Great Barrier Island. Island in New Zealand, Oceania

Great Barrier Island

Island in New Zealand, Oceania

Kaitoke Beach, Great Barrier Island, New Zealand Photo © Richard Mayston

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Great Barrier Island

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Great Barrier Island - Great Barrier Island
Great Barrier Island - Great Barrier Island. Photo by namztis
Just a 30 minute flight from Auckland, Great Barrier Island is the perfect escape from the city for a taste of untouched New Zealand island life. With no electricity supply or supermarket and a permanent population of just 1000, the island is a rugged and stunning snapshot of a slower life.


Great Barrier Island lies in the outer Hauraki Gulf, 100 kilometers north-east of central Auckland. It is the fourth-largest island in New Zealand, covering 285 square kilometers. Its highest point, Mount Hobson (Wikipedia Article), is 621 meters above sea level. Around 60% of the island is administered as a nature reserve by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Its location between the Pacific Ocean and the New Zealand mainland causes it to have highly contrasting coastal environments. Along the eastern coast you can find long beaches, with windswept sand dunes and heavy surf. The western side of the island is relatively sheltered and calm, with hundreds of secluded bays boasting some of the best diving and boating in the country. The inland is peppered with multiple large and biologically diverse wetlands, interspersed with rugged hill country and kauri forests.

Tryphena is the main settlement on the island, lying 4km from the ferry wharf at Shoal Bay (Wikipedia Article). The airport is located at Claris, 12km north of Tryphena.

In recent years, house prices on the island have increased as it becomes a more popular holiday destination. The Kaitoke area is among the most popular locations, with its white sandy beaches, hot springs and central location.

Great Barrier Island - Great Barrier
Great Barrier Island. Photo by namztis


The indigenous Maori name for the island is Aotea, meaning "white cloud". There is evidence of a long Maori history on the island, with spectacular pa and other archaeological sites throughout the island. The Ngati Rehua tribe, descendants of Ngati Wai, can trace their association back over many centuries. The European name of the island originates from its location in the outer Hauraki Gulf. Along with the Coromandel Peninsula to the south, the island helps protect the gulf against storms in the Pacific Ocean to the east.

Copper was discovered in the remote north of the island, leading to the establishment of New Zealand's earliest mines at Miners Head in 1842. In the 1890s, gold and silver were found in the Okupu / Whangaparapara area. The island's kauri trees were a also a target for early settlers, with the logging industry turning a tidy profit up until the mid-20th century. The island's challenging terrain made logging difficult, with the forests located inland, and no easy way to get the logs to the coast to transport. With a bit of Kiwi ingenuity, dams were constructed in existing streams, meaning kauri logs could be floated down to the sea.

Cape Barrier -
	Great Barrier Island
Cape Barrier - Great Barrier Island. Photo by Joanne
On 29 October 1894 the island saw one of New Zealand's worst shipwrecks, as the SS Wairarapa (Wikipedia Article) hit a reef and sunk off the north of the island. The ship was sailing from Sydney, Australia to Auckland when it went off course in thick fog and wrecked on the steep cliffs near Miners Head. Around 140 lives were lost, some of whom were buried in beach grave sites on the northern coast of the island.

Difficulties in efficient communications between the island and mainland New Zealand led to the establishment of the Great Barrier Island pigeon post service. The first message was flown on 14 May 1897. Special postage stamps for the pigeon service were issued from October 1898 until 1908, when the service was made redundant by a communications cable laid to the mainland.

The island was also the home of New Zealand's last operational whaling station, which opened in 1956, over a century after the country's whaling industry peaked. The station was short lived, however, and was closed around a decade later, following a drop in whale stocks and increasing protection of whales.

The island's beautiful landscape was seen around the world in 2007, as the BBC reality show, Castaway, was filmed on the island.

Great Barrier Island - Great Barrier
Great Barrier Island. Photo by namztis


Over time, more of the island has come under the stewardship of DOC. Today, around two-thirds of the island is publicly owned and managed by DOC. The island is a haven for many native bird and plant populations, with the common pests of possums, mustelids (stoats or ferrets), hedgehogs, brown rats and deer being eliminated. Rare animals found on the island include brown teal ducks, black petrel seabirds and North Island kaka parrots. While logging cut down large amounts of the island's native kauri, most of the logged area has now been replanted. The island is once again covered with bush, dominated by kanuka and kauri.

 - Great Barrier
Great Barrier Island. Photo by Richard Mayston


Great Barrier Island has over 20 tracks and trails totaling over 100 kilometers. DOC has created a large number of walking tracks throughout the island, some of which can also be mountain biked.

The walk to the Kaitoke Hot Springs is very popular, and rewards you with untouched natural hot springs after the hike. The trail winds through Nikau glades, over bridges and boardwalks, along with great wetland and mountain views. Access is from Whangaparapara Road.

Tramline Track is more challenging, taking around five hours. The track begins on Aotea Road, and follows old logging tramlines to Whangaparapara Harbour. The track is hilly and in some parts the clay becomes slippery after rain.

The Aotea Track takes 2-3 days, and offers a range of spectacular landscapes, superb views and rich history. The trail makes its way over streams, through beautiful native bush and tranquil wetlands, as well as the surviving forests of kauri, rimu and kahikatea with their special plants and wildlife. The trail is made up of easy walking tracks, boardwalks, steep climbs, stairways and bridges. It is suitable for reasonably fit beginners or experienced hikers. Accommodation is available at the Mt Heale and Kaiaraara Huts, or at campsites along the way. The trail takes in the Kaitoke Hot Springs track, so you can stop for a dip at the beginning or end of your hike, depending on which way you tackle the trail.

There are a number of hiking trails in the Harataonga area, all of which provide stunning views of the island and coastline. Trails range in duration from 30 minutes to 4-5 hours. The Harataonga Coastal Walkway takes 4-5 hours in total, and is relatively flat, compared with the other hiking trails on the island. It winds through regenerating forest and can be accessed from the Okiwi end on Aotea Road, or you can leave from the Harataonga campsite.

Beach - Great
	Barrier Island
Beach - Great Barrier Island. Photo by sam and jo


The "Ultimate Great Barrier Island Tour" is the perfect introduction to the island by boat. The tour takes you around the whole island, exploring private and secluded bays and inlets, as well as visiting the Gannet colony, and you'll more than likely be accompanied by local dolphins. The tour takes the best part of a day, and includes transfers, tea/coffee, and lunch on request. The cost is 100 NZD, or 120 NZD including lunch.

If water sports are your thing, you can hire diving, snorkeling, fishing, surfing and kayaking gear from Hooked on Barrier on Hector Sanderson Road. They also run fishing, diving and sightseeing charters: half day charters are 700 NZD, with full day charters 1200 NZD. You can also paddle board in Whangaparapara Harbour with hires and tours available from Shiny Paua Paddle Boards. Board hire is 50 NZD per day, or 60 NZD for two days.


Despite its small size, Great Barrier Island offers a range of accommodation options, from backpackers to luxurious lodges. Prices do tend to be higher on the island than the mainland, however. In the off-season, rates drop and you can get competitive deals.

For guest accommodation, check out Great Barrier Lodge, 20 minutes drive from Claris Airport. The lodge offers a range of options including self-contained cottages, studios and suites. In Tryphena, try Tipi and Bobs Waterfront Lodge, or Aotea Lodge. In Okupu, Mount St Paul Estate is a beautiful bed and breakfast option. In Medlands, check out Medlands Beach Lodge, or Medlands Beach Backpackers for a cheaper option. If you're budget is limited, you can also try Crossroads Lodge near the air field.

	Barrier - Great Barrier Island
Cape Barrier - Great Barrier Island. Photo by Joanne

Getting around

One main road connects the island, winding its way through tiny villages, through mountain ranges, beautiful farmland, and the stunning coastal stretches. There is no scheduled bus service on the island, but hiring a car is easy and can be done at Claris Airport or Tryphena Wharf, or online. Mountain biking or taxi are also easy ways to get around the island. Or you can make like a local and hitch a ride!

Getting there

By air, Barrier Air and Fly My Sky operate services from Auckland Airport and North Shore Aerodrome. Sunair operates from Ardmore Airport in Auckland. Flight time from Auckland is approximately 35 minutes.

By ferry, Sealink operates a fast ferry over summer months, as well as a passenger, car and freight ferry. These services depart from Wynyard Wharf in Auckland and land at Tryphena on Great Barrier Island, running several times weekly. A service is also available to Port Fitzroy on Wednesdays. Sailing time is approximately four and a half hours. Adult fares are 79 NZD one way, or 100 NZD return, or 145 NZD return during peak season. Cars are 275 NZD one way, or 340 NZD return, or 430 NZD return during peak season. Concessions are available for children, students and families.

Further information

Nursery web
	spider - Great Barrier Island
Nursery web spider - Great Barrier Island. Photo by Shaun Lee
Cell service on the island isn't great, but you can get reception in parts of Tryphena, Medlands, Claris, Okupu and Port Fitzroy. Broadband internet exists from Tryphena to Claris, or you can get free wifi at the Claris Library.

There are no banks on the island, nor ATMs. Many roads are unsealed and petrol costs are high.
Peak season falls from mid-December to mid-January. If traveling during this time, be sure to book ahead for transport, accommodation and activities.

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Author: Amanda. Last updated: Mar 14, 2016

Pictures of Great Barrier Island

Tryphena Harbour wharf - Great Barrier Island
Tryphena Harbour wharf - Great Barrier Island. Photo by Ralph Green

Great Barrier Island - Great Barrier Island
Great Barrier Island - Photo by namztis

Great Barrier Island - Great Barrier Island
Great Barrier Island - Photo by namztis


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