It’s a 30-minute flight from Auckland Airport out to the island. I am seated right behind our pilot who cannot be more than 12 years old, his Subway sandwich tucked safely on the empty co-pilot seat next to him. Over his shoulder I can see every flashing red light, every dial.
Our Walking Legends hiking guide, Karllie, greets us warmly and gives our group a well-considered safety briefing. We’ve come ready to walk, so we head straight out to the Te Ahumata/White Cliffs track. It’s 25 degrees at 11am. The clematis and purple heather are flowering in rude abundance and the whole island smells like honey.
After a fitting introduction to Aotea we head to our lodge for the next 3 nights at Shoal Bay. Val, our colourful host, is a straight talking, salt-of-the-earth Kiwi matriarch. ‘I just want to cook,’ she simply explains as an array of homemade relishes, jams and chutneys appear on the table before us. This is old-school Kiwi-style hospitality in practice, and Val is a master. We graze over an appetizing dish of fresh kahawai, caught and smoked earlier that day by Val’s husband Francis. Feet up, we nibble on fresh fruit and cheese, sipping our cold, sweet sauvignon and gaze out over a sparkling, fingernail bay. Francis mans the barbecue, nursing thick, succulent, grass-fed steaks. ‘Grown by the guy down the road,’ he tells us, ‘A real animal-whisperer!’ That’s how food economics works here, you grow it in your backyard, harvest it with friends and share what you can with neighbours. Val and Francis have spent 30 years on the island, carving out a sustainable way of life that has me thinking guiltily about my own considerable environmental footprint and vowing to make more of an effort when I get home.
In the morning, come the kākā. I’m woken by a squadron swooping overhead, their squawks bouncing off the valley walls, and even pre-coffee, I am anything but disgruntled. In fact, I am delighted. Only sporadically seen on the mainland, their proliferation here is indicative of a healthy ecosystem and available food sources.
Today, we tackle Hirakimata/Mt. Hobson, the highest peak on the island at almost 630m above sea level. In Maori, the name means ‘lightning striking the cliff face.’ The going is tough in places, but the balance of uphill track and easy-going track is just right. We stop regularly to take in the stunning panoramic views from the ridgeline and share a bit of chocolate, medicinal of course.
My fellow walkers provide great company. One is a diamond trader from Dubai. The other a world-renowned botanist, visiting New Zealand to speak at a conference. She has come here to see the Great Barrier Island tree daisy, found only on Aotea. Another is after a sighting of rare black petrels, who nest on the slopes of Hirakimata. We’re from all corners of the earth but evidently, we have one thing in common – we want to explore wild places.
I needn’t have worried about my fitness level as I’m able to walk at my own pace. After a gradual descent the thought of soaking away the day in a natural hot pool at the end of the track quiets my complaining knees. There are plenty of hiking trails on Aotea to keep you busy with amazing variation in terrain, scenery, flora and fauna. It’s truly one of the last corners of New Zealand most people have never been!
Want to join us on your own Great Barrier Island Escape holiday?
See the full trip itinerary here.
Check available trip dates for the 2020/2021 season here.