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The islands are part of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park created in 2000 to recognise and protect the unique flora and fauna, and environments of the gulf. Its 1.2 million hectares include public conservation land administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC), marine reserves, and other coastal and marine environments.
Each island tells a different story – geologically, historically and biologically. Some are a last refuge for native plants and animals. Others hold historic treasures from the earliest Māori settlers to the remnants of World War II coastal defences. Thanks to pest-control and eradication programmes, an increasing number are now pest free ‘treasure islands’, providing safe havens for many of New Zealand’s rarest native species. And, in the surrounding waters live many rare seabirds and marine mammals - sharing their living space with New Zealand’s largest city.
Charter a boat, hire a kayak, or take a ferry from downtown Auckland. It’s not hard to find an island to suit the widest range of tastes, from wine tasting to three-day hikes. But if it’s conservation you’re interested in, DOC has five standouts to recommend.
Tiritiri Matangi (looking to the wind/wind tossing about) is one of the most successful community-lead conservation projects in the world. Unwanted predators have been eradicated, and the once pastoral island has been replanted with native trees. Rare native birds and animals have been returned to safe and restored habitats within a rapidly regenerating native forest. Managed by DOC in partnership with Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi the island is an open wildlife sanctuary and the perfect day trip destination for nature lovers and families. book to stay overnight on this island sanctuary at Tiritiri Matangi bunkhouse! Catch the ferry from downtown Auckland and if you’re a first-time visitor join a guided tour to discover the thriving wildlife all around you. Keep an eye out for hihi (stitchbird), korimako (bellbird), and tiny toutouwai (North Island robins) and spot the beautiful blue-grey colours of the kokako (wattlebird). Keen to stay longer? Book to stay overnight on this island sanctuary at Tiritiri Matangi bunkhouse!
Motuihe Island/Te Motu-a-Ihenga
The varied history of Motuihe Island/Te Motu-a-Ihenga includes being extensively settled by Māori, farmed by Europeans for over a century, the site of Auckland's quarantine station for 50 years, and then a prisoner of war camp and a naval training base. Today, people enjoy the crystal clear waters of the white sandy beaches and wide views of the Hauraki Gulf, and visit the relics of the days gone by. Family-friendly Motuihe, just 45 minutes from downtown Auckland, is pest-free. Eco-restoration of the island has been lead by the Motuihe Trust. It is a haven for native species like tīeke (saddleback), pukupuku (little spotted kiwi), kākāriki (red-crowned parakeet), korimako (bellbird), rare plants, and reptiles. You might even see a tuatara resting quietly on a rock, one of the very few places you can do that. There are plenty of walks requiring varying degrees of energy and fitness, taking in headlands, beaches and forests.
The oldest piece of land in the Gulf, Motutapu sits on an ancient greywacke and sedimentary strata 20-160 million years old. A short causeway established during World War II connects Motutapu with Rangitoto (the youngest). During its varied past it has been intensively settled and cultivated by Māori, hosted Victorian picnic parties of more than 10,000 people, and was a base for more than 1,000 military personnel during WWII. Following the world’s single largest on-island pest eradication programme which rid Motutapu and Rangitoto of seven mammalian pests simultaneously, it’s a fine place to see native birds. These include tīeke (saddleback), kiwi, and takahē. Motutapu is a favourite hiker’s destination. Take a 30-minute ferry from downtown Auckland to explore one of many walking tracks to peaceful bays or the Centennial Loop regenerating bush track, planted by the Motutapu Restoration Trust volunteers.
Emerging unexpectedly from the sea some 600 years ago, Rangitoto is the youngest and largest volcano in the Auckland volcanic field. This icon of the Auckland landscape has long been a favourite day trip and boating destination. Declared pest-free in 2011 it is home to our largest pohutukawa forest, and some unique plant and bird life. The shortest and most popular route to the summit begins at Rangitoto Wharf and climbs through lava fields and forest to the peak at 259 metres above sea level. The summit gives panoramic views of Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf. There are also shorter walks close to the wharf taking in native forest and the historic bachs.
Great Barrier Island/ Aotea
Great Barrier Island/Aotea is the largest and furthest of the Gulf Islands, 90 kms from Auckland. It’s a remote island of rugged beauty where nature is king. It feels like another world, yet is just a ferry, boat or short flight from the mainland. Captain James Cook named the island Great Barrier in 1769 for the shelter and protection it provides to the Gulf. Currently home to a community of around 800 residents it has been continuously inhabited since the earliest days of Māori settlement. From the 1840s, European industry made use of the forests, minerals and migrating whales - today visitors come for hiking, camping and boating. Not yet pest-free, there are still plenty of birds to be seen and the three-day 25 km Aotea Track is perhaps the most spectacular hike of its sort in New Zealand not to be a Great Walk.
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