After three months of saying yes to almost any social occasion, my brain has been seriously fried and in need of some quiet time. So what better place than a sleepy little island with a population of circa 1,000 people.
I book a Friday off work so I have three full days to take my sweet time rambling around the isolated mountainous Aotea Track on Great Barrier Island. My trip gets off to a pretty amazing start when I check in at the airport and get told I’ll be sitting next to the pilot – dope!
The flight over was so rad and I had first class views sitting next to my mate Anthony and co-piloting like a boss.
It’s a 30-minute flight on a tiny plane with about 12 seats, that takes you over Rangitoto, Waiheke, the top of the Coro, plus a scattering of other cute little islands, before you descend onto Great Barrier, with insane views of white sand beaches, azure waters and lush leafy green forests. At this point, I’m already taking mental notes to look at Airbnb’s over here for a beach bum weekend (I’m told the horse shoe shaped bay is Medland’s – anyone fancy a trip?).
My shuttle bus friend Norm (who has lived on Barrier since he was nine) picks me up about 11am and drives me to the Kaitoke Hot Springs Track entrance on Whangaparapara. I also get some tips from him on beaches to explore and a bit of insight into what to expect on the hike. If you’re over there and need a driver, hit him up (09 429 0897). Total dude. I make plans to be picked up on Sunday afternoon at the Green Campsite gate (which is an essential conversation as you won’t get phone reception most places).
Hot Springs to Mount Heale Hut
The first 30-45 minutes is an easy part of the track, across flat boardwalks, surrounded by majestic views of the summits you’ll be climbing, with nothing around apart from the shrill of cicadas and the smell of native Kiwi bush (there are a lot of manuka trees in these parts).
I pass a few elderly couples and a hiking group – this is the part of the track where I see the most amount of people in the three days I’m over there. From the hot springs onwards, it’s pretty much just me and some solid playlists.
When I arrive at the hot springs, I’m the only person there which is a dream, so I spend a decent amount of time lounging in it’s medicinal warm waters. There are also a couple of picnic tables around, so I have an early lunch to refuel before I start the inevitable upwards climb.
From the Hot Springs Track, I follow the Tramline Track North to the start of the Peach Tree Track, which is where the glute workout really begins. Maybe that’s why ‘peach’ is in the name. Who’s to say. The sign will tell you it’s 1.5 hours to Mount Heale Hut, so you’ll feel like you’re on the home stretch. But that’s 1.5 hours of stairs, which is mentally and physically challenging. Music is essential. Thank you Mount Kimbie.
Pain and shaky legs aside, this is a beautiful part of the track, and once you reach the clearing at the top you get pretty amazing panoramic views all the way down to the beach and out to Little Barrier Island.
I don’t pass anyone else the entire day, which is great as the solace of it meant I could not only listen to my music but also have a great time singing out loud, with no one around to hear (judge/ridicule) me. Has anyone else got into this on a solo hike? If no, then you really should. This was one of the unexpected highlights of my three days on the track.
Anyway, where was I. There is one final schlep to the top once you get out into the open. By this point I’ve lost a sufficient amount of salt and sweat, so it’s rather spectacular to discover that someone has magic’d the most perfect hiking stick before me like a desert mirage, giving me the last push I need to reach the hut (that and a bit of Parallel Jalebi). I reach the ‘5 minutes to Mount Heale Hut’ sign and I’m practically euphoric, skipping the rest of the way there.
Mount Heale Hut is pretty damn special, with pano views across the island and beyond. It’s also relatively new as doc huts go and has all the mod cons – gas for cooking, running water (that you’ll need to boil as it’s fresh from the stream), and a classic Kiwi ‘dick’ that offers up the best views for miles.
I say hello to the Aussie mum/daughter combo who are in the hut, drag my mattress out to the deck and crack open a beer to celebrate my first day of solo hiking. Earned it.
A cute couple from Colorado turn up, followed by a Venezuelan dude, and we spend the evening on our mattresses outside, having dinner together, swapping stories, and watching the sunset turn the skies dusky pink. Luckily we have a clear evening, so once the light fades, we’re treated to a night of cosmos porn, with the Milky Way showing off all it’s hazy glory. We spend about two hours staring up into space before calling it a night as the cold sets in.
Mount Heale Hut to Kaiaraara Hut
I have a mega good sleep and wake at 8am to a misty morning over the island. Everything is covered in pearly dew drops but despite the forecast I manage to avoid any rain. I decide to head to the summit anyway (which involves a fuck load more stairs), hoping it will clear up, but visibility isn’t great. The best news of the day is that it is (mostly) down hill and flat for the remainder of the track to the next hut. I also find some cool woodland flora and fauna along the way.
I get serenaded by a Tui, followed by a Fantail, and also come across a Kaka who is tearing a tree to shreds, bits of which rain down on me. The best part of this route is the one million swing bridges I come across, offering safe passage over cute little streams, which are good if you want to take a dip to cool off.
The Kaiaraara Hut is empty when I arrive and reminds me of a museum, with it’s quaintness and musty smell. It’s rustic and has a certain charm to it, but it’s nowhere near as good as Mount Heale Hut. I passed a sign for a beach somewhere along the entrance to the hut, so I dump my stuff, grab my togs and head off in search of somewhere to bathe. It feels amazing to not be carrying a load on my back for a change!
30-minutes from the hut is Bush Beach, a tiny bay of golden sand, rowing boats, crystal clear waters and a picnic table. I’m also the only person there and revel in the solitude that’s been handed to me on this trip. I take a swim to wash the days sweat and dirt off me, float around staring up into the sky, and all at once feel cleansed and calm. Water is for sure my happy place.
I pass some day trippers on my way back to the hut, but apart from that I won’t see anyone for a long time. When I get back to the hut I’ve got one very important job. Get the log burner going and (as Gwen McCrae once famously said) keep that fire burning. I manage to set the fire alarm off multiple times, and struggle to get the big log to light, so give up and crack open my second (and final beer of the weekend) to think about how to overcome this conundrum. I have a look at the leftover wares on the shelf and come across a bottle of liquid marked ‘highly flammable’. Jackpot.
Before long I’m stoking that fire like a badged up scout, and collecting sticks and kindling to feed the flames. Two hours later I’ve got two litres of clean water, had several cups of herbal tea, some miso soup, and dehydrated my dinner [smug face].
I drag my mattress outside, cover myself in mozzie spray and settle in for some podcasts (this one is really good and really important to those that give a shit about the state of recycling). I take my camera and explore the creek, which is super peaceful, before settling in the hut for the night.
It starts to get dark and I resign myself to the fact that it’s just me at this hut tonight, which is honestly a little unsettling and a little exciting all at the same time. I don’t want someone cramping my style now I’ve settled into my new home for the evening. But it does take me a while to dose off to sleep, and there were definitely a few bumps in the night as I was trying to drift off (fuck you, possums!).
Kaiaraara Hut to The Green Campsite
I wake up a bit hazy after a less than average nights sleep, grab a blueberry bagel and hit the track. I manage to walk half an hour in the wrong direction of Forest Track, probably because I’m still half asleep, but also because there are signs pointing to different parts of it. Don’t go back over the swing bridge to continue the hike, turn right out of the hut and get on the boardwalk.
I read on a few blogs that the final part of the track is the easiest, but that’s a little misleading in my humble opinion. Sure, there’s no stairs, but there are definitely a lot up upward slogs that get my calves burning. After two days of hiking, I’m just determined to get to the end now, so put my headphones on and walk at pace.
This is probably the least remarkable part of the walk and is mostly through a forested track, which is nice enough but not comparable to the views on day one. Some parts involve walking on pebbles as well, which is kind of uncomfortable.
This part of the track is meant to take four hours but I manage to smash through it in three, taking a wrong turn at some point and ending up at a different exit (worth noting there are heaps of different exits, entrances and routes you can do through Great Barrier Forest – so bring a map). I don’t have any phone reception, but luckily have a couple of Barrier maps downloaded on an app, so follow the road around to my shuttle pick-up spot.
I have a bit of time to kill before Norm collects me, so find a little lunch spot by the water, surrounded by cute houses, turned up boats and rolling green hills. Even though I’m back in some form of civilisation there are no people around, so I enjoy the peacefulness of bird calls and lapping waves, whilst I finish up the end of my snacks. I lose the hiking boots and paddle in the cool water, which is sweet relief after the past three days.
In the shuttle back to the airport, I compare hiking notes with some other trampers, who recommend starting the track at Windy Canyon, spending a night in Mt Heale Hut then ending up at the hot springs, which makes sense when I think about the best parts of the track. It’s also the first time I hear about the Christchurch attacks, which is pretty jarring after such a meditative and peaceful weekend. I leave the island with some pretty mixed feelings.
All in all, my first solo hike has been everything I wanted it to be and I can’t wait to go and explore more of this beautiful country, which to me is still the safest place in the world. I’m also super keen to get back to Barrier soon to hang around on the coast.
Good effort if you’re still reading this by the way – this turned into a much longer ramble than planned. Also special shout out to my new camera for keeping me company along the way (please don’t judge my 10 second timer usage – I had a lot of time on my hands).
Peace out x