New Zealand: The Far North

With Paihia beginning to feel like home I knew I couldn’t stay in the Bay of Islands any longer. Things had to change. Ideally the forecast would change too. A grey cloud with blue drops sat across the next 10 days. I’m going back to my original plan; Spirits Bay. I wouldn’t go straight away, those grey clouds were set to be particularly unpleasant over the next couple of days. There was a well-reviewed holiday park in Ahipara. I decided I could ride out the weather for a few days with access to Wi-Fi, to power, to unlimited hot water. The same comforts I’d become accustomed to in Paihia. On arrival in Ahipara I found the wi-fi was down, the sky was falling, and there didn’t appear to be any plug sockets anywhere. This wasn’t the kind of shaking I wanted to give my comfort zone. 

Rain crashed down throughout the night. I woke up to clear skies and sunshine. “This won’t last,” I thought to myself, knowingly. By lunchtime the predicted storm still hadn’t arrived. There were no black clouds on the horizon. Rather than wasting any more time inside, I pulled on my running gear and hit 90 Mile Beach. At the bottom of the road joining the beach, which is also treated as a road, there was a lagoon. Off came the trainers and socks, my feet now wet and sandy I decided not to put the trainers and socks back on. I’m not enough of a runner to talk up the merits of barefoot running but it makes sense to me that it would be good for you. The flat, compact sand was soft enough to not feel like concrete. The tide line was free of debris. Moving along was easy, enjoyable. I have said for many years I would find running a lot easier if I lived somewhere nice. Now I know I can run, making the decision to go out for half an hour is dangerously close to pleasant. What I don’t think about is turning round, I keep going in a straight line. Following the crashing waves, running towards where the storm definitely isn’t. When I stop, I realise two things. First, I have to go back. Second, I haven’t put any sunscreen on. Walking is going to take me twice as long. The sun is still out, beating down. Getting sunburn is a matter of when. I hope today isn’t the day.

The following morning the storm arrives. As if to make up for being late, the day turns to night, those who do venture out return with rumours of tornadoes pulling down fences, ripping up rooftops. At least now I feel vindicated in stopping in for a few nights. At least now the WiFi is working. I end up chatting with fellow Brits, Ellie and Harper. Like me, they arrived in New Zealand at the start of March. Since then our journeys have taken quite different paths. They spent the first Lockdown in Whangarei. They’ve already had several jobs in different orchards. For them, the adventure is just beginning, or it will as soon as we’re allowed across Auckland. The storm makes a dramatic exit, dropping bathtubs of water before moving on. The part of the campsite I was warned not to park in is now a pond. Good advice. The sky clears, the sun returns. I decide to go back to the beach for a walk, this time in the other direction. I only make it as far as the river, which is obviously in flood. Normally the rivers have been easy to cross on the beach. They spread across the sand, becoming shallower as they reach the sea. I stand by, watching the rolling water pull half a meter of sand down from the temporary bank. I’m mesmerised by the simple act of erosion. The water tears away at the base of the sandy cliff. The weight of the cliff becomes unstable. Cracks spread along the cliff-top. The sand calves away like a new iceberg from a glacier crashing into the raging torrent below. A second storm comes in that evening. Thunder rumbles like bins being walked down a driveway. Lightening flashes. The rain keeps the rhythm on the roof of the communal area.

The next day I decide I’m leaving no matter what. Predicting the weather has been of no use these last few days. I can’t be any worse off further up the cape. If I don’t go to Spirits Bay now, I may never go. Before I leave, Ellie and Harper share their videos of sand boarding at the Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes. A small human shape at the top of a yellow hill. The small human shape moves forward onto the dune. Moving faster, passing the camera, the camera turns in what is near perfect timing. The board stops moving. Ellie doesn’t. She completes a sequence of fantastic barrel rolls. I can’t help myself. I start laughing. She’s in front of me, uninjured so I feel less bad when I ask to watch it again. I watch three times. “You need to send that to You’ve Been Framed,” I said. Remember those days? When someone would pay you for a humiliating video. They tell me to hire the board on the road-side, the van at the sand dunes was unmanned when they went so had to double back. Good advice. I pull in to a homestead with a hand painted sign that says “sandboards.” I give the man some personal details in case I don’t come back, unsure as to what he would do with them if I do make a run for it with his board. I give him some money too, knowing this at least I’ll never see again.

I drive in to the car park to find nobody there. The stream is in flood. I wasn’t sure if I would make it across. The first time I set out with my boots on. They sink below the surface. I stop before they become saturated. I go back to the van, take my boots and socks off. As I do, another vehicle rolls in. “In all my years I ain’t ever seen the stream this high,” the driver says to me while I’m looking for a place to get a cross. “The path is usually over there,” he points to where the stream looks highest. “I’m gonna try here,” I say pointing to where I can still sort of, just about, make out what looks like it may have once been a solid floor. “You’re gonna wanna go up there, see the board marks. They call that psycho slope,” he points again to one of the bigger dunes with yellow and brown streaks down. I’m not sure if this is true but it is helpful because I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be going and there hadn’t been anyone around to ask. “Thanks,” I reply, wading into the stream.

The water is moving fast. I find it isn’t deep, rising only as far as my ankles. As I reach the far side my optimism is washed away. One step drops me half way up my shin. Then the sand decides it doesn’t want to support my weight and I’m up to my knee. I pull myself free and take a step back. Further up I can see the sand collapsing into the stream as it had on 90 Mile Beach. This is still the best place I can cross. All I have to do is get one foot up on to the slope of the opposite bank and I’ll be fine. I move forward slowly, testing the depth, the bottom with my toes before I put weight down. I get my one foot up on the slope and the sand doesn’t give way. I pull my other foot up. The sand slides beneath me. I move again, and again until I’m up on the flat sand. I’m in another world. The shift from what I’ve come through to get here, to what I’m looking at now is unbelievable. Behind me is low scrub, fields of pasture. Ahead of me there is nothing but sand. New Zealand has this uncanny habit of switching from high-fantasy scenery to scenes from science fiction without even trying.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a desert before. Certainly not a straight from the encyclopaedia entry for Sahara, giant sand dunes desert. The Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes probably aren’t a desert. The ocean is somewhere on the other side. Then again, when does a desert become a beach? I don’t know and don’t care to find out. I head towards the intimidatingly named psycho slope and start climbing. I take what looks like the easy way up. Around the side, along the length rather than straight up. Although I’m not sure there is an easy way up sand. Coloured lines in the dunes look like the Rings of Saturn, where the sand swirls and blends it looks more like storms on Jupiter. I stagger on to the top of the dune. With the realisation of height, the closing on vertical drop beneath me I realise I am afraid. I didn’t get this far by thinking about what I was doing. I put the board down, jump on top and I’m moving. The speed adds more fear. I slam my feet into the dune behind me as I scramble to feel like I’m in control. I hit the bottom, hoping to stay moving with the board. There’s nobody here to film me come off so it would be a waste. The board slows, I’m still attached. Then it stops. It’s over in seconds. Exhilarated, I grab the board and start climbing. This time, I tell myself, I won’t put my feet down. I find an almost dry stream bed, I follow this half way up the dune. The firmer, damp sand making the climb much easier. A cool breeze follows the water. I get back to the top. Half way down I realise my feet are dragging behind me again. I go again. The footsteps of my first climb have already disappeared. By the fifth attempt I manage to maintain enough self-control to prevent myself from desperately trying to control the board. I have sand in my pants, sand in my nose, sand in my teeth. By the fifth attempt I accept the money paid to borrow the board is of acceptable value. I return across the stream. The same man from earlier has come back with a friend to apparently show him how high the stream is. “How was that then?” he asked. “Pretty good considering,” I replied, having no idea what it was I was considering.

I returned the board and made my way out to Spirits Bay. I had heard rumblings about the road. I suspect this is one of those if you have never driven on a gravel road before now please be aware the driving will be different warnings. Having already taken the road from Colville to Stony Bay I found the 16km drive comfortable. To my surprise there were a couple of vans already pitched up in the field around the toilet block. Neither had taken the definitely sheltered from the wind position behind the trees. I parked up here. I went across the field, following the curve of the river on to the beach. Apparently some people don’t even see the beach, they drive down to the field. The beach isn’t immediately available to them so they turn around and drive back. Amazing. Spirits Bay is everything I wanted it to be. Empty. Under blue skies, the late afternoon sun brightening the white crest of crashing waves. A coral pink beach sweeps away into the distant haze. There’s a shark fin shaped hill behind the beach, across the river. The view from up there would be incredible. I approach the river, recognising a challenging crossing. White boards are pinned to the fence around the hill. I can make out faded letters. P, r, i, v, a, t ,e. I’m not one to deliberately trespass. Accidents happen but I don’t cross the river so I definitely do not cross the fence. I come back to the sand for sundown. Chunky grey clouds are blowing South, drizzle falls from the sky. The clouds do their sunset thing, catching the light in shades of orange, pink and purple. I realise it’s almost 6pm. I’m getting close to 11 hours of daylight. Noticeably more time in which to do things.

I woke up with my new found time and considered walking all the way to the Pandora camp ground and back at the other end of the beach. After 20 minutes of hard slog across the rolling beach, the soft sand, the hard sand, the broken shells, I agreed half way was probably far enough. I was glad I had not added this to the list of overnight training hikes. The sun was out, the surf driving a sea mist over the hills. The tide line is littered with shells, blue xenomorph heads which must be some kind of jellyfish, and the battered plastic milk bottle caps. I’m only really a third of the way when I turn around. I got back to the highway, turned right to continue North. As I’d come this far, I might as well carry on the extra 20km up the road to see Cape Reinga again. Despite the on-going global crisis, nothing appears to have changed. From Cape Palliser lighthouse in the South, to Cape Reinga lighthouse in the North, with a few others in between, I felt as though I’d finished another journey. I’ve crossed the entire length of the North Island twice. There, and back again. Now I have to hope I’ll be able to do it again. A little faster than three months, but ideally a little slower than two days. 

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