Isobel and Jacqui went to Great Barrier Island (Aotea) looking for black petrels. On the trails they found a couple of cracking huts, some speccy island views and hot springs warm enough to boil an egg.
- Tracking down black petrels (tāiko) by night on Mt Hobson
- Having a steamy dip in the Kaitoke Hot Springs
- Kicking back on the balcony of Mt Heale Hut to a spectacular coastal sunset
- Swimming in secluded bays fringed by untouched native bush
Auckland isn’t known for its hiking. Yet lying off the coast, in the outer Hauraki Gulf, sits an adventurer’s paradise, Great Barrier Island (Aotea). With pristine white sand beaches, towering kauri trees and countless hiking trails snaking around the island, it’s the perfect place for a nature-fix away from the big smoke.
We were here on a Petrel Patrol mission, in search of the elusive black petrel (tāiko). This vulnerable migratory bird only nests in two spots globally, Great Barrier’s highest peak, Mt Hobson (Hirakimata), and on the neighbouring Little Barrier island. Visiting Little Barrier is a bit of a mission (think permits, quarantine, and boat charters), so we ruled that one out. We needed to summit Mt Hobson.
Luckily for us, the multi-day Aotea track incorporates the peak of Mt Hobson, links the island’s two huts, and drops down to pristine beaches fringed by native bush. Perfect!
Day 1: Kaitoke Hot Springs To Mt Heale Hut
Early morning on a spectacular summer’s day, our ferry set off from Auckland. The majority of the 4-5-hour journey is sheltered by the Coromandel Peninsula, but as you head out to open sea, the swells will start to rise. If you are prone to getting seasick, I’d recommend investing in some seasickness medication.
Any dodgy stomachs are quickly forgotten as you approach the island. Bright blue, crystal clear waters. Native bush full of nikau palms right down to the shoreline. Hundreds of golden-sand inlets creeping around the island. Great Barrier Island is something close to paradise.
Kaitoke Hot Springs
You can start the Aotea track from a bunch of different places, but we decided on the Kaitoke Hot Springs. The walk starts with a super easy 30-45 minutes through the Kaitoke wetland to the hot springs. But man, they weren’t joking when they called them *hot* springs. They are hot. Too hot in fact. They are low-key poached alive hot.
With mega-heat both in and out of the water (it was a hot and sweaty day), our enthusiasm for hot springs was quickly dropping. But we were here for hot springs, and we weren’t about to back out. After developing a distinctive red ‘poached line’ within minutes, we’d had enough of the ‘hot spring experience’ and decided it was time to move on.
Peach Tree Track
From here it’s a breezy walk to the start of the Peach Tree Track. We had recently spent some time with the folks at DOC responsible for track maintenance in New Zealand, and we must say we were very impressed by the impeccable quality of tracks on Great Barrier Island. Cue, the comments on how impressive the tracks are every five minutes… Luckily, we were walking alone.
But in reality, the tracks are fantastic easy walking, barely a tree root in sight, nicely gravelled, and at the slightest hint of an incline, you’ll find yourself at a tidy little staircase. This kind of manicured track isn’t for everyone, but it would be perfect for introducing inexperienced hikers or kids, or those that are a bit unstable on rough terrain.
Unfortunately, the flat, easy walking doesn’t last. From the track intersection, it’s a fair hike up to Mt Heale Hut (410 m) with stairs galore. If you can still see, in spite of the sunblock-laced sweat dripping into your eyes, you’ll be rewarded with increasingly impressive views of the island’s peaks, valleys, and creeping coastline.
Mt Heale Hut
Eventually, when you’ve lost all hope that the stairs will end and that you will ever arrive, you’ll be greeted by the welcome sight of Mt Heale Hut. And man, what a reward. It must be one of the best balcony views in the country. It’s a cracker sunset spot looking over Little Barrier and Great Barrier Island.
The hut is also nicely set up with gas, tank water and a random assortment of pots and utensils. Both Mt Heale Hut and Kaiaraara Hut ($15 each) need to be booked online to secure your spot. We were lucky enough to share the hut with a rowdy group of 15 in their 50s-60s getting stuck into the wine and vodka, quickly followed by mega snoring. Bring your earplugs friends.
Top tip: If you take the small side track to the helicopter pad, there are 360-degree views around the island. Magic.
Day 2: Mt Hobson Petrel Mission
Although the Aotea Circuit is typically a 2-3 day track, we decided to give ourselves ample time for the petrel search, so extended it to 4 days. As the nesting spot of the black petrel, Mount Hobson was our focus for day 2. From Mt Heale Hut, the summit is a 30-minute, heart-pumping, thigh-burning climb away.
As black petrels only come into roost at dusk, the first trip of the day up Mt Hobson was a quick reconnaissance mission to establish our plan of attack. The rest of the day was spent back at the hut lazing around and playing cards, before returning to Mount Hobson for our black petrel hunt. If you want to find out whether we were successful, check out Jacqui’s article here.
Day 3: Mt Heale Hut To Kaiaraara Hut
Our day 3 destination was Kaiaraara hut. The first section of the track took us up Mt Hobson for the third time in two days, before dropping steeply down to sea level.
It’s a quick walk from Mt Heale to Kaiaraara Hut (2.5-4 hours), so it left us with plenty of time for a side trip to Bush’s Beach. This lovely little bay has a few picnic tables and views out to yachts bobbing around. You could spend hours relaxing here (as we did), reading, swimming and generally lazing about.
Back to the hut for dinner, the whisperings of no gas at Kaiaraara Hut (contrary to the DOC website) were confirmed true. And we didn’t have any gas with us… After failed attempts at getting the wood stove cranking, we resorted to cold-soaked bulghur wheat topped with a garnish of crispy mi goreng. Yum yum…
Day 4: Kairaara Hut To The Green Campsite
A top tip for your final day: when the track guide says ‘no major climbs’, that does not equate to flat. Instead, day 4 was a roller coaster of up and down (but no major climbs) along forestry roads.
Initially, the plan was to start and end the Aotea loop via the Kaitoke Hot springs track, but with the hot weather, we opted to redirect our finish point to the beachfront and The Green Campsite. This is the perfect spot for a refreshing dip after days of sweaty hiking. There’s even a fantastic pohutukawa if tree climbing is your thing. From here it’s a short walk to Whangaparapara road, your pick up, and return to the mainland.
Great Barrier Island is a rarely visited, but very special hiking spot. If you want peace and quiet out on the trails while being rewarded with spectacular coastal scenery, this is the place for you. The Aotea Circuit beautifully incorporates the highlights of the island and provides a perfect base for spotting the special black petrels.
A Note On Kauri Dieback
I’ve previously written about the threat posed by kauri dieback, and sadly Great Barrier Island is not immune. There are lots of dead trees littered through the island, and a few tracks have been closed to prevent the spread. So, to do your bit, make sure you stay on the track and use the cleaning stations every time you pass one by.
We completed the Petrel Patrol with the support of the Osprey Adventure Grant program, so we’d like to thank them for their contribution!
- Toilet paper
- Gas cooker, pots, and utensils
- Head torch
- Water for Day 1
- Water treatment system
How To Get There
There are two options to reach Great Barrier Island from Auckland.
Ferry: Sealink operates a ferry service between Auckland (CBD) and Great Barrier Island five times per week. Check their website for the timetable. Also, don’t forget to check which port they are sailing into on Great Barrier Island (there are two, Tryphena and Port Fitzroy). Port Fitzroy is only an hour walk from Kaiaraara Hut. The ferry ride is about 4.5 – 5 hours each way.
Fly: There are two companies which fly between Auckland Airport and Claris Airport on Great Barrier Island. The services are quite frequent and flight prices are surprisingly reasonable (but still a little more than the ferry).
On the island: Public transport on the island is non-existent, so for on-island transport, you are reliant on fairly pricey shuttle companies (you should arrange this before you arrive). Otherwise, you could try your hand at hitchhiking. There aren’t many cars driving by, but the locals seem friendly.
Accommodation: Both Mt Heale Hut and Kaiaraara Hut ($15 each) need to be booked before you go, so make sure you do that online to secure your spot. You could also stay at The Green campsite ($15) before or after your hike.
- Bird watching
- Chatting with other hut users
- Playing cards
Beginner (some long steep sections, but the track is very well maintained)
Distance Covered / Elevation Gain / Duration
Day 1: Kaitoke Hot Springs to Mt Heale Hut (8km)
On Day 1 from the beginning of the Kaitoke Hot Springs to Mt Heale Hut is 8km with 400m of elevation gain.
Day 3: Mt Heale Hut to Kaiaraara Hut (7km)
From Mt Heale Hut to Mt Hobson it is 1km with 200m of ascent. To Kairaara hut it is another 6km with 600m of descent.
The side trip to Bush’s Bay is fairly flat and 3.5km return.
Day 4: Kairaara Hut to The Green campsite to Whangaparapara Rd
A distance of 13.6km, with 550m of ascent and 550m of descent.