North Shore Coastal Walk
At first, the going is tame, along the soft sand and then a broad concrete path, past houses built enviably close to the water. This part of the coast was once a holiday destination for Aucklanders: every summer weekend through the 1920s, the ferry from Devonport and the steam tram from Bayswater would disgorge crowds of city day-trippers at Takapuna for decorous paddling and the making of sand-castles. Some fortunate families, however, built small baches by the beach to enjoy the hot weather far from the rush and bustle of Auckland central.
Most of the houses overlooking the path are now much grander affairs, covering the full range of architectural styles from weatherboard villas to stucco modern, within between angular expanses of tinted glass and at least one baronial castle. Still remaining are a few tiny, original cottages tucked under the pohutukawa trees, such as Firth Cottage, where penguins have nested in the rocks underneath. Typical of the glorious jumble of styles is the soaring wedge of mirror glass right next door. Built-in 1984 to resemble an ocean liner with stainless-steel railings, chimneys like funnels, and a sharp prow, it’s one of several ship-inspired designs.
At the end of the concrete path, you will pick your way over the volcanic outflow from the eruption of Lake Pupuke 100,000 years ago. The rough black basalt that flowed into the sea was a convenient source of material that many householders used for their walls along this stretch. It was the same stone, locally quarried, that Capt. John Algie used to build his mock-Scottish castle, Merkesworth, in 1926.
Take a rest on the sea-smoothed boulders of the Giant’s Throne, a generous two-seater chair, built by the French stonemason Frank Savidan who toiled along this stretch of the path for several years. There are fine examples of his stone-work near Thorne Bay, a perfect sheltered cove inaccessible by road and popular with families.
The Algie family motto, ‘Gang warily’ is suitable advice for this section, which involves some scrambling. Be sure to give the rocks here close scrutiny because tucked amongst them is a fossilized forest. Before the Pupuke eruption, there were woods along the shoreline that were swamped by lava in our own version of Pompei. Once you get your eye in, it’s easy to find the unnaturally round holes in the rock, all that remains of the trees that once stood here. Some of them were giants: a hole almost two meters across covered by a grating that looks like an old well is actually the mold left by a huge kauri.
Not far from here, around a corner past the camping ground, is the long, biscuit-brown curve of Takapuna beach, wherein 1933 aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith thrilled the district’s youth with joy-rides in his airplane the Southern Cross. Today it’s suburban and civilized, scattered with people, pushchairs, and dogs; and it’s the perfect place to stop off for a rest and something to eat from a selection of restaurants along the beach.
Afterward, head back to the sand. Within minutes of clambering around the ochre sandstone rocks below the cliffs at the southern end, you’re all alone again and properly challenged for the first time on the walk, as you negotiate a couple of bays with high cliffs, separated by rocks. If the tide is too high for this route, or you feel this sort of thing is too much for you, the official all-tide alternative is to walk from Takapuna along Lake Road past Takapuna Grammar School and then head back to the sea again at Narrow Neck Beach.
If you choose the more adventurous option, you will climb and scramble, taking care of slippery patches of algae exposed by the retreating tide. These bays are empty, the cliffs fringed with toi toi and pohutukawa and you feel that you could be miles from town: only the mournful peeping of an oystercatcher will keep you company. But you’ve chosen a lovely day, the sun is warm, the sea blue, and Rangitoto across the channel gets so close that when you reach Narrow Neck you feel you could swim across.
There is ample parking at Milford Reserve. The section to Takapuna is negotiable at any stage of the tide; but from there on should only be attempted at low tide as there are some bays without land access. To return to Milford, take the bus from Devonport’s main street: the Reserve is a ten-minute walk from Milford Mall.