted to guide the Waiheke Free Walks programme over summer. If, like me, you tend to be an impulse visitor and neglect to make a plan of what to do on the island, the free walks is an initiative that deserves all the support it can get. Unfortunately, it has ended for this summer (although discussions are under way to ensure its continuation).
But on the day I went Janine was there to meet the 10am ferry in her high-vis vest. She rounded us up and shepherded us along the water's edge to the start of the track in the Te Atawhai Whenua Reserve.
On this particular humid Saturday I was one of a widely aged group, from not quite 6 months old to 60, who set off crocodile fashion behind Janine into the bush. There was baby Croccie, mum Davina, a raft of excited children, a couple of parents and me. Although the headland is covered with different and well-sign posted walkways, we took the wetland one, edging up the lowest part of the hillside. The first thing I notice is the loud buzz of thousands of cicadas. Janine shows us the holes in the pathway from where they hatch before climbing up a tree and shedding their pupae shell to become the voice of summer.
The children attach the shells to their T-shirts as badges of honour and run on ahead. Within moments we are beside the raupo swamp with fantail doing their sweet flirtations around us. A kereru, too lazy to lift off despite our disturbance, sits just above our heads in a kanuka tree. Perhaps it is satiated from feeding on the now-ripe berries of the kawakawa, which as Janine points out tastes a bit like passion-fruit and garlic mixed together.
Janine calls for quiet as we enter a little glade by a bush stream. Here, she points out the shy native fish which live under the banks, and even the most boisterous of the children, who up until then have delighted in ambushing us navy seal-fashion from the bushes, are momentarily stilled. From our shady hillside we look down on the crowds slogging up the footpath beside the traffic and smugly reflect on our good fortune, but in no time at all we are at the top.
Janine, Davina, Croccie and I head off to the cafe at the Oneroa Bowling Club. This might have been the earliest bowling club in the country to allow mixed-gender bowling and, although the decor is a blast from the past, it now serves espresso.
We enjoy our toasted sandwiches, Croccie has her lunch courtesy of mum, and all seems right with the world. I know that now I've wet my feet with this Waiheke walk that I'll be back for more.
Fullers ferries: Waiheke return tickets, adults $35, children $17.50, family $89.
Digiadventure: ph Janine James, 027 465 7479, firstname.lastname@example.org. Private walks $60 per hour for up to 4 people and $10 per person thereafter. This easy walk took 35 minutes. Janine shares more about her happy place: Waiheke Island here.
Lunch stop: Oneroa Bowling Club, 1 Mako St, ph 372 7180
Whittaker's Music Museum: 2 Korora Road, Oneroa, ph 09 372 5573, open Sunday by arrangement, Mon-Sat 1pm-4pm.
Artworks Complex: Cnr Korora & Ocean View Roads, Oneroa, ph 09 372 2941.
Sea Kayaking with Ross Adventures: Near Matiatia wharf. Bookings essential, weather dependent, ph 09 372 5550.