Are beaches the best places in the universe to read and think?
That’s the claim of a Latin American writer – maybe Borges? – whose name I’ve forgotten.
Beaches are huge, blank canvasses on which we can pour out dreams, monologues and interior inquests, he or she says.
That being so, Ninety Mile Beach in New Zealand’s far north must be among the world’s premier reading-and-musing beaches.
Because, while not literally ninety miles long, it’s not far off it, and it has a mighty, beautiful blankness the like of which I’ve never felt before.
Day Two – Twilight Beach campsite to Maunganui Bluff campsite: 28km
This is how Ninety Mile Beach looks the first time you see it on the Te Araroa trail, when you reach the top of Scott Point, a few kilometres south of Twilight Beach and Cape Maria van Diemen:
That great length of sand disappears into the horizon like a two-dimensional, horizontal cliff.
It’s even intimidating in print: nearly six pages of Te Araroa maps are nothing but beach, an almost unwavering white line drilling relentlessly down the margin, washed by a million paper combers rolling endlessly in from paper Australia.
The headland I took this pic from is an hour or so south of Twilight Beach, along sandy tracks through low scrub. My pack was lighter without all that water, but it was still a hard slog up.
But I knew it was the last climbing I’d do for a few days; after that, the beach is almost completely unbroken by ups or downs, a long, gradual, flat crescent. The only bump is Maunganui Bluff, a low outcrop 25 kilometres south of where I took this pic. There’s a stream there you can drink from; that’s where I had to get to by evening.
I was carrying four litres of water, which would only last that far.
There are creeks along the beach, but they’re tidal, or dry in midsummer, so you’d have to trek far up to get drinkable water. There are no settlements on the beach, so the only other option is to trudge a couple of hours up through scrub or farmland to the road.
The first time in my life I saw Ninety Mile Beach was from the air. I was 24, and on my way to teach English in South Korea. It was also my first time travelling further away than Australia. That massive beach curved away behind the plane, a long, golden, goodbye scarf.
It’s got its name, it’s said, because it took a pioneer three days to traverse by horse and cart; he knew the horse could do thirty miles a day, and christened the beach accordingly. But that beach has a habit of doing funny things with time, and he’d actually only managed 18 miles daily; a total of 88 kms.
If he’d been French, and less optimistic, he might have got closer – but “Ninety Kilometre Beach” doesn’t roll off so neatly.
The Māori name is more precise – Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē: the long beach of Tōhē.
Tōhē was a chief of the the Ngāti Kahu people, who has at least three lovely claims to fame.
One is the “catch my spirit” request he made of his descendants, described in a post below.
Another is that he gave names full of music and meaning to pretty much everything in this region – headlands, hills, islands, streams, beaches.
(Speaking of which: part of the potent charm of the far north is that it is an area of Aotearoa where the original Māori names, like Tōhē’s, have largely resisted the galloping nomenclature of invading Brits. So instead of honouring alien bishops, patrons and politicians of questionable honour, and with little or no connection to this beautiful place, Northland’s names tell truer stories).
The other cool thing about Tōhē is that he was, you could say, one of the first trampers.
His final act in life was to walk along this same beach, one he’d walked up and down many times, naming his world.
He knew he was dying, and wanted to do something bittersweet one more time before he died: take a last look at his treasured daughter, Rāninikura. She had married a man from down the coast.
Tōhē didn’t make it that far, reaching only the bluff I’m headed for today.
So I salute him from Scott’s Point and dive down into that linear, salt-washed desert.
Some walkers say the long beach of Tōhē is boring; it’s just a three-day yomp down a sandy highway, they say, the scenery never changing, your circulating thoughts driving you spare, nothing to distract you from your blistering feet and jolted joints, which are nearly shaken loose by the unrelenting grind.
I couldn’t disagree more.
While that colossal blankness and fabulous spaciousness do have their demanding side, I’m with the poet Larkin on this:
Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!
The emptiness lets you hear your real thoughts, not the habitual, scrabbling ones.
And the radical lack of anything, anywhere made by humans, and how small you are in the face of so much sand, water and sky… it seeps into you.
And you start feeling there’s no actual separation between you and the big beach.
Which is anything but repetitive; it’s endlessly changing. There’s the tide; the sun, the light, the weather, the clouds, the waves, they all do their enormous, inventive thing.
Then there’s the tidal drawings on the sand, the beach’s colour and texture, the birds, crabs, shells, fish, seaweed, the length and shade of the dune grass, the falling and rising line of the dunes, the creeks that come and go…
I came around a dune at one point, by a creek, to find a mob of wooly, red-coated, wild horses. They looked at me with shining eyes.
And another time I found this guy, among the dunes:
He flopped out of some flax in front of me, paused, casually boarded my held-out hand. Regarded me gravely while I took a pic. Hopped off, darted away; had shit to do.
Sometimes the beach is a sunny, bronzed highway; other times it gets grumpy, apocalyptic even:
Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the sky ends and the water starts.
Or the sand.
Sometimes I had to pull over, dig my journal and some biltong out of my pack, and write for a while.
Or just stare at the horizon.
I’m with Borges, or whoever it was: beaches do that to you.
The only other feature to interrupt the spacious blankness of the beach, apart from Maunganui Bluff, is Matapia Island – which also appears on the first day.
It’s a mystery at first, a hazy blob. As you draw very slowly more and more abreast, over a couple of hours, it sharpens, defining itself bit by bit against all the emptiness.
It’s educating you on how to move along the curve of the earth, with the soles of your feet, your lungs, your sweat; how to dream while walking, as a dog or horse does; how to move like a part of the planet, not dislocated from it, not disdainful of the dirt and blood of it.
After a long time, you round Matapia’s shoulder, one minuscule pace at a time – your little yard, your minor metre.
Then, startled, you can see right through it – it has a hole, which you can only see from this angle.
I learned later that same hole gave it a beautiful name, one that Leonard Cohen might have liked, with his idea that
There is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in.
According to The Tribes of Muriwhenua: Their Origins and Stories by Dorothy Ulrich Cloher, the island was named Matapia – shining face – by Tōhē (of course). He called it that because his servant Ariki saw that hole shining through mist, and said:
The hole of a face is shining at me.
After another long time, the island is no longer beside you on the horizon, but over your shoulder; and you feel relieved that you are actually progressing down that long, golden line.
Finally, 28 kilometres from Twilight Beach, I reached the Bluff; exhausted, thirsty, thrilled by the sunset.
The campsite is run by a local trust and is pretty basic.
The water source is a pipe which directs a stream into a bathtub; the toilet is… best left undescribed.
But the twilit sea was delicious to jump into after walking all day.
And a dinner of two-minute noodles and tuna tastes amazing with the sound of the waves and the Tasman breeze.
Day Three – Maunganui Bluff campsite to Utea Park campsite (30km)
In the morning I got away early: 30 kilometres was going to test a tenderfoot like me.
The changing tide varies your day, but also toughens the challenge.
At high tide you find yourself slogging through soft sand near the dunes, or sloppy sand further down.
Some 90 Mile Beach hikers have even slept during the day and tramped by moonlight, to get the best use of the low tides. Day worked better for me, with high tides around dawn.
I daydreamed the second day away in a salty daze, watching the universe tick by, a step at a time.
My boots, cheap ones I’d hoped would get me through one more tramp, were not up to the task; I had bad blisters already. I did long sections barefoot; it was especially good at higher tides, sploshing along in the foamy wash.
Your analytical mind switches off, and you think and feel and live with your whole being, as it steps along the broad wet sweep of the world.
I thought about all kinds of things. You have time, and space, and fresh air, to do a lot of considering, remembering, digesting, feeling. Things you shut away a long time ago can surface; you can watch them emerge, and take them in.
Meanwhile, your feet and legs and arms attached to walking poles keep steaming away, finding a rhythm.
It’s a really incredible way to spend a day.
But nearing nightfall, my feet were throbbing, and my shoulders under the pack, and my mind. I was out of water. I’d had enough, had been walking for 12 hours, and was hanging on, searching for some sign of Utea Park campsite.
Then I saw this ragged green flag appear above the dunes:
I stumbled wearily up through the soft sand; young people in jandals and sunglasses started appearing, watching the sunset, drinking beer.
An English couple sitting arm-in-arm beneath a dune pointed me up a sandy track.
A cluster of quaint wooden cabins appeared, some vans and tents, a communal kitchen from which poured music, chatter, the smell of seafood cooking.
I flopped onto a seat, shattered, happy. An older, bearded guy waved from the balcony of his cabin: “Oho! We have a walker.”
He came over a put a cold beer in my hand. “Good trip?”
Two German backpackers, Flo and Eva, joined us. They were fascinated by Te Araroa too. “What’s it like?”
They gave me a big plate of steamed tuatua – a delicious shellfish you can dig from the beach here; a specialty of Utea Park.
The proprietor Tania, who belongs to the local iwi, teaches campers how to find them; the camp’s driveway is paved with their crunchy shells.
The older guy, a retired Canadian sailor, kept plying me with Steinlager, and Flo and Eva with tuatua. Tania came over for a yarn too, and the English couple from the beach. It was a very still, mild night; the stars came out above Utea, Tania’s ancestral hill, which rises whale-like among the dunes beside the camp.
I hadn’t moved since I arrived; I was happy, full, and charmed by the company and the setting, and thought I might never move again.
We talked til after midnight. Then I had a hot shower that just about made me weep with pleasure, fell into one of the cabins, and passed out as if shot.
Day Four – Utea Park to Ahipara (31km)
With hindsight, I wish I’d just walked to the next campsite, Waipapakauri, 17km down the beach – I was shot to pieces by this stage and could have done with an easy day.
Instead I pushed through to Ahipara, another 14km further on, and ended up putting in about a 14-hour day on my blistered, throbbing feet. I’m not sure what I was trying to prove, or to whom.
One factor in the decision to keep going was probably this notable change in the view, which emerged soon after leaving Utea Park:
It’s the end of Ninety Mile Beach – the headland beyond Ahipara, the finish line, the seductive sign that you’ve made it down that immense stretch of space, of absence.
It drew me on, beguiling me into keeping plodding when I had nothing left.
Closer now to civilisation, there were more fishermen, appearing in utes or simply standing in the surf, contemplating absence perhaps, or dreaming of snapper.
Occasionally farmers drive by too – the beach is a legal road, and the locals use it to shoot up and down between paddocks or to commute into Kaitaia or Ahipara.
The most incongruous traffic, though, is the tour buses. You’re wombling along in a dreamy, contented, painful blur, when you become aware of a mechanical keening, a diesel hum; you whip around, lest you become road kill, and see the juggernaut in the vast distance, a mirage wobbling between sea and sky.
The bus grows bigger, til it rockets past, tourists faces white blobs against the glass or facing the front, indifferent, earbuds in.
As the metal box diminishes I trudge on, thinking that my way hurts more, but I like it better.
When I neared Ahipara I saw the “standing fire” sunset in the exhausted, thirsty, semi-delirious state described in an earlier post.
But by the time I got to the sandy ramp up into the town itself it was dark, and I found my way up the ramp by torchlight.
Staggering out onto the road I passed a parked carload of teenage girls, who appeared to be watching the moon rise over the sea while hot-boxing. One wound down a window, and a fragrant cloud emerged.
“Tēnā koe, e hoa,” she said. “Where have you come from?”
The Cape, I said, swaying.
“Oh, true? Mean, bro. How long did that take?”
Three and a half days, I said, forcing my tongue to move in my dry mouth. “Oh, good one, bro. They usually take longer than that.”
I felt ludicrously proud.
The girl in the driver’s seat craned past her friend so she could meet my eye. “Kia ora, matua,” she said.
At this term of acknowledgement for an older person I felt both touched and dismayed. Are my whiskers that white?
But mostly touched.
I thanked them and tottered on. After 14 hours and 31 kilometres, the extra kilometre to the YHA campsite seemed an exaggerated torture.
But finally I made it. It was nearly 10pm. I went to the communal reception and dining area, which was full of light, and families and couples dining, playing cards or drinking. I imagined the sensation I was about to make, covered in sand, salt and sweat, bearded and battered, exotically burdened, many miles of empty sea filling my eyes.
But when I walked in, barely a head bobbed; and those that did went straight back to their cards or steaming cups.
No-one cared I’d just walked 100 kilometres.
But that was OK.
Soon I was crawling into an upper bunk, ecstatic to be horizontal. Drifting off, my mind’s eye was full of that immense canvas that was now, for me, anything but blank.