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A Stunning Welcome Back to the West Coast

Karekare Whatipu Loop, Waitakere (22km – 6 hours).

Standing on Karekare beach I can understand why a famous director chose to shoot a movie here.

Apart from a lone fisherman practicing his craft we were the only people. Ahead of us the fine black sand, freshly groomed by the outgoing tide, stretched to the horizon.  Somewhere up there, over six kilometres away along the beach, was the entrance to the Manukau harbour.  The colours of the Tasman Sea always seem that much richer alongside the deep charcoals and blacks of the shoreline. Today the waves fought their way in against an offshore wind, finally crashing in a mass of spray and then racing up the sloping beach towards us, coming to a stop a few feet away.

Almost a kilometre away to our left, a few dunes dotted with wispy grass looked almost insignificant against the heavily scarred cliffs that were clearly losing the battle against the forces of this high-energy coastline.  Above these precipices, impenetrable-looking West Coast bush covered the ridges, the greenery contrasting starkly against the darker shades on the cliff faces. You can only be inspired by this place.

Finally, four years after the tracks had been closed to protect our native Kauri trees, we are able to travel the loop from Karekare to Whatipu and back. Our plan on this trip was to meet at the Karekare car park and travel south some 10km along the beach to the entrance of the Manukau Harbour at Whatipu. Then head inland past the camping ground and follow the newly completed Muir and Gibbons tracks back to Karekare.

From 90-mile beach to Fiordland, the West Coast is spectacularly wild country full of great walks but in terms of accessibility and variety of terrain, this rates as one of the best. Combining an open beach section leaving you fully exposed to the elements, to the relative calm of tracks meandering through lush bush, with stunning views from the cliff-tops and boardwalks over thriving wetlands.

Our leader made a great call when she decided to head south along the beach in the early morning just after low tide.  We all appreciated making fresh footprints along the firm sand, and we got to enjoy the wind at our backs on the most unprotected section of the walk. Much more appealing than a slog back into the wind in soft sand at high tide with tiring legs.

Another benefit of setting out in a strong northerly wind was the protection offered by the Waitakere range. It would rain quite steadily all day on the eastern side of the range, but on this side, we were well protected. Our day just got warmer and the sky clearer to the point where some of us would have run out of water if it hadn’t been for the water tanks at Pararaha campsite.

A couple of hours after setting off we passed the man-made driftwood structures standing stark and slightly out of place in the black sand and reached the entrance to the Manukau Harbour and a dramatic change in scenery.

Gone was the wide expanse of sand, replaced with the rugged Wing Head and Paratutai Island and deceptively calm waters, well sheltered from the swell. A couple of rocky outcrops in front of the Paratutai were stark-white with a coating of bird droppings, clearly a haven for the numerous sea birds.  The distant clay-coloured cliffs on the southern side of the heads looked serene with their smooth grassy tops compared to the dark rocky crags and dense bush on this northern side.

It was a pleasant surprise to realise we had covered over 10km and were almost exactly half-way by this stage. Our leader led us to a sheltered sand dune at the base of Wing Head for lunch. A brash pipit/pihoihoi dropped in and got to enjoy a few morsels of fruit as reward for its confidence.

Moving off the beach and onto the new Gibbons and Muir tracks was a pleasure. Costing over $2.3Mn, the helicopters, excavators and army of workers had moved on, leaving us to enjoy the serenity of the bush. Alongside and sometimes over us, regenerating karaka, cabbage tree, nikau, harakeke/flax, toetoe and manuka are thriving.

A timely shout-out to all those involved in this redevelopment. The track has been designed to last. No expense spared in building wide and well gravelled paths lined with deep drains. The bridges and numerous wide boardwalks make their way over the wetlands, and the many steps built to minimise erosion as well as making it easier for us to negotiate in bad weather.

Gibbons track has been routed to take full advantage of some magnificent cliff-top views that got more spectacular as we made our way to the top of the ridges. About half-way up the first ridge, we reached a lookout which took in a south-western vista including ninepin rock/Te Toka Tapu a Kupe, the beach and Paratutai island.

Impressive as it was, that stop did not compare to the panorama from the next clearing on the cliff edge high above the wide coastland. Facing more north, our gaze followed the dense bush-lined slopes of the cliffs on our right and then descended into the unique landscape below us with its scrub, marshes, and glistening lakes. Further out across coastal foliage and the dark band of beach, the foam lined edges of a deep-blue Tasman Sea looked deceivingly peaceful from this distance.

The rocky island at Karekare Beach was a very small and distant objective from this elevation.

The path meandered inland from this point, under overhanging plants to join the Muir track. It eventually descended steeply downward into the jagged Pararaha Valley campsite and shelter. The trail was still wide and well maintained, with wooden steps and a chain-rail at the steeper sections. Above us the sky was clearing, and temperatures were rising as fast as the humidity, so we enjoyed a welcome stop for a drink and a snack at the cooking shelter. Once on the valley floor we followed the raised boardwalks over swamps and alongside the steep valley faces, to the sand-dunes.

At this point one of our newer members let us know she had been enduring blisters from her relatively new boots. Fortunately, we had reached the soft sandy 4-wheel drive tracks in the dunes, and onto the firmer footing of dry lake beds, so she took off her boots and was able to walk in the relative comfort of her socks.

In a little over a kilometre the trail led us back towards the cliffs to the rail tunnel left from the original log-felling industry of the Gibbons family dating back over 150 years ago. Even though the passageway was part of a system that has denied us later generations the benefits and pleasure of the ancient Kauri, you can only respect the effort involved and sacrifices made by those who physically constructed the railway and passageway under the conditions at the time.

It wasn’t long before we were back at Karekare beach and a scattering of folk enjoying the surf or riding the beach on bikes.

Thanks to all those who have strived and succeeded in preserving this area, and to those who are helping to make it more like it once was. There has been such a vast improvement since it was first deemed a scientific reserve in 2002 and from what we saw on this trip, you can only be optimistic about the future.

My only regret was that we had not planned for a full weekend here and travelled the Omanawanui track which, I am told, is even more stunning than what we had already enjoyed.

I choose to use Jetboil, Keen footwear, Macpac and Backcountry products.




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