One of the real challenges of working in the field I do is that every now and then I have to head off somewhere incredible to manage a photo shoot. It's a hard job but I suppose someone has to do it. As we were trying to shoot a summer campaign in the middle of winter we decided to head as far north as possible and find somewhere with great hiking, expansive views and a genuine feeling of adventure. This is how I found myself on a Sunday afternoon climbing into the tiny vintage looking Great Barrier Air Plane with a camera crew, a couple of models and not much idea about the island we were heading to. Home to a little over 900 people the Barrier was once home to significant Kauri forests which were logged extensively by early Europeans. The coast is a mixture of rugged cliffs and beautiful long beaches which see plenty of visiting boats in the summer months. You can reach the island either by ferry or plane if you're not the private yacht owning type.
The flight out to the Barrier is a very scenic albeit low altitude way to travel and took around 30 minutes from Auckland airport. There's a certain sardine like quality to the seating system on the plane and anyone with thighs bigger than the average size 8 model may require a Beyonce worthy shimmy to make it down the aisle. We landed on the west coast and were met by the rest of the crew who had flown over on a separate charter and aboard the ferry earlier in the day. The Claris Store is conveniently located about 20 seconds down the road from the aerodrome and we headed in to collect some important supplies (chocolate) before getting down to business.
Our accommodation for the week was across three very different holiday homes on various parts of Blind Bay Road. The crowning jewel of which was a 19th Century homestead down on the shores of the bay itself. Electricity was in short supply but it made up for this with buckets of charm and some sweet views out across the water - oh and a camo painted Defender, because every epic adventure needs one of those. After unpacking and double checking that the weather still looked awful for the next 48hrs, we made the painful choice to stick with our plan to go hiking the next day. We had a lot of content to cover in four days including multiple locations around the island so we got the wet weather gear out and informed the makeup artist she would be needing waterproof mascara.
There are heaps of amazing tracks criss-crossing the island and around 60% of it is actually a designated nature reserve. The terrain is impressively rugged with steep ridge lines jutting out over dense forests and dramatic cliffs making up large parts of the shoreline. We drove north from Blind Bay on Aotea Road to the start of Palmers Track just NE of Mt Hobson. This is a very achievable overnight trip for anyone with a good level of fitness but it's a smidgen on the steep side with an innumerable number of steps leading to the summit and eventually onto the hut. After parking up and getting the models sorted with brand new rain jackets, one of them managed to promptly tear a hole in theirs on the back of the Defender (to be fair it was about the third incident with the same piece of jagged metal sticking out of the back door - probably should have done something about it earlier).
***At the start of the track DOC has placed a cleaning station to treat your boots in an effort to reduce the spread of Kauri dieback disease. Please make sure you take the time to use this and help protect the Kauri population on the island.
From the start of the track it's a short 10 minute walk into Windy Canyon Lookout. If you're visiting the island for a shorter time this would be worth a quick detour off the main road to see. Unfortunately the heavy rain and dense cloud was obscuring the best of the views for us but I've since googled it and the vista is indeed quite good. From here the track climbs steadily up to Mt Hobson for about another 3km. Don't let the short distance fool you, there are a lot of stairs and they're not all that much fun in the rain with a heavy pack. Thankfully the view from the summit is more than worth the effort - or so I've been told, it was a total white out when we got there too! After realising the very limited potential for photography we trudged on to the hut to dry out and warm up.
Mt Heale Hut is pretty luxurious as far as backcountry accommodation goes. Solar powered lights, gas cookers and two well appointed rooms for catching some zzz's make for a pretty comfortable stay all around. We had a pretty awesome dinner cooked by one of the locals who was catering for us (I know super rough) that she had thoughtfully vacuum sealed in pouches of delicious goodness for us to carry. We had a good night with cards, music and way too much junk food before snuggling down in more or less the entire Macpac Sleeping Bag range. I unfortunately woke at about 3am with crippling nausea and couldn't get back to sleep. With no explanation for it but also no signs of actually hurling I cranked into day two of walking with no breakfast and amazingly a pack that seemed to have gained a couple of kilos overnight. The weather was toying with us as we headed back up to the summit in the hopes of catching that beautiful 360 degree view in the morning light. Alas, visibility was at about five metres and I had to pull out the survival blanket to keep the models warm in their summer outfits.
Hope was officially given up on after about half an hour and we continued on back down the track to make the most of the overcast but not fully raining morning. It's always interesting retracing your steps when you couldn't see where you were going on the way in. As we dropped lower we started to see glimpses of the coast and eventually even some legitimate blue sky. The stairs had also magically reduced in length over the course of the night, taking significantly less time to descend than they did to haul ourselves up the previous afternoon. The crew managed to get some shots in and even fly the drone for a few minutes before the weather totally packed in again. With most of our gear now wet and covered in mud, we made it back to the vehicles having totally failed at getting summery looking photography but otherwise in good spirits.
Our times were notably slow due to the photographers insistence on doing his job but whatever, not everyone is cut out for demolishing DOC track times. Speaking of which the DOC stats for this little excursion are fairly accurate at 3hrs one way. I'd reduce that considerably if you're in for a day trip and not carrying much gear but those steps are hell on the quads with a fully laden pack and slippery in the wet. Awesome way to see the island and plenty of ways you can add to this overnight trip by linking up with other tracks.
In New Zealand we don't go hiking, walking or frolicking in the wilderness - we tramp.