You can only imagine what Great Barrier Island must have been like before the arrival of Europeans in the 1840s. The rugged hillsides were once covered in stands of mighty kauri, and whales regularly migrated up the coast.

Then the millers, miners and whalers turned up, taking what they could before moving on.

There's little sign today that Whangaparapara, on the island's west coast between the more well-known harbours at Tryphena and Port Fitzroy, was once a centre of extractive industry.

In the late 19th century there was a gold and silver mine employing 500 people up the road - we pass the remnants of the Oreville stamper battery on the gravel road in from Claris - then came the kauri fellers, and finally the whalers.


Today the sun is shining on its bright green water and there's not another soul to be seen around the little wharf. We park up on the waterfront and enjoy the peace and island-baked pastries we bought at the market at the Great Barrier Island Sports Club earlier in the day. Across the harbour we can see stands of young kauri optimistically poking their heads above the canopy, the landscape slowly restoring itself.

We can see across to the remnants of the old whaling station - built not, as you might think, in Victorian times, but in the relatively enlightened 1950s. In fact, whaling only ceased here in the 1960s - an indicator of how much attitudes can change in just one generation. There are traces of the 100-year-old timber mill on the far side of the harbour too.

We need a walk that's not too long for our 5-year-old - or for my husband, carrying our nearly 3-year-old in a backpack - and Cindy from Destination Great Barrier has recommended the Tramline Track.

The track follows the route of the old kauri tramway and is wide and mostly smooth, with an easy gradient - perfect for little legs. (We would have loved to have walked in to the Kaitoke Hot Springs, also up the Whangaparapara Road, but at 45 minutes each way, it's a bit long - maybe next time.)

The bush surrounding the track might have been denuded of its mighty kauri, but there are still plenty of smaller trees and ferns, and a clear stream wends its way alongside and under the track. The bush seems bright and friendly in the sunshine, and our son collects fallen fern fronds and other natural treasures as he happily trots along.

The track begins to rise but we have reached our destination, Kauri Falls, after around 20 minutes of easy walking. This pretty little waterfall, set in lush greenery, drops into a rock-edged swimming hole. It looks like the perfect spot for a skinny dip, and our son quickly strips down and starts scrambling around the rocks like Gollum.

However, he finds the water a bit cold - and the mosquitoes a bit thirsty - so after a play and a snack we head back down the track.

Back near the start of the Tramline Track we take a 10-minute detour to the Green campground, the smallest DoC campsite on the island but surely one of the most picturesque. Running down to a rocky beach on the harbour's edge is a swathe of bright green grass, with a large sheltering pohutukawa and a little mangrove creek to explore. The kids are quickly off digging in the mud while my husband and I bask in the sunshine and soak up the silence. It's a shame to break the spell and return to the car - this would be a wonderful place to spend a night under canvas.

Usually, the march of progress is inexorably forwards, with the beauty of nature sacrificed for the cause of modernity and expansion. At Whangaparapara, any such "progress" was short-lived, and now the serene beauty and unique charm of this all-but-forgotten harbour has been restored by time and isolation.

I'm sure the whales are breathing a sigh of relief, too.

Sarah Ell was a guest of Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development