New Zealand Walks: Walking over islands of desire
Fingers of land reach out from sprawling Urupukapuka Island.
Beautiful island’s float on a silver sea in an aquatic playground and walking wonderland that Captain Cook called the Bay of Islands.
‘The bigger the waves, the the better the buzz,’ declares the selfassured, skipper of the big, bright catamaran crowded with eager passengers waiting for a thrilling ride. He deftly guides the pulsating monster towards the famous Hole in the Rock in Northland’s premier attraction, the beautiful Bay of Islands.
I’m far less optimistic about our prospects of ‘threading the needle.’ The sleek, fast cat is rising and falling on the crest of huge Pacific swells. Very disturbed waves are sloshing around the Hole in the Rock and a backwash is threatening to push us off course.
The engines roar at full power as we blast our way into the yawning cavern at the base of Piercy Island. Squeals of delight rise up from the passengers, echoing around the vaulted roof of the cave. The cat powers out into the open sea with a resounding ‘Vroom’ and a shower of spray.
The skipper grins, passengers look shocked, then relieved and applaud the feat of seamanship. For me, it’s a dramatic initiation to the bay and its blessed islands that I want to explore on foot.
The Bay of Islands is a complex network of river valleys drowned by rising seas as the last Ice Age thawed out around 10,000 years ago. The 144 islands are exposed hilltops washed over time to bare rock on their jagged edges, ranging from 208 hectare Urapukapuka Island to rock reefs large enough to hold a colony of black-billed gulls.
Cook was entranced by the profusion of sheltered bays and inlets of abundance offering, ‘every kind of refreshment.’ He named the bay precisely as he saw it in 1769; a ‘Bay of Islands.’
Piercy Island, with its fascinating drive-through cave, is just one island gem in this glorious subtropical bay. Six main islands dominate the eastern side and offer wonderful cruising, diving, fishing, camping and hiking opportunities for outdoor lovers. Most are public reserves managed by the Department of Conservation with open public access.
is also known as Roberton Island. The Maori name translates into ‘the island to be desired.’ It has a narrow isthmus in the centre adorned with two pristine blue lagoons, and enticing beach, superb wildlife reserve and plantings of 10,000 trees.
It can be accessed by water taxi, kayak and jet-ski or private boat. A well-marked track towards the western end of the main beach, Twin Lagoon Bay, climbs to an elevated pa site commanding a 360 degree view of the surrounding bay. Transport options can be arranged at the Pahia i-SITE of the Russell information office.
Cook’s Cove commemorates the Endeavour’s anchorage by the island. Mrs Roberton farmed the island in 1841, assisted by Thomas Bull. Bull badly treated
his farmhand, a 16-year-old Maori named Maketu. The tragic result was Maketu’s murder of Bull and the entire Roberton family.
The grim history is totally out of character with today’s ineffably beautiful sheltered southern bay and its superb snorkelling trail set in a natural crystalclear lagoon.
Moturua Island is a picture of blissful serenity surrounded by luminous clear blue water, so transparent that it seems to merge with the sandy seabed.
The pretty anchorage called Honeymoon Bay is a favourite among visiting yachties.
Prehistoric Maori lived well on the island, which has 27 recorded archaeological sites, including headland defensive pa sites, shell middens, gardens, terraces and pits.
Three years after Cook anchored here, French explorer Marion Du Fresne set up a refitting base with a forge, tree-felling camp and hospital for three months of ship repairs. Initially he received good cooperation but later misunderstandings over Maori protocol and tapu laws led to a souring of relations and Du Fresne and 24 of his crew were killed.
The French sacked the pa and sailed away, leaving a claim to the land of ‘France Austral’ in a bottle buried next to Waipao Stream. The bottle has never been found. The claim is invalid as it post-dates Cook’s proclamation of sovereignty over New Zealand.
Today, most of the island is a public reserve and a 2.5 hour easy hiking track goes right around it avoiding the pri- vately owned areas. The track passes through regenerating stands of manuka and kanuka- a lush habitat that attracts North Island robin, fantails, silver eyes, finches, tui and spotted kiwi.
Motukiekie Island, is a small, privately owned and operated island. The eastern side offers a fine anchorage. Norfolk pines and other exotic trees provide a pleasing contrast to the indigenous forest that dominates the landscape.
However, there is no public access to the interior and boat owners are restricted to a landing below the high water mark for a landbased lunch stop with no pets or fires allowed.
Urupukapuka Island is the bay’s most popular destination. The island is just 7.3 kilometres from Paihia but feels much more remote. For boat owners, the secret is to pack food, drink, rug and sun umbrella, sit on the pure white sand and contemplate what a wonderful place this is.
I have enjoyed some stunning summer days on the island walking to Paradise and Entico Bay to the west and Urupukapuka Bay in the east around some of the 13.5km of coastline. My absolute favourite panoramic lookout in the Bay of Islands is reached by an easy 10 minute climb to a prominent hilltop above the wharf at Otehei Bay.
American writer and sportsman, Zane Grey was invited to come to the almost landlocked Otehei Bay in 1926, where he established his wilderness camp and set world records for big game fish. His book Tales of the
Angler’s Eldorado was a best seller. Urupukapuka has three campsites available and a camp host is on-site from 22 December to 20 January each season. There are showers at Cable Bay and Urupukapuka Bay but not Sunset Bay and liquid or LPG gas cookers must be used. There is cellphone coverage around the island.
Fullers Great Sights, the Explore Group and South Pacific Sailing provide stopovers in Otehei Bay on their Hole in
the Rock cruises. Explore offer a licensed cafe, kayak hire, Maori culture tours, historic walks and a $20 roundtrip ferry service for summer campers. Other sailing, dolphin watch and cruising companies call in from time to time, making Otehei Bay pretty much the social centre of the bay.
Waewaetorea Island has a landing place in the form of a crescent-shaped bay with a spotless golden sand beach. It’s an excellent base for walking, swimming and snorkelling.
From the island’s summit you look out on an idyllic picture postcard scene that embraces the entire bay and extended out to Cape Wikiwiki, Cape Brett and the distant horizon.
At all points of the compass there is a dreamlike vision of verdant islands floating on a placid sea. Toy sailboats drift silently over sparkling waters. It is rather like watching a virtual reality scene in an aquatic paradise of the imagination.
Directly below the Waewaetorea summit are rock-strewn coves whose mirror-smooth waters shine like metallic silver in a scene of utter peace and serenity. Looking out over the vast array of islands it would be hard to visualise a more beautiful location for the birthplace and cradle of New Zealand as a bi-cultural nation.
Okahu Island, just a stone’s throw across the channel from Waewaetorea, offers some protection for the other five islands in the archipelago from northerly winds. Its southern bay is sheltered and provides excellent snorkelling amongst a high diversity of reef fish species. In August the cute little blue penguins nest happily in dark caves. There are no walking trails on this island as it is privately owned.
Okahu and the other islands are part of Project Island Song, the Bay of Islands restoration project. The aim is to maintain the islands as pest-free sanctuaries in order to reintroduce locally extinct native animals and plants and recreate New Zealand as it was originally, a pristine, untouched land of birds, devoid of predators.
Whatever part of the magnificent Bay of Islands you choose to walk around, the abundance of nature and prolific wildlife will surprise you the moment you step ashore. Terns will dart and dive above the shoreline and black-backed gulls keen overhead. The native bush will be cool, still and silent save for the cicadas chirruping their vibrant summer song.
The combination of lush, green forest and breathtaking views over the water, make one realise what a huge variety of landscapes there are to take in. I can’t imagine just how many intimate bays and sheltered coves with biscuitcoloured sands there must be along the 800km convoluted coastline, but I know every one is worth exploring.
Opposite page above: ‘Threading the Needle’ is always a thrill at Piercy Island. Above: Paihia Wharf is the launch pad for island walking visits. Below right: The interesting Project Island Song display in Otehei Bay.
Above: Waewaetorea’s hilltop vistas have a semi-tropical romantic quality.
Abovve left: Model map of track network on Urupukapuka Island. Above right: Signpost at the track entry point on Urupukapuka island. Below left: Otehei Bay has excellent catering facilities for walkers.