When you visit the Reptile Park at Ti Point (between Matakana and Leigh) make sure you come prepared to linger by the enclosures and look closely because when you do you are well rewarded. It can take time for the eyes to focus in on the lizards, skinks, geckos, chameleons, turtles, tortoises and alligators that live here.
For example, take one of the outdoor enclosures that house eastern water dragons, eastern bearded dragons, shingle-backed skinks and blue-tongued skinks.
Stand on the boardwalks that surround the mini-fields and initially you'll spy three or four of the residents; then you realise log and rock structures, indeed the ground itself, are alive with these exotic creatures. It quickly becomes a game to count how many you can see and then watch in wonder at the way they move and interact with one another.
Then there's Willy, a 40-year-old 248kg Galapagos tortoise who moved from Auckland Zoo to the Reptile Park nearly three years ago. It may not look as if he's up to much, but stand and watch awhile and Willy shows why he may just win a race against a hare.
The Reptile Park has been described as one of the Auckland region's "hidden gems" and it is a fascinating place to visit. About an hour north of central Auckland, the park is a small, private zoo, the only one in New Zealand that focuses on reptiles. It houses around 50 species, of which 15 are native.
There is no escaping the fact that some of the enclosures look as if they could do with TLC, but the myriad weird and wonderful creatures here are obviously well-loved and look happy and hearty. The park has a relaxed vibe, no doubt helped by its native bush surrounds and extensive views over the Pacific Ocean. You'll get plenty of glimpses of the sea as you make your way round an at-times steep loop pathway through the zoo.
Entry is through a set of exhibits that includes floor to ceiling enclosures housing New Zealand native geckos and skinks. There is information about these in this area, but the material isn't extensive and could benefit from having pictures of the various kinds in each enclosure to make it easier to work out what you're looking at and the differences between some species. Nevertheless, it is fun to let your eyes adjust to see where these beautiful creatures - protected by law - are hiding and you can always look them up later.
From there, you can head right to the outdoor fields where there are - as above - exotic lizards and myriad peaceful and unhurried-looking tortoises. To watch them is to wonder how leisurely life as a tortoise might be. We headed down the steep path where we came to a series of glass-fronted enclosures housing still more lizards.
Next up was a pair of cheeky brown capuchin monkeys, who seem kind of out of place in a reptile park.
The park used to be a zoo and these are the last of the mammalian residents. Knowing this also explains why many of the enclosures look as if they may have been more appropriate for other animals, but they have been modified to make them suitable for reptiles and are a good size and easy to see into.
There's a gorgeous shaded area on a patch of flat ground that is a great place to stop for a picnic lunch, which is exactly what we did. However, the girls - especially Miss 3 - did not want to linger over lunch because the American alligators are next to this area and, of course, alligators are among the most interesting reptiles to watch when you're a kid. We were rewarded by seeing one lumber out of its pool and on to the bank where it sat eyeing us and, no doubt, contemplating how it could break through the glass and mesh to check us out more thoroughly.
As we continued on our circuit, we passed terrapins, turtles, more bearded dragons and then reached a reptile house. As well as geckos and skinks, this section of the park also features Jackson's chameleons, tuatara, who seemed surprisingly active and animated, Japanese fire-bellied newts, various species of frog (although we didn't see any) and a very curious looking Florida soft-shelled turtle.
From there, it was back to the outdoor enclosures and the kids could have started all over again, so enchanted were they. Because many of these reptiles are so seldom seen, it's a genuine delight to see so many in one location and begin to gain an appreciation of their quirky characteristics.
Need to know
• Reptile Park, 27 Ti Point Rd, Warkworth. Open 10am-5pm. Adults $20, children $10, preschoolers free, family pass $50. reptilepark.co.nz