New Zealand is a beautiful country, home to a population of 5 million people and 26.7 million sheep. Traveling with a wheelchair means extra care and time to make it work, but there are still plenty of choices on your New Zealand North Island road trip to make it the best it can be.
For a New Zealand North Island adventure, begin at the Auckland Airport International Airport. Auckland is known as the City of Sails due to its iconic location locked in by the Hauraki Gulf and the Tasman Sea. Its access to water is a highlight of the city, particularly the Viaduct Harbour. Before arrival, plan your transportation and know how to get around.
From the Auckland International Airport, two coastal highways offer two unique routes that travel New Zealand’s North Island. Though hugely diverse in feel, the highways may sometimes be no more than a ten-minute drive from one another. At the very tip of New Zealand, the highways merge, with State Highway 1 extending to Cape Reinga.
Many who decide to travel to the sacred lands of the Māori people at Cape Reinga and the Bay of Islands, located on the tip of the North Island, often think they can travel the whole journey in a single day, but it’s far too long. Cape Reinga is the northwesternmost tip of the Aupouri Peninsula, at the northernmost end of New Zealand’s North Island. The closest town of Kaitaia is more than 100km away. The famous landmark sits at the tip of the Te Paki Recreation Reserve. A highly significant area to the Māori, marking the point from which Māori wairua (spirit) return to their traditional homeland.
Traveling from harbour to harbour today is very different from how the earliest inhabitants navigated the harbours and rivers, including carrying their waka (canoe) overland. Today, travellers use Google to drive from point A to point B.
This 1-2 week Triple Harbours Route is perfect for self-drivers and boasts accessible opportunities and activities along the way unique to New Zealand. Explore Aotearoa’s largest harbours, the Kaipara and the Manukau, that are open to the Tasman Sea. Look out across New Zealand’s busiest harbour, the Waitematā, which connects to the Pacific Ocean. Traverse Auckland’s northwest in one journey and enjoy stunning views of all three harbours.
Make your way from the Auckland International Airport to the suburb of Titirangi, the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges which means “fringe of heaven” in Te Reo Māori. Titirangi is a village well worth exploring, surrounded by spectacular scenery and nature. Titirangi is a bohemian community with many boutique shops, like Gecko in the Village, and beautiful little bays that make for the first stop on your journey. Stop for a cuppa or meal, and discover views in historic McCahon House or the inspiring Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Art Gallery, which has free entry and wheelchair access.
Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery is a regional art gallery locally rooted in West Auckland but globally minded. They have a distinctive West Auckland focus but a national and international perspective. Through various programs, they create a world stage for art that is relevant for all audiences, to put local art, artists, and ideas in conversation and context with national and international developments in contemporary practice. They present a diverse program of contemporary exhibitions, events, and activities, including art, craft, and design, to reflect and strengthen the full diversity of cultural identities, interests, and potential of the local community.
Hardware Café is accessible with delicious food menu items and pressed coffee. The Titirangi toast is an absolute must. The cafe has a wheelchair friendly, accessible toilet and plenty of outside seating, making for easy maneuverability. Another tasty option if hungry in Titirangi is the Stripe Cafe.
Huia, Cornwallis, and Whatipu Beach
These three beach areas are a gateway to the Waitakere Ranges. If you’re up for an adventure and unafraid of gravel roads, then Whatipu Beach with its caves and dunes is a must-see. Enjoy a swim or relax at Cornwallis Beach. Explore Huia and the Settlers Museum. Huia is very flat and wheelchair friendly, so it’s highly recommended you visit.
Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
The Waitakere Ranges Regional Park encompasses approximately 17,000 hectares of lush rainforest, waterfalls, and rugged coastline. It’s suggested you stay overnight in this beautiful area as it is the perfect place to rest after an international flight and jet lag. For example, the Kaurilands Estate is a gorgeous holiday home with an accessible bathroom, bedroom, and spaces throughout the house.
The Arataki Visitor Centre is an inspiring gateway to the Waitākere Ranges. It offers spectacular views across Auckland with wheelchair friendly walkways and is a great source of local knowledge. When planning a wheelchair adventure in the ranges, please speak with staff for the latest updates either by telephone at 09-892-4777 or in person. The Arataki Nature Trail has a firm, metal surface making it accessible.
Beveridge Track is a one-way hiking trail that takes about 15 minutes. The track begins at the Arataki Visitor Centre and travels along a mountain ridge with spectacular views of Auckland City and out to the Manukau. This first section is an easy track and wheelchair accessible, allowing everyone access to the Waitakere forest. After this point, the trail has a sharp, steep section before Exhibition Drive on route to Mackies Rest where the trail ends.
Piha Beach and Karekare Beach are two lovely areas close to one another. No trip to this part of the world is complete without a wheelchair hike to Kitekite Falls or chips and salsa on the balcony at the Piha Surf Club. Piha Surf Club is accessible by ramp, including getting to the balcony and dining at the restaurant overlooking the beach. The hiking track to Kitekite Falls is close to Piha and also barrier-free and accessible, but come prepared to hike with plenty of drinking water. It is not so remote that you won’t pass a visitor but let someone know you are going there before your departure.
Lavender Hill Farm is an exclusive bed-&-breakfast situated on a lavender farm with olive and lemon groves. The accommodation is accessible by wheelchair, with grab-bar rails for the toilet and shower in the bathroom. Farm tours are also available and require off-roading with a wheelchair to navigate the groves and feed the alpacas. The Lavender Hill Farm is the place to buy a bottle of their beautiful limoncello, olive oils, or farm-made lavender products.
Muriwai Beach is a mecca for surfers, and a long stretch of volcanic-sand coastline with rugged, dramatic volcanic views of Auckland’s West Coast. The beach is home to a large busy gannet colony that moves into the area from August to March for breeding. The colony is located at the southern end of Muriwai Beach at Otakamiro Point. The colony consists of about 1200 gannet birds, attracting visitors from all over to watch their comings and goings. They are very entertaining and a natural marvel. Their nests are only centimetres apart from one another and full-size birds have a wingspan of two metres.
The access to the track is next to the car park. At the start, the track is easy-going on hard compact soil, but some steeper points occur along the trail. Assistance will be required if travelling with a manual wheelchair, but it’s well worth the effort. Tracking with a power wheelchair is ideal. There are magnificent views of the beach, surfers, and crashing waves. You will come across information posts about the area and the gannets along the way. The Gannet colony itself is a one-hour drive from Central Auckland. You will find free parking when you take a right turn off Waitea Road (toilets with wheelchair access can be found here). There are some fantastic views of the beach from the car park with two designated mobility parks.
After seeing the colony and the incredible cliffs, drive down to the main road and visit the Sand Dunz Cafe. The cafe has easy access parking, drop curbs, and an easy wide access into the cafe itself. With plenty of outside seating, you’ll be sure to navigate this place well to enjoy a hot coffee and a yummy treat.
Now you have done the beaches, did you know you are in wine country? Head back towards Kumeu and you will be wallowing in grapes. With some of the best vintages planted here, there are lots of little family vineyards that are modestly bottling some of the world’s best wines. Kumeu River produces one of the most well-known Chardonnay varietals from the Brajkovich family.
The Brajkovich family and Kumeu River Wines is a story that parallels the New Zealand wine industry. From the pioneering days to the establishment of the New Zealand wine industry to today, the Brajkovich family has been internationally recognized as producing world-class wine. The Brajkovichs are focused on and internationally recognised as producing world-class Chardonnay.
Keep your eyes peeled for a small rest area on the Kaipara Harbour Highway. The views of the harbour and its rural catchment are spectacular! (Tip: it’s easier to turn into the rest area when driving north.)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Looking back, it would have been easier with an all-terrain wheelchair. But there is nothing like checking out track suitability with a ’tilt-in-space’ heavy wheelchair with castor wheels to contend with. Many tracks will be described as wheelchair accessible but can take a bit of grunt to negotiate. It also depends very much on track maintenance. Just before we visited there had been a great deal of heavy rainfall leaving the track affected by water run-off in some areas. To get a closer look at the gannets you will come across steps that will take you down to other vantage points. It is possible to enjoy a good view of the colony before you come up against the steps. Just good to know about them so you aren’t disappointed that your access comes to an end if you are reliant on wheels.
Hunua Ranges Regional Park
The Hunua Ranges Regional Park has wheelchair access to waterfalls and is also home to one of New Zealand’s rarest birds, the Kokako, as well as a refuge for the native Hochstetter’s frog. While most of the Hunua Ranges are open to experienced trampers only, two key areas provide plenty of tracks, views, and activities suitable for all.
The first of these is in the west of the ranges and includes the popular Hunua Falls and Wairoa Reservoir. The other takes in the south and central part of the ranges around the Mangatangi Reservoir and Magatawhiri Reservoir. There is plenty of space to park. The carpark is well maintained with a flat tarmac terrain and designated mobility parking. The public toilets to the side of the picnic area and carpark are clean, well-maintained, and spacious. When travelling off the beaten track it is easy to find yourself with dirty tyres however the onsite sinks have brushes available to clean off shoes and equipment.
Once you leave your car behind you will find a bridge boardwalk through the bush taking you a short distance to view the Waterfall. The walk continues into a sheltered picnic area along a concrete path. Once at the water’s edge, it’s a wonderful view. In the summer months, this place is a very popular swimming spot amongst locals. However, it also poses dangers if you get too close to the force of the Falls. You will find floatation aides on hand if you come into difficulties.
Hunua Falls Track (20 minutes, one-way)
Before entering the Hunua Falls Walk you have to enter through the “Cleaning Station” to clean your footwear or wheels to limit the spread of Kauri Die-Back disease to the native forest.
Once through the Cleaning Station, you come to a bridge that takes you over the river flowing down from the waterfall. You get another view of the Hunua Falls downstream here. Unfortunately, just as you reach the other side there is a step to negotiate. Just before the trail reaches the falls you come across more steps.
Rainbow Falls Walk Keri Keri (10 minutes, one-way)
To reach the Keri Keri Rainbow Falls Walk, drive from the Keri Keri township and head northeast to the Heritage Bypass, then turn left into Waipapa Road. Rainbow Falls Road is on the left of Waipapa Road. Access to the Rainbow Falls Walk is from the parking area at the end of Rainbow Falls Road
You will find plenty of areas to park but nothing is specifically marked for mobility parking. The carpark is flat and well maintained with toilets at the beginning of the track although not wheelchair accessible.
From the beginning of the track, you will find a mixture of paved and wooden paths leading you to each viewing point. The first viewpoint will take you two minutes to reach, then four minutes to the second viewpoint, and then five minutes to the third. The seating here at the first viewing point provides a great chance to sit down and enjoy some lunch as you take in the beautiful views of the waterfall. The track then continues onto the second viewing point and continues to be paved, flat, and easy to wheel and walk along. The paved and flat trail then continues onto the third and last viewing point. There is a small lip to navigate on the way a few centimeters off the ground. The view is from the top of the Rainbow Falls as the river begins its fall to the bottom and has a bit of history and culture attached to it.
To reach the Hunua Ranges is a one-hour drive from Auckland CBD south on State Highway 1 (SH1) off the Papakura exit. Follow Beach Road across the Great South Road and along Settlement Road. Turn right by Edmund Hilary School onto Hunua Road. Follow Hunua Road through the Hunua Gorge. Just before entering Hunua Village, turn left into White Road, then right into Falls Road, and follow this road to the Hunua Falls carpark. The park itself features bush-clad ranges with streams, waterfalls and magnificent views, tramping tracks, and mountain biking.
More Beach Access on New Zealand’s North Island
- Tauranga’s Pilot Bay Beach has beach mats available for wheelchair use, alongside the Cenotaph and Cutter’s Cove. The Hibiscus Surf Club is located on the wheelchair friendly boardwalk spanning the main beach and operates wheelchair rental alongside the Papmoa Surf Club. Crowned by TripAdvisor as the ‘Best beach in New Zealand’ Mt Maunganui is a must-do beach to explore.
- Whakatane, which is also located in the Bay of Plenty, have beach mat and beach wheelchairs available at the Whakatane Surf Life Saving Club on Ohope Beach. One of New Zealand’s most loved beaches, Ohope Beach offers 11kms of uninterrupted, white, Pacific beach sand only a few kilometres away from Whakatane. The beach is one of the safest surf beaches in New Zealand.
- Wellington’s Days Bay Beach has beach mats available including Lower Hutt who also have beach wheelchairs. You can pick up a Hippocampe Beach Wheelchair with balloon tires from Freyberg Pool. They also offer a ‘free to hire’ service for other mobility devices. Both beaches are very quaint and perfect for enjoying a quiet moment soaking in the views.
- Beach Wheelchair Rentals: Whangarei Tutukaka Surf is a shop to experience on Marina Road and Ruakaka Surf Club both offer beach wheelchairs that can be loaned for a small deposit.
- Coromandel’s Hot Water Beach is another must-do destination when you travel to New Zealand, loved by locals and visitors alike. Hot water beach is located along the coast of Mercury Bay between Tairua and Whitianga. To access and enjoy the hot bubbling water you have to be there within two hours on either side of low tide. This is a very unique experience worth doing at least once in your life. There is one mobility park next to the outdoor showers and toilets. A café and souvenir shop are also close by with ‘spade hire’ service in hot demand. Spade Hire Cost at this shop is a small fee, plus a small deposit cost.
We followed the pavement to the right of the mobility park to find the main, step-free access onto the beach. It was signposted ’emergency access’ but was the easiest route to tackle before the river crossing. We found the sand quite soft from all the foot traffic. It was also a wet, rainy day, which didn’t make things easier. We headed straight towards the foreshore where the sand was firmer and easier to wheel along. We were advised to dig for hot water where the sand felt warm under the feet close to the sea. As you drive down the hill to Coromandel's Hot Water Beach, before the bridge on the left-hand side, there is a large gravel carpark. This is where the camper vans seem to park. No marked mobility parking spots, but the terrain is flat. Along from the carpark is the track that starts following the main road and then leads you into the bush, following the river. This trail will take you right to the beach and closer to where the action is. The only downside to this area is there's no shower, but the local Top 10 Holiday Park has facilities and is located around the corner. At the beginning of the track, there is a marked ‘accessible’ toilet, which I didn’t take the time to check out. This route took only 5-minutes. There was also a lot of rainfall in the area, but the track was in reasonably good condition.