In love with Auckland city

By: Heather Whelan, Photography by: Heather Whelan and Getty


Lush parks, birdlife, nature walks and award-winning bike trails… it’s Auckland, but not as you know it, says Heather Whelan

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and all too often we just want to drive through it, hoping there are no hold-ups on the motorway. However, there is always plenty to see and do in the City of Sails – and it isn’t all connected with boating.

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Lately, we have made a point of stopping in Auckland to experience some of the city’s unique attractions. Downtown Auckland is easy to walk around. Last time we visited we wandered up Queen St to check out the Auckland Art Gallery.

From here we walked to the War Memorial Museum, through the Domain – though I admit we took the train back from Newmarket to Britomart, as it would have been quite a hike to walk both ways. Auckland is well served by public transport and, being gold card holders, we were able to use the buses, trains and ferries for free.

lava caves and ghosts

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The historic Ferry Terminal building

The one ferry ride we did have to pay for was out to Rangitoto Island, as this was not a commuter trip. Nevertheless, it was well worth the price of the ticket. Rangitoto translates as ‘Bloody Sky’, named by Maori who saw the volcano that formed the island erupt about 600 years ago, and it is the dominating landmark of the Hauraki Gulf.

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Rangitoto was created by a volcanic eruption 600 years ago

From the downtown Ferry Terminal, our boat trip took around 25 minutes, passing all manner of craft – from yachts to a Maori voyaging canoe. Disembarking at Rangitoto Wharf was like entering another world. The big city – out of sight here – seemed far away.

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A glimpse of the city from the track to the summit

Black scoria rock littered the ground; a track of smaller pieces led off towards the summit. Rangitoto’s symmetrical cone towered 260 metres above us, its flanks clothed by the largest pohutukawa forest in the world. 

Before setting off to walk to Rangitoto’s summit I wanted to check out some of the baches scattered near the wharf. Mostly built in the 1920s and 30s, no-one lives in them now as the island is a scenic reserve, administered by the Department of Conservation.

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In the distance, an old bach, a relic from the days when Rangitoto was inhabited

A few of these old homes remain, preserved to show visitors a snapshot of long-ago island life. As I peered in the windows of the ghost settlement I found it hard to imagine the island was once home to several hundred people.

There was even a prison here at one time – it was the convicts who formed the tracks that visitors use today. It took around an hour to reach Rangitoto’s high point, passing through the pohutukawa forest and bush that contained over 200 species of trees, flowers and fern.

This is amazing, given that there are no streams on the island and the plants rely on rainfall for moisture. DOC’s eradication programmes have been so successful that introduced creatures – such as possums and wallabies, as well as the usual deer, goats, stoats, rats, cats and mice – have all gone.

Rangitoto became pest free in 2011. There were seats and viewing platforms at the island’s summit, with great views of the island-studded Hauraki Gulf, and of Auckland in the distance.

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Caves formed by molten lava

We could see the city’s other volcanic cones punctuating the cityscape, and right across to the Waitakere Ranges and the Manukau Harbour. After lunch on Rangitoto’s summit, we took a track that looped round to some lava caves.

These tubes were left behind when the molten lava of Rangitoto’s eruption hardened on the outside but still-liquid lava flowed through inside. The caves would have been fun to explore, but we didn’t have torches with us, so left that to some excited children and continued back to the main track and down to the wharf for our ferry.

cycling the rainbow

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The rainbow section on the cycle trail

Another day a group of us grabbed our bikes and investigated part of the burgeoning network of urban cycle trails that link the suburbs and city centre. Auckland Transport produce a series of handy maps that show shared paths, protected cycle lanes, quiet routes and on-road cycleways.

We left from Avondale, taking the Waterview Path through a series of reserves to the Great North Road. A section of the cycle track was painted in rainbow stripes here, an unexpected sight that took our mind off the fact that we were going uphill.

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Although we were soon nearing the city centre the route remained quiet, skirting first a golf course and then the fringes of villa-filled Kingsland streets. Finally we found ourselves on the famous pink Lightpath, Te Ara I Whiti, an award-winning structure that took us above busy streets and down to the Viaduct Harbour.

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At the end of the Lightpath

After that exercise we felt justified in having lunch in one of the restaurants that line the watersides. Then it was back onto our bikes and we cycled along past the beautiful, yellow-hued Edwardian ferry building and into Britomart, where we loaded our bikes and ourselves onto a train back to Avondale.

There are several places for motorhomers to stay in Auckland city. NZMCA members can stay at Tui Glen in Henderson (right on another cycle trail) and there are motor camps in Avondale and Remuera, as well as the option of staying at clubs and Park Over Properties.

a bird lovers’ dream

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Looking out at the Manukau Harbour from Ambury

One place we have stopped on a few occasions is Ambury – one of Auckland Regional Council’s parks – on the Manukau Harbour, with a campground area where self-contained vehicles can stay.

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Self-contained vehicles can stay at Ambury

We enjoyed the walk along the harbour foreshore from the campground, an area popular with birdwatchers as it is a significant shorebird habitat. The big skies and expansive harbour views were stunning, and the walk was interesting even for those of us with limited ornithological knowledge as there were sign boards explaining local history along the way.

Another track of historical interest was the Lost Gardens Walk, where there are remnants of the stone mounds Maori used in their gardens. Further on, this links to a walking and cycling path leading to the Otuataua Stonefields and Mangere Mountain, one of Auckland’s largest volcanic cones.

Ambury is a farm park, with a variety of animals to admire. Along the 1km walk around the farm area visitors can see sheep, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits and peacocks. In spring visitors can check out the lambs and even feed them – great for children to experience.

Flora and Sculpture

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A little further afield is the NZMCA Park at Ardmore Airport. Because it is close to Papakura Station we have taken the train into central Auckland and haven’t had to worry about parking.

Another advantage of staying at Ardmore is the proximity to Auckland Botanic Gardens. For years we had whizzed past the Botanic Gardens sign as we drove along the motorway, and talked about calling in there some day, but – after visiting the gardens the first time we stayed at Ardmore – it is now a place we visit frequently.

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 Bird lady sculpture near the visitor centre

Whatever the season, it is fantastic to wander through some of the 64 hectares of land, admiring the huge variety of plants. The gardens are arranged thematically so you can check out everything from the Edible Garden to the Gondwana Arboretum.

There are rose gardens, rock gardens, palm gardens, native forest, lakes, lawns and much more! We love coming upon sculpture. Sometimes it is tucked away within a garden area, at other times there are displays on the grassy area between the lakes and Huakaiwaka, the visitor centre.

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Colourful sculpture at the Botanic Gardens

Huakaiwaka is a sculptural building itself, featuring a stone wall, water feature and tree-like columns that support a butterfly roof above the atrium. There’s also a really good cafe here, a great place to enjoy lunch while overlooking swathes of the gardens.

There’s such a lot to see and do in Auckland that we have only made a start on our bucket list. We won’t make the mistake of passing through our biggest city without stopping to explore again!

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The Auckland Botanic Gardens is home to many intriguing sculptures – from the surreal to the colourful and playful

Further Information

  • The NZMCA parks are at Tui Glen Reserve, Claude Brookes Drive, Henderson, and Ardmore Airfield, Harvard Lane, Ardmore.
  • Information about Ambury Regional Park, and about staying in a motorhome at Auckland’s other regional parks, can be found on the council’s website: aucklandcouncil.govt.nz.
  • Details regarding Auckland Transport’s Hop Card, giving free travel for gold card holders, visit at.govt.nz/bus-train-ferry/at-hop-card.
  • We picked up our Auckland Cycle Network maps at the Britomart Transport Centre, but they can also be downloaded from at.govt.nz/cycling-walking/cycle-walking-maps.
  • There is a wealth of ideas and information about what to see and do in Auckland at: aucklandnz.com/visit.
  • Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki is at the corner of Kitchener and Wellesley St. More information on their website, aucklandartgallery.com.
  • The Auckland War Memorial Museum is in the Auckland Domain, Parnell. For hours, exhibitions and other information see aucklandmuseum.com.
  • Timetables and other details about the ferry to Rangitoto Island can be found at: fullers.co.nz. There are maps of the island on board the ferries. The walk to the summit is around one hour from Rangitoto Wharf and there are other tracks of varying lengths on the island.
  • The Auckland Botanic Gardens are at 102, Hill Rd, Manurewa. For full details go to aucklandbotanicgardens.co.nz.

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