The Hauraki Gulf, stretching between the Auckland region and Coromandel Peninsula, is home to over 50 islands. Two are wildlife sanctuaries where there’s not only the chance to see some of New Zealand’s native birds but both Tiritiri Matangi and Rotoroa also have a rich history to discover. Accessible by ferry from Auckland CBD, the two make great day, or overnight, trips.
Tiritiri Matangi is situated 30km north-east of Auckland and 4km off the coast of Whangaparaoa Peninsula. The ferry ride cruises past iconic Rangitoto, a dormant volcano, and Auckland’s east coast beaches. An hour in, there’s a pick-up for passengers at Gulf Harbour on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, and fifteen minutes later visitors arrive at the bush-shrouded island. Sixty percent of it has been replanted in native trees since 1984, subsequent to it being a lighthouse reserve in the mid-nineteenth century and later, farmland.
This bird-lover’s paradise can be wandered at leisure, but there are two walks offered, a 1 – 1½-hour or a 2-hour, led by volunteers. Familiar with the island, they can point out spots where certain birds hang out and inform about the birdlife, vegetation and history. Tours are well worth doing and best booked in advance, through the ferry company. They begin once visitors arrive, leaving the afternoon free.
Nearby the wharf, several nesting boxes, small stone and concrete structures with wooden lids covering ‘windows’ in the top, can give peeks of little blue penguins. Not much further on is the pink-tinged sand of Hobbs Beach nestled between rocky shores, a great swimming spot.
On native bush tracks you’ll be serenaded by tūī, whitehead and rifleman, and are likely to see numerous fantail flitting close by looking for insects disturbed by walkers. North Island robin, and the rare North Island saddleback and North Island kōkako might be spotted as well as green kākāriki (native parrot) which blend into the forest. Dotted along tracks, information boards inform on giant centipedes, tuatara and the wētāpunga, a giant wētā. You might spot one in one of the wētā ‘hotels’ attached to trees. These wooden structures are around 30cm long and 10cm wide with rectangular glass-fronted ‘rooms’ covered by a hinged door to open and peek in. There’s also information on native trees such as matipo, kowhai and totara and you’ll walk amongst grand old puriri trees where kereru (wood pigeon) feast on its berries. One of the oldest pōhutukawa in the Hauraki Gulf grows on Tiritiri Matangi and is believed to be around 800-years old. Its spread is so far, it looks like several trees growing together.
Bird feeders, with large containers of sugar water, attract hihi (stitchbird) and korimako (bellbird). Intended to supplement the nectar-loving hihi’s food, the feeders are a great place to hear a symphony of bird song and get some close-up photos of birds.
Bird feeders also attract many tūī outside the Visitor Centre, where there’s a shop with books, plaques, leadlight hangings, posters, finger puppets and tea-towels, all bird-themed. No food is available on the island to purchase, but complimentary tea and coffee is available in the Education Centre which has information and displays on the island’s history as a farm, lighthouse station and during war time, birds and insects. If you haven’t spotted a live giant wētā, you’ll find a specimen displayed here.
Close by, is the 1865-built, 20.5m, white lighthouse and a building containing information about lighthouses and their mechanisms. The old watchtower still stands, looking out over the island-dotted gulf and distant mainland. Takahe are usually spotted in this area and views of shadowy Little Barrier, Great Barrier, Kawau Island and the Coromandel Peninsula can be had from high points nearby.
Several tracks are not covered in the guided walk, but with around 5 ¼ hours on a day trip to the island there is time to explore these easy walks. The East Coast Track traverses mostly through bush, and along the coastline with views of sandy Fishermans Bay and Pōhutukawa Cove where turquoise water laps between rocks. The Northeast Bay Track around the tip of the island takes in wetlands, home to brown teal. On the Ngati Paoa Track near Ridge Road I came across three, bluish-green Takahe feeding in long grass.
If staying overnight, accommodation is in Department of Conservation huts, night walks are offered. There’s the chance of seeing little spotted kiwi, penguins and tuatara.
Rotoroa Island, tucked behind Waiheke and Ponui Islands, is a 1¼-hour ferry ride from Auckland CBD and on a day-trip visitors have around 7 ¼-hours there. The ferry stops at Orapiu Wharf on Waiheke Island before reaching Rotoroa, so a multi-day trip to both could be planned. The island has holiday homes as well as hostel-type accommodation. While there’s not as much birdlife as Tiritiri Matangi, its interesting history, spectacular views of gulf islands, tracks and picturesque, sheltered beaches kept me enthralled for the entire day.
Disembarking at the wharf, visitors are welcomed into a shed and information given on what can be done on Rotoroa. There are also displays and information on kiwi, the island a ‘creche’ for young ones. Rotoroa Island Trust have a partnership with Thames Coast Coromandel Kiwi and Kiwis for Kiwi, part of a programme known as Operation Nest Egg whereby eggs are removed from the wild and taken to a secure facility. Once hatched, at the age of around 3 – 4 weeks, the kiwi are brought to Rotoroa to grow before being tracked and returned to the wild around 2 years later. To find out when kiwi are being released onto the island, when the public are able to ‘meet’ them and get close-up, check the ferry website – fullers.co.nz, or rotoroa.org.nz.
A large exhibition centre at Home Bay contains information and photographs detailing life on Rotoroa when it was a rehabilitation centre for inebriates from 1908 to 2005, and also on the Salvation Army who ran the facility. Behind, a jailhouse, butchery, old schoolhouse and chapel from this time remain. The once Superintendent’s home now provides the hostel accommodation.
A 2-hour guided walk is available with a Rotoroa Ranger and takes visitors from the Exhibition Centre, roughly following North Tower Track. Along the way information is given on the island’s Salvation Army history, pest control/trapping, the replanting of the island after its days as a farm and orchard, and more on the kiwi. The walk takes in Ladies’ Bay, which I found to be the most picturesque, with an arched rock at one end, pōhutukawa at the other and turquoise water lapping in its cove.
Birdlife which can be seen include stitchbird, whitehead, pukeko, and weka and you’ll also come across the island’s cemetery and the world’s rarest tree, the Three Kings kaikomako, thirty of which are now being grown on Rotoroa. The walk finishes at North Tower where stunning views can be had of the island itself stretching towards Ponui, and of the outer Hauraki Gulf, Coromandel Peninsula and Great Barrier Island in the distance.
There’s time to explore all of the tracks covering the island, as well as doing the guided walk, on a day-trip. The Southern Loop Track takes walkers around the southern end of the island where a rock sculpture is located and views can be had of nearby Ponui and Waiheke Islands and down onto Home Bay, where boats are usually anchored. A track leads off to Men’s Bay, a sandy, crescent-shaped beach and back to Home Bay. Several short walks run off the North Tower Loop – one down to Cable Bay, a longer, more open sandy beach, another to Mai Mai Bay beach and the other to Mai Mai Bay Lookout which was overgrown when I visited and only a glimpse of sea could be seen.
I had time to take a dip in the sea at Ladies’ Bay before returning to the city, passing islands and boats, both all shapes and sizes, feeling as if I’d left it a lot longer ago than that morning.