In my opinion, DoC campgrounds offer the best back to nature camping experiences available in the country, with a mix of wonderful coastal and forest sites.
No-where is this evidenced more than on Great Barrier Island (or the Barrier as it’s known to locals). Here DoC manages 6 amazing campgrounds, all beachfront and located right next to areas of conservation importance.
I’d been told about how unique they were and had wanted to visit them for some time. So, this year, I decided our next trip would be to the Barrier to discover them.
Getting there is half the fun
Flying to Okiwi Airport on Great Barrier Island is an experience all in itself.
There are few destinations you can fly from Auckland Airport on a plane as small as this – bench seats just wide enough for 2 people with ear muffs handed to all passengers before take off (they’re mandatory to drown out the incessant drone and whine of the engines perched over your shoulder).
Even the slightest rising and falling of the craft will set your stomach aflutter. So it was much to my companion’s relief that we flew on a beautiful sunny day without so much as a peep of turbulence.
With the clear skies and calm conditions, we were able to relax during the 30 minute flight and enjoy the spectacular views right across Auckland, the Hauraki Gulf and, as our destination neared, the remote and rugged Great Barrier Island.
As the plane circled the island and turned to make her final descent into Okiwi, we saw the first of the Barrier’s stunning beachfront conservation campgrounds – Whangapoua.
From the air, Whangapoua beach beckoned us with rolling surf and pristine golden sand, and even though we arrived in the height of Summer, only a handful of people could be seen taking advantage of the waves.
Once our feet touched the hard earth again at Okiwi Airport (actually a short grass strip with a shelter at one end), we were met with an overwhelming sense of stillness. After the continuous scream of the plane engines it was a huge relief. Even the sounds of arguing siblings who had accompanied us on our flight were lost to the expanse of nature.
The thing that dawned on us immediately was just how isolated Okiwi Airport is from the rest of the island. Word of advice – make sure you book a transfer before arriving on the island, otherwise you’ll find yourself following in our footsteps.
That first night, we had planned to stay at the Akapoua Campground near the island’s second largest centre, Port Fitzroy, a 12 km walk from the Okiwi Airport. Just as well we had come prepared for walking; our packs and boots were meant for the upcoming days, but came in useful a day earlier than planned.
With only 300 residents in Port Fitzroy, we spotted just 2 cars the entire walk (both just before we arrived at Akapoua), so hitching wasn’t really an option even if we’d been interested.
Arriving at Akapoua mid-afternoon, hot and thirsty from our unexpected walk, we were delighted to find a beautiful campsite right next to the water. Two pohutakawa trees sheltered the spot and the resident Kaka population (an endangered New Zealand native bird) provided much entertainment while we set-up camp.
While we prepared the evening meal, a family arrived and pitched their tent some distance from us. A solo tramper then arrived and, obviously weary from a days walking, crawled inside his tent as soon as it was erected and slept. With so few people around, we really felt at one with nature.
And so it was for the duration of our stay. Even though we intended moving on to a different campground each day, we enjoyed to peace, tranquility and birdlife of Akapoua so much we chose to use it as our base for our entire visit.
After two days walking the many tracks around the Barrier, we decided to hire a car in order to visit the other campgrounds easily. We managed to visit all six and spend several hours at each site appreciating the unique reasons to try each one.
Here’s our view on each campground and what makes each one special. If you’re looking for a truly back-to-nature experience in New Zealand, the Barrier takes some beating.
If you’re flying into Okiwi, this campsite will greet you from the air. Whangapoua Campground is the small strip of green, right on the coastline.
Whangapoua is a favourite with surfers and kayakers alike – both a surf beach and flat estuary are within each reach.
If you’re interested in exploring the north east tracks and beaches, this campground is a good choice.
This beach and surrounding area was the site of the 2007 BBC Castaway series.
Harataonga is best known as a safe, sheltered surf beach, popular with young family’s right through the summer period. There are plenty of walks including an interesting coastal track that includes Maori sacred sites.
It’s an easy drive from both Okiwi and the island’s other airport, Claris.
Awana is most popular with surfers and is a popular place for youth groups to welcome in the New Year. The beach produces some of the best surf on the island and the campground is within easy reach of the beach, protected by a headland that shelters the campers from the wind and sea.
The sand dunes are home to several species of endangered birds and are closely monitored by the Department of Conservation during the breeding season.
Another popular campground with families, Medlands is located a short stroll from a safe southern swimming beach.
The beach is easy to access, also making it a favourite with local boaties and fishermen.
DoC work closely in this area with another bird population – the endangered Pateke (or Brown Teal). Like many of New Zealand’s natives, the Pateke is nocturnal, so if you want to spot one, you’ll need to visit the area in the evening or early morning.
The Green Campsite
Conveniently located on the West Coast near the Whangaparapara Harbour and at the entrance to several good walking tracks, The Green is used mostly by trampers and boaties wanting to spend a night on shore.
This campsite is tucked away on the far shore of the harbour making it impossible for casual visitors to disturb the peace.
A lovely campground for couples and solo travelers to enjoy a peaceful night.
Port Fitzroy on the West Coast is used by passing boaties for refueling and restocking supplies as well providing a gorgeous sheltered harbour to spend the night.
Akapoua is an easy 10 minute walk from the Pitzroy whalf and general store.
This campground is most frequently used by those wanting to spend a night or two ashore as well as trampers climbing Mt Hirakimata, the islands highest peak and a wonderful day walk through the centre of the island.
Unlike the surf beaches on the East coast, the ocean on the West coast is calm, making this a great spot for kayaking and swimming.
Given its close proximity to the island’s most dense forest, this campground is also a great place to encounter a wide range of New Zealand native birds, including the highly intelligent and noisy Kaka.
The DoC visitor centre is located at the entrance to Akapoua which is useful if you want to talk with DoC staff and find out a bit more about the conservation projects they are currently working on around the island.
The Barrier is a remote destination – while there are five general stores on the Barrier, it’s advisable to bring as much of your own food, water and fuel as possible as supplies are expensive.
Great Barrier Island can be reached by air or sea. Several daily flights are run by Mountain Air and Great Barrier Airlines from Auckland Airport. Ferries are less frequent with a highly variable daily timetable.
Access to the island becomes more difficult during the winter months due to weather conditions and lower visitor demand creating cancellations of transport services.
Although the island is great for campers and hikers, there are also several operators offering Bed and Breakfast style accommodation, airport transfers, personalised tours around the island, self-drive car rental (international drivers licence required) as well as several good quality cafes and restaurants.
Campsite fees are the same at all Great Barrier island campgrounds - $9 per night for adults and $4.50 per child.
All campgrounds have tank water, toilers and showers but no cooking facilities are available and fires are banned in the summer months.
NZ Camp Site can provide you with camping and hiking gear for your journey once you arrive in Auckland. Visit www.nzcampsite.co.nz for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the deals listed on this site.