A new enterprise at Kaipara gives city folk the chance to reconnect with the countryside during a three-day walk, writes Catherine Smith.
We urban Aucklanders tend to have a narrow view of our region. A conglomeration of city and suburbs with some lovely beaches on east and west coasts, some fingers of bush in the west and north. The green stuff in between barely rates our attention. Something to do with farming, isn't it?
Fortunately two farming couples in Kaipara, a mere 45 minutes north of Auckland, have figured that city folks might like to get closer to the land and have persuaded fellow land owners to open up their properties to walkers.
This summer they have opened Kaipara2Kaipara Walk, a three-day self-guided walk that passes across farmland, the dense native bush of Mt Auckland (Atuanui) and the salt marsh and coastal wetlands on the edge of the Kaipara Harbour.
But "walk" does not explain adequately what Jenny and Shane Hood and Steve and Clare Dill have created.
They've combined their loves to give those of us who've lost touch with any rural roots we may have had a taste of country life - Shane is a keen birder and volunteers for the Atuanui restoration project, Steve has recently joined Marks & Spencers' Plan A sustainability programme for his sheep and beef farm, and Jenny and Clare are passionate cooks and have researched and written about their district's nature and history.
The experience includes a detailed "passport" with sights and tracks well-marked, background stories, and stays at houses that could easily summarise the past, present and future of the Kaipara district.
The first day of the walk links the two couples' family properties. The night before is spent at Jenny's old family homestead, Mataia, near Glorit village.
Dating from 1891 when her feisty great-great-grandmother Louisa had nine children to house and a district to impress, it has been lovingly restored by the family and includes a country-sized vege garden, swathes of cottage flowers and an orchard of heritage fruit trees. This is a far cry from any hard-core tramping cabin.
The day ends at the Dill's fishing hut, tucked in bush next to the Pinui creek. Complete with solar heating, a hot shower and man-sized barbecues, this is how getting away should always be. Day two ends at Kaipara Views Eco Lodge with breathtaking views of the harbour and native bush. Two silent wind turbines mean the property is completely off-grid.
Being soft city-types, we chose the meal and pack carrying service, knowing the girls were keen on good food. This is truly local food: we had no compunction sharing their fabulous dinners made from the lambs and beef we'd passed on the walks; even the baking and chutneys in our packed lunch were from local Women's Division and grandmothers' cookbooks.
But it was the walks that took your breath away: literally and figuratively. There were a few steeper hill climbs through the farmland and bush on the first two days and at times I wondered at the sanity of early pioneers who cleared the magnificent kauri forest. But mostly we were walking through rolling countryside, and day three is mostly flat through coastal native forest and salt marsh wetland.
Everywhere there are side-tracks to stop and draw in the views, get up close to kauri or sit by the stream to eat. And conservation projects beside the Hoteo River, through the nikau bush of Mt Hobson and along the wetlands make it a bird-watcher's paradise.
To our embarrassment, on the second day we were joined by neighbours' kids aged 9 to 13, who led the march to the top of Mt Auckland at a fit-kid pace. Note to self, stop finding the flattest walking route to the office and do a bit more hill-work.
Luckily there was plenty of time to catch our breath in dappled patches of nikau in the bush, and the lookout at the summit of Mt Atuanui, at 305m, showed how the Kaipara is a narrow strip of land from east to the harbour on the west. The final day circles through the salt marshes back to the start.
We'll be back for more when we need to clear out our lungs and stretch our legs, and remind ourselves of Auckland's countryside as it used to be.
October 2014 update: The three-day K2K walk is not operating during the 2014/2015 season, however the two- and one-day walks and a horse trekking option are still available. For further information, see mataia.co.nz.
• The walk's start point is about 45 minutes' drive northwest of Auckland on SH16.
• The walk operates from October to April, bookings essential. Maximum of 10 walkers per section per day. Bring your own sleeping bags, linen provided. Average level of fitness required.