First there was camping, then came glamping. Now you can apply that concept to tramping — right in Auckland's back yard.
After exploring many of New Zealand's Great Walks and private walking tracks, Pip and Alec Mandis searched for a spot to set up an operation that would take the hard work out of going tramping — provisioning, carrying your gear, sleeping in huts or tents. They settled on the Waitakeres, and their business, Awesome Walks, provides walkers with a luxury tramping experience. All food is provided, and each night you sleep in your own trendily decorated retro caravan — which, the next day, along with all your gear, is transported to the end point of your tramp. The only thing you have to do is ... well, walk.
My friend Amanda and I leave the city at knock-off time on Friday and head for the hills, arriving at Wharerangi, Pip and Alec Mandis' "house in the sky" with its lush gardens and spectacular views east over Auckland. The weekend's other walkers, newly arrived South African couple Andy and Camilla, are already in residence. Pip and Alec give us all a thorough briefing before leaving us to prepare and enjoy our dinner. If this is a taste of what is to come, we are going to need to do a lot of walking to counter the calories. We are particularly taken with the home baking Pip has prepared.
We sleep in the caravan at "base camp" that first night, then are up not exactly early to pack our lunches. We have opted to be dropped off about 2km from Wharerangi at the start of the Cutty Grass Track, and head from Scenic Drive down a ridgeline to Anawhata Rd, where we join the Centennial Track and descend to an old kauri dam on the Piha Stream. We have to skirt a rock bluff on the Centennial Track, but mostly we just meander through beautiful forest, admiring the views and, it has to be said, chatting constantly.
After walking (and talking) for about three hours we stop for lunch at the Black Rock Dam and realise that, after all that downhill, there is going to have to be some up. What was it that Pip had said the night before about "Bitch Hill"? Well, here it was ... but nothing some steady walking and talking couldn't cope with.
We eventually emerge on to Piha Rd and walk a bit more slowly and quite thankfully to our second night's campsite, high on the headland between Piha and Mercer Bay. A carpark by day, this used to be the site of a top-secret radar station during World War II and retains some of its heritage buildings and a navigation light.
We've walked — and talked — for nearly six hours and it's definitely time for a cup of tea and a piece of fudge. Or two.
Andy and Camilla invite us over for drinkies and to pool our beautifully prepared and colour-coded dinner. It makes sense to share stories and resources, and we spend an enjoyable evening in their cosy caravan before a well-earned sleep.
A brilliant, sunny start to the next day shakes away any cobwebs or sore legs, and we decide to walk south to Karekare. Once again, there's a lot of downhill but the forest is very different to the day before and the cliff-top views spectacular. It takes about 90 minutes to arrive at the black sands of Karekare, where we having a bit of a picnic before taking the steeper route back. The sharp ascent briefly halts conversation but pays off in breath-taking views up and down the coast on a perfect autumn day.
Once we've slogged up the last hill, Pip is waiting for us back at the caravan to tow us back to base. There's time for one more cup of tea and another Anzac before returning to real life, where I'm the one who carries the bags.
The Waitakeres are a hidden gem — on our walk I frequently found myself wondering how I could have lived in Auckland all my life and explored only a tiny portion of them. Pip and Alec have hit on a winning formula of how to experience them in comfort — we truly had an Awesome Walk.