Waiheke Walking Festival Director Denise Whitfield shakes her head. It’s just a few days since the launch of this year’s programme and more than half the walks are ‘sold’ out.

Many bookings come from previous attendees; attendees, organisers and patrons, become like a family, Denise says. This year she received an email from an Australian couple who apologised that they would not be in attendance because they are expecting a new grandchild. “But they promise they will be back again next year.”

Omaru Bay - No matter which walk you join, spectacular views are assured

The Waiheke Walking Festival was launched as a weekend of walking in 2010, the brainchild of Auckland City Council parks officer, Gary Wilton. Gary worked with the original festival co-ordinator Jenness Reeve to deliver a series of walks that would showcase the island’s network of spectacular walkways. The first festival comprised 10 walks. It now offers 50.

At first the festival was supported by funding from Auckland City’s tourism promotion budget, but this was always seen as an interim measure to establish the programme, and to gauge interest from the public. The Hauraki Gulf Conservation Trust took over governance in 2013 and Denise, whose background is management in the health sector, was engaged to deliver the project.

Denise said it was an enormous undertaking which would not be possible but for the incredible support of the community. “Nobody says, no,” she says. “It could not happen without the support of the landowners, the volunteers and the businesses. I would say that receiving this type of community support is rare. It’s a wonderful festival to be a part of. What keeps me going is the non-monetary rewards: all of the happy smiling people. Everyone is just so happy and excited.”

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Denise says there is a prevailing spirit of generosity, shown, for example, by vineyards when she approaches them to see if they will offer the walkers a good deal, and by the volunteers who turn out in droves to help. But she also pays a huge tribute to the newly formed trust which took over the festival ownership earlier this year.

The Waiheke Walking Trust proposed a patron’s programme, and the support for this, Denise says, has been really humbling. Waiheke is home to some well-known identities. The majority of them fly under the radar and live very private lives for much of the time, but they are more than happy to offer their support to causes which celebrate their island home.

Sir Graham Henry is a festival patron and keen walker who sets a mean pace

Among these quiet benefactors are Sir Graham and Lady Henry, Waiheke residents, festival ambassadors, and also keen walkers, who will this year host the Church Bay Celebrity Walk. This walk will take in coastal vistas and native bush, and it will also take walkers past the spectacular homes of the rich and famous. In this vicinity, I once came across billionaire Graham Hart rounding up his sheep on the roadside; so you never know quite who you will encounter.

Many other well-known islanders have put their hands up to help. Walkers can be guided by fitness trainers, artists, archaeologists and award-winning photographers – depending on the walks they choose.

Festival walks cater for all ages

Some of the walks cross private land which would otherwise be inaccessible by the public. One such walk, Te Matuku Bay Indulgence is hosted by landowners and passionate conservationists Sir Rob and Lady Fenwick. The couple, whose oyster farm was recently featured on Country Calendar, will guide a circuitous walk through ancient forest. The walk culminates in an oyster tasting accompanied by wine from nearby Passage Rock Vineyard.

Festival goers are offered the opportunity to enjoy many unique experiences as they pass through other vineyards. One walk that is bound to be especially popular with wine lovers is the Onetangi Vineyard Valley Taste Sensation which begins at magnificent Onetangi Beach. It includes a tasting flight of sherry at Casita Miro, followed by wine tasting at Obsidian Vineyard and then on to Te Motu and Tantalus Estate.

Festival goers can join a final party at the spectacular private home of Mainfreight founder, Bruce Plested

Walks like these are made possible by the generosity of not only the landowners but also the presenting partners like Matthew Smith, the principal of Ray White Waiheke. Matthew, who will be leading this and two other walks, is no stranger to walking. He once walked from Waiheke to Queenstown.

New to the programme this year is Inner and Outer Two Day Exploration, hosted by Louise Marra, the project director for Leadership New Zealand. It promises to be a mini-Camino Trail which combines “the wonder of walking with the internal journey of deepening our lives”.

Waiheke Walking Festival Trustee John Gow

Another multiple-day journey is iWalk Waiheke: Te Ara Hura, a five-day, 100-kilometre adventure. Parks Officer Gary Wilton has been a key driver of Te Ara Hura. This initiative, which was officially launched in 2015, was inspired by Gary’s vision for a network of tracks across Waiheke which would eventually make the island an acclaimed walking destination. Te Ara Hura (the path of discovery) comprises more than 100km of tracks which form a loop around the island. Gary remains passionately involved in the festival and each year takes annual leave so he can volunteer.

Many of the walks cross private land like Te Matuku Bay

All of the festival’s volunteers are invited to a wrap party at one of the island’s most extraordinary private estates, Rorohara, which is owned by Mainfreight co-founder, Bruce Plested. The Festival Finale takes place on the shores of magical Rorohara (Pie Melon Bay). There, festival goers, sponsors, patrons, supporters, guides, registered walkers and other landowners can wind down with music and refreshments. It’s a wonderful way to wind up this celebration of all that makes Waiheke special.

As we prepare to finish our interview, I am suddenly mindful of the staggering logistics and the hours of background work which make the festival such a success. I ask Denise what drives her to keep going. Without hesitation she replies, “I love that people love the festival. I love that everyone says ‘Yes!’ – that people are happy and smiling. What’s not to love?”

Walkers might encounter challenging conditions

Waiheke Island Walking Festival facts

The Festival is held at locations all over Waiheke Island during November each year

  •  Walks are free but extras like bus transport, meals or wine tastings are charged
  • Walks are graded – easy, medium and hard
  • Fullers Ferries offer walkers a 10% discount
  •  Waiheke is blessed with accommodation to suit all budgets – staywaiheke.com
  •  Waiheke Local Board has created and maintains an incredible network of walking tracks
  • All walks must be booked
  • Donations are welcome
  •  Festival Friends receive updates and free entry to the wrap party
  • For more information – waihekewalkingfestival.org

Waiheke Island Festival Walk sampler

There’s always something on offer for everyone who loves to walk. Kids are catered for with eel walks, penguin walks, treasure hunts, and grand peeks at the night sky. History, photography, conservation and wine are all encompassed, as are walks for most levels of fitness. There is also rock hopping and Nordic walking – with tuition. And if you like the more sedate with art or architecture thrown in, that’s on offer too – as is walking accompanied by award-winning photographers.