347 Days on the Road
144 islands lie in the Bay of Islands and our time has finally come to start exploring one. The largest island in the bay seems like a good place to start. What’s more, the “Winterless North” is in full swing on this sunny day in The Bay (we wouldn’t have been saying that yesterday), s we have no excuse not to hit the water!
Taking the Explore ferry to Urupukapuka Island
The morning starts at Pier 5 in Paihia, waiting to board the bright yellow Explore boat to ferry us over to Urupukapuka Island. The island is said to be a bird paradise, but already we are entertained at the wharf by some pretty cormorants, better known in New Zealand as shags, and seagulls.
After boarding the boat, we do a quick pick-up in Russell, the Hell Hole of the Pacific that we visited yesterday, then charge on through the still waters of The Bay! However, our attention is drawn to the front of the vessel when the boat starts suddenly slowing down… There’s a dolphin ahead! Unlike all the other dolphin encounters we have had in New Zealand, and we have had heaps, this dolphin is alone and not too interested in the boat. This unusual sign for these pod-dwelling mammals means the vessel has to leave the dolphin alone, so we continue onto Urupukapuka Island.
Arriving in paradise
On arrival, this place looks like paradise. We disembark the Explore boat onto a long jetty with white-sand beach and clear waters on either side. Hills of bush and lush green grass lie before us – we just can’t wait to start exploring.
A Maori-carved entrance welcomes us onto the island, then obvious signs lead us to the walking tracks, as well as a map of the island. You can cover a lot of ground on the island in a day, but stops you’ll want to do will slow down your momentum to island time.
Wetland, forest and grassy paddocks (all within five minutes)
We start tracks on the Urupukapuka Loop Track, which initially takes us across a small wetland currently occupied by pukeko – a long-legged blue-feathered bird with a red beak (yes, they are as crazy as they sound), herons and seagulls. We start making our way uphill through the edge of a forest already full of bird sounds, especially the melodic calls of tui, which mimic each other like parrots do.
The wild chorus of birds is mixed with the baaing of sheep seen in a grassy paddock in the valley below. It’s quite the mix on Urupukapuka Island and we are only finding this out five minutes into our walk!
Epic Bay of Islands scenery
It’s not long until we start seeing some gorgeous scenery. As we reach the ridge of the hill, views of Urupukapuka Beach are revealed on the other side of the island, as well as the sun shining on the dark blue waters surrounding the island. Layers of islands and mainland make up the backdrop of the scenery, not to mention the rest of the forest rolling on the hills ahead of us that we are still yet to explore. We are in love with this island already.
We follow the grassy ridge line to a gargantuan lone tree, then to various other viewpoint markers. We have reached the highest point of the island, which as you can imagine holds more astonishing scenery! From here, it’s time to start making our way down into the low-lying forest of kanuka and manuka – tall and thin spindly trees that are not too dense so seeing birds is a whole lot easier.
Lots of little sections of forest to find birds
Let the obsessive bird literature begin!
Of course, the easiest birds to see are the tui because we can usually hear them first. We are surprised, however, to see heaps of cute and tiny native birds who seem more intrigued by us than we are of them (Ok, that’s not true, we are obsessed with birds). Tiny birds called tomtits fly onto branches half a metre away from our face, as if to check us out, then fly from branch to branch around us before flying away because we are just boring humans. North Island robins and fat fantails are left in our wake (always remember to turn around if you want to see birds) looking for any upturned bugs we might have left with our feet. We see tiny white birds called whiteheads that also don’t seem to be too bothered by us taking photos right underneath them.
A more elusive bird seen is the beautiful-looking silvereye, named after the silver ring around its eye. We see them travelling in groups, squeaking away as they hop from branch to branch making a green-feathered blur.
Lunch on an isolated beach
Now that we have had a bird fix in a major way, we arrive back downhill onto a beach in Otiao Bay. We sit among the sand and shells while having a relaxing packed lunch (not made with love, but budget in mind). We have the whole beach to ourselves. Nice!
The walk back and treating ourselves to ice cream!
From here, there are a lot more tracks to follow: ones that lead to Akeake Penninsula, others that lead to the other side of the island with old pa sites (where fortified Maori villages) used to be. For the intention of getting the 2.30pm ferry so we have time to do some work this afternoon (it’s not always fun and games at NZPocketGuide.com, you know…), we gladly head back the way we came – the walk was just too beautiful!
Of course, our pace is slowed down by all the birds we see, but we finally make it back to where we began in Otehei Bay. Here, there is a bar and picnic tables looking out to the beach, so we treat ourselves to some ice cream (which is surprisingly pretty cheap for an isolated island bar) and enjoy a bit of chill time before the ferry sounds the horn for departure.
We hop onto a small Explore boat this time, which heads to Russell first before Paihia. But wait! Dolphins! This time we get a much better viewing of a pod of bottlenose dolphins – the largest type of dolphin in the ocean (unless you consider an orca as a dolphin, which is another species seen in the Bay of Islands). We watch the dolphins slowly rising to the surface, their dorsal fins emerging from the water as they go. It’s a fleeting encounter but a much better one than this morning.
Back at Base
So that’s one island down, 143 to go! Back in Paihia, it’s another evening of catching up with work in our room at the Base Hostel, doing crazy tasks like laundry, and cooking up some healthy protein-fuelled food for Robin’s broken arm. Join us tomorrow where we actually have no idea what we are doing but we promise it’ll be awesome!
Awesome 360-degree views of the Bay of Island
Why wouldn’t you? Get your eyes on these articles!
- Bay of Islands – Guide for Backpackers
- 10 Islands in New Zealand Every Backpacker Has to Explore
- 11 Animals and Birds Unique to New Zealand
See you tomorrow!