A morning spent exploring the Reptile Park at Ti Point is like being in a life-sized, reptile-themed game of "Where's Wally?" as we study the information sign and then peer into each enclosure in a race to find the creature.

One grassy enclosure appears full of cacti and knobbly rocks, until we realise those knobbly bits are the leopard tortoises.

At another, Asher, 11, points through the glass at a green mossy stick and informs us that the poor gecko has "lost his head". She then laughs, realising her mistake.

An hour's drive north past Warkworth, Matakana and Whangateau, Ti Point Reptile Park is a labour of love for its owner, Ivan Borich. He's been there for 50 years.

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He laughingly admits his private hobby zoo that he started with birds eventually "got out of hand" when he acquired zebra and bison.

The large animals were sent to zoos two decades ago and have been replaced with low-maintenance reptiles. Apart from that short chat at the front desk, we're left to our own devices .

Visitors can pay extra for a private tour but we're happy to wander the 6ha property in search of its inhabitants.

One enclosure that poses no problem with animal-spotting is that of Smiley. He's an impressive 250kg giant Galapagos tortoise.

We're thrilled that he is active and engaged, coming to the fence several times to study us humans and to eat grass.

There are park benches scattered around the park and we sit at one of them to eat the picnic we brought with us.

The property is tranquil and has amazing views out to Little Barrier Island. A stone path loops around the rest of the enclosures - down a hill, through bush and back to the entrance.

We pause to study turtles half way down before getting to the incongruous capuchin monkeys.

Like Smiley, they're easy to spot and have an endearing habit of raising their eyebrows up and down as if they're about to reveal the punch line of a joke.

In a suntrap of a gully at the bottom of the hill are three alligators basking in the warmth near their water and, nearby, red-eared turtles still covered in green algae from their recent swim.

The next part of the track is through the bush where we hear rustling in the undergrowth. A few moments of stillness is rewarded by a flurry of activity. Tiny dark brown wild skinks realise they've been noticed and scurry for deeper cover.

The final set of enclosures is a maze taking us past glass-fronted exhibits of reptiles including skinks, soft-shelled turtles, an impressive green iguana, a chameleon, tuatara and even several huge hairy tarantulas.

Halfway through, we're thrilled to emerge on to a viewing platform inside an enclosure to get a bird's-eye view of the water dragons and lizards.

If you're not one for guessing games, you can pay for a guided tour from the passionate owners of these fascinating creatures.

This is a back-to-basics for-the-love-of the-animals operation. There is no gift store or cafe so the kids relax and focus on the experience, instead of what they're going to buy afterwards.

They also learn a few things. Marvelling at one lizard's ability to camouflage, I overhear Asher explaining to her little brother, "It looks like his butt is his head, but that's actually at the other end."

We jump in the car excited and buzzing. I suggest coming again soon but the kids think they have a better idea: start their own reptile park with one of the tortoises for sale at the main office. After a morning with these wee creatures, I'm actually considering it.

Need To Know
• The Reptile Park displays a unique collection of both native and exotic species and is about 90km north of Auckland, on Ti Point Rd.
• Open daily 10am-5pm. Adults $20, seniors $15, children $10,pre-schoolers free; family pass $50. Guided tour additional $100, by appointment only. reptilepark.co.nz