(Barefoot in the black iron sands, buffeted by freezing wind and rain, I shot the sunset at Bethells Beach, West Auckland with my Huawei P9 Plus. Photo Courtesy of Kai Lenhberg).


On my last day in Auckland, I thought I’ve done everything – trekking, scenic touring by bus and Cessna plane, sailing, jet-boating, heli-hiking, food-tripping, visiting national parks, gardens, volcanoes, mountains, glaciers, geysers, hot beaches, spas, museums, malls and theaters.


I’ve had a grand adventure for over a month – 5 weeks to be exact – and resigned myself to an anti-climax.


But at the last minute, on impulse, I booked an 8-hour Laughing Chestnut Photowalk.



(Me, trekking at Cascade Kauri in the Waitakere Ranges. Photo Courtesy of Kai Lehnberg.)


I can always use more visuals, I thought. Maybe I can even discover a face of the city I haven’t explored.



(Me snapping photos on the nature walk with my P9 Plus. Photo courtesy of Kai Lehnberg.)


My guide, Kai Lenhberg, picked me up at my hostel.  With his blond hair tied back in a ponytail and that smile of easy familiarity, he looked more like a technopreneur than a professional photographer with a Ph.D. in Biotechnology from Germany, his birth country.


Kai fell in love with New Zealand’s wild beauty two decades ago and settled in Auckland in 2011 with wife, Mila. Last year, the couple set up their own firm, Laughing Chestnut Ltd., to sell Kai’s fabulous landscape shots and offer photography tours at the Waitakere Regional Park.


Interesting corporate name, I noted.


As a student, Kai was an avid lensman, tinkering with film cameras, developing films, making his own prints. At university, he abandoned his hobby. But his parents gifted him with a digicam, which he brought to his graduation party. Then he spotted this empty chestnut husk on a stone bench. It resembled a laughing face.


He couldn’t resist it. As soon as he snapped the shutter, his old passion rekindled. “It’s my turning point. I knew I want to be a full-time photographer.”


West of Auckland, in the Waitakere Ranges, he found his personal paradise – best “backyard” a nature worshipper can have, off the beaten track, a mini Abel Tasman National Park look-alike – same terrain, just 30 kilometers outside the city. So near, yet so wild.


(My unedited shot of the Waitakere Ranges, using a Canon EOS 700D.)

Here, he took thousands of pictures. Now, he’s escorting people to his favorite spots for photo walks.



(My unedited shot of the Waitakere Ranges using a Huawei P9 Plus.)

The Waitakere Ranges, a chain of hills over 1,500 feet high spanning 25 kilometers, are part of the uplifted slopes of the giant Waitakere undersea volcano which erupted 22 million years ago.



(Another shot of me at the Cascade Kauri Trail. Photo Courtesy of Kai Lehnberg.)

In Māori, Waitakere means “Deep Water”. The forest, they named “Te Wao Nui o Tiriwa”, The Great Forest of Tiriwa – their thousand-year-old ancestor who carried Rangitoto (“Sky Blood”) Island to the Hauraki Gulf. It’s 16,000 hectares blanketed with hardwood – Kauri, Rimu, Kahikatea-  still regenerating after two centuries of logging and farming.



(My unedited shot of the Guardian of the Waitakere using a P9 Plus.)

It’s also the abode of endangered giant kauri snails, glow worms and native long-tailed bats. Plans are afoot to re-introduce threatened Kiwi here. The bellbird, wiped out by a virus, is expected to make a comeback as well.



(My unedited shot of some Flora in the Waitakere using the P9 Plus.)


I can’t believe such a wilderness could thrive so close to the city – until Kai took me there in his four-wheel drive.


In less than half an hour, we were cruising under living green canopies. Only briefly did we stop at an overlook at the edge of a cliff at Rose Hellaby’s House to view the Big Smoke below us.


(My unedited shot of fern tree fiddleheads on the trail, using the P9 Plus.)


Rose, a singleton philanthropist and lady adventurer of the 1930’s, lived here, cultivating her gardens for 35 years. That was after she rode elephants and hunted tigers in India, cruised down the Nile in Egypt, explored Venezuela, Brazil, Trinidad, Java, Mexico, Suriname and South Africa. She bequeathed her home to the city after her death, so everyone can enjoy the views she loved best.


Rain fell as we reached the overlook though I can still make out part of Auckland’s skyline, its dead volcanoes and the harbor beyond.



(Tree Ferns in the Waitakere, unedited, shot with my P9 Plus.)

Kai pulled out a raincoat for me from his backpack which also contains a first aid kit, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) for emergencies, several lenses he thought I can use, plus filters.


He dished out photography tips, showing me how to use a lens better suited for landscape. When robins and fantails flitted tantalizingly close and I tried shooting them, he apologized for not bringing a long lens. He hadn’t thought I’ll be interested in birds. His wife, Mila, loved watching them, so he took up bird photography though his forte is landscape.


At the back of his 4WD, he kept a cooler of drinks, a container of sandwiches, candies and energy bars. He’s got wet wipes and towels for muddy feet and fingers. And he carried everything for me to leave my hands free to snap away as we trekked to Cascade Kauri.


(Cascade Kauri, unedited, taken with my Canon 700D.)

The rain pounded on us intermittently. Not surprising, as this area receives lots of rainfall year-round. And while this meant sloshing through puddles, deep mud and flashfloods, it produces breath taking misty effects, rainbows and waterfalls.



(Fiddleheads bunched on tree fern crown, unedited, shot with my P9 Plus.)


Once, Kai took a pro photographer on this walk in a heavy downpour. On the spot, rainwater gushing from a rocky overhang created a magnificent cataract. His client spent the whole afternoon there, shooting the spectacle from every angle, mostly from behind the watery veil.


Today, the showers didn’t conjure waterfalls. But they beaded the ancient trees and the moss carpets like a sprinkling of diamonds.



(My unedited shot of moss colonizing a tree trunk on the trail, shot with the P9 Plus.)



I sighed. If only my lens can capture that.


I’ve always found it difficult to shoot under the dark canopy and splinters of overcast skies, with such a profusion of shapes and colors. Paint it, yes. I’m a self-taught painter and can manipulate images on canvas.


(My unedited shot of the Cascade Track into the Kauri Grove using my Canon 700D.)

Anyway, it’s refreshing just to walk here, taking in the living breath of the ancient lords of the forest, touching and embracing their 500-year old trunks as we hiked  the Upper Kauri Track.



(My unedited shot of a Kauri Crown  on the Track, with my P9 Plus.)

The umbrella crowns of black tree ferns soaring 60 feet high shaded us as we turned to Cascade Track into Kauri Grove.


(Black Tree Fern, Unedited, shot with my Canon 700D.)



(Patterned cross-section of a fallen tree fern trunk, unedited, shot with my P9 Plus.)


Some trees towered close to 200 feet, thrusting up alongside conifers draped in vines and mosses.



(Kauri hosts so many other plants, unedited shot with my Canon 700D.)



A Northern Rata, one of the tallest native flowering trees, managed to creep up on a mature Kauri and latch on tight.


The Rata starts out as an epiphyte – a plant perched on a host tree high in the forest canopy – before sending roots down to the ground, strangling its host. Kauris defend themselves by shedding their branches, dislodging stranglers. But this regal tree wasn’t fast enough  to escape the Rata’s  deadly embrace.


Why don’t rangers kill the strangler? Kai shrugged. Mostly, they just let nature take its course.


Kauris are mooring points for so much life, hosting half a hundred other species in their crowns. In the Waipoua Forest, close to 250 kilometers away, rangers found an over two thousand year old Kauri with a 400-year old Rata growing on its canopy. Mercifully, a storm dislodged the Rata from the Kauri.



(My unedited shot of more Kauris on the Trail using the P9 Plus.)

But even as stranglers kill, they benefit other wildlings, providing food and shelter for bellbirds, tui, and kaka parrots.


And this forest is alive with birds. A plump robin shadowed us and flew within arm’s reach, extremely interested, when Kai turned up the earth beside the path. The robin’s an insect eater and used to people bringing him mealworms.


(Unedited, Curious Robin in Waitakere, shot with my Canon 700D.)

Above our heads, a huge wood pigeon drowsed on a branch, too lazy and too full of berries to budge from his perch. Kakas foraged among the fiddleheads, green parrots rustled and cackled higher up the canopy.


On the forest floor, shaded by giant trees, kidney ferns, mosses, native kauri grass and flax prospered.


(Unedited Waitakere Kauri grove with Kauri Grass and Flax taken with my Canon 700D.)


(Kauri Grass blanketing forest floor at Kauri Grove. Unedited, shot with my Canon 700D.)


(Kidney Ferns, unedited, shot with my P9 Plus.)

I’m familiar with the sphagnum moss, so soft it’s used for bedding and packing material but it was my first time to see the biggest (and tallest) member of the moss family – the bristly juniper hair cap, Dawsonia Superba, which grows up to two feet in height. It’s used as diuretic for urinary obstructions and edema.



(Dawsonia Superba, world’s biggest moss, unedited, shot with my P9 Plus.)

Next, we drove to Goldie Bush Scenic Reserve and hiked where two streams meet to Mokoroa Falls.



(Me taking pics of Mokoroa Falls with my P9 Plus. Photo courtesy of Kai Lehnberg.)



(Unedited, Mokoroa Falls, shot with my P9.)



(Unedited, Mokoroa Falls, shot with my P9.)


Strange that they named the cataract after the Mokoroa, the large white ghost moth larvae – the Maori’s spiritual messenger .


The Mokoroa gnaws on tree trunks, feeding on their sap. Hence, the local saying that although the Mokoroa is small, the Puriri tree falls – a David and Goliath analogy.


( Unedited, Mokoroa Falls, shot with my P9.)


Tōtara trees grew along the path, shedding their barks in papery flakes. Known for their longevity and their hard straight-grained wood resistant to rot, the Māori use their timber for carving and the making of traditional boats or “waka”.



(Unedited, shot of Totara shedding off its bark,  with my P9 Plus.)

But the most odd tree I found was the Lancewood which evolved drastically to deter munching Moas – the 12-foot tall, over half ton, flightless birds which roamed this bush in prehistoric times.


Like Madagascar and the Galapagos, New Zealand’s flora and fauna developed in isolation after the country broke off from the rest of super continent Gondwana, allowing many bizarre adaptations.


The young Lancewood looks so different from the mature tree that even early botanists mistook them for two different species. The juvenile nine-foot tall lancewood sports weaponized, dagger-like leaves, complete with warning spots, short of saying to the Moa: “Don’t eat me, I’ll kill you.”


(Young weaponized Lancewood leaf, shot with my P9.)

Once mature and safe from being eaten, , the Lancewood, which grows 60 feet high, well above the Moa’s height, relaxes its defenses and a becomes a normal tree, with a bushy top. The leaves round out, widen and lose their teeth.



(Mature Lancewood Tree.)


We reached our final destination, Bethells Beach, an hour and a half before sunset, when run-off from the sea looks like molten gold and the wet black iron sands mirror the swirling tangerine, pink and purple of the skies.


(My unedited shot of Lion’s Head at Bethells Beach using my P9 Plus.)


(My unedited shot of Bethells Beach with my P9.)


(Unedited shot of Bethells Beach with my Canon 700D.)

A couple embraced at the water’s edge. A girl jogged by with her retriever to the dunes. Then the whole beach was ours.


(Unedited shot of Bethells Beach with my Canon 700D.)


(Unedited shot of Bethells Beach with my Canon 700D.)


I kicked off my sandals and ran barefoot on the sand littered with millions of Spirula shells – bleached brittle skeletons of ram’s horn squids.



(Spirula shell on Bethells Beach.)

These relatives of the cuttlefish live 3,000 feet under the sea, only coming up to 1,000 feet below the surface at night, emitting a green light at the tip of their mantle, giving them their other name, tail-light squids.


On the other hand, the black beach sand comes from the volcanic rocks of Mount Taranaki almost half a thousand kilometers from here, carried north by coastal currents.


(Unedited shot of Bethells Beach with my Canon 700D.)

The stark black stretch offered a dramatic contrast to the white surf line battering the shore and misting the rock face of Lion’s Head.



(Unedited shot of Bethells Beach with my Canon 700D.)


(Shooting a fast-sinking sun at Bethells Beach, unedited, with my P9 Plus.)

The wind screamed in my ears. The rain felt icy on my face, but I kept on snapping away with both my Canon 700D and my Huawei P9 Plus as the sun ducked in the horizon, a ball of flame vanishing and re-emerging behind clouds bloated with rain.



(Unedited shot of Bethells Beach with my Canon 700D.)



(Unedited shot of Bethells Beach with my Canon 700D.)



I didn’t even have time to fiddle with the camera settings of my two gadgets because the sun was sinking so fast.


(My last shot of the sunset at Bethells Beach, unedited, with my P9 Plus.)

8(Me taking pics of Bethells Beach Sunset with my P9 Plus. Photo courtesy of Kai Lehnberg.)


I just fired away until it was too dark to shoot. Then I watched a huge cloud dump rain far out at sea. Next second, the rain was pounding on me.


(Me taking pics of Bethells Beach Sunset with my P9 Plus. Photo courtesy of Kai Lehnberg.)


(Rain far out at sea – before it poured on me! Unedited, taken with my P9 Plus.)

I was forced to ran back to the car. But I went home happy.



(Me taking pics of Bethells Beach Sunset with my P9 Plus. Photo courtesy of Kai Lehnberg.)



For Photowalks in wild West Auckland: http://www.thelaughingchestnut.co.nz, http://tours.thelaughingchestnut.co.nz/

For Manila-Auckland flights: http://www.philippineairlines.com

For destination guides and trip-planning to Auckland and the rest of New Zealand:http://www.newzealand.com/int/

For exploring New Zealand by bus:http://www.straytravel.com/explore-your-pass-options/stray-journeys/cook/)

For Trip Planning in Auckland:http://www.straytravel.com/new-zealand-travel-information/destination-guide/auckland/





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