Auckland's Western Wilds

November 8, 2020
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LOCATED just a 30-minute drive west from downtown Auckland, the Hillary Trail is one of Auckland’s best-kept secrets. It’s too well kept a secret, really, as many Aucklanders have yet to experience it. Like me, they may take a long time to find it. Some Aucklanders, however, like the fact that it is a semi-secret.

Named after New Zealand’s most famous explorer, Sir Edmund Hillary, whom a friend of mine has kindly sketched for this book, the track takes you through the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park, along wild coastline, past countless waterfalls, and through ancient bush.

Looking to explore the full length of the trail, some friends and I had an itinerary of four days and three nights, leaving from the Auckland suburb of Titirangi and heading through the Arataki Visitor Centre to tramp to the Karamatura Valley Campsite just west of the coastal settlement of Huia.

The Hillary Trail and its Environs. (Based on NASA Earth Observatoryjpeg image Auckland_17_2002239). NB this is no substitute for a proper trailmap. North at top.

Titirangi is well worth stopping in for a cup of coffee. On the edge of the city, this suburb is already well into the primordial bush of the west coast, with glimpses of the Manukau Harbour and its heads to be seen from some of the cafes in buildings in the Titirangi village, buildings such as Lopdell House, an Art Deco structure that opened in 1930 as the Hotel Titirangi, and eventually became an arts centre.

In front of Lopdell House is a statue of a noted early Auckland environmentalist and water engineer, Henry Atkinson. Atkinson acquired much of the wilderness west of Auckland on his own account while laying out grand public waterworks in the same area, and then donated the surplus bush to Auckland for conservation purposes.

There are a number of attractive photographs including ones of Lopdell House and Atkinson's statue in a post on the heritage-focused blog Timespanner, called 'Timespanner visits Titirangi Village' (19 June 2010). No doubt because it is a heritage suburb, the place hasn't changed much in the last ten years since the post came out!

Up a steep hill and never served by tram in the days when most people used trams to get around, Titirangi was once a notable artists’retreat – a bit like Heidelberg in Melbourne, for instance – and still has some of that vibe, as well as several rather Bohemian cafés, grand scenic views of the Manukau Harbour and a feeling of being on the edge of the bush: altogether, an ideal place to begin a nature ramble.

The mouth of the Pararaha Tunnel on the Piha tram line, with a group of workers standing beside the logging locomotive "Sandfly". Piha sawmill manager Mr H. P. Knutzen is seated on the front of the engine.Photographed by Albert Percy Godber between 1915 and 1916. A. P. Godber collection, Alexander Turnbull Library (Wellington), reference APG-0826-1/2-G.

If you’ve seen the Victorian period drama The Piano, starring Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin and Harvey Keitel, this is the very area where most of it was filmed, and set. Auckland’s wild west, battered by seawinds and spray from the Tasman Seal and dominated by hills and dunes covered in tough, leathery plants, is less touristy but at the same time more primeval than the east coast of the Auckland region, which is quite sheltered and faces the Pacific.

As you can see from the photos that follow, there are few places so primordial and yet so close to a big city!

Whatipu-to-Karekare Coast

Scrambling over boulders in the Pararaha Gorge

Anawhata Beach

Anawhata Beach


Lake Wainamu from the south end, beach dunes at the north end

Te Henga Walkway, northward from Bethells Beach to Muriwai

Goldies Bush Track: Fern shoot

Goldies Bush Track: Mokoroa Falls


Muriwai: The Gannet Colony

As you can see from the photographs, there are probably few places on earth, least of all beaches, that are so primordial and quite often deserted, and yet so close to a big city.

An increasing number of tracks have been closed, and a rāhui or traditional ban proclaimed, to try and prevent the spread of kauri dieback disease in the Waitākere ranges. Visitors to the Waitākere should make themselves familiar with this issue. (Hopefully, a remedy will soon be found.) The best source of up-to-date information both about the trail in general, and also about which sections are open, is to be found on this Auckland Council link. If you are around locally, you can also visit the park rangers at Arataki Visitor Centre, or call them on 09-817-0077.

This post is referenced in my new book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand's other half.

Special thanks goes to Nicki Botica Williams, who took most of the colour photographs in this post.


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