One month after I landed in the Land of the Long White Cloud, on the eve of the Chuseok holiday here in Korea, I finally finished the rough draft of the entire 10 day trip. So far, I’ve written 72 pages of small font, single spaced stories. I knew my vacation was packed, but this was really a revelation. Don’t worry, though, I won’t try to make you read it all in one place. Now that I have my thoughts and memories down in bytes, I hope to publish a couple stories a week until I catch up, possibly somewhat mixed in with my Chuseok trip to Jeju Island. The posts are geographically organized rather than a day by day retelling and although I started this adventure in Auckland, I’m going to start my stories with Piha Beach, only an hour outside of the city and my first tiny taste of wild Aotearoa.
Piha is a beach about an hour outside of the city of Auckland, but what makes it special is the sand: it’s black. Most beaches (and in fact most sand) is a kind of pale brownish, yellowish color, but a few places in the world get special treatment. I used to live in Panama City, FL which is famous for it’s white sand. It really is white, like a beach full of sugar. I’d heard of black sands in Hawaii, but still haven’t made it down there, so when I read about this black sand beach that was so conveniently on the way to my first “real” destination in New Zealand, I decided I had to leave Auckland early and make the detour over. This was a good call for two reasons. One, Auckland doesn’t actually have that much to do in the city itself, and two, I ended up with the perfect preview of all the beauty NZ would unfold for me in the coming days.
This was my first glimpse of the crazy twisting roads that would mark every journey for the rest of my vacation. More than that, however, it was my first interaction with NZ flora. The drive made me feel like I was zooming back into a prehistoric age on earth. Familiar evergreens and less familiar variations of deciduous trees were mixed about with giant ferns and palms. Grasses grew in tufts taller than my car. The pictures don’t really do the forests justice because you just can’t see the enormous scale of these plants that makes you expect to see a triceratops around the next bend in the road. It didn’t take long before I got my first view of the ocean, either. The rugged coastline often included mountains and trees growing right down to the thin strip of sand marking the delineation of land and sea. The sea itself is crystal shades of blue and aquamarine, dotted with rocky islands or jutting peninsulas from further along the coastline. Because of the Queen’s Chain, the beaches remain undeveloped by private enterprise. Even right outside of Auckland, the beautiful, pristine coast just goes on and on.
The road into Piha has a couple of look out spots to allow drivers to safely pull off the side of the road and take pictures of the view below. The area itself is not highly developed and consists of a car park, a few private structures (well off the beach), a surf shop, a cafe, and the public restrooms.
Between these and the beach itself are a few sandy, grass growing dunes. I took my shoes and socks off and carried some sandals with me in case, but I wanted to feel the earth on my bare feet (an urge I would later find out had more significance than I knew at the time) The dunes were a little rough and the grass was brown and bristly, but once I emerged onto the black beach, I found myself on the softest sand my feet may ever touch. I’ve encountered many textures of sand from a rough grade exfoliant to a fine grain almost silky texture, but walking on this black sand at Piha felt like nothing so much as having my feet caressed by bunny fur. The sand was black, but not the shade of black we think of in say, a new iPhone. It was blue and purple from some angles and soft grey from others. There was also some invading tan sand that rested on top, being lighter and coarser, which created interesting effects in the wind and tide as the lighter sand was pulled into patterns above the darker black sand.
I soon noticed a line of shells along the beach, a tide line of sorts, but instead of seaweed and drift wood it was mainly composed of tiny white spiral shells. The shells were perfect miniature spirals and so delicate, they broke under the slightest pressure (two I took from the beach did not survive). Their former inhabitants had no doubt been dinner to some of the local sea birds, but the fact that the birds had managed to extract their meals without damaging the fragile shells by the dozens was impressive.
The path I’d taken in from the car park led nearly to the exact center of the cove. There were high rocks on either side, but the right side also had a small stream leading down to the sea, so I decided to start in that direction and eventually do a complete circuit of the cove before moving on. It turned out that the large rock to my right was Lion Rock, known as Te Piha by the Maori who lived there before. The Maori named it for the patterns the waves made breaking across the rock, and later the British apparently decided the rock looked like a lion. Closer to the stream and the rock, I noticed there were people climbing on it, but I thought to myself, “that looks like a very steep climb, maybe I’ll just enjoy the beach”. I found the lake that the stream was coming from and a larger collection of what looked like private homes up in the foothills further back from the shore.
As I rolled up my pants to wade across the stream and explore the other cove, I noticed the base of the stairs that led up Lion Rock. “Perhaps just a few steps up, up to that platform there to get a better view?”, I thought. There must be something strangely wired in my brain because for all that I dislike climbing, I *love* being on top of high places. After I reached that first break in the stairs and took some pictures, I noticed there was another platform looking the other way, so I had to climb to that of course, and soon people coming down were telling me I was more than halfway there, so why not keep going? Next thing I knew, I was as high as the path goes, admiring the not-quite totem pole and the stunning view. I hung around the top taking pictures and chatting with other climbers, one of whom took quite possibly my favorite picture of me on the whole trip sitting on the edge staring out at the sea and sand below me.
When I had spent sufficient time admiring the view and conversing with the other climbers, I returned to the beach and headed back toward the left rocks. I found some fools gold in the stream. I watched the strange galaxies that formed in the sand as the different colors swirled around, and the comets that resulted from a stone or shell stuck in the surf. I played tag with the waves and admired the reflections that the wet black sand offered of the rocks and sky above. The left side of the cove held a tide pool of sorts with volcanic rocks strewn about, covered in teeny mussels. The rough rocks claimed some skin from my toes, but the cold sea water was quite soothing, so I didn’t mind. As the tide came in, the surfers came out, clad in wet-suits against the cold, but enjoying the large waves.
Finally, the rising tide chased me back up the beach, and as the light of day grew dimmer, I enjoyed a toasted cheese and onion sandwich from the cafe. My hands and feet were red and partially numb from playing in the winter sea, but the warm melty cheese was heating me up from the inside. As I stood one last time on the small dunes looking down at the pounding waves and dark sand, my heart filled with gratitude for the opportunity that had brought me there that day and I thought, “If the rest of my holiday is even half so good as this beach, it will be one amazing adventure.” Little did I know it was only the opening act.
Piha Beach is to the west of Auckland and labeled on my trip map. From there I drove to Dargaville to spend the night before embarking on a forest exploration in search of the oldest Kauri trees. I hope you enjoyed the beach with me, and don’t forget to see the rest of the pictures on my Facebook page!