3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

The Journey Begins: Onto Ninety Mile Beach

BeachPackThe journey of Te Araroa begins rather ironically at the end of another: Cape Reinga. In Māori tradition, Cape Reinga is known as “the leaping off place for spirits.” After travelling the length of New Zealand, spirits climb into the sea where they journey north to the Three Kings Islands. With one glance back to New Zealand, they can at last go home to the land of their ancestors, Hawaiiki-A-Nui.

As we left the Fullers Awesome NZ bus to begin a journey of our own, the driver, Chris, sang us a farewell song in Maori. His beautiful baritone voice filled the bus via the loudspeaker. We took one last look at Cape Reinga and trudged over Tarawamaomao Point and onto Te Werahi Beach.

South and ahead is Cape Maria Van Diemen, named for the wife of Abel Tasman’s patron, the Governor General of Batavia. Tasman was the first European to sight New Zealand’s shores, and as seemed quite fashionable at the time, established poor diplomatic relations with the locals.

Commissioned by the Dutch East India Company to find “South Land” – a landmass believed to include parts of Australia – Tasman sighted New Zealand in December 1642. Moored off the coast of the South Island, Tasman sent small boats to shore to scout for fresh water. Māori warriors in four waka (canoes) intercepted them.

To the Māori, the sight of pasty sailors in tall ships with billowing sails couldn’t have been more shocking. Until that point in time, the world was only as big as New Zealand. The Māori called to the pale intruders with wooden trumpets, possibly challenging them to a fight. The Dutch answered with their own trumpets, appearing to accept that challenge. The waka paddled back to shore. For the moment, the first encounter between Europeans and Māori was peaceful, if only tenuously so.

Until the next day. The waka and Dutch boats met again in the bay. A skirmish broke out when a waka rammed a Dutch boat, killing four sailors. Shortly after, a Māori man was shot while (possibly) attempting a peace gesture. Tasman sailed away, naming the area De Moordenaars Baay – Murderer’s Bay. Though the only record of these events is Dutch, many historians attribute this bloody first encounter to a terrible cultural misunderstanding. (A bit of an understatement, I’d say.)

Anyway, we could not have asked for a better first day on Te Araroa. The weather was sunny and warm with a brisk breeze. We made camp at Twilight Beach, where a new pavilion and long drops (that’s outhouse in American) on a grassy lawn were a most welcome sight.

It wasn’t until we descended the elaborate staircase from Scott Point onto Ninety Mile Beach that we suddenly realized what we are in for. The coastline stretches away into some unknown vanishing point. We could only vaguely discern a dot of an island sitting near shore. Still riding high from our successful first day, Dad and I hefted our packs on and begin a lovely stroll along the beach.

BeachMarg

The deep green waves of the Tasman Sea boomed against the sand. Nearly ten foot swells! An onshore wind picked up as we counted off the kilometers. Underfoot were countless deep blue balloons – Portuguese Man-o-wars. Their still potent (and painful) tentacles extend two or three feet across the sand from their translucent bodies.

The island dot on the horizon never seemed to get any bigger (or closer) despite the hours we’d spent on the beach.

“Is that The Bluff?” Dad asked.

“No, I think it’s the next island.”

“I don’t see it.”

“Yeah…”

BeachBob

Late in the afternoon, we put Matapia Island behind us. Our water supplies shrinking with the setting sun, we decided to make camp at the nearest stream crossing. The Waikane Stream appeared just as we couldn’t comprehend another step, presenting beautiful fresh water… and nothing but windswept dunes and buggy marshes to camp on. With the wind whipping at our tents, we setup camp in the shade of the dunes.

BeachTents

Growing up in The Rockies, I’d always envisioned camping on the beach to be a peaceful, zen-like experience. Let me tell you, there’s nothing zen-like about crunching through sand in your ramen. Or cuddling up with it in your sleeping bag. Or having the wind spray it into ‘you know where’ when you go to do your business. Ahem.

The wind blew even harder the next day. We pushed into a straight headwind for (what we hoped) was miles. The beach is deceptive, playing tricks on your perception of time and place. With no landmarks on the horizon, it feels like you’re walking into an eternity – forever on the move, yet never arriving.

When an object appears as a distant speck in the sand, it’s not a question of “who,” but rather “what” is that. Driftwood? Bus? Late one afternoon as we trudged along in search of water, I looked behind us to see two playful objects closing the gap. They weaved and pranced lightheartedly in the horizon mirage, mocking our weary plod. Dad and I took turns guessing what they could be. Neither of us suspected the two Canadian bikepackers, waving cheerily as they glided by.

In Geoff Chapple’s first book about Te Araroa (in which he set out to hike across New Zealand before there was even a trail!), he fumbled with his camera and missed his shot when a herd of wild horses passed his way. I was determined not to do the same. Searching for any opportunity to get off the hard sand, I led us onto a patch of grassy trail behind the dunes. The path unfortunately led into hard luck dunes with no chance at easy-going.

Just as we turned to head back to the ocean, I spotted them. A small family unit of a wild stallion, mares, and a couple of yearlings. I couldn’t believe it. My camera was packed away. Softly, I set my pack down, keeping an eye on the horses. They watched us with curiosity. The stallion certainly didn’t seem too keen on our presence. My camera at the ready, I crept forward. Snap. Snap. Snap. Amazing. These beautiful animals have been living here wild and untouched for over fifty years! At last, they decided we were unfit for their presence, and disappeared into the dunes.

BeachMustangs

We came to expect rush hour everyday around 3:00. Tour buses sped by in the sand, loaded with sleepy looking tourists. For two days a Fullers driver (sent by higher powers, I’m sure) pulled the bus to a quick stop beside us, leapt from the driver’s seat and delivered us snacks- including the best damn turkey sandwich I’ve ever experienced.

Early on the third day, when we rounded The Bluff, we could see a haze of land on the horizon. As we walked, the haze took shape and by the end of Day 4, we knew it was a peninsula – the end of Ninety Mile Beach. The finish line has never appeared so far away, but eventually we could make out houses and roads on the hillside.

By dinnertime on the fifth day, we were showered and relaxing at the tropical paradise of the YHA in Ahipara.

With only a night’s rest, we prepared for perhaps the toughest section of the North Island – the Northland forests. More to come…

AhiparaPark

6 Responses to “The Journey Begins: Onto Ninety Mile Beach”

  1. Randy Godfrey

    I am excited for you two and your amazing adventure! Can’t wait for the next installment!

    Reply
  2. Mary

    Things sound amazing so far, can’t wait to hear more. I have only driven up the beach or down. It is hard to believe it is so far by foot. Every time we drive up the beach it is a beautiful adventure.

    Reply
    • margaret

      Thanks, Mary! I’d love to go back and drive down the beach. I’m sure it’s a great experience!

      Reply
  3. Peggy Jones

    I am an American, here in NZ for a year and living near Orewa beach. Thanks for undertaking this great adventure and writing about it with such style. Wishing you and your dad all the best. Don’t miss the Lovejoy comet — more visible later in the week.

    Reply

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