Te Paki Coastal Walk – A walk on the wild side

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The Giant Sand Dunes at Te Paki Stream

Things which were on my mind about this walk included thirst, heat and high tides. Isolation and remoteness did not bother me so much until I actually got to walk the track when they kind of unnerved me a little but about this later.

The Far North is isolated and sparsely populated. It does not have a big enough population to sustain a full coverage public transport network so accessibility for people who don’t drive like myself is a challenge. For this reason, the transport arrangements for this tramp got a bit complicated and took a little while to sort out as I needed to get to the middle of nowhere in order to be able to access any sort of shuttle service to the end of the Earth — quite literally, the track goes along the very edge of the North Island. On the advice of one of the local iSITE centres (very helpful people) I got up to Kaitaia and from there booked two one-day trips with one of the local tour operators going up to Cape Reinga.

Understandably, the tour company were reluctant to take me on because of all the health and safety legislation they have to comply with so it took a little convincing that I was not going to become a liability for them. I am grateful they took me on, though. I got dropped off at the Pandora track which is 6km inland from the Pandora campsite, the second campsite along the track after Spirits Bay which lies 11km to the east. This was okay as I was mainly keen to check out the Waitahora Lagoon and did not so much mind skipping the long beach walk from Spirits Bay to Pandora. I can see in this an opportunity for another trip, especially considering Spirits Bay’s reputation as a stunner of a place.

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The Pandora Track and a view of Spirits Bay

The first thing that hit me on my way up north was the heat and how much hotter and drier the weather was in comparison to elsewhere I had been in New Zealand. One thing which will stick with me from this walk is the relentless sweating. As soon as I got dropped off and started walking up the Pandora track, the great perspiration of my life began. I had not thought it was possible to sweat so much and then sweat some more. Despite my near evaporation, the walk from the head of the Pandora track to the Pandora campsite was pleasant on the eye and the ear. I had the cicadas singing their songs of summer and love and the stunning views of the ocean and Spirits Bay stretching to the east.

Once I got to the Pandora site I hurried on to the lagoon as I could not contain my excitement. I had held the dream of this place for so long and was now going to walk into it. It was a beautiful sight and worth backtracking a little to have a glance at it. Once I had gobbled up enough of the lagoon with my eyes, I walked back to the Pandora campsite and carried on to the Tapotupotu campsite.

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The Waitahora Lagoon

Things got a little bit circular here. I was once again on the track away from the beach and had the option to go back the way I had come or take a little side track. I decided that taking the side track would be more interesting since I had already walked the other way. All in all, it was a steady climb for about 30 minutes. Every time I thought it was over there was another steep hill to climb around the corner. Finally, I got to the top where things were starting to look flat and followed the sign to the Tapotupotu Bay or so I thought. Next I started descending and 20 minutes later found myself at the place where I had started an hour ago. What!?

Just at that moment another tramper appeared. He was on his way to the Pandora campsite so I chatted with him about what had just happened. He seemed to be quite familiar with the place and let out that the little side track I had taken was a shortcut and was not on the map I was holding. He agreed that the sign at the top was a little confusing but then went on to assure me that most people got it right. Clearly, I am not in that category but whatever. I dare say that lots of good things came out of this for me. I got to refill my nearly empty water bladder and got lots of good material for future analogies.

With my confidence a little ruffled but enthusiasm intact, I was soon back walking and this time was not going to take my chances so went the way that was shown on the map. The tramper I met earlier told me with great conviction that I should just keep going straight all the way until I got to the Tapotupotu. It was going all very well until I got to a junction where I could continue straight on or turn left. I went straight obviously because that is the way I was meant to go, plus there were pink ribbons hang up on the trees – surly, those needed to be followed. The path got pretty vertical very quickly, the bush got thicker and shortly after there was no path to speak of; but I could still see the trail of pink ribbons hang up on the trees. I kept thinking to myself that this could not be the track as there was no track but I was determined to see where the pink ribbons would take me to.  The trail of pink ribbons ended at a trap just like that. And I was trapped too. All I could think of was that I needed to get out of there quick. I had to put up a fight with the bush which all of a sudden became alive and was trying to hold me back. It felt a lot like being in a Brother Grimms’ fairy tale. But I fought hard and managed to get out and got away only with an altered life path. Well, that’s just figurative speech. I fell to the ground and got a cut right over the life line on my palm which took time to heal and re-appear.

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The creepy bush

Obviously, after this unintended detour I traced back my steps and at the junction went the other way. I had lost all my confidence by that point but my determination to make it to the campsite had gotten a little stronger. I could not tell if I was walking the right way as I could not see far enough ahead of me and there were no track markers. But after a little while a I sighted the light house at Cape Reinga and could heave a sigh of relief. I had already figured I was going the right way when track markers started appearing every step of the way. As the camp at the Tapotupotu Bay came into view I could see that the grounds were massive and there were heaps of people. It is accessible via road so it is a popular spot with campers. As soon as I made it down to the campsite I took my sweaty attire off and went into the ocean for a quick dip. The only dip I took for the entire tramp as the ocean here, though stunningly beautiful is a scary beast. It roars day and night, making a terrifying crunching noise. At the campsite I took full advantage of all the amenities, ie took a shower and gave my clothes a wash. Then I got into my tent and had an extremely unsuccessful night of trying to get some sleep. It did not help being watched by a battalion of mosquitoes, trapped between the fly and the tent, who kept their preying eyes on me the entire night. They did not get me that night but had a little feast in the morning.

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Tapotupotu Beach

The next day was a solemn day of walking. I had to walk 19 km to Twilight Beach and was not going to take a step further, especially that I only managed to squeeze an hour of uninterrupted sleep the night before. The distance from Tapotupotu to Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of New Zealand, is 5 km of alternating ascents and descents. All that climbing made me thirstier than I had ever been. The terrain is not tricky but the lack of shade put a massive dehydration levy on me. I had to start rationing my water intake early on as I did not want to drink all my water supplies before making it to Twilight as there would be no water points along the track. The track after Cape Reinga took me along Te Werahi beach which has a section inaccessible during high tides. I was lucky not to have to worry about timing my walk according to the tides too much as it was just before the big tides were due that month. This day the landscape changed a lot. At the end of Te Werahi beach I entered a desert like landscape of peach-coloured sand dunes. This place was beautiful and wicked in equal measures. I did not want to stray off the beaten track here so kept on concentrating on where I was walking. That was a strategy which paid off as I got out of there and continued onto the next section of the track, without any unnecessary detours.

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Clockwise from top left: on the way to cape Reinga, cape Reinga, the peach-coloured dunes

I was now walking in a low shrub area elevated high enough above sea level to offer views of critical landmarks on the track, ie Twilight Beach and the sand dunes. As I was looking ahead of me and figuring out how far everything was I had a realisation that the nearest road was a long, long way away from where I was, I had not seen a single soul on the track the entire day and I did not have mobile phone reception. Luckily, I got distracted from my catastrophizing thoughts by a cheerful sight. As I got down to Twilight Beach and could see in the distance the cheerful ventilation heads of the campsite loos. Who would have thought that this sight would bring so much joy into my heart! I thought I would have the campsite all to myself as I was the only person when I got there but was joined by a group of four later in the evening. It was nice to have them turn up as we chatted about the way we experienced the track which for me was an affirmation that I had not just dreamed it.

It rained the entire night which was a blessing as it drowned all the mosquitoes. It was perfectly timed as it cleared by the morning and there was not a sign of a single rain cloud in the sky the next day. The final day on the track came to be a great day of walking as the landscape offered spectacular views of the Twilight Beach and the north end of the 90-mile beach from Scott’s Point. It was lovely to walk on the beach and be able to take my shoes off at the Te Paki Stream turn off point and walk that final stretch of the track barefoot.

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Clockwise from top left: Twilight Beach, The North End of the 90-Mile Beach, The Giant Sand Dunes at Te Paki Stream

This walk was a challenge to organise and things did not go as planned on few occasions but I did love many things about it. The things that stood out for me were the variety of the landscape and the remoteness of the place. What a hauntingly beautiful place, fit for a final departure point just as the Maori imagined it.

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