New Zealand’s Piha beach is known for its black sand and good surf. // © 2014 Auckland Tourism
An endemic New Zealand fantail tilts its head to the right, considering me with one eye from a nearby tree branch while I decide whether to risk raising my camera for a photo.
Just moments earlier, our Bush and Beach guide told our group of about eight travelers to watch out for the small birds, saying the little fellows like to know the comings and goings in the forest and often check out hikers because they stir up insects on the trail.
No bigger than a clenched fist, the grey-headed bird above me has a cinnamon-colored breast and dark brown wings with white-tipped black tail feathers — each one nearly as long as the rest of his body. The bird cocks his head in the opposite direction now, maybe to give its other eye a chance to look me over, then flits up to a higher branch and breaks out in a pleasant, high-pitched song.
Strolling on a gravel trail through native New Zealand rainforest about 40 minutes north of Auckland, the country’s largest city, I’ve seen a great deal more natural beauty than I had expected.
Bush and Beach’s five-hour, half-day Wilderness Experience picks folks up at their Auckland accommodation and has them admiring views of the Waitakere mountain range and the North Island’s photogenic west coast in no time.
The tours offer an opportunity to learn about endemic native trees, plants and birds through forest walks that include an up close look at the Kauri, a New Zealand native hardwood conifer that can live over 2000 years and develop a massive trunk. The tour also transports people out to gorgeous black-sand beaches on the west coast, including Piha or Karekare, where some of those famous oceanfront scenes in The Piano were filmed.
The half-day outing is an excellent way for first-time New Zealand visitors to get a quick taste of the stunning natural beauty that awaits them across the country, and guides also provide a fundamental introduction to the astounding geological forces that formed the North Island, including the nearly 50 volcanoes, most now dormant, that have popped up across the Auckland Volcanic Field over the last 150,000 years.
Thrill seekers can bungee jump off the Auckland Harbour Bridge with a company started by one of the sport’s pioneers, AJ Hackett. From a height of about 130 feet, adrenaline junkies leap out of the AJ Hackett’s Bungy Pod, bolted beneath the bridge’s bustling highway. Having made the plunge on a recent Auckland visit, my advice is not to wait long after one of the jump masters finishes their countdown — hesitating just prolongs the terror.
Ocean dips are an option for those looking to also get wet at the end of their plunge, and folks can climb up to the bridge’s summit, about 230 feet above the harbor, which offers wonderful city views.
Travelers searching for the best views of Auckland’s city skyline will want to head to Mt. Eden, one of the metropolitan area’s many now-dormant volcanoes and a former fortified Maori village. The city’s tallest natural point, Mt. Eden offers a panoramic look at the sprawling urban area and the stunning Manukau and Waitemata Harbours.
Only a short taxi ride from the central business district’s numerous hotels, or a healthy walk on a sunny day, Mt. Eden also sits in a hip neighborhood loaded with art galleries and little shops that travelers may want to wander through after getting their photographic fill on the volcano’s summit.
Culture, Artifacts and Natural History
Don’t let the name fool you: the Auckland War Memorial Museum offers visitors a great deal more than military history. The museum is loaded with cultural and ethnographic exhibits, including daily live Maori performances and a collection of more than 1,000 artifacts from around New Zealand, also known as “Aotearoa,” or the land of the long white cloud.
The institution offers a wealth of natural history information about New Zealand’s endemic plants and bird species, many of which were flightless — like the iconic Kiwi — due to a lack of natural predators before the first humans arrived. Along with comprehensive geologic introductions, which explain how the island nation was formed and arrived at its current location between the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, visitors will learn how the nation’s first settlers struggled to coexist with the early European arrivals and later formed a country remarkably proud of both its Maori and European heritage.