Enchanted Isle of Great Barrier Island

Enchanted Isle of Great Barrier Island

By Monique Witsenberg

How lucky we are – being a 30 minute flight away from world class dive spots with the chance of catching that illusive packhorse cray, treasure hunting old relics, game fishing, lazing on secluded islands and beaches surrounded by wild beauty and rugged wilderness…fun filled days and relaxing nights feasting on succulent fresh seafood fit for a King! That’s what Barrier’s all about!

The idyllic, unique isolation of Hauraki Gulf’s Great Barrier Island is just the ticket for a perfect getaway; attracting surprisingly few tourists to its magnificent uncrowded beaches, coves and islands. It’s very easy to flaunt this island’s charm therefore hard to keep its beauty a secret. You are most welcome to explore this enchanted island and many locals are willing to escort your adventure, but access to parts of the island is not permitted.

Adventures Abound

We were lucky enough to be invited by Barry from Barrier Adventures (ph: 09 429 0699) on a guided tour in their 8-wheeled Argo vehicle. There are various tours available depending on your time and budget. Our 90 minute Escape Adventure took us through terrain that a lone tourist cannot access including the untouched Kitoki Beach with nature’s abundant and endangered bird life. Experience idyllic beach picnics, coves, unforgettable views from the mountain tops, ride through streams, rugged moonscapes, mysterious bush and interesting farmlands. The highlight for me was to cruise up slopes of 55 degrees in this ingenious vehicle, with help from a winch at times to take in the 360 degree breathtaking views from the Sugarloaf Cliffs and Pita Kooku Rock.

Great Barrier Island has some of the best diving in the Hauraki Gulf, some would say amongst the top in the world with excellent visibility and abundant sea life. A trip to Arid Island provides spectacular diving where divers have encountered swimming with orcas. Sunset kayaking is also rewarding.

Fifteen minutes from Tryphena and 30 metres off the southern coast is Rabbit Island which provides good shallow diving and drift diving or try Amodeo Rocks or Shag Point both north of Tryphena entrance.

The Whangaparapara Harbour (a short walk from our lodgings) is full of interesting private coves, remnants of the old whaling station and home to picturesque Whangaparapara Lodge’s waterfront bar and restaurant. A group of rocks named The Pigeons, west of Whangaparapara, with a 25 metre drop off provides interesting swim throughs and chances of crayfish! Many rock outcrops worth a surfcast too. Our awesome snorkel around one of the smaller islands warranted the idea for a Marine Reserve here, with bountiful schools of two spot demoiselles, mao mao, angelfish and juvenile snapper galore. Mooring Bay offers exciting and prime diving for beginners with swim throughs and huge kelp fields. Moturako Island usually has good visibility and Broken Islands is an endless playground for divers, but just an entrée for what could be install for you at Great Barrier Island.

There is also an impressive underwater structure about 370 metres off Miner’s Head, which rises from 80 metres to 16 metres and known for crayfish, mao mao, snapper, marlin and yellowfin. Also try fishing at dusk down the 20-40 metre drop-offs here.

This is truly a haven for fishos too, whether from a boat or land based, particularly on the East Coast such as Medlands, Kaitoke, Harataonga, Stoney and Overtons. Weather permitting of course anytime is a pretty good time to fish so sniff out your own good spots, ’cause we’re not gonna give away any secrets.

The sea gods were very good to us as we took our trusty, fully kitted out tinny around some promising looking rocks on the East Coast which proved to be great hunting grounds – enough crayfish for the troops anyway. Just snorkeling around here can provide plenty of entertainment and dinner!  With our beasty 4WD, Harold, touring the island was an experience – but getting back to our paradise hideaway to cook up the catch, relaxing amongst pure tranquility, good friends with our favourite brew, chatting about what a great day we had and planning our next adventure, was bliss. Our luxurious lodging was fully equipped with all we needed and more, even a cleaner! Giant Kakas swooped through the valley at night and Tuis sang our wake up call.

Getting There

Take an exhilarating 30 minute flight from North Shore Airport or Mangere Airport with Great Barrier Airlines or private plane. Flights are also available from Whitianga and Whangarei – landing at the airport at Claris or Okiwi, where transfers are available to all types of accommodation. SubritzkyLine Ferries operate a regular passenger and vehicular service to Tryphena providing very comfortable facilities. Limited services are available to Whangaparapara or Port Fitzroy. The Visitors Centre offers Fullers ferries, Helicopter flights and other transportation information.

Island Info

Great Barrier Island – Hauraki Gulf’s largest island of 285 km2 – is of volcanic origin and houses a population of approx 1,500 residents. Being 88km north-east of Auckland, it provides a natural protection to the Hauraki Gulf, hence its name.

The island utilises the wind, sun and water to provide self-generating power creating an excellent alternative energy source for it’s residents, but is comfortably civilised and well serviced with various stores, cafes, restaurants/bars and takeaways. The locals also throw good parties – thanks Carlie and Archie!

The best way to get familiar with the island’s hot spots is to be escorted by knowledgeable local charter operators, who know the area and the sea conditions as the weather patterns here can blow up in your face before you know it. Also remember your catch limits as authorities are clamping down on excessive catches of seafood – leave some for tomorrow.

Port Fitzroy, Whangaparapara, Typhena and Okiwi provide fuel and safe anchorages, including, Shoal Bay, Kaiaraara Bay, Navel Cove, Kiwiriki Bay, Wairahi Bay, Smokehouse Bay and Mooring Bay. Contact Okupu Yacht Club for boating information, such as where the boat ramps on the island are.

At Northern Barrier, Katherine Bay Headlands, Moturoa Point, Tumatapura Point, Raupuka and Reef Point, Ahuriri Point and Te Hoakaramea Point have small boat access with good snapper fishing, but are exposed to westerlies.

Rangiwhakaea Bay and Waikaro Point with boat access only, are great for snapper and kingfish around the deep water drop-offs but watch out for easterly winds. Fishing off the kelp beds at Tapuwai Point is worth the walk up Whangapoua Beach, as is surfcasting all along this beach with DoC campsites available here and at beautiful Medlands Beach, which has vehicle access. Even in summer, you can find secluded spots for bathing along this magnificent beach.

If you manage to fit in time for a surf, the East Coast is world class – try Medlands, Kaitoke, Palmers, Awana, Okiwi, and Whangapoua Bar. Ask local surfers for their recommendations, and maybe catch a ride with them. Beware the East Coast has strong rips and no lifeguards. The safest swimming spots are on the West Coast such as Typhena or Blind Bay.

As there is no scheduled public transport, some lodges run regular services from boats and trips to Hot Springs. If you have to hitchhike – do so with discretion or hire a mountain bike or take yours on the ferry. Some roads are sealed but mainly gravelled, narrow and windy so take care – downhill gives way to uphill. Normal road rules apply and vehicles need WOF and rego’s. Don’t rush, chill out, relax and enjoy the scenery along the way.

Contact DoC on 09 4290044 for camping sites and walking tracks or the island’s information office for accommodation, golf courses, charters, taxis, car and bike hire, horse trekking and kayaking, etc.

Conservation and History

Due to DoC’s strict administration and the local’s wishes the island will never become over developed. The tough pioneering history of logging and mining on Great Barrier has taught the locals valuable lessons about respecting the environment. Today 70% of the island is protected as conservation estate or reserves for future generations to enjoy. This uncomplicated society that escapes the rat race and is devoted to the pioneering spirit and traditional methods with an abundance of organic and natural commodities, demands respect and care.

It is a natural habitat for many protected species including the brown teal duck, black petrel, kokako, dotterel, tui, wood pigeon, kaka, skinks and geckos; all of which have survived without possums, stoats, hedgehogs and ferrets. Permits are required for fires and hunting but prohibited Dec-Feb. Best to leave dogs and cats at home and please take all rubbish with you.

Great Barrier Island’s rich human history dates back to the time of the Polynesian explorer Kupe, with legends of great feats and grand battles when populated by the Maori. On Captain James Cook’s sighting of the islands in 1769, he recognised the role it played in sheltering the waters of the Hauraki Gulf and named Hauturu (Little Barrier) and Aotea the ‘Barrier Isles’.

Historic remnants can be found by utilising the many DoC walking tracks winding through rugged Kauri forests. In 1909 the Kauri Timber Company was established at Whangaparapara and was the largest producer in the Southern Hemisphere, with logs milled from far and wide and finally exported. Monuments still stand exhibiting the remains of the huge Kauri timber dams below Mt Hobson.

Discover traces of old mines for copper, silver and gold, fortified Pa site remnants and relics from obsolete whaling stations. The discovery of gold within the White Cliffs (Te Ahumata) in 1892 saw the goldrush boom. The once thriving town of Oroville that sprang up to service the stamping battery is unmistakable to the observant tramper. Prospecting continued until the Council opposed any mining in 1982. Eerie holes are all that remain of copper mining attempts from forbidding sea cliffs on the Northwest coast at Miners Head, north of Port Fitzroy. Derelict remains can be unstable – explore with caution and respect.

Jump on a horse or kayak to enable you to see more of this enchanting island. 1898 saw the rise of the first airmail service in the world with the “Original Great Barrier Pigeongram Service” becoming virtually redundant with the arrival of the telephone in 1908 and only used as a novel method now.

Port Fitzroy’s Church Hall built in 1927 was utilised as Army Headquarters and camp in 1942 against Japanese invasion. It was an ideal staging post with two deep harbour entrances including the Man of War passage. Remnants of barracks and bunkers remain around the island but the camp is now the Boating Club and houses the Annual Mussel Festival. For those who like hunting for relics of WWII, a site can be found at Rosalie Bay on the southeast coast or explore Waterfall Bay and Cape Barrier.

Diving Barrier’s Wrecks

The sunken history below the waterline is just as incredible, bringing wreck diver enthusiasts from all over the world. The island has claimed 24 vessels from 1854 onwards including:

The Cecilia Sudden, a 545-ton schooner voyaging from N.S.W. via Auckland, caught fire and drifted onto rocks southeast of Tryphena in 1921 leaving only bits of wreckage scattered around. The Cecilia Sudden Rock is an interesting dive at only 5-12 metres. The area drops off to about 30 metres accommodating various fish life, attracted by the often strong current running southwest of the southeast side of the rock.

In 1922, the massive SS Wiltshire steamer weighing 7,800 tons struck rocks off Windy Hill north of Rosalie Bay. Stormy seas made it impossible to launch lifeboats but finally a rope was carried ashore rescuing all 103 passengers over 48 strenuous hours. The hull of the Wiltshire broke clean in two, with the rear half of the wreck lying at 15-28 metres providing diving for all levels of experience, but only diveable in calm conditions with visibility of 10+ metres.

Tragedy struck the luxury ocean liner SS Wairarapa on a black foggy night in 1894. The steamer carrying passengers, cargo and horses ploughed full steam ahead into sheer cliffs near Miners Head, making this New Zealand’s third worst maritime disaster. Maori tribes helped with valiant rescue attempts. Many lives were lost but inaccurate records only reveal 125 dead. Headstones can be seen at Tapuwai Point and Onepoto Beach. Even though the wreck is a crumbling skeleton and well picked at by divers, souvenirs could remain and as far as records show the safe has not been found!

Check out


for pictures of such wrecks and find various books detailing other known wrecks in the mail order section on page 64.

Barrier leaves you craving for More, More, More… On chatting about various dive sites with Tryphena’s Mobile Dive Operators, Donna and Sam Opie, we knew we had to come back for more, with a lifetime of diving opportunities here. Together with kevin and Merrilee Reynolds they run the Island’s Coastal Rescue Charitable Trust operation. Thanks to all who helped make our visit an awesome adventure…we’ll be back for sure!

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