This Annual Walking Festival Proves Waiheke Island Is Best Explored on Foot
Walking and wine are a winning combination as part of the annual Waiheke Walking Festival, now in its 11th year
There aren’t many walks that end with a three-course dinner at a vineyard just as the sun begins to set. The Awaawaroa Coastal Magic Walk stood out from last year’s Waiheke Walking Festival, which this year offers 55 guided walks over 18 days and covers all parts of beautiful Waiheke Island.
Competing for attention was the Man O’ War to Onetangi walk across private land with spectacular vistas of Ngāti Paoa’s Waiheke Station, or a chance to explore Rotoroa Island, off the eastern coast of Waiheke, which was once a rehab centre and is now a sanctuary for wildlife.
The Awaawaroa Coastal Magic Walk traverses Waiheke’s southern coastline to Awaawaroa Estuary, with Rob Morton from Awaawaroa Eco Village joining the walk at Pipitewai Bay to provide insight into the area, ending at award-winning vineyard Poderi Crisci for dinner. The glass of prosecco on arrival seals the deal.
The meeting point for the Awaawaroa Coastal Walk on a warm Saturday in November is Omiha Memorial Hall in Rocky Bay. Volunteers Rainer Lehr, Christina Livingstone, Sally Horwood and lead volunteer Mary Matthews are in hi-vis to greet walkers and prepare them for the 4.5 hours ahead.
The 10km walk is graded a 7/10, which the grading guideline describes as “Mostly unformed routes or tracks that are tricky underfoot with prolonged steep hills”.
My walking partner and I look down at our sneakers and exercise gear as we take in our fellow walkers decked out in tramping gear and hiking boots. For many around us, this walk is one of several they’re doing during the festival. Four friends have travelled from Wellington to make a holiday of it, something they did the previous year too. They take their get-up as seriously as the walking.
There isn’t time to fret about being under-prepared as the walk gets under way, heading up Omiha Rd and on to a native bush track that winds its way down to Whakanewha Bay, surrounded by the green expanse of Whakanewha Regional Park with views across the gulf to Bucklands Beach.
After the Poukaraka Flats campground, it’s a steady climb up Gordons Rd past farmland and the vineyards of Destiny Bay Wines. The views of Woodside Bay below are incredible and the drawcard for the scattering of luxury accommodation across the hill, including John and Amanda Goodwin’s 5ha Woodside Bay retreat.
They meet us at the gate to talk about their 200-tree olive grove, which is harvested in May and pressed at nearby Rangihoua Estate. At the time of our visit, they weren’t to know they’d win a gold medal in the 2020 New York International Olive Oil Competition, the world’s most prestigious olive oil contest.
At the end of Gordons Rd, we reach a small finger of land that points out from the peninsula forming the curve of Deadmans Bay. We head down the hill into the shelter of Awaawaroa Bay for a drinks break. Here, we meet Rob Morton from Awaawaroa Eco Village, who bought 170ha in the bay with his partner 25 years ago, dividing it into 15 shares as part of a community land initiative.
His aim is to encourage biodiversity and enhance ecosystems in the area. Rob knows a lot about the island, and we have to hurry to keep up with him along the shoreline of Pipitewai Bay to hear about early colonists, manganese mining in the 1800s and the ballast piles in the bay from their ships; farming techniques and dotterel preservation and breeding. “I love them, dotterel. I could rave on for hours about them,” says Rob.
The land surrounding the Awaawaroa Estuary has been farmed intensively for 150 years, he says, which explains why this stretch of shoreline is filled with mud and silt at low tide. Walking isn’t easy on this terrain and the official Waiheke Walking Guide urging walkers to wear waterproof shoes suddenly becomes clear.
The tidal flat stretches on for several kilometres, and every step is a mud-filled opportunity to slip over on to oyster-covered rocks. “This mud we’re walking on shouldn’t really be here,” says Rob. “This could have been a beautiful bay if all of the catchment had been bush.”
Rob and the residents of the eco village (not a term he likes. “I just call it the collective farm. I like the Stalinist feel to that”) are trying to reverse this . . . restoring the environment to its natural habitat. He’s inspired by Port Fitzroy on Great Barrier Island, which is a crystal-clear mangrove-filled bay. “It’s absolutely clean. Mangroves don’t have to equal mud; hopefully one day we’ll get this like that, but it’s going to take a lot of regeneration and a lot of controlled water run-off.”
After an hour of walking the sludgy shoreline, we reach the edge of Rob’s property and stop for a rest by the mouth of the estuary before we say goodbye. The Poderi Crisci vineyard awaits around the bend on the sun-soaked slope of Awaawaroa Rd. The ascent to the cellar door is perfectly timed, with the golden afternoon sun dipping low in the sky and beaming hazily through the lush grasses that line the road.
As the perfect rows of vines come into view, we spot Poderi staff with trays of ice-cold prosecco waiting to greet weary walkers outside La Locanda, the casual bar at the entrance to the vineyard. We take a glass and sink into the grass beside the vines to toast our efforts.
Dinner awaits at the cellar door, with one long, beautifully set table running the length of the space and seating either side. The low ceilings, dim lighting and wine barrels lining the walls add to the Italian ambience. It’s a luxurious finish to the long walk, and the three-course dinner swings into action with an antipasti of mozzarella, tomato and basil and carpaccio de manzo.
Poderi Crisci wines go down a treat with the main course of salmon and lamb, with tiramisu and semifreddo to follow. Camaraderie between walkers has built over the day and the Italian feast cements the friendships, as people swap stories across the table, their walking sticks propped up against old barrels.
It’s only when the bus pulls up to return us to the ferry that reality returns. Night has fallen when we reluctantly emerge from the wine cellar - happy, exhausted, full, and splattered in mud.
• The 2020 Waiheke Walking Festival offers 55 walks over 18 days (November 11-29) — the majority are free. All abilities and interests are catered for, from photography and music to conservation and fitness; many are family-friendly Numbers will be capped, and walks book out fast. Visit Waihekewalkingfestival.org