The team from MoaTours at Windy Canyon on Aotea Great Barrier Island

Aotea Great Barrier Island Escape with Kiwi Guide Tim

This summer at MoaTours we were all really excited to be adding Aotea Great Barrier Island to our New Zealand small group tour programme.

For many of our guests it will be the first time they travel to this wonderful part of New Zealand. But what do our guides think of visiting Great Barrier?

Back in spring before the season got under way the MoaTours team all headed out to “the Barrier” to check out all the places included on our newest tour, our 5 day Aotea Great Barrier Island Escape tour.

Among the team was Kiwi Guide Tim, who was visiting for the first time and wrote a travel diary for us from that trip which we’d like to share with you here.

Please enjoy Kiwi Guide Tim’s Aotea Great Barrier Island Escape.

Welcome to Aotea Great Barrier Island

Welcome to Aotea Great Barrier Island, while it’s a short 30 minute flight from Auckland, it feels like you are stepping into a New Zealand of 30 years ago.

Our MoaTours team, comprising the office crew and some lucky Kiwi Guides, made the trip to explore the island and the itinerary for our new tour, as well as enjoying some team-bonding in readiness for the busy season ahead of us.

It’s my first time here and it’s one of the last places in New Zealand for me to visit yet, as we leave the airport, I feel a strong sense of deja-vu. It takes some time to understand that this is because I am stepping into my past.

For many years I have travelled all over New Zealand on personal adventures and as a MoaTours Kiwi Guide, and Great Barrier Island reminds me of the travels of my youth, in areas such as the West Coast, Coromandel, East Cape and Northland.

Some facts about Aotea Great Barrier Island

The Island lies in the outer Hauraki Gulf, 100 kilometres north-east of central Auckland. With an area of 285 square kilometres it is the sixth-largest island of New Zealand and fourth-largest in the main chain.

Its highest point, Mount Hobson, is 627 metres above sea level. Māori named the island Aotea meaning white cloud, as it appeared in the distance as a white cloud on the horizon.

Its 43 kilometre long coast protects the inner waters of the Hauraki Gulf from Pacific Ocean storms, hence in 1769 Captain Cook giving it the European name, Great Barrier Island.

On the Pacific or east coast of the island you will find stunning long white sand surf beaches, while the west coast is made up of hundreds of calm, small, sheltered coves and bays providing some of the best boating, diving and fishing in the country.

Inland there are wetlands, hill country and bush with both old & regenerating native forest, including some of the largest remaining Kauri forests in New Zealand.

Our new Aotea Great Barrier Island tour

The MoaTours Aotea Great Barrier Island Escape tour is a five-day, four night adventure and while our time here is less than this, we are visiting all of the attractions and sights that are included on the tour. It took us very little time to realise that while the island scenery is spectacular, it is the people of Aotea who are going to make this tour a special experience.

Day 1 – Fly Auckland to Aotea Great Barrier – Tryphena

Flying into Aotea Great Barrier Island was quite an experience. As the clouds parted and the island came into view, we saw a runway heading inland from a beautiful beach, surrounded by rocky headlands covered in Pohutukawa trees. However, Murray, our Barrier Air pilot lined the plane up with the grass strip alongside the runway and we landed comfortably. He explained that “as long as the sheep were not on the grass, it’s a smoother landing and there is less tyre wear.”

Great Barrier Island Arts & Crafts

Our first visit is to the Elephant Artful Gallery in Tryphena, the gallery is being painted in readiness for the summer season ahead and here we meet Marion Davidson.

On the tour she and her daughter Anna will be hosting us for a lunch, gallery visit and garden walk. Marion is a gardener, quilter, knitter and founding member of the local “Bits & Pieces” craft group.

Her husband John is a Sailmaker and Anna is a caterer, recently returned to the island after having lived in Melbourne for many years. Marion is warm, welcoming and tells us many interesting local tales, traits that we are to find are common among all the locals we meet.

Looking down into Schooner Bay we meet Peter Edmonds at the Black Cow Gallery & Workshop, Peter is a wood-carver and his partner Fenella a painter. They have lived on the island for 41 years and incorporate traditional Māori design into their works using local timbers and themes.

Shoal Bay pottery and gardens are our next stop. Sarah Harrison lives in a beautiful 1928 native timber villa that was moved to the island from Auckland in 1971 and shows us around her gallery and studio including her wood-fired kiln.

Home hosted accommodation

At Sunset Lodge, we meet Lynley and Leigh Johns, they have only been on the island for a few months having bought the lodge sight unseen during lockdown.

Some guests will be staying with Leigh and Lynley. Their energy and enthusiasm for their new island life is infectious. It’s a sign of the small community that we meet them twice more during our stay, once at the local market and they also join us for dinner the next day.

The day’s end sees us checking into our accommodation at Shoal Bay Lodge. Val and Francis Foreman welcome us to their home and adjacent cottage, situated right on the waterfront. That night we dine family style enjoying Val’s delicious home cooking including heritage vegetables fresh from their extensive gardens. Tonight’s fare was a delicious curry, rice and vegetables from the garden, followed by a home cooked cheese cake and fruit salad

I asked Val how she learnt to cater so well for large groups and she explained that having Lebanese ancestry she was brought up being used to cooking for a large family and has adapted this to her meals for lodge guests.

Great Barrier Island Pictures – Day 1

Day 2 – Oripu Blind Bay – Kaitoke – Whangaparapara

Our MoaTour guests are guided around the route we drive today by a long time local Russell Scott. He brings the day to life with stories and facts from island life and history. It’s this local knowledge which we love tapping into on all our tours but in a place like Aotea Great Barrier it’s even more special.

Whangaparapara Harbour & Island Walks

We start our day by heading out to Whangaparapara, where we visit a small museum. This area was important for local iwi (Ngati Wai) as a source of obsidian, then there were Kauri logging operations in the late 1800s and a whaling station that closed as recently as 1963. Nowadays it is very common to see Orca come into the harbour and it’s also a popular place to cruise out to in summer.

There’s the chance for our guests to stretch their legs on an option walk to Kaitoke Springs. Rated as one of the top five natural hot springs in New Zealand, the path through a primeval forest, follows an ancient shoreline traversing the Kaitoke wetlands. The natural and undeveloped pools are a reminder of the volcanic origins of the Auckland region as the sulphurous water cascades down the Kaitoke Creek, creating a series of pools of differing temperatures.

A short detour on our way back took us to another golden sand beach at Blind Bay, where we saw a solitary dolphin cruising the bay.

Great Barrier Island Honey

When we’re visiting with our guests we’ll also call into the Great Barrier Honey Shop, where we’ll have tastings (of course) and meet the owner and chief honey maker, Nikki, who will tell us all about honey making on the island.

Great Barrier Island Pictures – Day 2

Day 3 Windy Canyon – Glenfern Sanctuary – Cruising on Port FitzRoy

Several of our group went for an early morning run this morning and were fortunate to see a pod of 30 dolphins cruising in the bay just opposite our lodge. The rest of us awoke (at a more civilized time), to a beautiful day and after another hearty breakfast we set off to explore the western side of the island.

Windy Canyon

We drove from Tryphena towards Port FitzRoy, and this took us right past one of the most stunning views on the whole island, Windy Canyon. A short walk from the road took us to a magnificent viewpoint, located in the centre east of the island, the canyon is a wind funnel shaped from andesitic rock.

The canyon is located on one of the highest stretches of the island, less than 200m below the 627m summit of Mount Hobson. With clear skies and 360 degree views this was of-course an obligatory group photo option and we got some beauties, just like the one at the top of this page (that’s me at the end on the right).

Port FitzRoy Cruise with Skipper Chris

Being protected from Pacific Ocean swells, the coastline provides many sheltered bays and harbours and is perfect for exploration by boat.

At Raharoa in the scenic Port Fitzroy Harbour we meet local skipper, Chris Ollivier. He is a local legend, not only for his Hooked on Barrier boat cruise, but also for his famous carrot cake, which he bakes himself. As we boarded the boat we were welcomed with fresh coffee, an awesome carrot cake, and a beautiful harbour before us, which set the tone for a great day.

Glenfern Sanctuary

Just across the bay at Glenfern Sanctuary we met local eco-warriors Brad and Bridget who are responsible for pest management in the 240 hectare Regional Park. A network of 1600 rat traps and a predator proof fence high keep control of the Kiore (rats) in order to protect the biodiversity and threatened species of the Kotuku Peninsula where they have replanted 15,000 native trees.

Cruising Port FitzRoy to Motu Kaikoura

Sheltering in FitzRoy Harbour is Motu Kaikoura, an island purchased in 2005 for the people of New Zealand and managed by a private trust as a wildlife reserve.

Anchored at the pontoon wharf we enjoyed Val’s great picnic lunch, as we watched the schools of snapper surround our boat and waved at the children in a large houseboat moored across from us. This was the home of Clint and Jacinda Stannard and their three children, who for the last eight years have been the rangers on the island. We could only marvel at the incredible lifestyle of this family in this remote and beautiful place.

More cruising with Chris followed as we made our way back to port and learnt some more of the area. The surrounding red coloured cliffs were reminders of the volcanic origins of the island as Chris explained that the harbour itself was actually a volcanic caldera (flooded river valley).

Having seen whaling and exports of gold, kauri, livestock, cream and fish, it is now mussel farming that provides a sustainable income and future employment in the harbour. It was inspiring to see that while the past was all about exploiting the natural resources of the area, the future is focused on sustainability and protection of the natural resources.

Okiwi on the journey back to Tryphena

Our journey back to our lodge, accompanied by the smooth sounds of the local radio, Aotea FM, included a couple of stops.

Miles, one of our owners, has been coming to Aotea Great Barrier to surf for many years and showed us his favourite break near the Okiwi airstrip, and on the roadside we stopped by a low-growing and flowering Puawhananga or New Zealand Clematis. Scarce on the mainland due to opossum predation, this was the first time many of us were able to get close to this beautiful plant.

Okiwi Passion Organic Farm

But the most interesting stop was where we met Gerald and Catie Endt, they have been running Okiwi Passion Organic Farm for 14 years and gave us a wonderful talk as we walked around their gardens. All their produce is grown for local consumption, they deliver food boxes of their micro-greens, fruit and vegetables to residents all over the island, and host garden tours to raise funds for the local Aotea Heath Centre.

We were fortunate to arrive just after the completion of their new green-house. It shows how much the community values their business in that a large part of the cost of the green-house construction, was raised by crowd-funding from within the local community.

We also gained some fascinating insights about life on the island. Freight and fuel costs are very high, (petrol is $3.17 per litre) and while there are no opossums on the island, rabbits are a major pest, as are feral cats and the Kiore or Polynesian rat.

There is no water or reticulated power supply so everybody is off-the-grid. High sunshine hours mean Great Barrier Island is a world leader in the use of solar technology, but water conservation is also important, especially in periods of low rainfall when it is not possible to buy a tanker of water to fill your empty tanks.

The visit to Okiwi Passion is sure to be a hit on the tour.

Great Barrier Island Pictures – Day 3

Day 4 Tryphena Fishing & Beachcombing – Long Lunch – Relaxing

When guests are on our tours, Day 4 is fun and relaxing, that’s what coming to Great Barrier is all about. Local guide extraordinaire Russell will be back with the group and with our own MoaTours Kiwi Guide will take our guests out beach combing and fishing off nearby Tryphena wharf.

To top off a wonderfully relaxed day, our Shoal Bay hosts Val and Francis put on a long lunch in their home and garden.

Our journey for the day is a very important one, an afternoon visit to the Currach Irish Pub where we sampled local beers from Aotea Brewery, the Grizzly Howler India Pale Ale is highly recommended!

When we came over in spring we didn’t have the luxury of enjoying a full day of leisure like this, but I’ve included a few photos of guests and guides from recent trips for you to see our guests hard at play!

Great Barrier Island Pictures – Day 4

Day 5 – Medlands Beach – Claris – Return Flight to Auckland

Today our first stop is for a stroll on the golden sands of beautiful Medlands beach.

Milk, Honey & Grain Museum

Then we continued onto the settlement of Claris, where nearby at the Milk, Honey & Grain Museum, we met Dave Watson who has been the curator for 20 years. Once a beekeeper, his interest in recording the history and photographing old time bush beekeepers lead to his creating the museum complex.

There were thirty dairy farms on island in 1950s, and they also grew grain and grass seed for the Auckland market. On site are original honey and creamery sheds, plus “Holly the Hippy”, complete with shotgun, who offered a great photo opportunity.

Patina Gallery

Across the road we met Vivian Keenan at the Patina Copper Sculpture Gallery, who will be talking to our groups. Influenced by the land and sea, Vivian and her son Daniel, make contemporary and original art work from recycled copper, willow, rattan and materials from the local environment such as jasmine, harakeke and supplejack.

Heritage & Arts Centre

Our final stop before heading to the airport was the local farmers’ market at the Heritage and Arts Centre in Claris. In 2001 a group of seven local artists moved three historic buildings dating from the late 1800s to the site, creating a museum and galleries for local artists. Our timing was perfect for the weekly market, many local artists and food producers were there and it is indicative of the Island atmosphere, that we were already meeting old friends from our travels over the past few days.

Return flight to Auckland

With clear skies, our flight back to Auckland provided magnificent views of the island that we had come to know so well. Over the last four days we had met some wonderful people, learned about the unique history of the island, enjoyed great food and marvelled at the magnificent scenery.

With a busy season ahead of us it was also a great chance for the MoaTours team to bond and learn about our new tour, the Aotea Great Barrier Island Escape. Personally I cannot wait to return as a KiwiGuide with a group of MoaTours guests.

Great Barrier Island Pictures – Day 5

We know you’ll enjoy Aotea Great Barrier Island as much as we did

We had a really fun filled time, there’s so much to see on the island. But what really made it special was all the wonderful people we met. It was a real treat for us to come on “tour” ourselves, normally we’re the ones behind the scenes while our guests are out having all the fun.

A few more photos of the MoaTours team exploring Aotea Great Barrier Island

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Aotea Great Barrier Island Escape 5 Day Tour

Meet local guides and artists as we explore remote corners of Aotea Great Barrier Island. Scenic Hauraki Gulf flights are included.

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