We all know that the best laid plans of mice and men go awry. A fact of life it seems. So after meticulously planning a weekend of hiking on the foot-hills of the Southern Alps, it shouldn’t have come as surprise to me to see the departure board at Auckland airport display the word cancelled next to my flight to Christchurch. Not that I’m complaining, I’ve caught endless amounts of flights and this is the first time I’ve had a cancellation. A good ratio, really. I was due a cancellation. It doesn’t stop the urge to get outside though, and with my heart set on getting into the hills, I had to come up with an alternative as to not waste that most precious of things, two days off.
So, I would be looking for a walk to do nearer to home. Something that meant I wouldn’t waste my weekend driving, but wouldn’t be a disappointing alternative to the drama of the South Island. In the end, I decided on a walk that I’d wanted to do for a little while. Not a mountain ascent with snow dusted peaks, but a completely different type of walk altogether.
Elishea and I would head to Mangawhai Heads. I knew of a popular walking track there that would head along cliffs and back along the beach. Nothing like what I thought my weekend’s walking would be like, but not necessarily a bad thing. Coastal walks, just like tramps in the hills, provide the platform to observe nature on a grand scale.
We parked at the Surf Club near the foot of the walk. Straight after getting out of the car, it was clearly a good decision to have come. The ocean and beaches along this coast are stunning. Soft and golden sand with a more tropical feel than the rugged wild coast to Auckland’s west.
The walk is only a 6 mile or so ramble and if you time it correctly (which we had) it means a walk along the cliff tops and a return along the shore. Soon after leaving the car park we headed for a short section along the beach before climbing a path the led up the cliff.
Ascending the cliff gave great views of the ocean to our right. The scattering of islands out to sea looking like wild out-posts and storybook treasure islands. To our left is a typical Northland scene; the terraced hillsides of luminous-green grass being munched by herds of cows.
In between these two landscapes was the habitat in which our track took us through. We walked along the cliffs in a narrow strip of bush that seems sandwiched between sea and farm. Gnarly pohutakawa trees cling to the side of the rock- some of a great size that must be ancient. Nikau palms line the sides of the track that leads along the edge of the cliffs. Every now and then, we were treated with a beautiful view of a cove way-down below. Each one empty of people and a reminder of New Zealand’s fantastic emptiness of people.
Eventually, the path began to wind steeply down to the water. Brought down to the water’s edge, we now had the pleasure of a gentle walk back along the shore. With the tide on it’s way out, this was easy enough. If you are planning to do this walk, you will need to check the tide times and make sure that you have enough time to walk along the shore without getting caught out by the incoming tide.
Luckily for us, the tide had retreated and left behind a series of rockpools and their inhabitants. Crabs scuttled under rocks as our shadows loomed over the pools. Star fish of various sizes lay at the bottom patiently waiting for the return of the tide. All of this life attracted lots of seabirds. Shags sat on the rocks looking as though they were admiring the views out to sea. White-faced herons and kingfishers stood over pools waiting for a unlucky creature to scurry within reach.
With the light gradually fading, we began the last stretch of beach at the end of our walk. As dusk developed and the shadows lengthened, the nocturnal animals began to stir. Just as I had started to day dream about seeing a kiwi plodding along the beach, there was a rustle in the bushes. Where the bushline met the sand. A brown lump. Perfectly kiwi-sized. Could it be? Of course not! If anything, it was the very enemy of the kiwi. A plump possum stood staring right at us. Mouth wide open, mid-chew, a petrified possum sculpture.
Possums are a real pest here in NZ and their introduction to Aotearoa in 1837 has been catastrophic for native wildlife. First introduced to NZ to establish a fur trade, they rapidly got out of control and are now trying to be managed with the hope of one day eradicating them. With no natural predator and an appetite for bird eggs, leaves and even native insects and invertebrates such as weta and land snails, it’s meant that possums have had little control. An alcoholic left behind the bar, if you will. Hopefully, with DoC setting the goal of being predator free by 2050, NZ will one day be free of these cuddly-looking (if not damaging) balls of very soft fur.
With the sun below the horizon, we ended our walk. A fantastic stretch of coast. Completely unique and as diverse as it gets. From the disappointment of missing out on peak-bagging in the mountains came a walk in quintessential New Zealand. I missed the chance to see rock and snow and instead got sand and water. Two different states of the same thing. This weekend reminded me of the everlong feud between North Islanders and South Islanders. Both so sure that their island is the best. The south championing it’s mountains and fiords, while the North shout of it’s volcanoes and beaches. I must say, that I completely agree with them both.
On Foot Note
- Map Used: TopoNZ50- AY1 Mangawhai
- This is a good opportunity to pick up a few bits of plastic you might see along the shore. We managed to grab a handful while walking along the beach. It’s easy to do and that little piece of plastic you stop and pick up might just save a seabird’s life.