I Walked Waiheke

In the country of my birth it’s easy to find a path into the outdoors. No matter what the terrain alongside the road, before long there will be a gate, or an opening in a wall, maybe a stile over a fence, an accompanying sign pointing away from tarmac and bearing the words Public Footpath. You can trek for miles alongside gurgling streams, through woodland where trees mark the seasons: fresh and green in spring, welcome shade in summer, carpeted in golden leaves in autumn or the home of stark skeletons in the bleak of winter. You can traverse green slopes scattered with limestone rocks that become grey cliffs where deep fissures lead into narrow gorges; you can pass through fields where animals graze or crops wave in the wind. The streets of my birth city snake alongside parks and woods where paths begin that lead out to the wildness of the moors. Great Britain is criss-crossed with ancient rights-of-way that cannot be legally closed, and anyone can escape city streets easily.

In New Zealand it’s not so easy. There is no right to roam, no centuries-old routes that are enshrined in law. This is a land of contrasts and that includes walking opportunities. Most of the stunning views that sell this country to tourists and hobbit fans are only accessible via helicopter, or if you walk for three days or more, carrying with you everything you will need in that time. Accommodation is in basic huts; usually the toilet is a hole in the ground, albeit a deep one (long-drop, to name it correctly). Be prepared to share with complete strangers, often without even your own bunk on which to spread your sleeping bag, merely a shared platform. I’m not good at sharing space with strangers, and Neil doesn’t even share a bathroom easily, let alone sleeping space.

There are walking opportunities here, but not the range I was used to and, despite that Kiwis are known as outdoor-loving people, I find the options for lacing up my hiking boots limited. It seems you either walk for days, as above, or a couple of hours meagre effort and you’re back at the start point. There are few choices of the kind that leave you feeling you’ve put in a good day’s effort but still allow you a hot shower and a comfy bed at the end of it. Plus, a lot of walking is in the ‘bush’, local term for anything from a few sparse trees to dense forest that blocks out so much light you almost need a torch to see your way. I’m not a fan of the bush and it’s my biggest gripe about walking here. I can appreciate it for a short while, especially on a hot day when it provides welcome shade or, more likely, a wet and windy day, when it provides shelter from the more serious elements of our weather. But I can’t spend a whole day, or multiple days, in the bush without feeling as though I’m being cheated. What are the trees hiding? What far-reaching view am I missing?

Waiheke Island is a short ferry ride from Auckland CBD and, despite that it’s known to be immensely pretty and has more wineries than your average country, is also referred to as ‘just another Auckland suburb’. On researching it I was surprised to find it’s also a popular walking destination. Walking and wine – what more incentive do we need? Worth a shot, I figured, checking out the Te Ara Hura walkway, a 100km circumnavigation of the whole island, finally deciding on a three-day option with iWalkWaiheke, which covers the best bits and leaves out most of the boring. Our host, Vicki, provides maps, explains routes, and drives us to start points. She also provides beautiful accommodation, amazing food and excellent company.

The first day begins at the ferry terminal, at low tide the trail crossing a small pebbled bay (at high tide a 45-minute detour is necessary). Within minutes the lurking clouds let loose and we pause to pull out raincoats and pack covers. A fierce wind greets us as we skirt a small headland, buffeting our bodies and throwing sharp rain into our faces. Cloud sits low on the sea, a hovering silver line suggesting there is sun somewhere. The path drops into small rocky bays, across wide sandy and pebbled beaches, and zig-zags around promontories that poke into the waves. Low bush and sprawling pohutukawas, clinging impossibly to precarious-looking cliffs, provide some shelter from the wind. We break from bush to walk beside football-field-sized manicured lawns surrounding huge houses, helicopter pads alongside.

The path climbs up the next headland

It’s a good workout, a constant up and down. Sometimes there are steps, sometimes a scramble, always there are stunning views of the next bay opening up through the trees, small waves curling onto land. As we step onto the sands of Oneroa Beach the sky splits. A torrent of water hides any view and we scurry to the shelter of a wide Pohutukawa trunk, its angle as it protrudes from the bank saving us from the deluge.

After the Deluge

It’s beautiful walking, the path popping out to suburban streets, dipping back into stands of almost silent native bush, the noise of humanity and the elements muffled by the trees. There are kauri in this area, the largest and most magnificent of New Zealand’s native trees, currently threatened by a vicious parasite causing dieback, and we diligently use the provided brushes and disinfectant to regularly clean our boots as we move from road to path and back again.

The second day is less challenging, although the first few hundred metres down a steep and rocky path test my strained quads. Like yesterday, we’re in and out of bush – more boot-cleaning – and small bays, across a wide waterlogged and stony beach where, exposed and with zero shelter, we manage to catch a quick shower. Squelching across towards the cover of the bush we try not to chase the dotterel that scurries in front of us and who has clearly forgotten about his wings. Along the beach an area is roped off for this easily disturbed and endangered bird to nest in peace. I hope we haven’t scared one into sterility.

Not chasing a bird…

The path turns inland and climbs gradually, almost a false flat, wending through an area of nikau palms, their ringed trunks marching alongside us; I’ve never seen so many in one place, nor have I seen their flower before, spikey pink tentacles bursting from a pod on the ring left by a dropped leaf. A small stream ‘cascades’ (according to the sign) between huge rocks in a similar way to Padley Woods in Derbyshire, albeit the foliage around it a little different. Nikau become mamaku ferns, the path littered with their discarded leaves; kereru swoop away from us and a grey warbler sings in the distance. It’s calm and peaceful, the path undulating, and the easier walking an antidote to yesterday’s efforts.

Day three takes us back to the coast, initially alongside a mangrove swamp, bright pools glittering with reflected sky amongst the mud these strange plants thrive in. Herons stand sentinel and pied stilts and oystercatchers browse. Then it’s a return to the rigours of day one, dropping down to and climbing up from sea level. Pohutukawa roots snake beside us, some nearly a foot in diameter, their colour blending into the warm brown tones of the rocks they cling to. Neil’s knee, an annoying hindrance yesterday, becomes painful and, with most walking on an incline, he struggles. Handing off a pole to him means my body soon feels the effort and we’re both glad to get to the vineyard where we will meet Vicki, toasting our efforts with a glass of its product.

That day was our 25th wedding anniversary and I’m not sure if there’s a message in the fact that we spent a lot of the day in pain! But, as I write this a couple of weeks later, the memory of the pain is fading whilst other memories linger. Wherever we were on the island, we were never far from a path that led away from houses and into the bush, down to the sea, across a beach, or skirting a rocky promontory. It was a wonderful way to spend our anniversary, culminating in a gorgeous meal at Three Seven Two in Onetangi and a surprising link back to our travels last year – on the wine list is Monmousseau Cremant*. We visited their winery in France, which has a fascinating network of underground caves and tunnels where they store their wine. The restaurant gave us a glass each to celebrate our 25 years.  

I have no idea when I will be able to return to taste wine in France, or walk the familiar paths of my previous home country, but at least, in the meantime, I’ve found somewhere more local where I can enjoy both. We will definitely return to Waiheke.

*French sparkling wine as nice as champagne but not allowed to be called so as it’s grown outside that region!

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