Black sand beaches

 
David Whitley visits Piha and Karekare beaches in West Auckland, and finds himself reassessing what a great beach looks like 

If you ever need to reassess what makes a great beach, come to Piha. It doesn’t fit any of the usual clichés – it’s not particularly glamorous, plenty of seaweed gets washed up on it and the sand is anything but squeaky white.

But it depends on whether you like your beaches beautiful or magnificent. For me, a good beach is one that looks pretty – but a great beach is one that commands respect.

At Piha, the signs warn of strong currents, large waves and submerged rocks. It’s pretty clear that the Tasman Sea as it thumps into the shore isn’t to be messed with – although on a hot summer Sunday afternoon plenty of people are prepared to take on the challenge. A crew rows a boat into the waves, a cox on the rudder bellowing orders, while stand-up paddle boarders have made it out to the quieter swells.

On the southern side of the beach – it is divided by a stream and a large, climbable rock that is optimistically said to resemble a lion’s head – the surfers plunge into the waves, gluttons for frothy-but-forceful punishment.

The sense of awe is not just created by the sea, though. It’s the setting. Piha is reached via a winding road that cuts down through thickly forested hills west of Auckland. It provides a backdrop that you don’t associate with beaches – a green, ferny landscape rather than sandstone cliffs, seaside cafés or rolling dunes. A few holiday homes are dotted amongst the trees, but to call Piha anything more than a hamlet would be pushing it.

It’s a place that brings together the two colours that characterise New Zealand – the green of the hills, and the black of the volcanic sand.

It’s that black sand that adds to the moodiness and power of the place – particularly when you start walking along it. Amongst the dark grains are what look like glittering crystals – tiny diamonds twinkling in the sunlight. Perhaps this happens on normal beaches too, but it’s harder to detect because the white sand offers a lack of contrast. Either way, at Piha it makes you feel like a god striding across a universe of blazing stars.

Everything that Piha has, however, is magnified further along the coast at Karekare Beach. The road down is steeper, greener and narrower. The signs of human impact are harder to find – there’s not even a café, let alone a road running alongside the beach. The rocks guarding the beach are higher, more fearsome, more commanding. The dunes backing onto the forested hills are moodier. The stream flowing out to the sea has to be waded across to reach the sand. And that sand is black, twinkling and roasting hot on the feet.

At low tide, the beach seems to go on forever; an epic gateway to infinity. And the lifeguards survey the sea with a look of intensity – the currents out there are monsters, waiting to drag all but the strongest swimmers away.

Karekare is not a beach to enjoy; it’s a beach to be dominated by. You can go around the world and find beaches that are prettier, but you’ll struggle to find one anywhere near as powerful.

 

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Auckland

 


 

Auckland and I have never really seen eye to eye. That’s mainly because, while I am no oil painting, Auckland’s eye is pretty darned ugly. Even the most proud Aucklander would struggle to deny that the city centre is a hideous scar on what should be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. The city lies on an isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea; it has two sprawling natural harbours, islands off the coastline and 40-odd volcanic cones dotted within its boundaries. Yet, in what seems like a calculated bid to stick two fingers up at Mother Nature, Downtown Auckland is a high-rise monstrosity from which any architect with the faintest hint of flair or soul has clearly been banished. A troll stands in the shoes of a princess.

 

 

 

In my former incarnation as a backpacker magazine editor in Sydney, I had to come to Auckland once a year for conferences and expos. I never really saw beyond the city centre. Since then, I have stopped for the odd night in between the Pacific Islands and Australia (the city is the major connecting hub). Again, I was more interested in getting the hell out the next day, so I always stayed in the city centre for the sake of convenience. Time for a fair crack of the whip I suppose; I’ll give it two days to win me round.

 

The key, somewhat unsurprisingly, is to get out of Downtown Auckland, to break beyond the utilitarian waterfront and out to the islands. Rangitoto is the newest, formed in a volcanic eruption around 600 years ago. The lava fields and Pohutukawa trees provide an intriguing contrast. Waiheke is the most fun – head there for beer and wine tasting in the sunshine. But Auckland’s biggest surprise and greatest treasure lies out to the west, beyond the identikit sprawl of low budget suburbia.

 

The Waitakere Ranges don’t feel like they’re part of Auckland at all. The villages there feel far too laid back, and are full of shambling beardy types. From the hilltops, it’s possible to see both harbours in the same field of vision, and the in-your-face, saturation-turned-to-eleven standard of the greenery is staggering.

 

Within the Ranges are some of the few remaining ancient kauri trees. Some of these giants have been standing for over 1,000 years; they were there before the first humans ever landed in New Zealand. Something of that stature deserves a degree of respect. But my epiphany – that Auckland really isn’t all that vile after all – arrives at Karekare Beach. It is reached via a steep, winding road that corkscrews down the mountainside with thick forest to either side. It manages to be simultaneously moody and dazzling at the same time; the black sand and headlands fight against the sun bouncing off the stream which flows into the sea.

 

It’s a little slice of magic, and proof that even your least favourite places deserve that chance of redemption.

 

More photos here