It’s not actually that far from central Auckland to the west coast beaches of Piha, Bethells and Karekare, Aucklanders just think it is. Michael and I are driving from Waiheke which adds a car ferry journey. Even with a morning coffee stop over at Point Chevalier, we are driving down the long steep drive of the Waitakere Estate Boutique Hotel before lunchtime. Unfortunately, something has gone wrong with our booking causing the very nice receptionist to fly into a bit of a panic. It turns out that I’ve only booked for one night – tomorrow night – and there are no spare rooms. As we’re heading for Piha, the nice woman gives us a number to call, but they are full. Helpfully they tell me that Black Sands Lodge has a vacancy and I call them. Yes, proprietor, Bobbie, tells me we can have the Tui suite. It’s more expensive than the hotel, but what can we do? The first view of Piha from the road is dramatic then we wind down the hill, following directions to Black Sands Lodge where we are met by an ‘older’ lesbian couple, Julia and Bobbie. We click instantly and feel at home. Bobbie is a gardener and has created a fabulous secluded place here with trees and grasses, seemingly growing in wild abandon. We are given directions to the café for lunch and to the Returned Servicemen’s Association for dinner. This means that we can cancel the booking we made for dinner at the Hotel. There’s an interesting art gallery/shop around the corner and we mistake the shop for the café, which is next door and set back from the road. We grab some lunch and head to The Kitekite Falls track.
We tramp through the forest to find a very tall waterfall with a large dark and very cold pool at the bottom. Two huge eels are swimming around expecting to be fed. There are several other people here and it is quite clear from the reaction of one young man diving into the pool that it’s freezing. His girlfriend takes our photo.
With the light fading due to dramatic black clouds covering the afternoon sun, we go down to the sea to explore the beach, look at Lion Rock and the flocks of surfers patiently waiting for that one big wave, rushing to catch it and then desperately trying to stay up and ahead.
These moments are rare but beautiful when they happen. We take the Tasman look-out track, a short walk south over the cliffs to The Gap. Its low tide now and we can walk back on the sand under the crumbling cliffs.
As instructed by Bobbie, we arrive at the RSA for dinner, go straight to the kitchen and ask to be signed in as guests. The beer is good and we order Gurnard (fish) which is also good. There’s still some daylight, allowing us to sit outside on the decking where we fall into conversation with two other couples who are also dining. The chap on my right asks if I’m a member. ‘No’, I say, ‘but my grandfather was at Gallipoli and my father in Egypt and Greece.’ He is a member so I ask him if he was at Vietnam. Oops, he’s too young for that. Turns out he was in the Falklands war and claims to be Scottish. He’s not got any accent and he and his wife live in Dorset. They are enjoying New Zealand for the first time, visiting friends and going to out of the way places. It turns out that he’s a keen sailor, and so has a good conversation with Michael. We reveal that we are swimmers and there is a slight pause in the conversation when we announce that we swim with a gay club, but they quickly recover and continue talking. As there are too few guests, the staff want to close early. We’ve finished anyway and walk back to our Tui suite in anticipation of longer walks tomorrow.
We manage to find the Piha Café, which is excellent for breakfast, erring on the overgenerous. They don’t really do takeaway stuff for lunch, but the shop next door does us some great chicken salad sandwiches to order. It’s a short drive up the hill to begin our walk on the Mercer Bay loop, which takes us along a spectacular cliff walk past the location where the ‘piano on the beach’ scene was shot in the film The Piano. There’s a site of an historic Maori pa at Te Ahua point with great views of the coast-line. We then link up with the Comans track which takes us down to Karekare beach where we eat our chicken sandwiches.
I go for a cautious swim in the sea (it’s pretty dangerous here) and Michael has a snooze. It’s time to return, and the Ahu Ahu track completes the Comans track circuit by taking us more or less up a straight wide path at a punishing gradient but Michael behaves like a mountain goat and I have to keep up. We take the return part of the Mercer loop back to the car park. We’ve left a bottle of wine, intended for dinner, at the Black Sands Lodge and have to go back to Bobbie and Julia, who have put it in the fridge. We finally check into the Waitakere Estate Hotel and collapse for a snooze before driving to Bethells Beach for dinner with friend Sue, who was on tour with me to Bali and Morocco. The wine arrives still cold and is opened immediately.
It’s our third day in the Waitakere regional park and its back to Bethells Beach. More dramatic black sand and cliffs are to be seen as we tramp up along the coastal path to the North. It’s hard work in the heat and we opt to descend to the beach for the return journey. Each of the three beaches is unique and spectacular, so it’s well worth seeing all three and the full effect is only achieved by climbing up the cliffs for an aerial view.
School children are on a field trip, checking out the wild life in rock pools then going for carefully supervised swims. There are few tourist buses pulling up and as we return to the Bethells Beach car park there’s an unbelievable sight. A tourist has set up his tripod with screen attached and is launching a drone with camera which he controls from a consol. From here there is no view of the beach or cliffs, but he’s seeing it from the drone’s point of view.
I can’t believe that the visual quality of a remote tv screen can compare with a pair of eyes. I’m shocked that someone can make the effort to come all this way and not leave the car-park.
Bethells sand dune
Our last walk is over the dramatic black sand dunes which are such a popular film location that there is permanent sign up warning of possible filming. There aren’t any today as we swelter over the dunes to find a long cool looking lake behind. There’s a walking track around it, but we’ve walked enough and decide to swim up the lake instead. This is just what our muscles need right now and our joints are grateful to be load free. The fresh water is a good temperature and we are refreshed for our walk back along the stream which skirts the dunes.
Dunes and stream
We’ve time for afternoon coffee at Swanson Station Café (recommended) before a quick motorway drive back to the car ferry and home to Rocky Bay.