Well-known for its wineries, gannets, black sands and dramatic scenery, the West Coast of Auckland offers visitors the opportunity to see another side of the City of Sails. The Waitakere Ranges dominate this region and were formed by a series of volcanic eruptions. Today the ranges are covered in dense rainforest, which receives around forty percent more rain than Auckland City. Many of its rivers are dammed to form large reservoirs that hold the water consumed by the city below. Its wild, rugged coastline has a raw natural beauty, which tends to attract artistic types and those who endorse strong environmental principles, while its scenery has provided a backdrop for many award-winning movies - including The Piano - and popular TV series. We head west to soak up the atmosphere, surf its breakers, ride horses on the beach, taste wine, admire gannets and meet the locals.
High in the foothills of the Waitakere Ranges the elevated township of Titirangi is reached via the North Western Motorway. We arrive ready to breakfast and follow our noses to the German café, Boss Konditorei, where fresh organic and wholegrain breads are baked daily. Its street appeal isn’t up to much and Bob screws up his nose, but once inside the views of the Manukau Harbour and selection of specialty cakes and breads win him over and he winds up telling its friendly owner, Ewald Boss that he intends to return for lunch.
Instead we purchase a selection of thick-cut sandwiches and pastries so we can picnic at our leisure, then visit the art gallery at Lopdell House where locals exhibit their work. As we leave Bob strikes up a conversation with a student-type with gorgeous long red locks. Her T-shirt states “Titirangi – it’s the west...but with a special flavour all its own. Titirangi is more than a village; it’s a way of living; it’s a feeling – it’s a state of mind.” She tells Bob to get out to Whatipu, “You won’t believe you’re in Auckland,” and departs to the local hairdressing salon, where all the products used are organic.
And so we take the road to Whatipu, past popular Cornwallis Beach with its ice cream and coffee caravan, the bottle-green horseshoe of Huia Bay and over the hills to Whatipu, nestled amongst the dunes.
The boom of the ocean can be heard from the car park and it becomes thunderous as we walk along a sandy pathway lined with colourful flowering grasses to the beach. Here surf pounds relentlessly against Paratutae Island which marks the northern head of the Manukau Harbour. It was the site of one of NZ’s most disastrous shipwrecks in 1863, when the HMS Orpheus ran aground at the cost of 189 lives.
I lead Bob along a rough unmarked route to the sea caves that were used in early days as shelter by local Maori, and later - in the 1920s - as a ballroom for timber workers. We pass Whatipu Lodge, built for the mill manager in 1867, and Liebergreen Cottage, a former mill workers cottage, thought to date from the 1860s.
We picnic amongst the dunes in swaying grasses watching the surf pound in. Bob reminisces about a surfing holiday he once had in Hawaii and how he was a dab hand on a Malibu board. As I watch him gobble pastries it’s pretty hard to imagine but I simply suggest that he hires a board and gives it a go.
There are no surfers at Whatipu today because the waves and currents are too dangerous, so we return to Titirangi and turn off onto Scenic Drive. It travels through the heart of the Waitakere Ranges which are cloaked in some 16,000 hectares of native rainforest, and feature waterfalls and several popular black sand surf beaches including Karekare, Piha, Bethells and Muriwai Beach.
The Arataki Visitor Centre is our next port of call, a good starting point for any exploration of this region. There’s a plant identification trail giving a good insight into local flora, and inside a range of displays outlines everything from the history of the region to short biographies on local artists. Bob spends quite some time admiring the sweeping views of Nihotapu Dam and Manukau Harbour from its back decks.
A huge volcano formed the Waitakere Ranges over 20 million years ago, and today we can still see many large kauri, rimu and kahikatea trees. Kauri was logged here in the early 1800s and there are several tramways in the bush that were originally used for the logging industry. Later they provided access for workers to construct dams and water pipes. It was also used to transport sightseers aboard Watercare’s Rainforest Express to view the Upper Nihotupu Dam, until this service was stopped in late 2014 for safety reasons.
As we continue along Scenic Drive there are numbers of points offering panoramic views of Auckland Harbour Bridge, the Sky Tower and beyond to Rangitoto and Waiheke Island. We stop several times before turning off to Piha and checking into our accommodation, an original Kiwi bach (holiday home) overlooking the water.
It’s late afternoon and as the sun drops in the sky, Bob decides to try his hand surfcasting using a rod from the bach. “I’ll be back soon with fish,” he calls out as I leave, shaking my head, to pick up supplies from the Piha Store.
Outside I meet a man on the verandah painting a picture of Lion Rock, a massive island-like rock which sprouts from the middle of the beach. We chat for a while and it’s almost dark by the time I return to our abode armed with breakfast supplies, fresh bread and a can of baked beans for dinner.
"Oh ye of little faith," says Bob later on as he fries a decent sized snapper which we eat seated upon deck chairs on the verandah and watch the sun set.
The next morning, fired up from his successful fishing expedition, Bob announces that it’s a good day to surf. Because Auckland’s West Coast beaches are notoriously dangerous I suggest that perhaps he’s a little rusty and may benefit from a quick refresher at Muriwai’s acclaimed surf school. Besides, I say, cementing the deal, I want to go horseriding on Muriwai beach.
We set off and complete the final leg of Scenic Drive, then drive through pretty countryside to Muriwai village. A sign outside the surf shop states there’s a 3-5ft swell and an onshore breeze. “It’s all good,” says Bob (an expression picked up from yesterday’s redhead), as I leave and drive along to the horse park to meet up with the crew at Muriwai Beach Horse Treks. Here, as a beginner, I’m carefully matched with my mount: a gentle yet tough station-bred horse named Sherman, who plods sedately along the long black beach and back through the iron-rich dunes.
The sand is the result of eroded rock, rich in iron ore spewed from Mt Taranaki and washed north by strong currents. Light as dust, it sticks like glue to your skin and can sometimes be found for days after a visit to the beach. Brushing it off as best I can I return to collect Bob from the Surf School.
“He’s a bit of a legend on the Malibu,” says the young instructor, giving me a wink as we leave. Over a burger lunch at Muriwai’s casual Waterfront Café we exchange notes before heading up the hill to visit the Takapu Gannet Colony.
Here these magnificent birds nest on large rocky plateaus in the cliffs and we wander along cliff top tracks where interpretative display boards describe the gannets’ lifestyle including their feeding habits and rearing of young. The colony, which has grown steadily since the 1970s, boasts hundreds of birds and we watch as they take off using strong updrafts to help them aloft on wings spanning up to two metres.
We then drive to Waimauku to enjoy a wine tasting at Matua Valley Winery, where the Spence brothers pioneered New Zealand’s first Sauvignon Blanc. Their wide range of distinctive wines includes the Matua Valley’s Ararimu Chardonnay 2000, which was pronounced the best chardonnay at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London for its excellent varietal characteristics and well-judged sense of oak.
During our relaxed yet informed tasting, Bob chats with Bill Spence about the best surfcasting possies on the west coast. Much to my amusement, last night’s catch grows substantially larger in size as we work through the wines on offer.
Tired yet strangely refreshed from our adventurous day, we decide to stay at Vineyard Cottages. We check in early and spend the remainder of the afternoon relaxing on the verandah beneath a roof of thick grapevines.
Later, armed with a torch, we make our way through the vineyard to dine at the Hunting Lodge Restaurant, housed inside a 130-year-old cottage. I enjoy a thick game broth, followed by seared ostrich; Bob indulges in scallops followed by a juicy venison steak. Wearily we return to our cottage and turn in; Bob dreams of catching an immense fish, while I soar like a gannet above thunderous surf.
We welcome a slow start in the morning, breakfasting upon bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and a crusty loaf from the provided self-cook basket. For a time we enjoy soaking up the rays from the morning sun on the patio at the back of the cottage, before we drive to Woodhill Forest. The production forest – all 12,500 hectares of it – provides a range of outdoor adventure activities. From quad biking to four wheel driving, horseriding, paintball, hiking, off-road motorcycling and mountain biking, there’s something here for everyone.
Bob and I choose to go our own ways again as he’s keen to learn to ride a quad bike. While he trains on 4-Track Adventures’ practice circuit under the expert instruction of Dan Ireland, and then joy-rides his way through muddy pools and forest streams to the beach, I hike to a sign-posted lookout. It offers good views of the forest, and after watching horses depart on the popular Woodhill Forest Horse Trail, I challenge myself on the rope courses at the Woodhill Tree Adventure Park.
The first of its kind in NZ, there are eight courses to complete, ranging from easy to difficult. There’s no age restriction as your height determines whether or not you’re able to do a course. If you measure more than 140 centimetres you can do them all! I get through five before chickening out and after watching others complete the course I depart to pick up Bob.
He sits in the sun wearing facial mud splashes like a badge of honour and he’s talking to Tom, an outdoorsy bloke with whom he’s obviously struck up quite a rapport about – you guessed it – fishing. “I reckon the best surfcasting is from Bethells,” says Tom. “I’m heading out there later this arvo,” he adds as we leave. “Where’s Bethells Beach?” enquires Bob, ferreting around in the glove box for the map.
After a quick lunch in Waimauku we drive to Kumeu where a wealth of orchards and vineyards reflect the town’s Yugoslavian heritage, and a mix of vineyards offer a diverse range of wine styles. Some are made from locally grown grapes, while others are produced from grapes grown in Marlborough, Hawkes Bay, Gisborne and Wairarapa.
We call into Kerr Farm Vineyard, a small boutique vineyard specialising in Kumeu varietals, and sample wine seated at a large oak table with owners Jaison and Wendy Kerr, then we visit Soljans Estate, Coopers Creek and Kumeu River, filling up the boot with bottles of wine as we go.
At 4 pm I indicate for Auckland, then having second thoughts, I turn to Bob. “Want to meet up with Tom at Bethells?” I ask, grinning as his face lights up.
“Sure do,” he replies, grabbing the map off the dash, “and I know just how to get there!”