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.

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10 Totally Awesome New Zealand Holiday Tips

New Zealand has so many great places to visit. I’ve written about a lot of them, here and on other websites. Lately, though, people have been asking me for some more general New Zealand holiday tips. So here they are.

1) Wear sunscreen.

Seriously, even if you think you won’t get sunburnt, you will. Hole in the ozone layer and all that. People have come to New Zealand from Sub-Saharan Africa and got sunburnt.

2) Swim between the flags.

The sea around New Zealand is dangerous, with strong currents that drag you under even when the waves are small. Don’t ignore the Surf Life Saving warnings, and don’t try to swim when the flags aren’t out.

yelloweyedpenguin3) Respect the nature.

New Zealand is an island nation with a delicate ecosystem. So many of its native plant and animal species are endangered. Think carefully about what you bring into New Zealand, resist the temptation to take natural “souvenirs” and try not to kill anything.

4) Be careful with your money.

New Zealand’s more expensive than people think. Some of the tourist attractions are extortionate, but you’ll be shocked by food and fuel prices too. If you’re on a tight budget, New Zealand’s the perfect country for couchsurfing, what with Kiwis being so friendly and laidback. To save money on food, shop at supermarkets and Asian grocery stores, but be prepared for shops to be closed on Saturday afternoons, Sundays and public holidays, especially in more rural areas.

5) Learn the road rules.

Warning SheepPublic transport here isn’t the best. No wonder so many tourists see little choice but to hire a car in New Zealand. The most important rule to remember is to DRIVE ON THE LEFT. (That did need to be in capitals. A surprising number of tourists forget this with occasionally fatal consequences.) When you’re driving in New Zealand, you also need to keep in mind that the country is bigger than you think, and full of hills and windy roads. The speed limits are probably lower than you’re used to as well. It’s easy to underestimate journey times.

6) Hire a campervan.

If you can afford it, this is easily the most convenient way to travel around New Zealand. You can hire campervans cheaply in New Zealand, especially in winter.

7) Don’t rely on your mobile phone.

When you’re travelling around New Zealand, you’ll enter some pretty remote areas and find yourself without a signal. Even the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, for example, which is on the edge of New Zealand’s largest city, has very limited mobile coverage. Always tell someone where you’re going before you trek off into the wilderness.

8) Decide what kind of holiday you want before you come.

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Lake Tekapo, a point in favour of the South Island

The North Island is very different from the South Island, and you shouldn’t try to do both unless you’ve got at least a month to spare. Basically, the North Island has beaches and volcanoes; the South Island has glaciers and mountains. I go into more detail in The North Island vs. the South Island on Not Australia.

9) Beware Kiwi-isms.

New Zealand is an English-speaking country, but some of the vernacular may catch you out. Take, for example, the seemingly innocuous ‘yeah-nah’. When a Kiwi says this it can be, as a friend of mine put it, “affirmative, negative, or neither, or both.” Listen carefully. For more Kiwi-isms, see 10 Silly Things Kiwis Say.

10) Don’t go to Huka Falls.

All the tour buses go there and all the tourist information sites tell you to go there. They’re New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction. But they’re not THAT great. There are better places to see in your limited time here. Less crowded places. Trust me.

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