Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ninety Mile Beach

Maori called it Te Oneroa a Tohe - the long beach of Tohe.  These days it is often referred to as the Sandy Highway.  Although the beach is navigable by vehicle it can be treacherous and many cars have bogged down over the years because drivers miscalculated the sweep up the beach of incoming tides.  That happened to me many years ago on another west coast beach, further south.  

It is a unique part of New Zealand, rich in Maori history, every knoll and stream has its name and story, some fairly modern but others dating from the dim dawn of man's first days in New Zealand. 

European history coincided with Abel Tasman's ships sailing along Ninety Mile Beach in December 1642.
During WWII the RNZAF and Army maintained a presence at Waipapakauri and there was often speculation – and fears - of a possible Japanese invasion; there were even rumours of alien lights being spotted out at sea.   (I do wonder though how they identified lights as alien.)

Up to about the 1980s Ninety Mile beach was occasionally used for droving.  I would have loved to see thousands of cattle being herded down the beach, against a back-drop of magnificent breakers as far as the eye could see. 

I love the story of how the beach was given its name as it is actually 55 miles (88 km) long. The most common story stems from the days when missionaries travelled on horse back when on average a horse could travel 30 miles (50 km) in a day before needing to be rested. The beach took three days to travel therefore earning its name, but the missionaries did not take into account the slower pace of the horses walking in the sand, thus thinking they had travelled 90 miles (140 km) when in fact they had only travelled 55.  

In 1928 Charles Kingsford Smith used it as a runway to take off on his first flight across the Tasman to Australia (14 hours and 25 minutes) and in 1932, Ninety Mile Beach was used as the runway for some of the earliest airmail services between Australia and New Zealand.  It is still used as an alternative road to State Highway 1, though mainly for tourist reasons, or when the main road is closed due to landslides or floods.

Oh, there are so many stories, many shipping tragedies and when you stand on the beach and see line after line of glorious breakers you get a sense of timelessness. 
When Chris and I ventured out to the beach access at Hukatere on Saturday, we’d driven through a real downpour which had blown over when we arrived, and been replaced with a stiff breeze.  We could see the beach access but couldn’t see where to park so followed a little track that lead us to a entry way with a sign “Ute Park”.  I was thinking ute as in a light pick up truck and wondered what the hell a ute park was.  Mind you, there was a ute coming out of a another track on our left.  We saw a few small buildings, some not yet completed and followed the track until we saw a man coming towards us.  A burly sort of guy with a lovely, open, smiling face.  He told us we were welcome to park on his land and use his facilities and after we’d parked, we wandered over for a chat.  This man (we got his card but not his name) explained that he is setting up an accommodation park, has already had school groups camping on his grounds and a thousand visitors stay there in the past year.  He has a completed a “club house” with kitchen and bathroom facilities (cold water showers only) and was about to start work on one of two little huts which hold a bed or two. 

He invited us at have a look at the completed cabin up by his house which can sleep four (with hot water).  It’s just a humble little cabin, entry from the back.  I will never forget how my heart skipped when we opened that door and stepped into that room with “the window”.    I am so disappointed with this photo.  We really could see the surf a lot more clearly than this shot suggests.  This was the sort of place Chris and I were hoping to spend our mid-winter break but the place we had in mind is closed during winter.  We have found an even better place.  We will return to “the window”.

cabin window

We wandered down to the beach, in awe of the line after line of breakers.  I should have taken a photo from on top of the little sand hills as the front breakers hide the ones following.

It’s a wonder Chris and I don’t lose each other sometimes.  She wanders off lost in her world and I wander off lost in mine.  But we share a love of places like this.  The beautiful, often isolated. places of the north we have both adopted and love.


Next time we come we will walk around these bays to the north.


And we both felt the sadness at seeing the rubbish washed up by recent storms.  In this wild, unspoilt place, where does it come from?


Sad, too, at the number of birds victim to recent storms.

dead bird 1

I thought this little toggle was smiling up at me but I couldn’t pick it up, it was firmly ensconsed in the sand.

smiley face

A little fresh water stream finding its way to the sea alongside the beach access.  In the background is “Ute Park” with the owners house and the lower roofline of the little cabin. 

And a few cattle congregating in a little dip out of the wind.


I’ve gone on and on and not yet got to the best bit.  Before departing we once again chatted to the man.  He told us about the different people who come up off the beach seeking shelter, how he operates a bit of a rescue service to vehicles stuck in the tide and also to swimmers who don’t understand how dangerous these west coast beaches can be.  Then he said, “We’re pretty central here really.  It’s only 30 kms down the beach to Ahipara and 30 kms up the beach to The Bluff.”   I guess you’d have to be familiar with the geography and, by NZ standards, the isolation of this area to appreciate that comment and how funny Chris and I thought it was.  But then this is not our backyard and driving along a treacherous west coast beach is not ho hum to us. 

Oh, almost forgot about "ute                                                                              


  1. If I ever get to your part of the world I'll be asking for directions to this place. It's beautiful and looks like it has avoided the 'world class luxury' hotel development that has made Tofino unaffordable to ordinary people.

  2. What an absolutely magical place. You told its story so well I felt like I was there, wanting to step into those beautiful photos. I loved that window view too. Thanks Pauline, great post.

  3. A stunning place and the new header is a vast improvement.......even if the last did win you a prize.

  4. What a wild and isolated place. Some of the ocean photos were a bit unnerving for me but beautiful. I have a great fear of the ocean but it's possible that if I could experience a beach like this I would form a different opinion of it's beauty and power.
    The cows are beautiful.
    What is a "ute? Here in the States they are American Indians.

  5. Oh Pauline, what a beautiful spot. Thanks so much for the walk on the beach, it was like a breath of fresh air.

  6. 14 hours across the Tasman, eh. About the same as now if you take waiting in airports and airport security into account! I exaggerate of course but...

    I loved your statement "But what are plans other than more restrictions". You've definitely spawned a blog post for me with that one.

    As for the rest, your words, the photos, the sentiments, the whole have no idea Pauline just how I long to be back. Which is a wonderful irony given that in The Hebrides I, too, have such wilderness.


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