Great Barrier Island is the type of place where time slows
down. It is a place where you have time to stop and listen to the crackle and
gurgle of shellfish closing up at low tide or to stare up at the canopy and
watch the wind move the wispy tops of kanuka trees in a mesmerizing sway. It’s
a place where a walk in the forest might lead you to a piece of history preserved
from the island’s past. While logging the island is part of that past, many of
the islanders now make their living mussel farming. The Barrier is a place
where waking on a gray and foggy, misty morning, one could contentedly fish for
hours from a launch or jetty; but when the sun shines, the island’s many tracks
clamor for views. The island is not connected to a main source of electricity,
and most people there use solar or a generator for whatever power they need. Many
homes are heated with wood stoves, and during the transition between New
Zealand summer and New Zealand autumn, chilly days brought the sight of wood
smoke curling into the sky. The lights on the hillsides go off early at night,
and there are few, if any street lights. The Barrier is a place where there is
more “other nature” than people, but where there are enough people for a sense
of community: my kind of place. I can
imagine living there and within a year, going back to writing letters by hand
and posting them with a stamp, while my computer gathers dust. A sane place.
|North entrance channel to Port Abercrombie and Port Fitzroy as seen from the island|
Finned and Feathered
One of the special things about the Barrier is that you are
living in close connection with wildlife. Although we did not catch enough fish
to avoid having to buy groceries at the shop in Port Fitzroy, we caught mullet,
snapper, and one kingfish. Kahawai are also commonly caught around
the Barrier. It wasn’t hard to get a bite, but the legal limit for snapper is
27 cm. Although we caught many fish in the 25-30 cm range, a fish that size
doesn’t have enough meat on it to serve two people, and you would have to catch
several to make a meal. Patrick and I preferred to throw them back so they
could grow up to be bigger fish someday. On two occasions, we did catch larger
(though not trophy sized) snapper and kept them.
|Red snapper image from www.clovegarden.com|
We learned an interesting thing about kingfish: They like to bump and rub against boats.
While we were out fishing in the dinghy one day, something started bumping up
against the bottom of the inflatable. It was persistent and hard to ignore. It was as if we had inadvertently drifted over
one of the schools of mullet leaping out of the water, and their heads were hitting
the bottom of our dinghy. But on his line, Patrick reeled in not a mullet, but
a small kingfish. It was only about 45 cm long (the limit for kingfish is 75
cm), so we released it. Later, in the anchorage, Patrick told me he was
awakened one night by something rubbing against the hull. A few days later, a
woman related her story of hearing something rubbing against their boat, and
racing out on deck to see three kingfish, a meter-plus each, rubbing against
This is a tui: one of
New Zealand’s native birds.
While we had heard their calls throughout New Zealand, the
first time we actually saw a tui was on the Barrier. The voice of the tui is
one of the sounds I will always associate with this island. Tuis have a vast
vocal repertoire, from their melodic song to a sound like they are cracking a
nut in their throat. The tui also makes a sound like a cuckoo, and it is funny
to watch the bird make this sound, as it arches its neck and extends both its
head and neck out over the white tuft above its breast in order to do so. “Cuckoo.”
Little blue penguins (Maori name: Koroka) were common visitors to many of the
bays. We saw the most little penguins in Kiwiriki Bay. Their outsized vocalizations belied the
tiny avian creatures that made them.
|Little blue penguins are the world's smallest penguin|
On a kayak tour of the Bay at Port Fitzroy, my friend
Kathleen and I came across a pied shag (cormorant) rookery. I was excited to
see a pied shag chick (almost featherless) pleading with its mother for food. Nests
seemed to contain a mother sitting on eggs or a mother with a chick; while the
bachelor shags inhabited a separate tree not far away. I didn’t have a camera
with me at the time, but I took Patrick back to see the rookery in the dinghy,
and he captured these images.
Pateke, or brown teal, are one of New Zealand’s endangered
species. The pateke at the Glenfern Sanctuary seemed habituated to being hand
fed by people. Patrick held out an empty hand to them, and this was the result.
The pateke in the anchorage were also quite friendly,
perching on our dinghy or even the deck of the boat. This pateke paddled about eyeing
our dinghy for some time, but never actually landed on it. The sunset colors
provided an unusual background for a photograph, although I never got one with
the teal completely in focus:
|Sorry guys, just messing with you!|
One of my favorite birds on the Barrier was the cheeky little fantail. Fantails accompanied us on every hike. They seem to follow human beings along the trail, possibly to take advantage of the moths and small insects stirred up by walking feet. At times, they spread out their tail feathers in a huge display (relative to their size) that looks like a Japanese fan.
|Fantails have a spunky personality|
|The tail fan is only about half open in this fantail display|
Memorials to Early
We saw some interesting locations for graveyards while on
Great Barrier Island. At Port Fitzroy, tombstones on an island between Rarohara
and Forestry Bays (Graves Island) date back to the late 1800’s.
|Oystercatcher on Grave Island|
|Tombstones on Grave (Quion) Island|
In Graveyard Bay, at Whangaparapara, there was also an old
cemetery in the woods on the leeward (protected) side of one of the heads
flanking the bay. You can barely see some of the white tombstones sticking out
of the cleared areas on the hillside above and to the right of Silhouette in the photo below:
|Silhouette at anchor in Graveyard Bay, Whangaparapara |
Special Places and
Great Barrier Island has many bays to choose from. Few are
protected from all wind directions, and the boats visiting there tend to switch
anchorages depending on the current weather conditions. Thus, you tend to run
into the same boats over and over, adding to that island sense of community.
New Zealand summer was fading when we arrived on the Barrier, so weather kept
us from experiencing the anchorages on the east side of the island and the
southwest port of Tryphena. We stayed mostly within the protected waters of the
island’s west side.
Some of the most memorable experiences I had were at Kiwiriki
Bay, Smokehouse Bay, and the bay at Port Fitzroy (Rarohara or Ungunu Bay; Two
names for it are given, but one might be for neighboring Forestry Bay.) After
spending one night in Nagel Cove the first night we arrived on the Barrier, we
moved down to Kiwiriki Bay. I already described this beautiful bay in a previous post. We enjoyed Kiwiriki’s secluded feel behind the huge sentry rocks at
the bay’s entrance. On our third night at the Barrier, we rode out a blow there
with sustained winds of over 25 knots and frequent gusts between 34-46 knots.
|One of the boats that rode out a blow with us in Kiwiriki Bay|
After the northerly blow, the wind shifted to the west, and
most of the boats that had joined us in Kiwiriki Bay moved over to Smokehouse
Bay. Smokehouse Bay is one of the most popular bays on Great Barrier Island. It
was someone’s vision to create a gathering spot for cruising boats, where the
amenities of a hot bath and a smokehouse for drying fish could be found. The
facilities at Smokehouse Bay (all maintained by volunteers and donations from
cruisers) include a bathhouse, a campfire circle with picnic tables, three
sheds with racks for smoking fish, a fish cleaning station, a composting
toilet, cement tubs for doing laundry, clotheslines for drying laundry, and a careenage. (A careenage is a place to put your boat that dries at low tide, where it is possible to clean your hull. You float free again on the high tide.) A
freshwater stream runs alongside the compound, from which the water for baths
and laundry is drawn. The water for the bathhouse (where there is a porcelain
tub and either a bath or shower can be had) is heated by a wood stove outside
the bathhouse. There are wringers attached to the laundry tubs, but it is
questionable whether or not they work. The fish cleaning station is comprised
of a beautiful granite slab as big as a door and a freshwater sink. Boats gather there because it is a space that
invites you to gather, and because, after a stay of several weeks on the
Barrier, everyone’s got to do laundry.
|High tide at Smokehouse Bay (Photo credit: Kathleen Walker)|
The Claris topo map shows a spiderweb of tracks in the
vicinity of Smokehouse Bay; however most of these tracks are on private land.
Permission should be obtained in order to hike there. There is a short track
over public land leading from Smokehouse Bay to Oneura Bay (on the southern
entrance channel to Port Fitzroy.) Patrick and I took this short hike the first
time we anchored at Smokehouse Bay.
|The Red cliffs of Oneura|
Parts of Smokehouse Bay are very shallow and small snapper
like to congregate there. One of the most special experiences I had on the
Barrier was when about five dolphins were herding fish in the Smokehouse Bay
early one morning. At that time, there were only a handful of sailboats left in
|Midnight Sun passing dolphins as the boat leaves the anchorage|
We watched the dolphins for about an hour before noticing our
friend Paul, on Kahia, jump in with
his snorkel gear on. His presence didn’t seem to disturb the dolphins or drive
them away; in fact, they came up to him to investigate. I have always wanted to
experience swimming with dolphins, and I thought, “Now is your chance. Take it.”
Although the water was chilly, I donned my shortie wetsuit, mask, and fins and
joined Paul in the water. Soon, the dolphins were investigating me as well.
A group of three large dolphins swam up and eyed me. I could hear their
squealing and whistling underwater, and I squealed my delighted hellos in
return. As the dolphins circled around me, I circled too, so that I could
maintain eye contact with them. The dolphins stayed at arm’s length, but when
one came close enough to touch, I reached out to stroke its side. I have always
read that dolphins and some whales respond positively to human touch. This one
veered away, and I didn’t attempt to touch the dolphins again. The dolphins
swam up to me and Paul multiple times, and it was very exciting to be so close
to these graceful, curious beings.
|A dolphin breaks through the surface|
Port Fitzroy is not the most scenic bay on the west side of
the Barrier, but it is one of my favorites because there is so much to do
there. It is also comfortable and well protected under most conditions except
for strong west or southwest winds.
|Port Fitzroy as seen from Sunset Hill|
Great Barrier Island is not a pest free island. Stoats,
possums, rats, and other pests threaten the native bird life on the island.
Feral cats are a particular threat to black storm petrels which, surprisingly,
nest in underground burrows on the slopes of Mount Hobson. (I expected the
seabirds to nest on rocky cliffs or pinnacles.) Black storm petrels are only left on two of the
islands in the Harauki Gulf: Great
Barrier and Little Barrier Island. Little Barrier is a wildlife sanctuary where a permit is
needed to land. One of the special places on the Barrier is the Glen Fern
Sanctuary, which is a nature preserve. It is not the only place where native
fauna is found on the island, but the native birds experience more protection
here due to the sanctuary’s pest-free fence.
|Patrick walking past the pest-free fence|
From the anchorage, the pest-free fence appears to be a
water pipeline running down the face of the mountain.
|The pest-free fence that looks like a silver pipeline on the mountain above Port Fitzroy|
The Glenfern Sanctuary also contains a tract of native
forest in which the diversity of plant species is astounding. Not only is Glenfern a great place to view wildlife, a visit there is a wonderful way to learn
about New Zealand’s native plants and their uses by the Maori. Many of the
plants are marked with interpretive signage along the track.
|Boardwalk in Glenfern Sanctuary|
|Tree fern and kanuka tree forest canopy as seen from the viewing platform|
One of the yacht crews we met on the Barrier are the
likeable Kathleen and Donald from SV Valhalla.
Kathleen is 67 years young, and she made me look like a rookie in terms of my
cardio conditioning. She was in amazing shape, and I was drawn to her
enthusiastic personality. In the space of a few days, we completed three hikes
and a paddle (with kayaks she had on Valhalla)
|I think this bird is called a waxeye|
|Kanuka trees and ferns on Warren's Track|
Kathleen and I hitchhiked to the east side of Great Barrier
Island, where we took the Windy Canyon/Palmer’s Track route towards Mount
Hirakimata (Mt. Hobson.) The route afforded many great views of the island’s
east side, as well as spectacular views from a saddle leading to the peak.
|View towards Whangapoua (northeast) from Palmer's Track|
This H-shaped formation was used to haul kauri logs over the ridge from the stream below. It held a double-pulley and snatch block through which wire ropes attached to the logs were hauled.
|View to the southeast from the ridge|
|Trail leading from the ridge toward Mt. Hobson|
On the summit of Mt. Hobson, we met a woman from Brittany,
Lucie, who was hiking alone.
|Girls on top: Kirsten, Lucie, and Kathleen on the summit of Hirakimata (Mt. Hobson)|
|View west from the summit: Kaiaraara Bay (below), southern entrance channel to Port Fitzroy (to left), and Little Barrier Island (background to left)|
We hiked with Lucie partway down the mountain. She was
heading for the Kaiaraara Hut, while we were debating whether or not to take the
Cooper’s Castle route back to Port Fitzroy.
|Lucie pauses on a suspension bridge over a stream|
Then, we took a short detour to the Kauri dam before continuing down the Kaiaraara Track.
|Now defunct kauri dam|
A lot of the original planking from the dam is now missing, as shown in the interpretive sign below:
When we reached the turnoff for Cooper’s Castle, we decided
to go for it. We were met with a steep, 45-minute climb up a rooty substrate
and through and old steam bed. Up, up, and relentlessly up the track went.
Finally, we reached the turnoff for Cooper’s Castle. When we came out on top of
this rock formation, we were chagrined to see the same vista we had seen at the
start of our hike in Windy Canyon: We
were essentially still on the island’s east side!
|How the Dam Worked: New Zealand Department of Conservation interpretive sign|
|Whangapoua estuary and Pacific on the east side of Great Barrier Island as seen from Cooper's Castle|
The route back to Port Fitzroy lay ahead in the form of a
The steep descent was broken up into stages. Cooper’s Castle track was not as well maintained as the
Kaiaraara Track and had many steep sections, but the track was obvious and not difficult to follow. (Some of the
locals had tried to discourage us from taking it because they thought it was too
|Well, okay then...|
We discovered that most of the posted walking times for the hikes on
Great Barrier Island are pretty accurate. While we did not come out a great
deal ahead of time, neither did we come out later than the posted time, and we
emerged on the road to Port Fitzroy at 4:30 p.m. We had been on the trail (from Windy Canyon to Port Fitzroy) for
seven hours. We took our time along the way, spent about 30 minutes for lunch
on the summit, and stopped at the kauri dam. Faster hikers could probably do
the whole loop in five hours.
A few days later, Patrick and I took a hike from Port Fitzroy to the Kaiaraara
Hut, one of the three hiking huts on Great Barrier’s Aotea Track. As usual, we
were impressed by how well maintained the trail system in New Zealand is (at
least the most popular tracks) and the quality and cleanliness of the
facilities provided for hikers.
|Patrick on the suspension bridge over the river to Kaiaraara Hut|
We finally left the protected waters of the Port Fitzroy area
for a trip down to Whangaparapara Harbour. Here, we hiked to the the remains of an old
kauri mill. The trail ended in a clearing containing this old steam engine,
which had obviously been painted and maintained.
|Steam engine from old kauri mill|
The other ruins of the kauri mill, while present in the form
of various hunks of rusting metal, were less recognizable in regard to their
original purpose. On hindsight, it would have been better to take our dinghy to
this area on a high tide (while not visible during low tide, there is a small
sandy beach you can land a dinghy on.)
We also made the trip to Kaitoke Hot Springs. We hitchhiked
to the beginning of the Kaitoke Hot Springs Track along Whangaparapara Road and
took the easy, flat, and partially board walked hike into the hot springs.
|Stream at beginning of Kaitoke Hot Springs Track|
|A board walk trail passes by Kaitoke wetland|
|This is the flax flower: Flax leaves are used to make baskets and clothing|
|I think this jagged ridge is known as the "Hog's Back"|
|The scrub plant manuka looks like a conifer, but it is a flowering plant|
|New Zealand is a botanist's dream|
|Another well maintained DOC track: The Kaitoke Hot Springs Track|
After about thirty minutes, we arrived at the hot springs.
The temperature of the hot springs was perfect, although the
bottom was a bit silty. I sat on small boulders in the hot springs while I was soaking.
|Kaitoke Hot Springs|
With jello-y legs from my warm bath, I then followed Patrick
up the connecting track to the ridge---where we were met with spectacular
views---and over to the Tram Line Track.
|View from Hot Springs-Tram Line Track connector|
We were able to hike back to the
anchorage through the forest on the Tram Line Track, completing a nice loop and
arriving at the lodge in Whangaparapara in time for lunch.
|Back in civilization: propane tank mailbox|
A Rollicking Sail
It was with a feeling of sadness that we left the Barrier, but a weather system was about to set in that would leave us trapped on the island for a week or more. We were out of food, cash, and time (if we wanted to leave New Zealand this season): It was time to go back.
Luckily, there is nothing for shaking off the blues like a good sail. On our trip to Great Barrier from Whangarei, there had been no wind and we'd had to motor the entire way. Heading back from Whangaparapara, we had a rollicking sail in clear, sunny skies under full main and jib in 15-20 knots from the southwest.
|Goodbye to the Barrier: View looking east from Whangaparapara Harbour|
Somewhere before arriving at Little Barrier Island, we picked up a dolphin escort. Silhouette was sailing fast enough that the dolphins raced alongside the boat for an extended period of time. There were several mother and calf pairs, along with other pairs, leaping out of the water in twos. We lost both the wind and the dolphins temporarily when we got into a wind shadow at the northeast end of Little Barrier, but both were back when we got out of the wind shadow. The exhilaration lasted until we reached the Hen and Chicken Islands when the wind lightened
|Sailing past Little Barrier Island |
: It was one of the best sails ever!
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