Why is this brilliant island trek not one of New Zealand’s Great Walks?

Travel News from Stuff - 27-11-2023 stuff.co.nz
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It was the one thing we didn’t get around to discussing. Over five days and almost a hundred kilometres of walking, the topics of conversation our group covered ranged from assisted dying to the recipe for a Pornstar cocktail, with just about everything else in between.

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When you’ve got 40-plus people ranging in age from about 30 to almost 80, from not only all over New Zealand but the world as well – surprisingly, the Russians and Irish outnumbered the Aussies – who have nothing to do but walk and talk, that’s a lot of experience, opinion and advice to share.

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There was also plenty of appreciation going on. We were on Waiheke Island, tackling the Te Ara Hura circuit as part of the annual Walking Festival. Taking place over 11 days from late October, the festival features around 50 walks focusing on scenery, stories, art, music, dance, wine, stargazing and including even dogs and insects. Guided by locals, the walks deliver personal insights into island life, history and geography, and include special detours across private land.

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Te Ara Hura – meaning ‘the path of discovery’ – is the star of Waiheke’s numerous walking tracks, comprising a full circuit around the island. Including some sections on quiet roads, most of the route is through native bush and along beaches, following an often challenging trail over many hills.

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The number of these hills was one of the main surprises for visitors, the other being the sheer size of the island itself. People who’d previously popped over for a day poking around Oneroa’s art galleries and eateries, and perhaps taking a long stroll at Onetangi Beach, who then thought they’d done Waiheke, were astonished to discover the extent of what is known locally as the Bottom End.

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Setting off from the beach below the little town of Oneroa, we were soon confronted by the day’s first hill, which briefly halted the note-sharing of previous walks ticked off. Between us, we had done everything from the Camino de Santiago and Inca Trail to the two Milford Tracks – Southland’s, and the North Shore’s.

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Once into our stride, though, on the ups and downs along the half-day route to Onetangi via a variety of beaches and native reserves, it was only the spectacular views across rolling hills to the sparkling sea and islands beyond that stopped the chatter. Those, and the other sights on view at the nudie end of Palm Beach.

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The second day brought genuine mouth-dropping scenery as we climbed up from Onetangi to traverse, over private land, the emptiness of the Bottom End, its coastline nibbled into many secret little bays below headlands where magnificent pōhutukawa grow under a big, big sky.

Even when the trail returned to a quiet country road for a long section, the views were compensation; although not in the same class as the Man O’ War winery would have been, had it been open. The day finished at Orapiu, with the promise/threat of a “challengingly steep” section ahead.

While the official descriptions of the first two days – “gentle” and “flat” – had been, in my personal opinion, somewhat imprecise, the third day definitely lived up to the label. Initially seduced by a gentle wander along empty beaches, we then headed up through bush and along a road past the locally famous, and well-deserved, “ooh-ahh” view.

A picturesque little Pioneer Cemetery tucked into the bush was the introduction to the serious section of the day, where we tackled three long hill climbs, only momentarily diverted by hungry eels and the unique Awaawaroa Bay Eco Village.

The high point of this section was actually the descent, where for a hundred metres it’s a hand-over-hand slither down a 45-degree slope, clinging gamely onto the sturdy rope installed along the fenceline for just that purpose.

It was certainly a challenge, but a fun one, and added to the achievement of the day, which we soon celebrated at the conveniently located Batch Winery. From its hill-top location, we could see the other half of the island laid out ahead of us, the part that everyone visits, but which has its secret bits too, for us to discover.

Whakanewha Regional Park is not one of them. Deservedly well-known for its nīkau groves, pretty waterfalls and invitingly winding tracks, it was a lovely start to a day that continued through quirky Rocky Bay to a walk up over hills with glorious views across the sparkling sea.

We then dropped down to share our lunches with the ducks in a playground just past Ostend. We were now deep into the inhabited end of Waiheke, houseboats included, but there were still quiet pathways to follow, away from the road.

Piritahi Marae at Blackpool was where we finished the day, and also started the next one for the final stage around the western tip of the island. Careful timing with the tides meant we were able to walk along a number of beaches, torn between gazing out at the beautiful sea views and up at the equally lovely houses tucked into the bays.

There were artworks to admire, vineyards and islands, bush and grasslands, more of the trail’s hundreds of neatly-built steps to climb and then, finally, the long curve of Oneroa Beach where we had begun the walk so many kilometres ago.

As we gathered by the last red track marker, we were so full of joy, congratulation, achievement and relief, plus eagerness to head up to our reward in the village, that we entirely forgot the obvious question: why is Te Ara Hura not officially one of New Zealand’s Great Walks?

Waiheke Island is easily accessed by ferry from central Auckland, and from Half Moon Bay. It has a full range of accommodation, from hostels and Airbnbs to luxurious lodges, and there are many restaurants and wineries. The walking tracks are independently accessible year-round, while the Walking Festival is an annual event, featuring transport, guides, themes and special permission to cross private land. See: walkwaiheke.co.nz; waihekewalkingfestival.org; waiheke.co.nz

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