Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cape Reinga - New Zealand's northern tip (Day 7)

Today we started our day just before sunrise, at 6am.  After having settled in early for the night in New Zealand's most northern campground (5 minutes south of Cape Reinga), we hopped out of bed and into the front seats, still in our pajamas, to catch the sunrise up at the lighthouse.

We had the entire sacred peninsula to ourselves.  We walked on the trails in those green hills slowly, enjoying the pastel colours slowly appearing across the sky as we made our way down to the lighthouse, reading the signs about the spiritual, historical, and cultural significance of this place along the way.  The Maori believe that their ancestors return back to their ancestral homeland through the roots of the 800-year-old pohutukawa tree still mysteriously clinging to the side of that rock.
This location also has another fascinating feature - it is the place where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean.  Standing above and watching the currents of each body of water collide with each other was definitely a unique experience.


The 800 year old tree still living on the edge of the northern tip of the country

Where the Tasman Sea (left) and Pacific Ocean (right) collide
After a few hours, we went back to our campervan to make breakfast and get ready for a 45 minute hike along the peninsula down to part of the beach.  The hike itself was full of stunning views.  The rugged, wild beauty of this place is unparallelled.  Again, because we were so early, we had the entire location to ourselves.  The solitude gave us an even deeper experience than I think we would have otherwise had.

Down at the beach, we took some time to just sit and watch the crashing waves, play in them a little (still quite cold!), and admire the strange volcanic rocks that seem to make up so much of this country.

I could have stayed here all day, wandering the various trails, immersing myself in the impossibly large hills and sounds of the crashing sea/ocean.  My favourite place in New Zealand thus far.
It was just after lunch time when we finally got back to the campervan, but sometimes life is just so beautiful you forget to eat, so it was off down the road in search of the giant Te Paki Sand Dunes we had read about.  After consulting various sources, we found the road to access them pretty easily. J rented a sandboard from a kind woman in a truck full of sandboards, and off we went in search of large piles with curves at the bottom, because apparently those are the best (and safest) ones to slide down.

This is not something I would ever think to do on my own, but J's enthusiasm eventually rubbed off on me, and after watching her do it, I decided I would have a go myself.

Now, these sand dunes are huge.  We felt as if we were in the desert, trudging through the sand for 15 minutes just to find a suitable large dune, and then it takes another 15 minutes to slowly drag yourself and your sandboard to the top of one. 

I could have stopped part way and slid down a less terrifying height, but I don't do things halfway.
There I was, at the top of a giant pile of sand, holding a flimsy board, wind violently blowing sand into my eyes and mouth, trying to convince myself to push myself off.  You're supposed to get on the board on your tummy, as it's the safest (and apparently fastest) way to go down.  It was unnerving, looking down what appeared to be almost a vertical drop (it wasn't quite that - giant piles of sand can be incredibly deceiving with no point of reference), realizing I would soon be sliding down at who-knows-how-many km/hr.

Somehow, I did it.  The slide down was thrilling and terrifying.  You can dig your toes in the sand as you go down to slow yourself a bit, but I couldn't quite get the hang of it as I picked up speed.  It was an amazing thrill.  J went twice - once was more than enough for me!

That tiny dot up at the top?  That's a person - for scale.  So huge.

After that thrilling (and exhausting) experience, you'd think we'd want to settle in for the day, but there was still more to see. 

90 mile beach is an impossibly long beach along the western coast of the country near the north where we were, and it is actually a designated highway - vehicles with 4 wheel drive can actually drive along the entirety of it.  Our trustworthy 1997 Toyota sleepervan didn't make the mark, however, so we looked for another access.  We drove down from the Sand Dunes, consulting maps, guidebooks, the GPS, and even geocaching information to try and discern the closest side road access.  Finally, I found a likely option, so we turned onto a road close to Te Kao, and followed it for a while until we came to another road blocked by a large gate.  We were confused - all sources had indicted this might be a viable access, but the gate was labelled "Private", "Beach Access", and "Gold coin entry".  I hopped out for a closer look.  Sure enough, the gate was unlocked, and there was a rusty tin can with a coin slot in the top.  I rushed back to the car, grabbed a gold-coloured $2 coin, and opened the gate for J, who happily rode through.

This road was windy and longer than we had anticipated, and full of fascinating and mysterious access to other private roads and even privately built roundabouts to manage them all.

Finally, we made it to the beach.  And yes, it was completely worth it.

The sand stretched forever (90 miles of it, to be exact), and we were again completely and wonderfully alone, except for the 2 or 3 campervans we saw that would zoom by on the sand and disappear in the distance as quickly as they came.  We explored this incredible beach, jumping around in the vastness of it, marveling at the countless number of stunning shells, and again dipping our feet in the not-so-warm waves.

We spied what appeared to be an island nearby, but the tide was out so we could walk to it!  We hopped onto this tiny island (I could see the ocean on at least three sides at the same time wherever I was) and explored the patches of beach made entirely of white shells, the volcanic rocks with ocean waves smashing against them, and even saw a channel cut in between the rocks by the power of waves over a long period of time.

On the island

This channel was cut into the rocks by the sheer force of ocean power

I was amused by one of the few vans that temporarily disrupted our solitude.  They stopped near the island, hopped out for a minute or two to look at the island, and then hopped right back in and drove off.  Places to go, people to see... but we were the lucky ones, just us and this remote little island, exploring at leisure.

These are the moments to savour.  I can never be one of those tourists that hops out, takes a photo, and drives away to the next bit of novelty.  I dig my toes in the sand, watch the way the wind moves, listen to the sounds of birds and surf, smell the sea air, taste it on my lips, bend down to examine tiny curled up ferns or mysteriously shaped flower buds on plants I've never seen before and will never see again.  These are the moments I remember most, not anything I snapped a picture of.

We finally tore ourselves away from this incredible patch of 90 mile beach and drove back up to Cape Reinga to catch the end of one final sunset, and to say goodbye.  I felt still and sad, having to leave this place, but also incredibly lucky to have come here and experienced it the way I did.

Sitting on a hill looking down at the most northern tip of the country, where a sea and an ocean collide, and where the Maori believe their souls return to their ancestral homeland

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