Why You Should Visit the Arataki Visitor Centre

First time in New Zealand? Time to spare around Auckland? Head west to the Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. It provides a fantastic introduction to life in New Zealand. You can learn about Auckland’s history, environment and wildlife in a wonderful setting with magnificent views, before embarking upon one of the many laid-back bushwalks in the area.

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The Arataki Visitor Centre is one of the first places I remember visiting in New Zealand. I was ten years old; the centre was great for kids and still is. In fact it’s got even better in the last decade. You could spend hours in the kids’ corner. I discovered so much and it was fun. I learned, for example, what all the different native birds were and what a weta looked like. (Answer: scary as fuck.)

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Recently, I went back for the first time in years. It still had the giant picture frame at the edge of the car park, overlooking the ‘natural masterpiece’-of-a-view. It still had the towering Maori totem pole that my little sister had climbed on, unaware that she was using the bottom figure’s penis as a handhold. But there was one important addition to the car park: a charming Danish ice-cream hut.

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The ice-cream was very nice, as were the freshly made waffle cones.

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I also found this rather pretty place for chaining up your bike.

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As you ascend the wooden ramp into the centre there are a series of balconies taking advantage of the views. In summer they’d make good picnic spots, but the wind was too cold to stay out long this time. Thankfully there’s a place to eat inside the centre too, not a proper café, but nice tables with snacks and hot drinks available. There’s also this rather lovely window seat.

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The inside of the centre has changed a lot. It looks all fancy now. The gift shop’s still the same, but there are lots of new displays. As well as informational displays about the natural and human history of the area, and about local conservation efforts, there are beautiful examples of Kiwi artwork and even live lizards! This is definitely somewhere international visitors should come.

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If you plan on doing any bushwalking during your New Zealand trip – and New Zealand is pretty much impossible to escape without doing at least one little bushwalk – then the Arataki Visitor Centre is a great place prepare yourself. There are people there who can advise you on where to go and how to stay safe in the bush, and there are heaps of free leaflets available.

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In fact the whole centre is free – did I mention that?

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The Arataki Visitor Centre is known as the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges. I think it’s also a great gateway to New Zealand in general. Make it the beginning of your New Zealand holiday. I know a few people who say it’s the first place the place they take friends and relatives when they arrive.  Other places nearby include: Rose Hellaby House, the Waitakere Dam, Fairy Falls and Bethells Beach.

Finding Wonderland: Te Puna Quarry Park

Just outside Tauranga, off State Highway 2, lies somewhere I wish I’d been a long time ago.

I wasn’t expecting much when I went with my family last week, but Te Puna Quarry Park surprised me in the best way possible. It’s a place of both tranquillity and intrigue; of beauty and of fun. It would have been wonderful to have gone there as a kid, but, aside from the fact that I lived in England when I was a kid, the place didn’t exist back then.

Well, it existed, but it was a disused quarry. Then, in the mid-nineties, the Te Puna Quarry Park Society began work on transforming the scarred hillside into a slice of Eden. It opened to the public in 2000 and has been growing lovelier ever since.

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At the entrance to the car park

The first thing you see when you drive into the car park is a huge, rusted piece of machinery that looks like a work of art: a digger that children can clamber into and pretend to operate. We didn’t have any children with us, but for a moment I thought my dad was going to climb up into the cab. There’s also a small sensory garden in the car park, but it’s quite underwhelming – the cool stuff comes later.

As you enter the park proper, you are confronted with an interesting sculpture of a face basking in the sunlight. (Or, I suppose, if it was a rainy day, the face would seem to be welcoming the cool droplets on her skin.) Behind the face is a shaded picnic area, before it a stretch of grass to play on, dotted with trees and a statue of a famous New Zealand icon: Buzzy Bee. To the face’s left, paths wind off into flowers and trees.

A view of Mount Maunganui through an interesting piece of artwork

A view of Mount Maunganui through an interesting piece of artwork

It’s like a labyrinth, (or, I should say, a maze, as technically labyrinths consist of a single path with obstacles along the way, but the word ‘labyrinth’ does sound rather more magical than ‘maze’.) It’s difficult to choose which path to take. In fact, you’ll be lucky to explore all of Te Puna Quarry Park in one visit: there are so many offshoots to get lost in.

Basically, it’s like Alice’s Wonderland. That was my immediate impression at least. Later, I thought it reminded me of a less impressive, but no less charming, version of The Forbidden Corner, a fantastical garden park in North Yorkshire that we went to when I was nine – just before we moved to New Zealand.

"Only in New Zealand"

“Only in New Zealand”

Te Puna Quarry Park is full of quirky pieces of artwork. Right at the beginning of our adventure, we came across a little bridge that had a load of old boots tied to it. My grandpa, who was visiting us from England, looked at it and shook his head in amusement. “Only in New Zealand,” he said.

In some parts of the park, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were deep in the New Zealand bush, but you’re soon out in the sunshine again, turning a corner to find yourself in a herb garden or a bonsai garden, a tropical garden or a butterfly garden. There are ponds and stonewalls, waterfalls and statues – it’s utterly enchanting.

You can even go abseiling down a cliff.

Like a fairytale

Like a fairytale

As you walk around, many sounds will mix themselves into the heady atmosphere: the crunch of the pathways, the shrill chorus of the cicadas, the warbling of the native birds and, every now and then, the deep, clear clang of a bell echoing around the quarry. If you can find it, there is an old bell that you can strike – and no one who walks past it can resist. The clanging adds a strange air of excitement to park; like you’re being roused to something, but you’re not sure what. A procession of fairies, perhaps?

A lovely place to sit

A lovely place to sit

Spending time at Te Puna Quarry Park is an experience for all the senses: the sounds, the colours, the smells of the flowers, the textures of the trails and the art that you can interact with… I even associate the taste of the frozen yoghurt I got at the fresh vegetable market just up the road from the quarry with that fantastic day out. (You’ll definitely fancy an ice cream when you leave, as it’s very hot in the quarry, so get yourself to the vegetable market I mentioned – it’s back towards Tauranga and does real fruit ice cream and frozen yoghurt, mixed before your eyes.)

Some colourful artwork

Some colourful artwork

Perhaps the best part of walking around the quarry is the view, which gets better and better the higher you climb. You can look out over Tauranga and Mount Maunganui, right out into the Bay of Plenty. I spent a long time just sitting and staring at that view. Pictures really can’t capture it. Mine couldn’t, anyway.

Then there’s the dragon.

I stumbled upon it when I got separated from my family: in the shade of a tree was the base of a stone tower with a very medieval-looking wooden door built into it, and with steps wrapped around it, and wrapped around the steps was a large, stone dragon.

Wicked.

The enchanting "tower"

The enchanting “tower”

I walked up the steps, noticing a metal slide curving down around the other side of the tower. Oh, how I wished I was child in that moment. The dragon wasn’t really that impressive, but to a child it would have been awesome. At the top of the steps was a wishing well and a couple of fantasy towers made from old pipes.

The dragon

The dragon

I knew my family would be looking for me, and I knew that, knowing me, they wouldn’t fail to look where the dragon was, so I settled myself down in the shade of a tree by the dragon’s head and began to write. (I take a notebook with me everywhere I go.)

After a while, a group of little kids approached the dragon and proceeded to swarm all over it. I didn’t begrudge them that in the slightest. One little boy looked at me and said, “It isn’t a real dragon. It isn’t alive.”

A statue somewhere in the quarry

A statue somewhere in the quarry

“It’s asleep,” I said. “A wizard turned it to stone a thousand years ago. It just needs another wizard to come along and wake it up.”

The boy regarded me for a moment as though I was a very strange person, and turned away to climb up the dragon’s back.

My family found me soon after that and we went to get ice cream.

Te Puna Quarry Park is free to enter, and it’s really close to a nice holiday park, which is good for people taking a New Zealand campervan hire tour in the area. I’d say definitely go, especially if you’ve got kids, but make sure you wear sturdy shoes and sunscreen, and take a hat and a bottle of water with you.

For more places to go in Tauranga, see my Top 10 Things to Do in Tauranga list.

A relic from the old quarry days

A relic from the old quarry days

Rainbow’s End: A Somewhat Amusing Park

When I first arrived in New Zealand, at the age of ten, I noticed that all the other kids in my new class would talk about a certain magical place of fun, a veritable beacon of childhood dreams. If your parents took you there in the holidays, it was a rare and coveted treat, and if your school took you there on a trip, well how lucky were you?

“What is this wondrous destination?” I would ask, and they would answer, in voices breathy with awe, “Rainbow’s End.”

rainbow's end 008It’s an amusement park. They say it’s New Zealand’s best theme park, which isn’t a difficult feat because it’s New Zealand’s only theme park. I couldn’t wait to go.

It’s in Manukau, and as, at the time, we lived in a small town just south of Auckland, it was easy for us to get to. I suppose if you’re in New Zealand for a holiday and you have kids with you, Rainbow’s End would be a great place to while away a few hours, as it’s close to Auckland International Airport and many New Zealand campervan rental depots. It could be a nice treat for the kids on your last day.

It’s definitely improved since my first visit. I can only say that I was disappointed that first time. I mean I’d grown up in England, the land of Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Legoland. I’d also, at the age of seven, been to all the big theme parks in Florida, so, to me, New Zealand’s Rainbow’s End was laughably tame.

rainbow's end 019Rainbow’s End is a very small theme park, full of happy colours that would be sickeningly bright if it weren’t for the dirt, moss and rust. Its main attraction is the Fearfall, which is actually rather good. You get taken eighteen stories up the side of a tower, your feet dangling in the open air. If you’re scared of height’s, you’ll hate it, but if not you’ll find yourself with a rather pleasant view before being dropped.

When I went that first time, the only other “big” ride was a short and not-very-corkscrewy corkscrew rollercoaster. At least now they’ve got the Power Surge, which I used to love, but these days, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, makes me too sick, and the Invader, which is thrilling without being terrifying or stomach-turned-upside-down nauseating.

There are some quite good “small” rides, rides that you can take little kids on and still enjoy yourself, which seem to be the solid theme park staples: the Pirate Ship, the Log Flume and the Gold Rush. The Log Flume and the Gold Rush were actually my favourite rides the last time I went, which was a few months ago with my boyfriend’s nieces, both of whom were around six years old.

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The Log Flume has an “enchanted forest” theme, with dancing elves and the like, and an almost scary drop at the end. The Gold Rush, fairly obviously, is one of those “old, abandoned mine” rides. It’s good fun, just watch out when you get to the end – the final brake is very sudden and you can hurt yourself, which I did.

rainbow's end 009Always a favourite are the Bumper Boats. I refuse to go on them unless it’s a sunny day, though, because you get a very wet bottom. Last time, I just stood on the bridge that goes over the ride and shouted encouragement to my boyfriend’s niece to ram him with her boat.

For younger children, there’s a section of the park called Kidz Kingdom. It’s really sweet and has in it the sorts of rides that are far too tiny for adults. The good thing is it doesn’t cost as much to enter Rainbow’s End if you’re only going to be staying in that bit, but I’m quite disappointed they got rid of the dragon ride that went around the castle walls.

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So here’s my advice for your New Zealand holiday: if you have children with you, Rainbow’s End would be a good day out, but if you don’t then you’re better off pursuing New Zealand’s many other non-theme park thrill seeking opportunities.