Roger McMillan returns to Great Barrier Island after 33 years and finds little has changed.
Great Barrier Island is less than 50 nm north-east of Auckland city, so it’s an easy day-sail to get there. But you should allow at least a week, and probably a lot more, to take advantage of all the magnificent anchorages and explore all the wonderful walking trails of New Zealand’s fourth-biggest land mass.
When I sailed a 54ft French-built charter boat, generously provided by Tourism Auckland, out to the island during the recent Volvo Ocean Race stop-over in Auckland, it had been 33 years since my previous visit
On Boxing Day 1979, I had loaded three of my best mates, none of whom could sail, and 28 dozen large cans of beer into my 24ft Spencer Tom Thumb named Kahlua and headed east. It should have been a recipe for disaster, and nearly was, but the four of us came back in one piece, even better mates than when we left, and have remained close ever since. Excellent sailing adventures often have that effect.
Because a poorly-sailed 24 footer moves a lot slower than a modern 54 footer, it took us three days to get to the Barrier way back then. We spent the first night at Waiheke Island and the second huddled around the corner of the Coromandel Peninsula after being battered by gale-force winds.
In contrast, Dalai (a word that means “ocean” in Mongol) took just over eight hours. As soon as we cleared Westhaven Marina, the owner/designer/builder Bruno Montel offered me the wheel and couldn’t get it back again until we dropped anchor at the other end.
Sailing to the Barrier is a simple proposition. You head east down the harbour, transit the channel between Rangitoto and Waiheke islands and head north-east. It was a misty morning when we left so for a few hours we couldn’t see any land ahead of us, but eventually made out the tip of Coromandel Peninsula, which you leave to starboard. A short time later, we could see Little Barrier Island to port and then the rugged, tree-clad ridges of Great Barrier.
There are four excellent harbours on the eastern side of the island (more on that later) but we were heading for the most northerly one, Port Fitzroy. We approached from the south so we could transit between the Broken Islands, which feature narrow but deep passages and beautiful, isolated sandy beaches. If we’d had more time, we would certainly have stopped for a swim.
The approach to Port Fitzroy is through the 50m wide Man-O-War Passage, which was when memories of my first visit came flooding back. Sadly, we were forced to motor through this time as the wind had swung south-easterly and was blowing directly into out faces, but it gave us time to get the sails stowed before anchoring at Smokehouse Bay.
The “yachtsman’s facilities” at Smokehouse Bay were established in the early 1960s by an Auckland electrical contractor named Eric Webster, and were gradually improved by the Webster family and members of Royal Akarana Yacht Club. The facilities consist of a smokehouse (obviously) where you can smoke the day’s catch, a bath house and laundry facilities, including four rotary clothes lines.
On my first trip here, it was the evening of the fourth day on board when we made landfall and by this stage we were all starting to get a bit smelly. Well, a lot smelly really. So we headed straight for the bath house, the water for which comes from a stream and arrives at the bath via a wooden dam and a wood-fired wetback.
The crew of another yacht were just leaving and they offered us the remains of the crayfish they had caught that day. So I have this vivid memory of luxuriating in a hot bath, eating crafish tails and drinking cold beer. For a young bloke in his 20s on his first “bluewater” adventure, it doesn’t get much better than that.
With my own hot shower in the forepeak of Dalai, it wasn’t necessary to fire up the boiler on this trip, but it was wonderful to know the facilities are still there after all these years. A Canadian couple were busy hanging out their washing while their Kiwi hosts made full use of the bath, so we took our leave and headed to Port Fitzroy itself, at the northern end of this fully-enclosed harbour.
As I said, there are four harbours on the protected side of the Barrier. Furthest south is Tryphena, where the ferries make their first call and where the bulk of the population lives. If you have forgotten any supplies or want to spend a night at the only proper pub on the island, this is where you would probably go, but there is no fuel or water at the ferry wharf and the harbour is exposed to a south-westerly.
Next harbour north is Blind Bay, home to the tiny town of Okupu. This is a beautiful spot with several small bays that provide shelter from wind and swell. Tucked inside the northern headland is a small ferry wharf, which is no longer used, and there are several good anchorages on the southern shoreline as well. There are no facilities.
Whangaparapara is a narrow and deep inlet, which has diesel at the wharf, a camping ground with some provisions and access to five of the many walking trails the island offers. This was the centre of industry on the island and you can find the remains of a whaling station and a sawmill that processed all the Kauri that was milled on the island, as well as logs from as far away as Northland and the Coromandel.
According to my excellent tourist guide, Steve Billingham , the logs were floated all the way to the Barrier for processing because, being outside the old 12 mile limit, no tax was payable.
The last and best of the safe anchorages as you sail north is Port Fitroy. This deep water harbour is protected to the east by Kaikoura Island, with passages to the south and north. The normal entry point from Auckland is Man-O-War Passage, which as I said is very narrow. There are safe anchorages outside the passage, but many more exist within the bay itself. Today several mussel farms spoil the natural beauty of some coves and inlets, but except at Christmas/New Year you could normally find a bay to yourself if you really wanted isolation.
This harbour is where we took up residence in 1979, anchoring off the Akapoua campsite and motoring around the headland to Port Fitzroy itself for supplies and a party. There is a small general store there, diesel at the wharf and a currently disused boating club which used to be the social centre for the dozen or so local residents.
Things to do
When I first visited the island, we barely set foot on shore. Fortunately, on my second trip Auckland Tourism had arranged for Steve Billingham to show me the island and I was amazed at what I saw.
Our first visit was to the Glenfern Sanctuary. This is a bird sanctuary established in 1998 by famous Kiwi yachtsman Tony Bouzaid, who sadly passed away last year.
Tony had a dream of eradicating vermin such as rats from the peninsula which he owned, and re-introducing endangered species such as kokoko, kiwi, saddleback and bellbird, as well as protecting other endangered birds already present, such as black petrel, brown teal, pateke, kereru and kaka.
A vermin-proof fence was erected at a cost of $500,000 and baiting stations were established throughout the area. Tony also planted 10,000 native trees on the 83ha property.
Tony’s work is being carried on by an Australian couple, Emma and Scott, who operate the Glenfern Sanctuary, giving an excellent presentation on the history of the area and the wildlife you can expect to see. Two walk trails can be negotiated, including one that involves crossing a suspension bridge into the crown of a 600-year-old kauri tree. Go to www.glenfern.org.nz for full details.
If you are into bush walking, or just love gazing down from high places at your yacht anchored in a secluded bay, you will love Great Barrier Island. The highest point is Mt Hobson at 621m and there are three separate trails to the top, all passing through unlogged forest. The longest track at 7.9km (about four hours hiking) starts from Whangaparapara and goes via some hot pools. There is a new 20-bed hut for those who want to spend the night in the bush. The other tracks are 5.6km and 3.3km long respectively. All the tracks are maintained by the Department of Conservation and are in excellent condition, being generally gravelled and with well-built steps at the steepest parts.
The three main centres for walk tracks are Whangaparapara (five tracks ranging from one hour to six hours in length), Port Fitzroy (seven tracks from 45 minutes to five hours) and the coastal area of Okiwi/Harataonga where you will find five tracks ranging from 30 minutes to eight or nine hours. Full details of the tracks can be found at www.doc.govt.nz.
I was very fortunate to be in the capable hands of Steve Billingham during my day of sightseeing. His knowledge of the local area and its history is exceptional and he enthralled me with stories of famous shipwrecks and even a notorious homicide, which resulted in the murderers fleeing to Australia in a stolen boat, where they were captured, returned to New Zealand and hung.
Steve offers tours of the island in his mini-van, but for a visiting yachting couple I would recommend his tri-bike. Helmets aren’t required and you can tour from one end of the island to the other with the wind in your hair.
Steve also offers his “ultimate tour” for those visiting without a boat, which involves road transport to Whangaparapara, a boat trip through the Broken Islands to Port Fitzroy, then road transport back to your anchorage or hotel. See more about Steve’s services at www.gogreatbarrierisland.co.nz.
Obviously, the best way to get to Great Barrier Island is in your own boat. However, for most Australians that is not possible so the next best option is to charter, either a fully crewed boat such as Dalai or a bareboat from one of the charter companies that service Auckland.
If time is limited, you can also fly to the island in about 30 minutes with one of the two airlines that service it from Mangere Airport, or if you really have to you can take the ferry, which goes from the Viaduct in Auckland to Tryphena and Port Fitzroy and takes four-and-a-half hours for the journey.
There are very few places in our rapidly-changing world that retain the same charm and isolation they enjoyed more than 30 years ago. My overwhelming impression, especially of Port Fitroy, is that it is almost exactly as it was when we made our epic journey in 1979. Sure there are a few mussel farms that weren’t there before and the ferry wharf has been rebuilt, but the beautiful anchorages still remain exactly as they were, with no houses on the hillsides.
In fact, the Barrier underwent a population decline about 10 years ago, when an expected secondary school failed to eventuate and many families returned to the mainland. At it’s peak about 1300 people lived there, but these days there are about 800 permanent residents.
As a result of my recent visit a new line has been added to the bucket list of things to do when I retire. “Sail back to Great Barrier Island with Goose, Eric and Stretch”. This time it will be on a Category One compliant 37ft Van de Stadt, rather than a 24ft Spencer with a Seagull auxiliary and I doubt we’ll take more than a couple of dozen cans... But I’m sure we’ll have just as much fun second time around.
The 54ft charter yacht Dalai was designed and built by its owners, Bruno and Carmen Montel, in Bruno’s native France.
They live aboard with their son Aladin, who is being home-schooled and wants to be a naval architect.
The Montels spend summer chartering the boat in New Zealand, before taking her to New Caledonia for more charter work in winter.
The boat is superbly finished inside using a variety of European timbers.
An expansive forepeak with its own head and separate shower is the main guest quarters, where you are pampered with luxurious French Ivory bed linen.
Carmen prepares French-inspired cuisine for her guests, using natural ingredients, which can be enjoyed in the spacious cockpit or below in the huge saloon.
The charter rate per day starts at $1990 for four to six guests and full details can be obtained on their website www.jolibateau.com.
GREAT BARRIER ISLAND
Located 49nm (90 km) NE of Auckland the 45 km long island was first settled by the Maori around 800 years ago. They called it Motu Aotea (land of the white cloud) but it was named Great Barrier Island by Captain James Cook in 1769.
The island is the outer edge of the 1.2 million hectare Hauraki Gulf Marine Park which is home to 22 species of marine mammals as well as a wide variety of fish and sea birds.
Activities include bush walking, fishing, kayaking, diving, surfing, arts and crafts, cycling, eating out and just lazing around on pristine beaches. For guided tours got to www.aucklandnz.com or gogreatbarrierisland.co.nz.
Accommodation ranges from luxury lodges to cottages, B&Bs, backpackers and various camping grounds. Rental cars are available for hire.
There is no reticulated power, sewage or water on the island but a rubbish barge operates in Port Fitzroy from 20 December until Easter.
Best time of year to visit is November to April, but avoid Christmas/New Year.
Getting there is easy with daily 30 minute flights to and from Auckland and a regular ferry service, and Auckland offers a large selection of charter boats, either bareboat or skippered.
For full details go to www.aucklandnz.com and www.greatbarriernz.com.
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