Saturday, May 11, 2013

Time Out for Great Barrier Island

North entrance channel to Port Abercrombie and Port Fitzroy as seen from the island
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.

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

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 the hull.

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.  

Nesting shag

Pied shag

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.   

Sorry guys, just messing with you!

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:

Sunset pateke

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 Settlers

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 Experiences

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

Trail sign

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 the anchorage. 

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.

Patrick and I took a walk through the sanctuary on our first day after arriving in Port Fitzroy. 

A butterfly in the garden at Glenfern Sanctuary

We found a memorial to Glenfern's founder, Tony Bouzaid, on Sunset Rock.

Patrick the explorer

His mission statement was preserved on a plaque and his hat was bronzed. 

Tony was a bird lover

I regret that we left Port Fitzroy before I had the opportunity to take the hike up "Tony's Track," one of several tracks looping through the sanctuary. 

Patrick and I followed the track that takes you through the kauri canopy. This hike (and many of the others on the island) would be popular with children because of its varied and imaginative track. There is a tree house (Kauri canopy viewing platform) which is approached via a suspension bridge, a maze of wooden steps interspersed with trail, and a chance to discover giant cave wetas. (Patrick and I proved incompetent at coaxing the giant wetas out of their caves.) 

Patrick on the viewing platform in a kauri tree

In the kauri canopy

Kirsten crossing the suspension bridge to the kauri canopy
Boardwalk in Glenfern Sanctuary

Puriri tree

Tree fern and kanuka tree forest canopy as seen from the viewing platform

I think this bird is called a waxeye

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) together. 

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. 

Windy canyon

View towards Whangapoua (northeast) from Palmer's Track

View to the southeast from the ridge
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.

Logging relic

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:

How the Dam WorkedNew Zealand Department of Conservation interpretive sign

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!

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 ridge walk:

Well, okay then...
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 rough.)

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.

Kaitoke 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


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. 

Goodbye to the Barrier:  View looking east from Whangaparapara Harbour

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. 

Sailing past Little Barrier Island

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 It was one of the best sails ever! 

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