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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