Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, both in physical size and population, with 1.2 million people residing in this thriving metropolis. There are numerous big city benefits of living in Auckland such as world class dining, fantastic entertainment options and great shopping. But that is not why I love it.
In my opinion it is in the surrounding nature that Auckland’s charms lie.
One of my favourite places in Auckland is the West Coast, home to the 16,000 hectare Waitakere Ranges Regional Park and some of the most beautiful black sand beaches you will ever see.
Nature is wild there.
The 77km trail Hillary Trail is the best way to discover this primeval wonderland. The trail opened in 2010 and was created by connecting a network of pre-established hiking trails. It generally takes four days to hike, with basic camping grounds to overnight at along the way.
The trail is named for one of New Zealand’s most famous sons, Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who was the first to conquer the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. The Waitakere Ranges were Sir Edmund’s backyard and he spent a lot of time hiking the numerous trails linking rugged black sand beaches to lonely waterfalls in the untouched coastal rainforest that looks like a set out of Jurassic Park.
Along with a visit to Hobbiton, the Hillary trail was on my ‘must do’ list when I was back in Auckland for three months at the end of 2013.
As I was temping during the week, it left the weekends as my only chance to do the trail. I didn’t want to attempt to hike 77km in only two days so after a bit of research, we picked a section of the trail that seemed do-able over a two day period and encompassed arguably the most scenic section of the hike.
My Dad dropped Trav, my brother Robbie and me off at Huia where we were beginning the trail.
I had never been to Huia before and I was instantly struck by how beautiful it is and how much it reminded me of Milford Sound. Huia is a tiny settlement located in a large bay of the Manukau Harbour. It exudes tranquillity as it doesn’t receive the visitor numbers that some of the other West Coast beach towns get as the beaches in Huia are tidal.
We had fun playing around on the swings in the kid’s playground then found the trail marker, a small orange triangle with a small picture of Edmund Hillary on it, and we were on our way.
The marker was a bit misleading and we weren’t sure if we should be walking up a grassy trail that looked like someone’s driveway (it was) or along the tidal grey sands of the Huia Bay foreshore. We tried our luck with the foreshore and after being chased by crazy oyster catcher birds that were protecting their nest, we found another marker and knew we were on the right track.
We quickly found the Karamatura Valley Campground, where most people completing the full Hillary trail would spend their first night after hiking from Arataki. More confusion abounded as we tried to figure out which of the three trails leading off from the campground was the right one, and after a lot of back and forth we picked the one we thought was most likely correct. Luckily we picked right but we didn’t know that until we saw another marker about an hour later. Phew!
Hiking through the pristine native bush, we were accompanied by native bird song – grey warblers, tuis and wood pigeons. New Zealand native birds may not be very colourful but they sure can sing. We only saw two other people in the three hours that we were in the dense forest. It was just us and the birds. The air was cool and moist, a refreshing temperature perfect for hiking.
We stopped for a snack by an overhanging waterfall, taking much relief from removing our packs.
Despite doing quite a few multiple day hikes in North and South America, this was the first where I had to carry all my food, cooking utensils and bedding.
It was hard.
Setting off again, the trail started emerging out of the forest and finally gave us a glimpse of the coast below. More of the coast was revealed as we started hiking along a ridge then slowly stated the descent down to Whatipu.
I have been to the West Coast many times but I had never seen anything quite like the scenic feast in front of our eyes. It was, simply put, some of the most spectacularly wild scenery I have ever seen. It felt prehistoric, utterly unchanged from what it was when giant lizards roamed the earth, before people ever came to New Zealand. When it was a Kingdom of birds. The only other place that came close to this contrast of black sand and deep forest green is Iceland, another of my favourite countries.
Whatipu sat far below, two curves of rocky coastline connected by a volcanic island fortress, battered by the milky, emerald waves.
It was hard going down the steep and slippery trail with a big pack on my back and my knees felt jolted and weak. We rested at a picnic table in the sunshine once we reached the bottom, not having the strength to walk out to the beach we had seen from the mountain heights. Further exploration of Whatipu will have to be conducted on another occasion.
Our strength flagging, we continued on, rising up to heights again which afforded more stunning coastal views. After a couple of hours the narrow trail finally began to flatten out then we started descending into the Pararaha Valley, where we were spending the night in a backcountry campground. We were looking forward to resting our weary bones.
With only 1km to our stop for the night, disaster struck.
Robbie and I were walking a few metres behind Trav when we saw him suddenly lurch to one side then fly off the cliff, superman style.
We quickly ran to where he went over, expecting to see the worst.
Trav was lying on his side, a few metres down the bank, held in place by a tiny tree. He was in pain and wasn’t able to get up because his massive pack was weighing him down.
He had slipped on an exposed root on the trail and the combination of the weight of his massive backpack and gravity had pushed him over the edge.
I wasn’t sure how to help. I tried to hold on to his leg because I was scared that the tiny sapling that was holding his weight would snap and he would fall further down the bank. Unfortunately the pain was in that knee and I hurt him more. His knee had twisted when he fell.
Robbie helped Trav get his bag off then we pulled him back onto the path. Luckily the intense pain in his knee eased and he was able to hobble on it the rest of the way to the camping ground.
The Pararaha Valley was stunning. A clearing of lush green grass and nikau palms with a clear mountain stream running through it. Jagged, rocky peaks surrounded us. It was a sight for sore eyes (and legs and knees).
After hiking for 16.5km with heavy packs on our backs, we were ready to chill out for the rest of the evening. We set up our tents, cooked a simple dinner in the cooking shelter then retired to our tent to play cards while the wind whistled through the valley.
Because Trav was still feeling some pain in his knee and wasn’t able to walk on it properly the next morning, we decided to walk to Karekare beach, which was only about 4-5km, rather than continuing on to the beach settlement of Piha where Dad was meant to be picking us up from.
We figured that we could ring him once we got to Karekare and organise to be picked up from there instead. Simple. Or not.
The hike to Karekare took us about two hours and was primarily along the windswept beach, past marshland and giant black sand dunes. It was easy going and relatively flat after the tough trail the previous day.
The long, black sand beach seemed to stretch on forever. It felt as if we were at the end of the world. I loved the feeling of isolation.
Finally we arrived at Karekare beach. We walked inland, crossing the knee deep waters of Karekare stream and along a short trail to the beautiful Karekare Falls.
We sat and ate lunch in the calm surroundings and paddled in the cold waters of the Falls.
There was no cell reception so after lunch Robbie walked a kilometre further up the road to try getting a signal. No luck.
It was starting to look like we might have to continue on to Piha after all. Robbie suggested we try calling Dad from the phone at the surf club and set off back to the beach to do so. Unfortunately they only allowed local calls and Dad wasn’t at home.
We decided to give it another try and I went back about an hour later, crossing a perilous tree trunk bridge to avoid walking around the long way. Luckily this time Dad was home. I arranged for him to come and pick us up and we waited in the car park for his arrival.
So things didn’t turn out exactly how we had planned but when do they ever? I very much enjoyed my taste of New Zealand’s newest multi day hike and I would like to return in the future to do the entire trail. Maybe with lighter gear.
Auckland continues to surprise me with the incredible natural beauty that can be accessed so close to the city. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: there is much more to Auckland than the slightly seedy Queen Street.
Did you know that there is a rainforest in Auckland? Would you hike the Hillary Trail?