I’m often reminded that as a Wandering Kiwi I ought to share some more of my New Zealand experiences on my blog. Because New Zealand continues to one of the world’s best-loved travel destinations.
So here’s some off-the-beaten-track travel touring the west coast of the North Island this past summer. Most tourists to New Zealand will be familiar with the west coast of the South Island and its famous glaciers. Well this is New Zealand’s other west coast.
Many New Zealanders have holiday homes here (these are called a “bach” and for the most part are quite simple affairs) and come to the ferocious surf beaches and serene harbour settlements to relax and indulge in favourite water sports.
West of Auckland a string of black sand beaches draw surfers and holidaymakers. From the Auckland suburb of Titirangi the aptly named Scenic Drive winds through the lush native forest of the Waitakere Ranges to Piha, Muriwai, Bethells Beach and Karekare.
A rugged coast and scraggly dunes give way to smooth black sand and then savage waves. Scenes from Jane Campion’s film The Piano were filmed here. Piha has a cute new cafe serving excellent pies.
The surfing Mecca of Raglan becomes more chic every time I visit. The snapper is still fresh at Vinnies and the pub is as attractive as ever. But there seem to be more artisan shops and galleries every year in this popular New Zealand seaside village.
Brown-skinned children leap and splash into the river from the bridge while families picnic along the waterfront. The cafes are thronged with coffee-drinking New Zealanders (who are quite the coffee snobs and I’m assured it’s good here).
On the road (from Hamilton) to Raglan you can see how the Maori legend of Maui’s brothers slashing up the great fish he had caught (the North Island) in a fit of jealous rage came about. The farmland soars and plunges crazily.
Overlooking Raglan, Mount Karioi stands out starkly against gathering clouds while people eat ice creams in the sun that bathes the village. But the best part of this coast is the wild black-sand beaches where the surfers lurk.
You can learn to paddle board in the gentle waters of the estuary or head out to the famous surf breaks of Indicators, Whale Bay, Manu Bay and Vortex Bay. For safe swimming head for the patrolled area of the magnificent Ngarunui (often called Ocean Beach) where you can also take your first steps on a surfboard.
Finally, just a little south of Raglan, a series of huge harbours pierce the coastline. Kawhia and Aotea Harbours are home to tiny Maori settlements, clusters of baches and a huge serenity.
Only around 50 people live here at Aotea permanently, enjoying tranquil views of hills reflected in the harbour. The incoming tidal waters from the Tasman Sea are popular with fishermen and low tide pools make safe and warm swimming holes for children. Kayaking and horse trekking in the surrounding hills are also popular.
Around the harbour a string of Marae (or meeting houses) reflect the importance of Maori culture in this area. On the hillside above the tiny settlement the remains of an ancient Maori Pa, or hillfort, can be seen. Across the harbour on huge silver-grey dunes a large area of ‘midden’ is apparent – basically a dumping point for Maori settlements over hundreds of years.
Aotea was where one of the early Maori canoes arrived after a long voyage from ancestral homes in Polynesia. The navigator Turi steered his waka here around 800 years ago. As they must have recognised, New Zealand’s North Island west coast contains so much natural beauty, let’s hope it remains uninterrupted.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited the west coast of New Zealand’s north island? It’s not just for surfers!