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Nestled on the West Coast of Auckland, New Zealand, the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park stands as a captivating blend of natural beauty and cultural heritage. This national treasure is renowned for its rugged coastlines, smooth black-sand beaches like Piha and Muriwai, and the enchanting forests that house hidden waterfalls and sacred rainforests. The Waitakere Ranges paint a vivid picture of New Zealand’s diverse landscape, offering a serene escape for nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike.
Regrettably, many of the tracks and trails within the Waitakere Ranges remain closed today to combat the spread of Kauri dieback, a disease that threatens the native Kauri trees. It’s a clear reminder of the delicate balance of this ecosystem and the ongoing efforts to preserve it. You can learn more about Kauri dieback disease and protection here and stay updated on the open tracks.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the top attractions and activities in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, sharing we our own adventures and discoveries from exploring the Waitakere Ranges, taking you to places we’ve personally visited and loved.
Join us as we wander through local beaches like Karekare and Bethells, venture into the heart of the regional park, and discover hidden waterfalls that captivate the senses. From the iconic Lion Rock at Piha Beach to the lesser-known Karekare Falls, we’ll uncover the hidden gems that make this region so special. And of course, no visit to the Waitakere Ranges would be complete without experiencing the unique landscape of Muriwai Beach and its famed gannet colony. Let’s embark on this journey together, exploring the wonders that await in this remarkable corner of New Zealand.
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Hidden Gems of Waitakere Ranges
The Waitakere Ranges, located on Auckland’s west coast, are home to some of New Zealand’s most stunning natural attractions. With four renowned black-sand beaches – Karekare, Piha, Bethells, and Muriwai Beach – this region offers a unique coastal experience that’s perfect for families, adventurers, and nature lovers alike.
Waterfall enthusiasts will find about a dozen waterfalls within the regional park, but we’ll focus on two of the most family-friendly options in this guide – Karekare Falls and Kitekite Falls. These are ideal spots for those travelling with young children, offering accessible paths and picturesque settings.
If you prefer a more structured experience, guided tours with local experts are a fantastic way to explore the Waitakere Ranges. Joining a group tour can enhance your understanding of the area and provide a social and engaging way to discover all that this remarkable region has to offer.
For avid hikers, the Hillary Trail stands as one of the best multi-day hikes in the region. This 77km trail stretches from Arataki Visitor Centre to Muriwai, providing an immersive trek through diverse landscapes. Again, parts of the trail are currently closed due to Kauri dieback, but keep an eye out on the Council’s website for the reopening date of Hillary Trail.
Nonetheless, Waitakere Ranges still has many pockets of hidden gems like the family-friendly Cornwallis Beach & Wharf and Nihotupu Reservoir (Dam). These hidden gems in Waitakere Ranges provide a tranquil escape and a chance to connect with the local environment.
Top 15 Things To Do in Waitakere Ranges
1. Arataki Visitor Centre: Your Gateway to the Waitakere Ranges
When visitors set out to explore the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, the first port of call is usually the Arataki Visitor Centre. More than just an information hub, it’s the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges and a cultural experience in itself. Located just a short drive from Auckland’s city centre, it’s the perfect starting point for your adventure in the Ranges.
The centre is adorned with beautiful Maori carvings and artwork, offering a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of the area. Knowledgeable staff are on hand to share stories and insights into Maori traditions and the significance of the land.
Upon arriving at the Arataki Visitor Centre, you’ll be welcomed by the Golden Frame, an iconic feature prevalent in many of New Zealand’s regional parks. This frame, with the stunning Waitakere Ranges as a backdrop, offers a unique photo opportunity and symbolises a gateway to the untamed wilderness of the area.
Venture out onto the viewing decks, and you’ll be met with breathtaking views of the rainforest, a sight that encapsulates the very essence of New Zealand’s diverse landscape.
The Arataki Visitor Centre is the trailhead for several walking paths suitable for all ages and abilities. Whether you’re looking for a short nature walk or a more challenging hike, you’ll find well-marked trails that lead you into the heart of the forest.
Inside Arataki Visitor Centre, you’ll find interactive exhibits that provide valuable information about the local flora, fauna, and geology. Learn about the unique ecosystem of the Waitakere Ranges and the ongoing conservation efforts to protect it.
The centre also features an AV room on the ground floor that plays short films about the area. We found it to be a wonderful way to immerse ourselves in the local culture and environment.
Don’t forget to stop by the on-site shop, where you can pick up souvenirs, local crafts, and essential hiking supplies. The café offers a selection of refreshments, making it a pleasant spot to relax before or after your exploration. On a warm sunny day, we even treated ourselves to ice cream and browsed through the souvenirs.
In our opinion, the Arataki Visitor Centre is a point of interest on its own in the Waitakere Ranges. It’s more than just an information hub; it’s a cultural experience, an educational resource, and a gateway to the natural wonders that await.
2. Piha Beach & Lion Rock: Surf, Sand, and Sunset
A visit to Piha Beach is a must for anyone exploring the Waitakere Ranges. Famous for its dramatic black sand and powerful surf, Piha Beach is a haven for surfers and beach lovers. The iconic Lion Rock, standing tall and majestic, offers a moderate climb with breathtaking views of the coastline.
During the summer months, Piha Beach transforms into a bustling hub of activity, attracting thousands of tourists each day to its extraordinary black sand shores. It’s a hotspot for surfers, sunbathers, and families looking to enjoy the beach vibes.
The black sand at Piha Beach can get really hot on a sunny day. As we all know, black naturally absorbs heat, and that’s exactly what happens with the sand here. It soaks up the sun’s warmth and can feel quite toasty underfoot.
So if you’re heading to Piha, you might want to pack some flip-flops or a beach mat. That way, you can enjoy the beach without the hot-footed dance to the water’s edge!
Visitors often come to bask in the sun at Piha Beach, but the true highlight is the climb up Lion Rock. From the top, you can watch the waves crash below, a sight that captures the raw beauty of nature. If you’re fortunate enough to stay until sunset, the views over Piha Beach transform into a breathtaking spectacle.
Families looking for relaxation will find plenty of space to spread out on the expansive black sand beach. Building sandcastles, picnicking, or simply basking in the sun are perfect ways to enjoy a leisurely day. And don’t forget to stay for the breathtaking sunset, a magical end to a day at Piha Beach.
While at Piha, don’t miss the opportunity to indulge in some local flavours. You can try a refreshing raw fish salad or a delicious mussel fritter at The Murray. Alternatively, for a meal with a view, head over to the Piha Surf Club Restaurant. Whether you’re in the mood for fresh seafood or something else from their diverse menu, it’s a dining experience that complements the stunning surroundings.
3. Karekare Beach & Karekare Falls: A Family Favourite
Karekare Beach, just south of Piha, is a haven for surf enthusiasts, with roaring waves that attract the adventurous. Feel the smooth black sand between your toes, and take a leisurely stroll along the dunes, absorbing the natural beauty that surrounds you.
For families with children, Karekare Beach offers a special spot. A little lagoon, tucked away from the main beach, provides a safe and enjoyable area for kids to play and splash around. It’s a perfect setting for a family day out, where everyone can find their own piece of joy.
You can find our family vlog at Karekare Beach here.
Our family’s love for chasing waterfalls in New Zealand has led us to many hidden gems, and Karekare Falls holds a special place in our hearts. Located close to our first home, it’s been one of our favourite destinations for a day out exploring nature with our toddler.
Karekare waterfall, though small, is a charming spot just a 10-minute easy walk from the car park. If you’re venturing with little ones, a baby carrier might come in handy to explore this hidden treasure. The waterfall’s shallow pool is a great place for a refreshing dip on a warm day.
You can find our family vlog at Karekare Falls here.
4. Muriwai Beach & Gannet Colony: A New Zealand Marvel
Muriwai Beach, with its dramatic cliffs and distinctive black sand, is a standout attraction on the North Island. During the summer months, Muriwai Beach becomes a popular spot, attracting both locals and tourists. This surge in visitors can sometimes make parking a challenge.
The rugged beauty of Muriwai’s coastline is not only a visual treat but there’s also a diverse array of activities and tours you can try at Muriwai. If you’re keen to ride the waves at Muriwai Beach, don’t miss the opportunity to learn from the best with highly qualified coaches at Muriwai Surf School. Whether you’re a beginner or looking to sharpen your skills, this experience promises a thrilling adventure on the water.
For those looking to explore the rugged coastline in a unique way, Muriwai Beach Horse Riding offers an unforgettable experience for older children and adults. Suitable for riders of varying skill levels, these guided tours take you along the beach and through nearby forest trails, providing a different perspective of the area’s natural beauty.
If your family seeks a touch of adventure, parasailing at Muriwai Beach provides an exhilarating experience. Glide over the shimmering waters and enjoy panoramic views of the coastline. It’s an activity that’s bound to create lasting memories.
But what truly sets Muriwai apart from the other attractions is the Muriwai Gannet Colony.
Muriwai Gannet Colony holds a special place as one of our family’s top spots on New Zealand’s North Island. Observing the gannets in their natural habitat, perched on the clifftops, feels as if you’ve stepped right into a scene from a David Attenborough documentary. Their daily routines, framed by the postcardesque backdrop, offer a mesmerising spectacle that evokes the narratives of Sir David Attenborough himself.
For those planning a visit, we suggest timing it during the mating season, which spans from August to March. On one of our visits in January, we were fortunate to spot baby gannets. It was a rare and special moment that our kids absolutely adored.
They also spotted baby birds dying, which provided a valuable lesson on nature’s way of ensuring only the strongest survive. It was an eye-opening experience, teaching them about the realities of life in the wild in an educational manner.
You can catch a glimpse of baby Gannet birds in our family vlog here (00:53:00)
For those seeking a more structured and informative exploration of Muriwai, this guided Eco tour to Muriwai Beach & Gannet Colony is a great way to enhance your visit to Waitakere Ranges and connect with the natural beauty of the region.
5. Bethells Beach & Sand Dunes: A Coastal Retreat
Nestled within the Waitakere Ranges, Bethells Beach, also known as Te Henga, presents a serene coastal escape, ideal for family picnics and tranquil strolls. The beach boasts a harmonious blend of sand dunes and intriguing rock formations, painting a picturesque scene of nature’s artistry.
During our trip to Bethells Beach, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll along its iron-rich black sands, with the soothing rhythm of the waves leading us all the way to the cave.
As you already know by now, the West Coast is renowned for its velvety black sands, and Bethells Beach is no exception. As you tread along, keep an eye out for native birds gracing the shoreline. And remember to respect the natural habitat, especially the fenced areas, which are often nesting grounds for these birds.
When you’re near the cave, keep an eye on those tides – they can sneak up on you pretty quickly. Bethells Beach is a favourite spot for locals, perfect for exercise and walking the dog. And with patchy mobile signals around, it’s a great chance to unplug and soak in the natural beauty of the Waitakere Ranges.
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Adjacent to the beach, the expansive Bethells Beach Sand Dunes offers an exhilarating adventure for families. These majestic dunes, sculpted by wind and time, provide a natural playground to enjoy sandboarding or simply run and play.
The dunes’ golden sands contrast beautifully with the black beach, creating a unique landscape that’s both captivating and inviting. Whether you choose to climb to the top for panoramic views or slide down the slopes, the sand dunes at Bethells Beach add a touch of excitement to a peaceful day in the Waitakere Ranges.
6. Lake Wainamu: A Hidden Gem in the Waitakere Ranges
Nestled amidst the rolling hills and dense native bush of the Waitakere Ranges, Lake Wainamu is a tranquil oasis that offers a serene escape from the bustling city life. Often overlooked by tourists, this hidden gem is a favourite spot for locals seeking a peaceful retreat.
Access to Lake Wainamu begins with a scenic walk along the Bethells Beach sand dunes, a landscape that contrasts strikingly with the lush surroundings of the lake. The path meanders through native ferns and towering trees, leading you to the lake’s edge.
Upon reaching Lake Wainamu, you’ll be greeted by the calm waters reflecting the surrounding hills, a view that captures the very essence of New Zealand’s natural beauty. The lake’s shores are perfect for a leisurely picnic, and the gentle waters invite you for a refreshing swim.
For the more adventurous, a trail circles the lake, offering a moderate hike that showcases the diverse flora and fauna of the area. Along the way, you’ll encounter Wainamu Falls, a charming waterfall that adds to the lake’s allure.
Inside the nearby Wainamu Bush Camp, you’ll find facilities and information about the local ecosystem, as well as guided tours that provide deeper insights into the cultural significance of the land. The camp serves as a base for exploration, with well-marked trails that guide you through the wilderness.
7. Kitekite Falls: A Rainforest Gem with a Cautionary Tale
Kitekite Falls, once a popular destination for nature enthusiasts, is now closed due to Kauri dieback disease and cyclone damage. While its current status may be closed, do check the council’s website for the latest updates and reopening date.
During our trip to Kitekite Falls, a stringent shoe-cleaning protocol was implemented to combat the Kauri dieback disease. We ensured we stayed on the path as we ventured into the lush rainforest. On a clear day, a brief 25-minute stroll through the verdant rainforest will lead you to the tranquil Kitekite Falls.
However, on the rainy day of our visit, the hike felt a bit longer than usual, especially with a fussy toddler who wasn’t keen on being bundled up. The final steps leading to the falls were somewhat slippery, but the journey was rewarding, particularly as it was one of the last before the trail’s closure.
8. Fairy Falls: An Escape Amidst Nature
Fairy Falls, tucked away in the verdant embrace of the Waitakere Ranges, offers an enchanting experience for nature enthusiasts and casual explorers alike. This charming waterfall, hidden within the dense forest, is a peaceful retreat from the everyday hustle and bustle.
The trail leading to Fairy Falls is a delightful adventure in itself. As you meander through the lush woodland, the sound of trickling water guides you towards the falls. The path is accessible to walkers of various skill levels, making it a family-friendly excursion.
Upon reaching Fairy Falls, you’re greeted by the gentle cascade of water flowing over a series of terraced rocks. The shimmering pool at the base of the falls invites you to pause and soak in the serene surroundings. The play of sunlight through the canopy above adds a magical touch to the scene.
Photographers will find endless inspiration at Fairy Falls, with opportunities to capture the delicate interplay of light, water, and foliage. Each angle offers a fresh perspective on this natural wonder.
Nearby Fairy Falls, you’ll find picnic spots where you can enjoy a leisurely meal amidst the sounds and sights of the forest. It’s a perfect place to relax, reflect, and appreciate the simple joys of nature.
As with all the trails mentioned above, be sure to check the council’s website for updates as some paths in the Waitakere Ranges may still be closed.
9. Cornwallis Wharf: A Local’s Favourite
Tucked away in the scenic Waitakere Ranges, Cornwallis Wharf offers a tranquil retreat for families and nature enthusiasts. This hidden gem is a picturesque spot that captures the essence of coastal New Zealand.
Cornwallis is renowned for its sheltered beach, where the calm water creates an ideal environment for children to play and explore. The gentle waves lap against the shore, providing a soothing backdrop for a relaxing day by the sea.
The wharf itself is a popular spot for fishing, where locals and visitors alike can cast a line and enjoy the simple pleasure of waiting for a catch. Whether you’re an experienced angler or trying your hand at fishing for the first time, the wharf offers an opportunity to connect with nature in a way that’s both rewarding and enjoyable.
Adjacent to the wharf, you’ll find ample space for a family picnic. Spread out a blanket, unpack your favourite treats, and savour the fresh sea breeze as you dine al fresco. The nearby trees provide shade, adding to the comfort of this idyllic setting. You can get a feel of Cornwallis in our family vlog here.
For those looking to explore further, a walk along the beach reveals hidden coves and rock pools, each one a small wonder waiting to be discovered. The natural beauty of Cornwallis is subtle yet captivating, offering a glimpse into the coastal charm of the Waitakere Ranges.
10. Upper & Lower Nihotupu Reservoir: Auckland’s Water Source
The Upper and Lower Nihotupu Reservoirs are integral parts of Auckland’s water supply system, but they are also much more than that. Nestled within the lush landscapes of the Waitakere Ranges, these reservoirs offer a picturesque setting for a day of exploration and relaxation.
Upper Nihotupu Reservoir is the largest reservoir in the Waitakere Ranges. It is a place of both natural beauty and educational discovery. Nestled within native forests, including majestic kauri, totara, and rimu trees, it offers a tranquil environment that invites exploration.
A network of walking tracks, such as the Upper Nihotupu Dam Track and the Waitakere Ranges Farm Park Track, weave through the forest, providing opportunities for leisurely strolls and more adventurous hikes. Along these paths, you will encounter informative signs that detail the history, engineering, and significance of the reservoir.
These signs serve as guides, leading you on a journey that unveils the reservoir’s role in Auckland’s water supply system. They provide insights into the engineering marvels that harness the natural water flow and the reservoir’s importance in sustaining the city.
Lower Nihotupu Reservoir is the smaller of the two reservoirs in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. The calm waters of the Lower Nihotupu Reservoir are a great place to fish for trout, perch, and eels. At the southern tip of the reservoir, there is a good swimming spot that is a locals’ favourite.
There are a number of picnic tables and barbecues located around the shore. The nearby dam is a great place to learn about how water is stored and managed. There is a walkway that goes around the dam, and beyond recreation, the pathway encircling the dam is equipped with informative displays, explaining the dam’s construction, its role in water storage, and the importance of water management in the region.
Both the Upper and Lower Nihotupu Reservoirs are thriving habitats for various bird species, making them excellent locations for spotting native birds.
Last but not least, photographers will find inspiration in the landscapes of the Upper and Lower Nihotupu Reservoirs, where the interplay of light, water, and foliage paints a vivid picture of New Zealand’s natural beauty.
11. Whatipu Scientific Reserve: A Haven for Bird Watchers
When it comes to embracing the natural world, few activities are as rewarding and calming as bird watching. Whatipu Scientific Reserve, located in the heart of the Waitakere Ranges, offers an unparalleled opportunity to explore the diverse birdlife that calls this protected area home.
As you venture into the reserve, armed with binoculars and a sense of curiosity, you’ll find yourself immersed in a world of avian wonders. From the melodious song of the native Tui to the graceful flight of the Kererū, the birdlife here is both varied and vibrant.
The well-maintained trails guide you through different habitats, each providing a unique glimpse into the lives of the birds that inhabit them. Wetlands, forests, and coastal areas come together to create a rich tapestry of ecosystems, each with its own distinct bird species.
Educational signs along the way offer insights into the birds you might encounter, making this not only a peaceful activity but an educational one as well. Families, nature enthusiasts, and seasoned bird watchers alike will find joy in discovering the hidden treasures of Whatipu Scientific Reserve.
Whether you’re capturing photographs, sketching in a nature journal, or simply enjoying the tranquillity of the surroundings, bird watching at Whatipu Scientific Reserve fosters a love for nature and a connection to the land.
12. Crystal Mountain
Crystal Mountain, nestled in the scenic Waitakere Ranges of West Auckland, is a destination that captivates visitors with its blend of natural beauty and engaging activities. With an impressive collection of crystals, minerals, and gemstones, the Crystal Gallery is a place where the geological wonders of the world are on display. It’s not just about the rocks; the Animal Park offers families the chance to interact with friendly creatures like ponies, goats, and alpacas.
For those fascinated by prehistoric creatures, Dinosaur Gully provides an educational experience with life-sized replicas. The adventure continues in the Crystal Mine, where visitors can don a hard hat and pick to search for their own gemstones. After a day of exploration, the retail shop offers a wide range of souvenirs, and the on-site café provides a relaxing spot to enjoy a meal.
13. Kiwi Valley Farm Park
Located only a short drive from the edge of the Waitakere Ranges, Kiwi Valley Farm Park is an idyllic escape that offers a genuine farm experience for visitors of all ages. This family-owned and operated farm is dedicated to providing a hands-on and engaging environment where visitors can connect with the rural lifestyle.
Upon entering the farm, you are greeted by a variety of farm animals, including sheep, goats, chickens, and the ever-popular alpacas. Kids are encouraged to feed and pet the animals, making it a wonderful experience for children.
The pony rides at the farm are a special memory for our family. We celebrated our toddler’s 2nd birthday there, and it was her first pony ride. The experience was truly memorable, and it ignited a love for horses that she continues to embrace even today.
14. Guided Family Tours: Adventure with Education
Joining a guided family tour in the Waitakere Ranges is an opportunity to create lasting memories and engage in a shared learning experience. These tours are usually thoughtfully designed to cater to all ages, ensuring that every member of the family finds something to enjoy.
One aspect of guided tours that sets them apart from experiencing the area on your own is the knowledgeable guides. They will lead you through well-chosen trails, pausing to point out interesting flora and fauna, and sharing engaging tales that bring the landscape to life. They’ll also share fascinating stories and lead interactive activities that educate and entertain.
The guided family tours are an immersive experience that combines outdoor adventure with education. Whether you’re spotting native wildlife, learning about traditional Maori legends, or simply enjoying the fresh air and beautiful scenery, tours such as this one offer a unique way to explore the Waitakere Ranges together as a family.
15. Scenic Drive: A Journey Through Waitakere Ranges
Last but not least, a scenic drive through the Waitakere Ranges is an excellent way to see nature’s grandeur unfold. This journey, filled with lush landscapes, breathtaking views, and cultural significance, makes a great day trip from Auckland.
Your adventure begins at the Arataki Visitor Centre, the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges. Here, you can learn about the area’s rich history and culture, and enjoy panoramic views from the observation deck.
As you continue your drive, you’ll come across the Waitakere Dam, an engineering marvel set amidst native forest. It’s a perfect spot for a leisurely walk, offering picturesque views of the dam and the valley below.
Next, make a detour to Piha Beach. This black sand beach, known for its rugged coastline, is a favourite spot for surfers and nature enthusiasts alike.
Along the way, don’t miss the various Lookouts, such as Karekare Lookout, Lion Rock Lookout and West Coast Rd Lookout. Each provides a unique perspective of the Waitakere Ranges and offers sweeping views of the surrounding landscapes.
If time permits, enjoy a picnic, or take a stroll along the shore of Karekare Beach and Bethells Beach to take in their wild beauty and dramatic cliffs.
Waitakere Ranges Accommodation
Waitakere Ranges is so vast that you may consider staying overnight or even a couple of nights so you can take your time to explore this beautiful regional park. Whether you’re travelling with family, as a couple, or on a solo adventure, there are accommodation options to suit every need and preference.
Holiday Homes: If you’re seeking a unique and personal experience, we highly recommend browsing through the holiday homes available. Staying in a holiday home allows you to immerse yourself in the local environment and enjoy the comforts of a home away from home.
Bed and Breakfasts: For a more intimate and personalised stay, consider one of the charming bed and breakfasts in the area. Enjoy warm hospitality, home-cooked meals, and the opportunity to interact with local hosts who can share insights into the best spots to explore in the Waitakere Ranges.
Camping and Caravan Parks: If you’re an outdoor enthusiast looking to connect with nature, camping in the Waitakere Ranges can be a memorable experience. There are designated camping sites and caravan parks that offer basic facilities and stunning views of the natural surroundings.
Hotels and Lodges: For those who prefer the amenities and services of a hotel, there are many options available in the vicinity of the Waitakere Ranges. From boutique lodges to family-friendly hotels, there’s something for everyone.
Choosing the right place to stay in the Waitakere Ranges can enhance your travel experience, providing comfort, convenience, and a touch of local flavour. Whether you opt for a holiday home, hotel, or a more adventurous option, the accommodations in the Waitakere Ranges promise a restful retreat after a day of exploration.
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End of the Trail
Our journey through Waitakere Ranges has been a delightful blend of exploration and relaxation. From the educational experience at Arataki Visitor Centre to the natural beauty of Muriwai Beach, each stop has offered something special for the entire family.
Whether it’s the thrill of climbing Lion Rock at Piha Beach or the serenity of a day at Cornwallis Wharf, Waitakere Ranges has provided a backdrop for unforgettable family memories. It’s a destination that invites adventure, fosters connection and leaves a lasting impression.
As we take our leave of Waitakere Ranges, the echoes of crashing waves and the vivid images of rugged landscapes linger in our minds. These unique attractions have not only provided joy and excitement but also a sense of connection with nature. The adventure may have ended for our family, but the allure of this beautiful region continues to resonate. May your own journey to Waitakere Ranges be filled with discovery and wonder.
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