07 June 2014

Auckland walks: Mt Victoria and North Head

Leaving on the ferry
One of the best things about having so many volcanic cones dotted around Auckland is the panoramic views you get from the top of them and, as most are very accessible for walkers, you can easily combine exercise and sightseeing by a walk to the top of one … or, in this case, two.

As I live in the central city, access to these two volcanoes, Mt Victoria and North Head, is via a quick 10-minute ferry ride across the Waitemata harbour to Devonport. This is a pretty little seaside suburb, with architecturally significant colonial-era houses, craft shops and galleries stocked with fine examples of local artistry, a range of outdoor cafes with offerings to satisfy the most demanding taste buds, as well as beaches and parks where you can stroll off the calories after you indulge!

My map – and this blog post – focus on the walk I did last week but Devonport is worth exploring further. In fact, the place has so much to offer there are two websites to show visitors what to see and do, and where to stay and eat.

Devonport and Mt Victoria

From the ferry, the direct route to Mt Victoria takes you up the main street, Victoria Road. With extreme difficulty, I resisted the temptation to browse the shops and galleries (you can always return to these at the end of your walk!) and focused on the hill. At the entrance to the reserve, across Kerr Road, there’s a sign showing the road and pathways but, basically, you just follow the road -- a steep-ish climb to the 87-metre summit, but with plenty of opportunities to stop for photos, it’s easily managed.

Named after Queen Victoria, this volcanic mount was formed by the fire-fountaining of frothy scoria from a central crater, which was later breached on the south side by a lava flow that extends towards the Devonport foreshore. When the tide’s out, you can clearly see the remains of this lava flow on the beach between Devonport wharf and Torpedo Bay, and its rock pools are fun to explore, though sturdy footwear is required.

Looking from Mt Victoria to North Head and Torpedo Bay
This mountain is not just a scenic reserve. It was used as a pa (fort and village) by early Maori and, due to its height and prominent position, the signal station for the Port of Auckland was sited on top in 1841. Much updated and now fully automated, it still functions today, and the old signalman’s house has become the Michael King Writers’ Centre, supporting the development of high quality New Zealand literature. The mount was also the site of 64-pounder muzzle-loading guns when, in 1885, Aucklanders feared an invasion from Russia, and still houses an 8-inch disappearing gun that dates from 1899. The northern side of the crater contains a water reservoir, the vents from which have been painted to resemble artificial mushrooms growing in the grass.

Looking from Mt Victoria back towards the central city
Once I’d checked out the historical sites, soaked in the views and taken a hundred photos, I headed down a track on the eastern side of the mountain, emerging on to Church Street via Flagstaff Lane. I turned left and continued along Church Street a short distance until the entrance to Cambria Reserve appeared across the street. This pretty park was once home to a 30-metre-high volcanic cone but one hundred years of quarrying away its scoria and rock have almost flattened the land, and landscaping by the local council has produced yet another green and tree-filled space for a pleasant stroll. I did a quick circuit and emerged on the eastern side, where the old, relocated Presbyterian Church now serves a new purpose as the Devonport Museum. It was closed on the day I visited but I’m sure its collections of memorabilia and photographs would be worth a visit.

Looking from Mt Victoria across the Mt Cambria Reserve and Cheltenham Beach towards Rangitoto Island
You could walk all the way up Vauxhall Road and access Cheltenham Beach from the northern end but I always choose the greener route if I can, so I strolled across the grounds of the North Shore Rugby Club to Tui Street, then turned left into Tainui Road and took the next right (Matai Road), which took me straight to the beach.

Looking north along Cheltenham Beach from North Head
With its golden sands and a grand view out to Rangitoto IslandCheltenham Beach is a favourite spot for walkers and swimmers alike. Dogs chased sticks, energetic youngsters jumped to catch Frisbees, families picnicked, and seagulls squabbled over fishing rights in the shallow water – it was an idyllic sunny scene and I lingered awhile to enjoy it all, soak up some sunshine and dry my feet after a paddle. Then, it was off southwards along the beach to my next volcano, the 50,000-year-old North Head, the eroded remains of a scoria cone overlying a small tuff cone.

Just like Mt Victoria, North Head’s strategic location at the entrance to the inner Waitemata Harbour has led to its use as a defensive fortification, with more muzzle-loading guns placed here in 1885 and three disappearing guns in 1886. Prior to the First World War, prisoners were used to excavate tunnels linking the gun emplacements and their service facilities, and exploring these is a fun activity for young and old alike. Fearing invasion by the Japanese, North Head’s defence capability was further developed during the Second World War and the fort served as the Regimental Headquarters for the entire Hauraki Gulf defence system.

These days, North Head is part of the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park, and the Department of Conservation manages the heritage buildings and defence facilities and artefacts still found there. Their website contains excellent information and a guided walk pdf so interested visitors can learn more about these aspects of Auckland’s history. 

North Head from Torpedo Bay, with the Navy Museum and cafe at bottom right

I wandered the paths, at sea level and around the top of the cone, once again enjoying the panoramic views and taking lots of photographs, before heading down to Torpedo Bay, its excellent Navy Museum and café for some well-earned lunch. Afterwards, as I strolled the seashore back towards the ferry, I was treated to the antics of a plethora of birds: herons and cormorants, kingfishers, oystercatchers and gulls. Sitting on the ferry back to the city, I knew I had only scratched the surface of all Devonport has to offer and vowed to return again soon to explore further.

Information about the volcanoes listed here came from Bruce Hayward’s excellent book Volcanoes of Auckland: the essential guide, Auckland University Press, 2011. 

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