Around Auckland by water: Devonport and Tiritiri Matangi Island

Last week we took the ferry twice: once to Devonport, a seaside suburb to the north of the downtown area, and once to Tiritiri Matangi, an island bird sanctuary and nature reserve. When I told my mom we’d gone to an island she said something like, “Wait, another island? But you’re on an island…?” As it happens, our travels have included many islands (the UK, Iceland, Hawaii, Japan, Singapore, NZ), which leads me to conclude that just as no man is an island, no island is an island either… er, that is to say: there are always “side” islands around bigger islands! And Auckland has quite a number of them on its east side, in the Hauraki Gulf. So there’s a fair amount of ferry activity (and a ferr amount of fairy activity?) around there.

Devonport

Devonport is not an island, but without a car it’s much easier to access by ferry than overland. It was only a 15-minute trip.

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First view of Devonport:

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My first thought upon walking into the village was that it felt a bit like Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. I think it’s because of the park with big trees — and the rather sleepy atmosphere.

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The longer we travel, the more reluctant I am to do any planning. I’d looked up the info on how to get to Devonport, but hadn’t really researched past that. So after we arrived, I had no idea what to do there! Perhaps not the best strategy for a rainy day… but we did find a walking path up Mount Victoria.

A writers’ centre!

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It was a short and easy walk to the top, and from there we had 360-degree views of the city and the gulf.

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And to my total glee, there was a field of painted mushrooms!

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As it turns out, the mushrooms are vents for a water pumping station underneath — but we didn’t know that at the time.

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Near the mushrooms was a magical portal to a distant time or place…

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… or maybe it was just an empty concrete booth.

We also found the remains of an old fort. It wasn’t very big.

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The whole hill reminded me of Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto, with its mysterious atmosphere of nature plus decayed industrial material. While we were exploring the fort we felt a few raindrops, so we made our way back into town for tea (actually cake).

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When it seemed the rain didn’t want to stop, we decided to go home. On the bus ride back we got out at Mount Eden and did some shopping for dinner: veg at a produce market, chicken from the butcher shop. The friendly girl at the butchery asked if I wanted a sample of their sausage, and when I said yes, she took a whole one from the grill and handed it to me!

Back in the apartment, we made rice and a simple stew, and spent the rest of the evening doing nothing. A pleasant day.

Tiritiri Matangi

We knew we wanted to go to Tiritiri Matangi, but chose the date of our trip in a last-minute decision the night before. The island is a bird sanctuary and reserve, and the only ferry servicing it leaves the Auckland pier at 9 AM. (There are other ways to get there, but they’re expensive: helicopter, for instance!). We were planning to go on Monday, but late Saturday night I went online to book and realized the ferry runs from Wed-Sun only. So we made a hasty change of plans, and then I ran around for an hour packing a bag and looking up bus timetables to get to the pier. The next morning I assembled a lunch from what we had in the fridge (scrambled eggs with Camembert, over rice) — an extra step I probably wouldn’t have taken, except that there’s no food on the island. As it turned out, we got to the pier quite early and there was a well-stocked convenience store right on it, so we were able to supplement our cheese-egg-rice with pretzels, nuts, an Afghan biscuit, and juice.

The ferry seated more than 100, but there were maybe 25 of us, max, including the volunteers who run the island gift shop and walking tours. It was a 75-minute ride to the island, with a stop at Gulf Harbour, north of Devonport.

View of the pier as the boat pulled away:

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Although it was grey and windy when we left, by the time we arrived at the island, the sun had come out. I was surprised by how remote the place felt, even though we could still see the city in the distance.

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We assembled on shore for a quick introduction from the ranger who lives on the island. (That must be an interesting life, being the only human on the island many nights out of the year. I think he has a partner and baby, so at least there are three of them.) Then those of us who were taking walking tours split into groups. Ours included Erik and me, our guide, and a birdwatcher from Ottawa. As soon as we split off onto a coastal trail, we saw no other humans for the next hour and a half.

The island used to be farmed, but in recent decades, scientists and volunteers have been clearing it of predators and invasive species, and re-vegetating and populating it with native plants and birds (some of which are quite endangered). This isn’t an uncontroversial process — they got rid of the rat population by air-dropping poison over the entire island — but as a result, it really does feel like a sanctuary. The birds are plentiful and unafraid, and the plants (and fungi and lichens) appear to be flourishing. We spotted some funny awkward kokako, several of the beautifully goofy-looking takahe (Erik: “they look they were drawn by a kid!”), and many saddlebacks, North Island robins (not actually related to European or North American robins), a few kakariki (red-crowned green parakeets), and some whiteheads. Oh and many tui, which are apparently fairly common but are so beautifully dressed! 😉

Here’s a video I took of some bellbirds and stitchbirds feeding at a sugar-water station. It’s not a great video but the birdcalls are lovely to listen to. Fun fact about the stitchbird: it’s not related to any other living bird.

After our tour and lunch, I made some sketches along the trails. I wish I’d had more time for drawing, but maybe that’ll come when we get to the South Island next week.

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Click to view more of the island’s flora, fauna, and other details. Some of the photos have notes, which you’ll see if you mouse over or click.

The ferry departed at 3:30. We were quite tired by the time we left the island, though we’d had a good time. The ride back was wearying too. I don’t think I’m cut out for extended boat rides… truth be told, I can still feel the motion of the boat when I sit still, even several days later. (This sometimes happens with trains and planes too. I wonder if it’s related to my vertigo somehow?)

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Back in the city, we hopped off the bus in upscale-hipster neighborhood Ponsonby and got dinner at a cozy little place called the Late Night Diner. I felt a bit awkward in my rain jacket and hiking boots, but honestly, no one seemed to notice. The bowtie-and-suspenders-clad bartenders were very friendly, and we could watch the kitchen action from where we sat. The food was tasty (not amazing, but good) and when the pie I ordered took about 15 minutes to arrive (it had just come from the oven and needed time to set), they gave it to us for free.

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Crispy-skinned fish over popcorn grits. The grits tasted like popcorn.

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Lamb over mushy peas, with herb butter.

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Butternut pumpkin pie with ice cream.

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In just a few days we leave Auckland and fly to the South Island for the second half of our NZ stay.