Auckland is world-renowned as the City of Sails, and so it should be with around a third of locals owning and parking their vessels in one of its two harbours. But apart from the multitude of masts, the casual observer may assume Auckland is still ‘just another city’. You know the type: grey buildings, busy high streets, obligatory high rises. But there is another side, born from the volatile landscape where volcanoes push through the cityscape, beaches sparkle in black and forests twist into prehistoric labyrinths. This is the Auckland I love – welcome to her wild side…
West Coast beaches
One Tree Hill and Rangitoto
Due to sitting on an isthmus, it comes as no surprise to discover Auckland is packed with beaches, from the peninsula of the North Shore to the eastern bays right outside the city centre, there is plenty of choice when it comes to swimming with the kids, running with the dog, or setting sail right on your doorstep. But it is the West Coast that is truly special. Due to the volcanic nature of the area (Pacific Ring of Fire – says it all in the name) the seas are rougher, cliffs more rugged and the sand is so high in iron it is black like ground coal with a shine like obsidian. Living in West Auckland myself, here are two of my favourites.
Famous for two things: gannets and surf! Unfortunately no surfing gannets, you’ll just have to watch them dive instead. From March to August, a vast colony of these seabirds take to the cliffs above Muriwai Beach to raise their young in relative safety. An easy boardwalk track from the beach winds gently up until you are high enough to look down from above. And if the smell is a little overwhelming – over 2000 birds make a lot of mess – you can always face the beach itself and soak up the view. The rougher seas of the West Coast are an invitation recreational fishermen and surfers cannot ignore. For those with a love of riding waves, this is reportedly one of the best spots in New Zealand, and for those who prefer their riding more land based, Muriwai Beach Horse Treks offer a four-legged alternative to a board. Their most popular 1 hour ride is a leisurely walk through the scrub, up the coast and back through native forest. Simply sublime! For a closer look at that famous sand, take a hike up the dunes (and maybe a roll down) and write your name on the wet beach to watch it sparkle as it dries in the sunshine.
How to get there
Follow SH16 west around 40mins from the city onto Muriwai Road. The carpark is at the end of the road next to the beach.
Another great surf beach like many on the West Coast, but this is also one of my favourites for walking. While the beach is often abundant with dog walkers and families, there is also a short track from the car park following a stream to Kitekite Falls if you fancy cooling off in freshwater instead of saltwater or simply admiring the cascade. On the beach itself rises Lion Rock, the icon of Piha, standing guard over the bay. A steep hike to the top and many stairs later, you reach a wooden Maori carving and those awesome views over Piha and Little Piha beaches, black sand clashing with white surf and blue skies. I prefer to people watch from the beach, but for those wanting to get wet, be careful to swim between the flags as currents are strong.
How to get there
Drive west 40mins from the city through the Waitakare Ranges then follow Piha Road to the coast. There is parking near the beach and the waterfall.
Auckland plays host to 48 volcanoes, highlighted by their lush green cones against the grey city or the blue sea – yes, they are in the harbour too! Most are just seen as hills to stroll up and take in the view from a different angle from each one, but here are two of the largest that caught my eye.
One Tree Hill
Found in the heart of the city in Epsom, the commanding cone is surrounded by lush Cornwall Park, the site of many a cricket match, picnic, grazing sheep and even a few weddings! From within the grounds, your field of vision is filled entirely with green, enough to make you forget you are in the middle of the country’s largest city. A short hike up the steeper side of the volcano ends with a monument to the founder of Auckland on the summit and panoramic views of the city and surrounding sea. Take the longer path following the road winding down the hill through sheep fields back into the park to soak in the sights and finish at the cafe for a well earned brew.
How to get here
There are entrances to Cornwall Park from Royal Oak and Greenlane West as well as a road to the summit and through the park.
An iconic part of Auckland’s skyline, alongside the Sky Tower and the Harbour Bridge, Rangitoto is most often viewed from the mainland and can be spotted from lookout points all over the city. To get a proper feel for Auckland’s youngest volcano, however, take a ferry across to the island itself. Enhancing the excitement of walking on an actual volcano is that most of what crunches under your feet as you hike would have been under the sea 600 years ago. The eruption that thrust the summit 260m into the sky left behind only lava fields and scree yet still a forest flourishes on the slopes abundant with birdlife, including vocal black and white tuis and fleeting fantails flashing their namesake on a branch. There are multiple tracks on the island encompassing the lava caves and old baches along the coastline if you have time, but the must-do is the summit track and loop on the top. It really is quite special to see the city this time from Rangitoto as opposed to the regular view of the reverse.
How to get there
Catch a 30min ferry from Downtown Auckland wharf. You may catch any ferry back with a return ticket.
Possible my favourite area of Auckland, the Waitakare Ranges is a huge native forest stretching from the western suburbs all the way to the coast packed full of tramping tracks, streams and natural swimming pools. In my opinion, the best tracks lead to waterfalls so here is my pick of the Ranges.
Cascade Falls Track
This was the very first track I did when I moved to New Zealand and I was overwhelmed by how different the forest felt to native British woods. Here, the feeling was almost prehistoric with huge palms and dripping ferns providing glorious shade from the summer heat which warmed the stream alongside the path so the locals could dive in and out quite happily. Tracks are signposted clearly, following boardwalks, natural paths and over bridges for about 30mins until you reach a giant rock beyond which you can hear the roar of the falls and usually some shrieking from kids bombing into the plunge pool. You can wade around but what better way to feel like an explorer in a lost world than climbing the rock to see the Cascades on the other side. The return track links up with other routes if you wish to extend your hike or you can just take the 30min walk back to the carpark.
How to get there
Drive 40mins west of Auckland city following Scenic Drive, then Bethells Road and Falls Road. Parking is located at the end of the road by a golf course.
Mokoroa Stream Track
Further north lies a track for the more adventurous as it involves multiple stream crossings and isn’t always clearly sign-posted. Staying dry is not an option on this path unless you happen to own a pair of waders. The track takes around 1.5 hours and winds through lush forest, passing plenty of mini-cascades and occasionally passing directly over them. As a very clumsy person, I was grateful to be hiking with a group who would catch me when I launched myself at the nearest bank. Unsurprisingly, I did fall in but even at the deepest point the stream only comes up to your knees. The track eventually opens out into a wide basin into which pours the Mokoroa Falls and Houheria Stream Falls. This really does feel like something out of ‘Jurassic Park’ as the bowl gives the feeling of seclusion in a sub-tropical rainforest despite being less than an hour from the city centre. You can wade up to Mokoroa Falls for a closer look (and a spray shower) or climb the rocks in the centre of the basin to admire the view. There are stairs to a viewing platform above Houheria Falls from which you can follow a 40min track back to the carpark. Both tracks can be walked in either direction or as a loop from one to the other depending on how long you want to trek.
How to get here
Travel west from the city on SH16 to Bethells Road then Wairere to Horsman roads, the latter of which is unsealed and ends in a basic carpark.
Nestled in the heart of Western Springs Reserve lurk Auckland’s wildest residents. Though small in size, the zoo has a good balance of native wildlife and exotic animal exhibits including large areas for tigers and orangutans and a brand new safari complex for African mammals. My favourite, however, are the walk-through aviaries refelcting different habitats in New Zealand for native birds and waterfowl including alpine, wetlands and forest as well as a nocturnal house for kiwi, morepork and bats. Also available at the zoo are behind the scenes animal encounters which make for great presents. I should know, as I recently was gifted the opportunity to enter an enclosure and hand-feed cotton-top tamarins, which was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, seeing their little hands take treats while a tail is wrapped casually around your wrist. If combined with a walk around the reserve, this makes for quite a nice half-day trip.
How to get there
Head just west of the CBD to Western Springs Reserve. Parking is on Motions Road.