This mysteriously neglected side of the Manukau Harbour has plenty to offer the curious and adventurous, writes Sarah Ell.
What rural region, about 50km from central Auckland, boasts rolling hills, food producers, wineries and a busy weekend market, a fascinating history, parks and beaches, and the opportunity to have a romantic escape? If you're thinking Matakana or Clevedon — well, think again.
Driving in the other direction, the relatively undeveloped, unexplored and under-appreciated area of western Franklin offers multiple possibilities for day trips or weekend stays. The Franklin ward of the Auckland SuperCity runs west to east across the isthmus to include the Maraetai and Kawakawa Bay coasts and the Hunua Ranges, there is much to be seen and done in the west, where the region's rich heritage, fertile soils and beautiful landscape are all worth taking the time to explore.
Ian Litchfield of the Franklin Tourism Group is one of a number of enthusiastic locals who are bringing together local businesses and working with Auckland city's tourism body to promote the area as "Auckland's southern playground".
"People don't have to travel somewhere to get away for a day or a weekend — it's easy to find something to do in this area, just half an hour or so down the motorway from central Auckland," says Litchfield.
"We'd like to put a cattle-stop at the Bombay Hills and say, don't go any further south, just spend a bit of time tiki-touring around here."
Food and wine
One of the first things you notice while driving through the countryside around Pukekohe and Bombay is the rich, dark volcanic soil, which makes the area ideal for market gardening. The region's produce will be celebrated today at the first Taste Franklin festival, at the Karaka Sports Park.
Festival events manager Nicky Swan says the inaugural festival will showcase food and wine from the area, including products from Glenbrook Cheese, Taihiki Orchards, Happy Valley Honey and the food truck of chef Ryan Fong, son of local "The Fresh Grower", market gardener Allan Fong.
Restaurants will be providing a taste of their wares, as will the Boundary Road Brewery from Papakura, and four of the area's wineries: three from Hunua and Clevedon, and Awhitu Wines, from the top of the Awhitu Peninsula.
Two top foodies will also be giving presentations: Nadia Lim, and local Sarah the Gardener (Sarah O'Neil), an author and blogger who lives and grows in Aka Aka, southwest of Pukekohe.
Aside from the festival, a wide range of locally grown produce is on sale on every Saturday at the Franklin Market at Pukekohe. The market, which has been running for 14 years, sells a range of fruit, vegetables and other farm produce, as well as street food. A food and general market is also held on Sundays at Pokeno.
Franklin district has a long and interesting history.
For Maori, Waiuku was a significant canoe portage point linking the Waikato River and the Manukau Harbour, which was a busy thoroughfare for travel between tribal districts and an important source of kai moana. The area was settled by Europeans from the 1850s, and was the site of several engagements in the New Zealand Wars the following decade. Several local churches still bearing signs of being stockaded.
An enclave of pioneer buildings has been preserved at Waiuku, next to the town's museum and historic wharf, and opposite the historic Kentish Hotel, which lays claim to having to the longest continuous liquor license in New Zealand.
One of the area's most popular tourist attractions ties into its heritage: the Glenbrook Vintage Railway, beloved of small boys and trainspotters of all ages. Steam-hauled passenger trains manned by enthusiastic volunteers run on the 7.5 km line from Glenbrook, west of Pukekohe, to Waiuku every Sunday except during winter.
This weekend, the railway and the Franklin Vintage Machinery Club are putting on their biennial celebration of historic farm machinery, featuring stationary and traction engines through to vintage tractors, haymaking and threshing equipment, horse-drawn wagons and a rare 1920s-era steam truck from Christchurch. The festival, which also includes live entertainment, stalls and children's activities, will be held at Wymer's Farm, adjacent to the railway.
Another popular heritage destination is the Manukau Heads Lighthouse, at the tip of the Awhitu Peninsula, about 45 minutes' drive from Waiuku. The original octagonal lighthouse, built in 1873, was demolished in the 1940s, and its concrete replacement in the 1980s, but a replica using the original plans as well as the historic copper dome roof and dioptric glass panels opened in 2006. As well as offering the rare opportunity to go inside a "real" lighthouse and brave the winds on its balcony, there are spectacular views of the Manukau Bar and Harbour — and a chance to reflect on the fate of the crew of HMS Orpheus, which came to grief in these waters in 1863, with the loss of 189 lives.
As well as the rolling countryside between Karaka and Pukekohe and across to Patumahoe and Waiuku, the area offers the fascinating landscape of the Awhitu Peninsula. Its steep, wind-blasted hills — the trees grow sideways here — were once massive sand-dunes, and the winding roads around them offer breathtaking glimpses of the largely land-locked Manukau and the wild west coast, battered by the Tasman Sea.
On the sheltered, eastern side of the peninsula is the Awhitu Regional Park, which has two large sandy beaches — watch out for oyster shells, though — two campgrounds and a bach for hire, walking and horseriding trails, picnic areas and barbecues. There are bach settlements on pretty Manukau Harbour bays at Matakawau, Grahams Beach, Big Bay and Orua Bay.
On the west of the peninsula the coast is largely wild and inaccessible, except for Karioitahi Beach, southwest of Waiuku. The long, black-sand beach is popular for surfing, sand yachting, horse riding, hang gliding and fishing.
Overlooking the beach and boasting fabulous views is the Castaways Resort, a wedding and conference venue that also has a day spa, restaurant and accommodation in chalet units or a luxury glamping site, and is now offering two-day luxury wellness retreats. The area is also a good base from which to explore the Manukau Harbour — often overlooked by Aucklanders.
Long-time Franklin resident Colin Harrington of StressFree Adventures leads kayaking tours on the labyrinthine creeks of the Waiuku arm of the Manukau, as well as hiring equipment for longer trips on the harbour and along the lower reaches of the Waikato River, to the south.
One of his most popular trips is an easy, family-friendly 2.5km paddle from Waiuku township to the Waitangi Falls, a popular picnicking and swimming spot. StressFree also runs birdwatching trips, on which royal spoonbill can be seen year-round, but especially over the winter months.
And art too ...
When you're driving past Pukekohe, pull into the Franklin Arts Centre (12 Massey Ave) for the Young, Gifted and Broke exhibition (until April 18). A crew of 42 artists — musicians, artists, videographers, photographers, tattooists -rework hip-hop into new contemporary artforms. Drive past the high school (Harris St) for a terrific new mural by Elliot Francis Stewart (pictured). Open weekdays 9.30am-4.30pm, Saturdays 9.30-2.30pm. On Facebook.
NEED TO KNOW
• Franklin Markets, 8am-noon Saturdays, Massey Ave, Pukekohe, and 8am-2pm Sundays, Great South Rd, Pokeno.
• Glenbrook Cheese Company, 1322 Glenbrook Rd, Waiuku, open Friday noon-4pm, weekends 10am-4pm.
• Awhitu Wines, 31 Greenock Drive, Awhitu Peninsula, open weekdays 9am-5pm, weekends 10am-5pm.
• Glenbrook Vintage Railway, trains run every Sunday from 11am-3.30pm from Labour Weekend until Queen's Birthday Weekend.
• Manukau Heads Lighthouse, open 9am-5pm daily, entry by donation.
• Awhitu Regional Park, Brook Rd, Waiuku, open 24 hours.
• Castaways Resort, 685 Karioitahi Rd, Karioitahi Beach, Waiuku.