Summer is upon us.
Rather than spending all day sitting in front of the computer or watching television, this is the time to get out there and enjoy nature. If we are to put effort into protecting our environment, we need to develop an appreciation for it. This starts with our kids.
So, once you have finished reading this, I urge you to strap on your shoes and get involved in our natural world. Aotearoa has so much to offer if you just challenge yourself to get into it. Here is a brief guide, in geographical order, to some of my favourite spots in the North Island to check out (the South Island guide will be published on Christmas Day):
1. Hokianga Harbour
A shining gem in the North, the Hokianga is the kind of place where kids ride naked bareback on horses to get down to the beach. Opononi, made famous by a friendly resident dolphin is an excellent launch-pad to go sliding down the sand dunes on the North Head of the harbour (a $20 boat ride last time I checked).
Just down the road, you have the majestic Tane Mahuta (The King of the Forest) - which is the world's largest Kauri Tree. He has his own ecosystem at the top, which is packed full of epiphytes. This is a very easy, two-minute walk from the road. Make sure to clean your footwear as Kauri Dieback disease is threatening even this incredible specimen.
2. Tutukaka and the Poor Knights
Jacques Cousteau called Blue Mao Mao Arch at the Poor Knights one of the top 10 dive spots in the world and having spent a Summer working out there I can see his logic.
The island marine reserve has been closed to commercial fishing for 32 years and completely closed to any fishing for 15.
Going in the water gives an astounding glimpse of what it used to be like before we started pillaging the ocean comprehensively. It is inspiring for people of any age, particularly if you book a trip with Dive! Tutukaka, who can cater for people of any age and even have a boat that has an underwater camera with a live link for those who are curious, but don't want to enter the crystal clear water.
3. Aotea / Great Barrier Island
This really is one of my favourite places in the world. With a resident population of only around 500 people, "The Barrier" is a very special place indeed. There is a high chance you will see dolphins on your way out of the Hauraki Gulf if you catch the Sealink Ferry direct from Auckland, or for those who would prefer to soak up the aerial vista Great Barrier Airlines and Fly My Sky offer regular services. Once there you can save your footprint by hitchhiking - it is standard practice to pick people up whenever a stuck out thumb is seen.
Hot pools, walking tracks, white-sand beaches, historic areas and surfing - this place really has it all. You just have to get there to understand how special it is.
4. Goat Island Marine Reserve
For those who want to save a few dollars but still want to take their kids to see giant snapper and crayfish, Goat Island is ideal. Established in 1975 this was the first marine reserve implemented on mainland New Zealand and the results make it remarkable.
You can book a guided dive or snorkel trip through Goat Island Dive.
Situated near Leigh, you can also find excellent campgrounds and beaches in this area, like Pakiri.
5. Tawharanui Peninsula
Another marine reserve exists in Tawharanui, but it isn't as good for diving - this place has a predator exclusion fence, meaning that native birds thrive.
There is a lovely beach for those wanting to take it easy and a variety of walks through the native bush that offer something for explorers of any ability. The Fisherman's track is one of my favourites - an easy 40-minute excursion with beautiful forest cover and deafening bird song.
Tawharanui is only one and a half hours from Auckland City so it's perfect for day trips too.
6. Cathedral Cove
Locals have fought a bitter fight against developers to keep Cathedral Cove how it is currently. When you go there, you will immediately understand why.
The natural rock formations here and shining white sand beach makes this one of the most amazing coastal locations on offer in our 15,000+ km of coastline.
It is, however advisable to go early in the morning (go at sunrise- it is worth it!), because in the middle of the day, it will be packed with tourists who also want to soak up the splendour.
After a day exploring around here, go down the road to Hot Water Beach, hire a spade and have yourself a hot natural bath to rest your weary bones.
When most people think about the East Coast, it is all about beaches. If you want the best view of the coast imaginable, then make the trek up to the lakes at Waikaremoana.
The name is Maori for the "sea of rippling waters" - and the famous 3-4 day great walk will not disappoint. Giant podocarp trees, remote beaches and an amazing view make this one of our country's very special natural areas.
Before the lion's share of mountains in the East Coast had the native trees ripped out for forestry (which has created a serious sediment problem for the area's waterways) much of the area was like this. Those who love nature can thank their lucky stars that this place is within the protected area of the Te Urewera National Park.
8. Whaingaroa / Raglan
As far as the wild west coast goes, Raglan is a special place. Famous for its surfing, there is a lot more on offer here for those who make the effort of connecting with the local community who are very much at one with nature and very much against the current plans to exploit the oil and iron sands of the area.
Raglan has an epic array of organically grown produce, permaculture workshops for the curious and excellent walking up Mount Karioi. A snaking road will take you to see the giant waves roll in at Ruapuke Beach and on the way back you can drop into the Bridal Veil falls.
If you want to take a leaf out of the locals' book and stay somewhere that will connect you with nature, stay in an upcycled train carriage or a mud-hut at Solcape Eco Retreat
9. Kapiti Island
When I was 10-years-old, I was lucky enough to go on a school trip out to Kapiti Island. Having a giant tame kaka land on my shoulder and steal my sandwich from my hand during this trip was an unforgettable experience. It made me realise that we are the major threat to our native birds and when they have grown up without this, they will actually come to you rather than bolt away.
Organise a tour through Kapiti Island Nature Tours and you will probably get to see kereru (NZ pigeon), North Island tomtit, kaka, whitehead, tui, fantail, long-tailed cuckoo (in summer only) and silvereye.
Seeing as it provides an excellent predator - free location, stitchbird, kokako, takahe, brown teal, and saddleback have all been transferred to Kapiti since the 1980s.
10. Zealandia - The Karori Wildlife Sanctuary
For an easy excursion out of Wellington City, Zealandia offer you the opportunity to experience nature close-up without the expense and hassle of going offshore.
By erecting a comprehensive predator-free fence (largely through volunteer efforts) the Trust who runs the sanctuary has created a veritable "island" in the middle of the capital city.
A visitor's centre complete with café means that you can make a day of it connecting with nature up here.
The amazing effects of this sanctuary are well known by Wellingtonians - the birds have worked out that they can nest in the sanctuary yet explore throughout the city. The epic birdsong of Tui can be heard for miles around the sanctuary and hordes of Kaka swoop through the urban area in search of food.