Ten of the best: Walks in the upper North Island

Get into the great outdoors and take advantage of some of the natural experiences on offer.

Otama Bay on the Coromandel peninsula. Photo / Whitianga.co.nz
Otama Bay on the Coromandel peninsula. Photo / Whitianga.co.nz

Just in time for summer comes Best Short Nature Walks In New Zealand, by seasoned walking book author Peter Janssen. He lists more than 200 easy outings to make the most of the warmer weather, and show off the country to Christmas visitors. In this extract we've chosen 10 of the best walks in the upper North Island.

1. Tokatoka Peak, Dargaville

Impressive views over the Wairoa River from this old volcanic peak. At Tokatoka Tavern, on SH12 north of Ruawai, turn right into Tokatoka Road. The track begins about 1.5 km on the left by the Scenic Reserve sign. Medium, 40 minutes return.

Maungaraho Rock and Tokatoka Peak are the cores of old volcanoes that erupted millions of years ago and are all that remain as the outer volcanic material has eroded away.

From a distance the peak looks quite difficult to climb; in fact the ascent from the eastern side is not that hard, though the track, through regenerating bush, is not well formed and it is a bit of a scramble near the top.

The scramble is well worth the effort. To the east the views are inland to rugged bush-clad ranges while below the lazy Wairoa River snakes through the flat landscape as it wends its way south to Kaipara Harbour.

2. Okura Bush Walkway, north Auckland

Tidal estuary, regenerating kauri forest and a fine grove of mature puriri. Drive north on East Coast Road from its intersection with Oteha Valley Rd; after 4.5km turn right into Haighs Access Rd. The track begins at the end of this road. Puriri grove: easy, 45 minutes return. Sandspit in the river: easy, 1 1/2 hours return. Dacre Cottage: medium, 3 hours return.

Okura Bush is a mix of fine mature forest, regenerating kauri forest and tidal estuary. From the car park a good track passes over a small creek and into a dense and magnificent forest of mature puriri.

While the walk to historic Dacre Cottage on Karepiro Bay at the mouth of the Weiti River is 3 hours return, the puriri grove at the beginning of the track is worth a visit in its own right, and this initial section contains the best of the native bush on the walk. The bush borders the small Okura River and the tidal flats and shell banks are the home for many wading birds including oystercatchers, stilt and plover.

3. Whatipu

Isolated windswept beach and dunes, wild coast and sea caves. Take the road through Titirangi to Huia on the northern side of the Manukau Harbour. From Huia the road to Whatipu is narrow, winding and unsealed. The track starts from the northern side of the car park. Sea caves: easy, 30 minutes return. Ninepin Rock and Paratutae: easy, 1 1/4 hours return.

Only an hour's drive from downtown Auckland, you can walk along a windswept beach that feels a million miles from civilisation. The wetland between the cliffs and the beach is now an important habitat for water birds including duck, wrybill, heron, New Zealand dotterel, pied stilt as well as terns and gulls. The caves walk begins on the same track as the Gibbons Track (which leads inland), but branches off to the left and skirts the bottom of the cliff face leading to several large sea caves and a small camping area. The first part of the walk to Ninepin Rock and Paratutae is through dune vegetation to the beach, which first leads to Ninepin Rock (the rock with the lighthouse), and then to Paratutae, the much larger island to the left. On the harbour side of Paratutae lie a few weathered beams, all that remains of the wharf from where kauri was shipped in vast quantities.

4. Tawhitokino Bay, Firth of Thames

Lovely pohutukawa-fringed beach with safe swimming at all tides. From Kawakawa Bay, follow the coast road for 4km east to Waiti Bay to the car park at the very end of the road. The track leaves the car park from the right. Easy, 1 hour return.

This little-known bay is a real gem on the Firth of Thames coast with a long sandy beach, fringed by pohutukawa, kowhai and rewarewa trees. It is good for swimming at all tides and has an uninterrupted view of the Coromandel Peninsula. The track to the beach undulates through regenerating bush, passes through the equally attractive Tuturau Bay and over rocky headlands. It can be a little tricky at high tide.

5. Hunua Falls and Cossey Reservoir

Striking 28m waterfall, bush walks and a swimming hole. From Hunua Village drive north and then turn right into White Rd. After 1km, turn right into Falls Road; the car park is another 2km. Hunua Falls: easy, 10 minutes. Cossey Reservoir: easy, 3 hours return.

Especially impressive after heavy rain, the 28m Hunua Falls flow over hard basalt rock, the rim of an ancient volcano. There is a good picnic ground here and the huge pool at the base of the falls is a popular swimming spot. Two short walks on either side of the pool lead to lookout points over it. The falls are the starting point of a 3-hour walk to the Cossey Reservoir, through the modest Cossey Gorge and passing along the way fine stands of tawa and a small grove of good-sized kauri.

6. Waiau Kauri Grove and waterfall

A grove of mature kauri, including a tree with a double trunk. Just south of Coromandel town turn on to the 309 Rd, which is narrow, winding and unsealed. The kauri grove is on the left, 8km from the turn-off. Easy, 20 minutes return.

A small grove of massive old kauri, now accessible by an excellent short track. The boardwalk at one point entirely surrounds the trunk of a kauri so it is possible to touch and feel the texture of the bark. A short loop walk leads to an unusual double-trunked tree, which began life as two seedlings that eventually grew together and fused at the base. A short distance down the road, and just a 2-minute walk from it, are the small but pretty Waiau Falls.with a little pool.

7. Otama Beach

Pristine beach with a dune reserve. From Kuaotunu take Black Jack Rd. Otama Beach is 5km along this road, which is narrow, unsealed and winding. Easy, 30 minutes one way along the beach.

For many people Otama is the total Coromandel beach experience. A long stretch of white sand with only a few houses at the southern end, the beach is backed by sand dunes laced with spinifex and pingao which now form an important nature reserve protecting the whole length of the beach from further development.

8. Wairere Falls

One of the highest waterfalls in the North Island. The track to the falls starts at the end of Goodwin Rd off the Te Aroha-Okauia Rd about 20 km south of Te Aroha. Medium, 1 hours return to the Falls Lookout.

These spectacular 153 m falls drop in two stages over the Okauia Fault in the Kaimai Range. The falls are hidden for the entire walk only to be finally revealed from the viewing platform. The walk is a steady uphill grade until you reach a long flight of steps just before the viewing platform. If you want to go to the top of the falls it is a further 45 minutes. At the top of the falls in strong westerly weather, wind driving up the valley forces the water as far back as 50m into the bush.

9. Maungatautari Ecological Island

From Cambridge take Victoria St (the main street) over the Waikato River and follow Cook, Shakespeare and Browning Streets to the Maungatautari Rd. Once on the Maungatautari Rd drive for 14km and then turn right into Hicks Rd. Access to Maungatautari is at the end of Hicks Road. Northern enclosure: easy, 1 hour. Summit: medium, 4 hours return.

Bush-covered Maungatautari is an inspirational example of a community taking action to restore a local mountain with unrivalled dedication and hard work. Maungatautari is an extinct volcano rising to 797m just south of Cambridge, and most of the 3360ha is still virgin forest, including silver beech, a tree usually found much further south. Locals under the auspices of the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust have erected the longest predator-proof fence in the country. Native birds, including northern kaka, takahe and kiwi have been reintroduced, and a small colony of the rare Hochstetter's frog has been found on the mountain. In the northern enclosure are 'weta hotels', viewing boxes giving a close-up look at the world's heaviest insect.

10. Nga Tapuwae O Toi

Short sections of a 17km coastal walkway; walks over beach and through bush. Start at Otarawairere Bay: At the bottom of the hill on the road east from Whakatane just as it enters Ohope, turn left into West End Rd and go to the end. Walk along the beach toward the headland; the track starts at the base of the hill. Easy, 1 hour return.

Otarawairere Bay is a secluded beach only accessible on foot from the very western end of Ohope Beach. From a lookout point Ohope Beach and the eastern Bay of Plenty stretch out in the distance, framed in native bush including old pohutukawa, the home of tui and bellbird. The bay is enclosed by rocky headlands and overhung by large pohutukawa trees, an ideal destination for a warm summer's day or for an early morning walk. In the distance, White Island smoulders quietly.

* Extract from Best Short Nature Walks In New Zealand by Peter Janssen (New Holland, RRP $34.99). We have five copies to give away. To enter the draw email contact details to life@nzherald.co.nz by November 11.

- NZ Herald

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