New Zealand travel writer Justine Tyerman and family visit the dramatic black sand beaches of Auckland’s West Coast…
The first glimpse of the black sand beach at Piha with its mountainous surf thundering in from the Tasman Sea, swirling around the haunches of the giant crouching lion, stopped us in our tracks. Accustomed to the golden sands and more docile surf of the East Coast, the wild West Coast where the sand shone like pewter or black pearls, seemed other-worldly.
The sound of sirens as the Piha lifeguards roared out through the ferocious waves in their IRBs on one of their famous rescue missions added to the drama of the scene.
Short of time, we chose Piha as the base for our annual family get-together because it’s close to Auckland and none of us had ever been there before. Just 50-60 minutes’ drive from the airport, it was easy for us to collect our far-flung family flying in from distant places, and run away for a long weekend together.
The Hillary Trail
We spent a long weekend hiking the spectacular Hillary Trail, a 76km multi-day hike from the Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitakere Ranges to Muriwai Beach. It’s named in honour of the famous Kiwi explorer and mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary who came to the rugged Waitakere Ranges to prepare for his expeditions.
During our stay, we managed to tick off a sizeable chunk of the trail from Anawhata to Whatipu, albeit the cushy way, returning to our luxurious home base every night.
A highlight was the Piha to Karekare stretch of the walkway which was high above the coastline and rich in history. The track begins at the end of Log Race Road, a reminder of the intensive logging of kauri in the area during the late 1800s-early 1900s. Logs were transported by tramway from Anawhata to Paratutai Wharf at Whatipu where they were loaded onto ships for export.
Also at the start of the track is a relic of WW2, the foundations of a radar station where the skies and seas were scanned for signs of invading Japanese. Sited on Hikurangi, the highest hill in the region, the station was part of a coastal network, and a key part of New Zealand’s home defence system.
The station was later used in experiments to pinpoint sources of radio emissions from space, research which laid the foundations for the modern science of radio astronomy. Information boards and audio recordings give a fascinating account of the life of the station.
Te Ahua Point Lookout is a site of deep historical significance to Te Kawerau a Maki iwi, the tangata whenua of the region. Gazing out to sea, there’s a striking pou (carving) of a beautiful, young noble woman named Hinerangi after an honoured Turehu ancestress. Hinerangi and her husband lived happily at Karekare for many years until one day he was swept away by a wave while fishing off the rocks at Te Kawa Rimurapa in Mercer Bay.
Grief-stricken, Hinerangi climbed to the top of the highest cliff and sat there for days, scanning the turbulent seas, longing for her husband’s return. She eventually died of a broken heart and her sad face is said to be etched in the cliff face. The site is called Te Ahua o Hinerangi — The Likeness of Hinerangi. Recent archaeological excavation shows the headland is one of the oldest settled areas of the Waitakere Ranges and was a sanctuary and defensive position for Te Kawerau a Maki.
The track took us high above Mercer Bay with its sphinx-like rock formations to a lookout where we could see the shimmering black sands of Karekare Beach, recently named one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, and the vast expanse of the Whatipu Scenic Reserve in the distance.
That evening we rewarded ourselves with burgers and fish and chips at the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club as the sun set over the Tasman, an awesome sight for a family of East Coasters who are accustomed to sunrises over the Pacific but seldom see the sun sink into the ocean. It was dazzling.
Accommodation was at a premium that weekend, but thanks to my membership of the international home swap club, Love Home Swap, we found a primo place in a perfect location.
I joined Love Home Swap in 2013 and the Piha house is one of many fabulous private homes we’ve stayed at around the world. We stayed five nights and paid precisely nothing… unless you take into account the beer and nibbles we shared with owners, Dave and Emma, who joined us for a chat one evening.
That’s another great factor about Love Home Swap — you make new friends wherever you go, people who not only entrust you with their lovely homes but also introduce you to their communities and networks, and give you the inside goss on where to wine, dine, hike and sightsee.
Dave, an advanced paramedic and former Piha lifeguard, and Emma, who works for the design label Sabatini, were delightful company with a wealth of knowledge about the area. We felt like celebrities after they told us we were living in a film set for the new TV series 800 Words which screens on TVNZ1 on Sunday evenings.
We’ve kept in touch with many people we’ve met through Love Home Swap over the years.
The ‘stays’ are managed by an exchange of points, a form of currency, rather than an actual home swap, although that’s always an option.
It often does not suit members to swap simultaneously so the points system provides the flexibility and freedom to stay wherever and whenever you choose. Dave and Emma earned 750 points for our stay which they can ‘spend’ anywhere in the world at a time that suits them. Keen surfers, they may well turn up on our doorstep in Gisborne one day.
Built of silvery Lawsons cypress, the design of the house was visually striking, featuring two cubes of different heights, the larger, taller one resting on the smaller, lower one, with a void between. A front north-facing deck leads to a tropical sun-filled garden and outside dining area with a massive macrocarpa table, while the back deck with its spa pool are suspended above the dark, moody, misty Waitakere Ranges with Karekare Beach in the distance.
A covered passageway frames the view like a living artwork. Huge glass doors can be swung into place to enclose it and provide shelter in wet or windy weather.
Designed by Tim Dorrington of Dorrington Atcheson Architects, the house was built with easy-care, hard-wearing materials like the polished concrete floors in the open plan kitchen-living-dining area.
A hefty macrocarpa servery board, hand-made by Dave, sits on the recycled oak kitchen island, while the main workbench is stainless steel.
A cosy, carpeted lounge with panoramic windows overlooking the wooded Waitakeres and Karekare Beach steps down from the kitchen. A comprehensive TV/home entertainment centre lines one wall while comfy bean bags, built-in seating and a wood-burning stove create a snug, intimate feeling.
Upstairs, spacious, airy bedrooms, balconies and a bathroom also have spectacular views.
It was the perfect location for our foursome to rebond after too long apart. The place just seemed to have good feng shui. It’s a house with a smile.
Have you ever been to Auckland?
Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Justine Tyerman stayed at Dave and Emma’s Love Home Swap property at Piha.
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Getting there: JUCY Rentals.