Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shakespear Regional Park

15 November, 2009. Steffan and I decided to take another day trip. Looking at Google Maps, we thought we would head to Shakespear Regional Park, located on the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, just a bit south of Wenderholm, where we visited last week. The Whangaparaoa Peninsula is a thin finger of land stretching eastward into Hauraki Gulf. It ends just three kilometres short of Tiritiri Matangi Island, which I decided would make a cool kayak trip one day, especially considering that Whangaparaoa is Māori for "Bay of Whales," as whales and dolphins visit this area regularly. For us, we were looking forward to another relaxing day exploring the spectacular scenery that the Auckland region has to offer.

The day started off rainy and gloomy, but we hoped for the best, as the weather in Auckland changes very quickly with both temporal and spacial dimensions (Kind of reminds me of quantum physics. So what if I'm a nerd?). As we drove, the weather did get a bit better. The rain turned into mist and eventually stopped. This time, we did not stop at a supermarket for quite a while. When we did finally stop, it was in the town of Whangaparaoa at the base of the peninsula. Whangaparaoa sits at the southern edge of the Hibiscus Coast, a coastal area covering about 25 kilometres of the Auckland region. The main population centre of this costal region is the built-up area stretching from Whangaparaoa to Orewa, where the majority of the 28,000 residents of the Hibiscus Coast reside. The Foodtown in Whangaparaoa was located in a small but surprisingly busy mall in the centre of town. Driving past here, the roads suddenly become more empty.

After a brief stop at Army Bay, where cars were parked on the sand and there appeared to be fishermen on the rocks in the distance, we tried to drive farther in to the park. It turns out we should have taken an earlier turn-off to take a road deeper into the park. Taking the road that we did, we ended up at the Waterfall Gully trail head lot at the western edge of the park. Here, there are numerous pūkekos wandering around, some of them approaching us curiously, probably trying to see if we had food to give them. I found these birds to be very interesting, with their purple body and exceeding long legs. I started calling them "tasty birds" as they looked like they could be quite delicious. However, it turns out that the Māori consider them to be a poor choice for food as the meat is supposedly sinew and tough. Still, I would love to try one someday as they do look quite tasty in my opinion.

We followed the Heritage Trail, which is a long trail that goes all around the park. Our first stop was down a spur track leading to Waterfall Gully, where there was a relatively large horseshoe shaped rock wall with water trickling down into a shallow pool at the head of a stream. The water looked amazingly disgusting, but the sound of the waterfall combined with the sounds of exotic birds and insects chirping set to the backdrop of a lush jungle-like forest was quite pleasing. I was especially impressed by some enormous gnarly trees with branches spread all over the canopy. These branches support numerous small epiphytes growing on the branches at various intervals. I am still working on identifying what species these trees and epiphytes are.

Continuing up the track leads to sections with various plant life and birds. There were small streams and bridges. The dense jungle with fern trees and various birds made me feel as if we were quite deep in some kind of tropical forest, but I knew that this was only a small patch of growth on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, close to home (or at least my home in Auckland). There was one section filled with thick tangles of supplejack, which looked like thick black vines, stretching from the ground up to the canopy, sometimes forming thick interwoven strands 20 or 30 centimetres wide. They felt quite hard and woody to the touch. As I said to Steffan, as long as they don't start moving, I'm OK with them. Apparently, supplejack can be used to make a variety of things, from rope to fishing nets to baskets, and the roots is even used as a flavouring in beer.

As the track travelled east and up a hill, we suddenly found ourselves spat out of the forest and in front of a series of large fields, some with sheep and cows in them. Walking toward a wooden watchtower built around a water cistern, we came across a gate and a sign which told us that these farms belongs to us as well, as a part of New Zealand heritage. It turns out that parts of this park also serves as a working farm, with many of the tracks going right through the fields. One has to be careful to shut the gate behind them to make sure no livestock escapes. I thought having a "public" farm was a very cool idea, and had not seen anything like this in North America. Overall, I have found New Zealand to be much more laid-back in terms of safety, as people do not expect others to sue over the smallest things here.

When we reached the lookout, it was windy and started to drizzle. However, the weather quickly cleared up again, and we were even treated to small periods of sun and blue sky. In the distance, we could see the Barrier Islands, beyond which is open ocean all the way back home to North America. Closer to shore, we could clearly see the features on Tiritiri Matangi just across a small channel of water. On another side, we could see Rangitoto, and when the rain wasn't blowing around in the distance, we could even see the faint outline of the Sky Tower surrounded by the skyscrapers of Auckland City and North Shore City. We sat at a bench sheltered against the wind by the observation tower to have our lunch.

The weather continued to improve, and it became quite warm and pleasant. Walking south through the fields, picking our way through the animal dung, we arrived at Te Haruhi Bay, set along some grassy areas filled with pūkekos, which I tried to chase down and take photos of. I find it really hilarious how the pūkekos seem like they just try to nonchalantly avoid you as you approach, and then try harder to avoid you when they see you following them. Unfortunately, we travelled south from the observation tower, so we missed Pink Beach on the western edge of the park, set below rocky cliffs, from what I can tell from the map. We also could not enter the area to the north, as that served as a training ground for the Ministry of Defence (although it is possible to walk around the coast on the rocks at low tide and when the red flags signalling the use of live rounds are down).

We followed the beach at Te Haruhi Bay towards the east. This beach is filled with these long, narrow, conical shells. I was quite fascinated to discover that it appears as if each beach here has their own mix of types of shells. We followed the beach onto the rocks, which are surprisingly smooth here. There are many interesting rock formations, such as curved and folded striations along the rocky cliff, rocks with bubbles in them, and some rocks that looks like they are enveloped in other rocks. These are no doubt the result of extensive volcanic activity in the area. There is a very interesting section where the rocks form multiple mini-islands that you can walk around on if you hop over the water channels. Although I had a lot of fun, my pants got soaked from unexpected waves there. The rocks around this area also has strange bubble patterns embedded into it, which Steffan thought resembles animal prints at first glance. As we walked farther, we came across some fishermen on the rocks, beyond which is a deep channel of water that looked passable only if we are willing to get soaked or if we waited for low tide. I wonder how much it would suck if people decided to take the three hour walk around the peninsula at the wrong time and realise that they had to backtrack after getting so close to the beach at Te Haruhi. As we headed back across the rocks, we came across a black bird with a red beak furiously squawking at us for some reason. I was afraid that it would dive-bomb us if we got too close. As we got back near the beach, we realised that the tide had risen, and we ended up having to climb over the branches of some trees so that we didn't get too wet. I made a mental note to be more aware of the tide here, after running into tide-related problems for the second time in New Zealand.

We followed the Heritage Track back towards the car through the southern section of the park. We came across an old wool house and an old pillbox that was constructed as part of the defence fortifications during World War II. The track in this section is laid out in a very cool format. There is no actual track for most of it, but the path is made up of wooden poles painted with colours every few dozen metres. They are spaced at such a distance that each time you approached a pole, you would wonder where you needed to go next, and after a few seconds of looking, you would find your next way-point just before arriving at the marker. Because of this, the poles appeared to be placed in some very random locations.

This section of the track also led us through paddocks filled with sheep, who were grazing among the pūkekos. At first, I was quite apprehensive about approaching sheep, but Steffan said that generally, sheep are pretty safe to be around. Apparently everyone in New Zealand has been around sheep at some point. For a good portion of the walk, were were scattering sheep in all directions as we walked through the flocks grazing in the paddocks. They would sometimes look at us and bleat, but the worst they did to us was left us dried poop on the fields which we had to avoid. I wonder if anyone came to steal sheep here, as I did not see anyone else around, and there were dirt roads right beyond the fences and gates. I certainly hope that nothing dodgy happens in these fields at night.

The track eventually dumped us at Okoromai Bay, where there is a beach filled with shells. There are signs all over stating the limit on now much fish and shellfish could be gathered per person per day, which got me thinking that I should organize a shellfish gathering trip sometime. While we were there, there was not much sand visible here as it was all shells. The thick layer of shells even covered part of the grassy field. To be fair though, there may actually be a beach here, just that it is covered up by the high tide at that moment. From here, there is another view of Rangitoto and Auckland.

Walking across the peninsula, which is quite narrow at this point, we returned to the car. We stopped briefly in Matakatia Bay just outside of Shakespear Park to take a view of a curious island, called Kotanui, that looked like a giant cone standing in the water. I though it would be a really fun day to kayak there and climb it - if I knew how to rock climb. As we started driving back on the motorway, it became cloudy and started to rain as Steffan and I talked and got to know each other a bit better. We were glad that we left and returned at just the right time to enjoy a day outdoors without being rained on.

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