Great Barrier Island – Guide for Backpackers
Jurassic Park just 90km from Auckland!
Whether you arrive by air or sea, it’s instantly clear by the towering mountains dense with native rainforest that nature rules on Great Barrier Island. This is ever more true with a population of only 600 residing on the island. You are more likely to hear the New Zealand native kaka parrots screeching and the waves rolling into shore than the sound of any human voice. And, honestly, looking at the mountainous forests with their prehistoric resemblance, you could be forgiven for expecting to hear dinosaur roars too.
The reality is this all exists northeast of Auckland in the Hauraki Gulf. That’s just a 30-minute flight or a scenic 4h30min ferry from Auckland! A trip that is all part and parcel of the Great Barrier Island experience by getting a unique view of ocean and islands just offshore of Auckland.
So if you want to experience true New Zealand wilderness and island life rolled into one, Great Barrier Island is a destination not to be missed.
Things you can’t miss on Great Barrier Island
- Take a 3-day hiking adventure along the Aotea Track.
- Go camping on the coast.
- Surf Medlands Beach and Awana Beach.
- Soak in the Kaitoke natural hot springs. It’s free!
- Get the best island views from the summit of Mt Hobson (627m).
- Spot rare native birds, reptiles and marine life.
- Take a scenic trip to the island via ferry or flight.
Aotea Track (25km, 3 days)
The Auckland region’s only island multi-day hike, the Aotea Track works its way through the heart of the Great Barrier wilderness. The hike is named after Great Barrier Island’s Maori name, Aotea, and will take you through a variety of landscapes: rocky yet perfectly clear streams, mountain tops, dense rainforest, and across swingbridges. All while capturing magnificent views and wildlife along the way. One thing’s for sure, the Aotea Track promises an adventurous three days out in the bush!
There’s so much to say on this track that we have only gone and done a Guide to the Aotea Track just for you. Check it out for more information.
WATERFALL, HOT SPRINGS AND WINDY CANYON
Apart from stunning beaches and impressive mountains, Great Barrier Island also has some hidden features well worth discovering.
Kaitoke Hot Springs
From Whangaparapara Road take the Hot Springs Track (45 minutes one way). The flat easy walk takes you along the Kaitoke wetlands and through regenerating forest. Your walk is rewarded with a series of hot springs heated by rising hot water from underground volcanic activity. Kaitoke Hot Springs are just one of the 7 Free Natural Hot Springs in New Zealand.
Windy Canyon Lookout
Sheer rock faces make up the Windy Canyon offering awesome views all round, from Whangapoua Beach in the northeast all the way to Medlands Beach in the southeast. The walk is only 10 minutes up the Palmers Track from Aotea Road.
Named after the kauri felling history on the island, Kauri Falls is a pretty waterfall and swimming spot. It is accessed via Warren’s Creek Track (1 hour one way) starting about 1km from Port FitzRoy. This is also a good walking alternative to the road to get from Port Fitzroy to the Akapoua Campsite.
Camping on Great Barrier Island
Camp on the coast! There are a number of cheap campsites in beautiful coastal locations across Great Barrier Island. It’s a great place to sleep under the stars in sites with plenty of space. This is a great option if you want to relax by the beach or catch some of those surf waves. The island’s campsites are well facilitated. DoC campsites, for instance, have tap water, toilets, recycling bins, cold showers, picnic tables and a kitchen/cooking bench. Here are just some of the super camping locations:
- Medlands Beach campsite is, of course, near the huge Medlands Beach in the southeast of the island, which is a popular surf beach and competition hotspot.
- Awana Beach campsite is another great surf spot, especially for the experienced.
- Harataonga campsite offers snorkelling and swimming. There’s two ways to access the beach: the beach access road or the adventurous way which involves some paddling across a small estuary. Take the Harataonga Walkway (4-5 hours oneway) along the coast which connects Harataonga campsite with Aotea Road and the access to road to Whangapoua campsite.
- Whangapoua campsite is on the Whangapoua estuary and close to a great surf break accessed at low tide.
For more information on camping in the Auckland region, check out Where to Camp in Auckland.
Wildlife on Great Barrier Island
Like many of the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, Great Barrier Island is rich with native New Zealand birds. Although many of the birds you may see elsewhere in New Zealand, it is unlikely you’ll get to experience an abundance together like you can at Great Barrier Island, especially in the pest-controlled area of Glenfern Sanctuary near Port FitzRoy and Rakitu Island, 2.5km off the east coast of Great Barrier. Some wildlife can only be seen at Great Barrier and Little Barrier Island, for instance, the black petrel. This brown bird can sometimes be spotted in the high inland area of Mt Hobson. Incredibly, during June-September, they fly as far as South America.
When taking the roads around the island, you’ll notice plenty of “duck crossing” signs. Great Barrier is home to two-thirds of New Zealand’s brown teals, which are mainly active at night. Be careful when driving. When hiking near forest streams, look out for the chevron skink with tooth-like markings on its back, only found here and Little Barrier Island. As you’re hiking or camping, you can’t miss the sounds of the kaka. These large brown parrots can be seen in the trees or flying high over the forest making screeching away!
Don’t miss the opportunity to see the waters of Great Barrier by boat, kayak or snorkelling. Marine life includes, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, orca, blue maomao, snapper, piper, sea turtles and sunfish.
How to Get There
Great Barrier Island is 90km northeast of downtown Auckland. It can be accessed by plane or ferry. Because these transport methods bring such different experiences, we recommend taking the ferry to Great Barrier Island then taking a flight back to Auckland.
Great Barrier Island by plane
Flights to Great Barrier Island operate from either Auckland Airport (domestic terminal) in Manukau with Great Barrier Airlines or FlyMySky. You can also fly from North Shore Airfield in Dairy Flat with Great Barrier Airlines. Most flights go to Claris, but some may go to Okiwi in summer.
It’s also worth mentioning how flying over Auckland city and the Hauraki Gulf is a treat in itself. Usually, the flight in the small plane is low enough to get some great photos of many islands, while high enough to get views over to the Coromandel peninsula coming off the mainland.
Great Barrier Island by boat
Experience approaching the island by boat to really appreciate the size of the mountains and towering coastal cliffs. Sealink operates a car and passenger ferry taking about 4h30mins. This service runs three to five times a week depending on the season. Sealink docks at Port Fitzroy on the northwest of the island and/or Tryphena in the southwest.
Another great perspective of the Hauraki Gulf, taking the ferry allows you to see some of the stunning islands and wildlife. Look out for dolphins!
For more information on getting around the Auckland region, check out Public Transport in Auckland.
If you have more time on Great Barrier Island…
- There’s more walks and hikes to discover other than the Aotea Track. Make sure to check out more hiking opportunities in our 12 Must-Do Hikes on Great Barrier Island.
- Does your trip coincide with the first week of January? Then get yourself to the Great FitzRoy Mussel Fest in the Landing Reserve. Try the local food from the mussel farms the island is famous for.
- About 50 known shipwrecks have occurred on the coast of Great Barrier Island, some of which you can still see the remains of. One in the southeast and one on the north coast.
- Are you a keen surfer? You’d be a fool to not take advantage of the uncrowded waves of Great Barrier Island! Try Medlands Beach, Whangapoua Estuary and Awana Beach.
- Diving charters to Poor Knights Marine Reserve and fishing charters to the Broken Islands depart from the Whangaparapara Harbour.
- Explore the coast on a kayaking tour.
Where to stay on Great Barrier Island?
- Medlands Beach Backpackers
- Crossroads Backpacker Lodge
- Omara Oasis
- Stray Possum Lodge
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