Great Barrier Island (Māori name: Aotea) is located in the outer part of Hauraki Gulf in northern New Zealand. It is located east of the Northland Peninsula and immediately north of the Coromandel Peninsula. It is 90 km northeast of the center of Auckland. It is the 4th largest island in the main archipelago of New Zealand with a population of about 1000. Largely covered in regenerating natural forest, with some rare native species, a network of walking trails throughout the island and beautiful beaches and coves, it appeals to those who love nature, whether hiking, swimming, surfing or enjoying the environment. You can get there by airplane, sea ferry or private boat.
With an area of 285 km2, the Great Barrier is the 4th largest island in the main New Zealand archipelago, much smaller than Stewart Island, the 3rd largest with an area of 1,683 km2. It is also smaller than 900 km2 Chatham Island, which is outside the main island chain. The Great Barrier is also the centerpiece of its own small archipelago, and some of the smaller islands, such as Kaikoura Island, near the port of Fitzroy, can also be visited.
The sedimentary basement rocks of the island are overlain by ancient volcanic rocks, forming jagged peaks, cliffs, bluffs and ravines. Captain James Cook named it Great Barrier Island because it formed a barrier between Hauraki Gulf and the Pacific Ocean – it is not a “barrier island” in the usual sense of a long sandy island near the mainland.
Copper, gold and silver were once mined on the island, and there are still traces of this and other past economic activities. The whaling station at Whangaparapara caught humpback whales from 1956 to 1962 and was New Zealand’s penultimate whaling station.
From the 1880s to the early 1930s, much of the island’s kauri forest was logged. Parts of the island were converted to farmland, although to a lesser extent than on mainland New Zealand. Most of the island is now in a regenerating natural forest dominated by kauri trees, with a few patches of original, uncut kauri forest, mostly in the far north. Unfortunately, the kauri trees are threatened by kauri die-off and it is important for hikers to stay on the trails, stay away from kauri roots, and clean their shoes before and after visiting a section of the forest. Over 60% of the island is protected land managed by the Department of Conservation.
Although the island has introduced predators – two species of rats, mice and feral cats, dogs and pigs – it is fortunately free of some of the other pests common on the mainland, such as stoats, weasels, ferrets, possums and deer. This means there is a little less pressure on local endangered species, including the kaka (parrot), brown teal (duck), black petrel (seabird), chevron skink, Hochstetter’s frog and rare plants.
About 1000 people live permanently on the island. The main employment is in tourism, agriculture and services. There is no regulated electricity and most houses use solar panels and batteries to generate and store energy. Wind and water turbines and solar water heaters are also used. The island is administered by Auckland Council as part of the Auckland Region.
Great Barriere Island has online visitor information and an information center at Clarice Airfield.
Attractions in Great Barriere
Take a look at the view from above. As it is an island, the views at Great Barriere are spectacular.
Glenfern Sanctuary, 20 Glenfern Rd, Port Fitzroy. Daily from 10:00am. A forest and wildlife sanctuary surrounded by a fence for protection from predators. Follow the 2km Glenfern loop through remnant, regenerating and re-planted forests, with sweeping views of Hauraki Bay and bird life. A highlight is climbing to the crown of a mature kauri tree. You can also visit the manicured grounds around the hotel, including the 1901-built Fitzroy House. Free.
Milk, Honey & Grain Museum, 47 Hector Sanderson Rd, Claris. Run by an amateur, but has interesting exhibits about the island’s history. Gold coin per person.
Okiwi Park, 1616 Aotea Rd, Okiwi (near the school). There aren’t many attractions on Okiwi, but it’s a lovely park with lawns, large native trees, a lovely creek, children’s artwork illustrating flora and fauna, a gas BBQ, a bike path for kids, and a restroom in the garden. Mabey Road end. Great place for a picnic or a 30 minute walk.
The island has beautiful beaches: long sandy surf beaches on the east coast overlooking the ocean and sheltered bays and coves on the west coast.
Awana, Aotea Rd. One of the best surf beaches.
Harataonga, Harataonga Road. Descend from the campground (where the locals camp) by either taking the right bank of the creek, over the bridge and through the paddock without getting your feet wet, or the left bank, crossing the creek twice.
Kaitoke Beach (from Ocean View Rd in the middle of the beach or Sugarloaf Rd at the southern end). Will you love the juxtaposition of dark mountains against this sparkling white beach? Find the mermaid pools in the cliffs at the south end. Has constant surfing.
Medlands Beach, Sandhills Road. If you like privacy, this might be just what you need. It’s one of the busiest beaches, but many visitors are lucky enough to not see a soul for the good hour it takes to walk from one end of the beach to the other. If you want a shorter walk, drive to the north end of the road, cut through the dunes, and walk north to the creek, beyond which is Sugar Loaf Head. Find the hole in the rocks. An even shorter hop across the dunes in the middle, looking at or climbing Memory Rock if you have nimble legs, and look at the mermaid pool on the seaward side (low tide). Has reliable surf conditions.
Okupu Beach, Camerton Road. A lovely beach on the west coast where dolphins are often off the shore. There is a public BBQ – bring your own meat and drinks for an epic sunset. This is generally not a surfing beach.
Palmers Beach (continue walking from the creek at the north end of Kaitoke Beach). Hammerhead sharks can sometimes be spotted, usually from an airplane.
Whangapoua, Mabey Rd. Long sandy beach. The graves of the 1894 Wairarapa shipwreck are at the north end of the beach, and there are some interesting stone pits for about 100m. 500m south of the dune crossing.