Situated just 30 kilometres north of Auckland, Tiritiri Matangi Island is a conservation success story. The eradication of pests and predators has allowed endangered native wildlife to regroup, and nature lovers flock to the island for a glimpse of these rare wonders.
Tiritiri Matangi Island is a small piece of paradise in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand.
It’s a predator-free wildlife sanctuary and home to a number of Aotearoa New Zealand’s much loved native wildlife species. This includes the kiwi pukupuku (little spotted kiwi), takahē, kōkako, tuatara and wētāpunga (giant weta). If you’re not from New Zealand, they’re birds, a lizard and a mighty large bug! Tiritiri Matangi is one of New Zealand’s most important conservation projects, and is open to the public for daily and overnight visits. Travelling to the island is as easy as getting on a ferry from downtown Auckland or Gulf Harbour.
I had always wanted to visit Tiritiri Matangi, but had held off hoping for the opportunity to stay overnight. Securing a bed is not easy. There are only 15 available and staying on the island is hugely popular. When a last-minute opportunity came up, I grabbed it!
It’s the morning of the trip and I arrive at Gulf Harbour in plenty of time to catch the ferry. From this wharf, the travel time to the island is only twenty minutes and there’s plenty of free parking. If you depart from downtown Auckland, parking is costly and the ferry trip takes seventy-five minutes. It’s a lovely trip, so that’s not a problem (but the cost of the parking is!).
A ranger and her special rodent-tracking dog arrive to do a bio-security inspection of all passengers and their luggage. This is really important to ensure that no unwanted pests hitch a ride to the island with us. Just before 10am the ferry arrives, and with the bio-security inspection completed we all make our way onboard. There is a large group of school children heading to the island for the day and they look very excited. The ferry has lower and upper decks and there’s plenty of room for everyone. I head upstairs and find a seat where I can enjoy the views and breeze.
Before long we arrive at the island. Once on shore, everyone gathers for a briefing by Talia — another ranger from the Department of Conservation (DOC). She gives us some general information about the island and explains the important details all visitors need to be aware of. When booking my ferry ticket I was given the option of also booking a guided tour. For an extra $10 it seemed silly not to. After the briefing those doing the tour are put into small groups and allocated a volunteer guide.
There are three in my group and we end up with the very lovely Christine. She’s a wealth of knowledge about the island and its flora and fauna. She leads us along a coastal track, pointing out little blue penguin nesting boxes and where to look for the tuatara. Next we head inland along a boardwalk with several sets of stairs. We can hear numerous tui, kākāriki (red-crowned parakeets), hihi (stitchbird) and tīeke (saddlebacks). I’m excited with every corner we turn, not knowing what I might see next. We’re fortunate to spot a kōkako (and Christine tells us they’re generally not easy to see).
Although we haven’t walked a long distance, it’s taken us over two hours to reach the end of the tour. Christine has led us to the visitor centre and bunkhouse, which is where I’ll be spending the night. There’s just enough time to find my bags and get something to eat before Talia does another briefing for the overnight guests.
There are 11 of us staying on the island, along with a few volunteers who have been here for a week working on various conservation projects. With the briefing over and my belongings put away, I decide it’s time to explore more of the island on my own. I grab some swimwear, a towel and water bottle and head off in the direction of Fisherman Bay. It’s a lovely walk up the east coast of the island, with loads of pōhutakawa in flower and birdsong filling the air. I have the whole of Fisherman Bay to myself, and as the water is crystal clear and not too cold, I can’t resist taking a dip.
From Fisherman Bay I head inland, following a track back to the west coast where our day on the island began. I am on the lookout for those elusive tuatara, but unfortunately none are sighted. However, I do see more kōkako! One hops out onto the path in front of me, eyes me up and down, then hops back into the bush. And then, having stopped by a water trough, another kōkako surprises me by jumping into the trough to take a bath! I have never seen these birds in the wild, so to see so many is most certainly a treat!
Back at the bunkhouse, it’s time to relax and think about dinner. Appliances, pots and pans, cutlery and crockery are provided. All I needed to bring was food and beverages. Alcohol is permitted and several guests are enjoying a cold beer or wine in the late afternoon sun. The kitchen has enough space for several people to be in there at the same time. Gas is used for cooking, while the appliances and lights run on solar power. This little island is off the grid, so resources are precious and I’m mindful of not using more energy than necessary. This means turning off lights when you walk out of a room, and not letting the water run from taps unnecessarily.
With dinner done, I wander up the hill from the visitor centre to catch the sunset and wait for the light to fade. Everyone is excited about heading out after dark to spot kiwi. There are not many places in New Zealand where you are just about guaranteed of seeing these elusive birds in the wild, but this island is one of them. Bright torches are not good for the light-sensitive kiwi, so we’ve been told to prepare red lights. There are supplies at the bunkhouse of red cellophane and rubber bands to put over our torches. No one has a plan for how to find kiwi other than to listen for their high-pitched call, and move in that direction. I head out with two others and it isn’t long before we’re delighted by our first kiwi encounter of the night. He’s a big one — much bigger than we were expecting. He doesn’t hang around for long, but we all get a good look at him.
Our next encounter takes everyone by surprise, as a kiwi starts calling right next to us! It gives us quite a fright. The call is very long and extremely loud, and we have enough time to get our phones out and start recording it. Feeling fortunate, we’re keen to keep going and see if we can also find a tuatara (as they also like to come out at night). Sadly that doesn’t happen, but we do see two more kiwi before heading back to the bunkhouse.
The following morning, the priority is breakfast, packing and cleaning up the bunkhouse. Another group will be arriving shortly, but we’re able to leave our gear here and return at any time to use the facilities. I decide to head out for a few hours and walk up to the northern end of the island. It isn’t long before I arrive at Pōhutakawa Cove. Visiting in December is the perfect time to see the gorgeous pōhutakawa trees in full bloom, and they are putting on a good show today. I spend a bit of time here enjoying the views before heading back.
After lunch I have enough time to look for the takahē. I saw one briefly yesterday, but I have heard there are chicks about and I really want to see them. Fortunately, there are three adults and two chicks hanging out near the ranger’s house. I follow them around for a good half an hour taking many photos and videos. The chicks are black fluffy balls of cuteness and don’t seem too bothered by my presence. These birds, once thought to be extinct, are one of New Zealand’s most vulnerable species. To see them here is really special.
My wonderful trip to Tiritiri Matangi is coming to an end. Before I know it, the ferry has arrived and we are all on board heading back to the mainland. I spend the time reflecting on my amazing two days in this island paradise.
Do you have any tips for things to do on Tiritiri Matangi Island? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. At the end of 2015, Karllie left her teaching profession, sold her home and became a nomad for the next few years. It sparked a real passion for budget solo travel, which she now loves to inspire others to do. In the last few years alone, Karllie has visited over twenty countries and ticked off more than 50 cities across three continents. She loves the great outdoors — especially hiking and anything to do with the ocean.