Thirteen years ago when I travelled in New Zealand, a couple I met in Auckland told me about Wharariki Beach (pronounced Fah-rah-reekee), and said I must go, and that I should go at sunset, and at low tide.
Luckily, when my friend and I found ourselves in the area, low tide and sunset times actually happened to coincide, and we went, hurrying in the coming twilight through a field of cows, and had all of about 20 minutes on the beach before having to walk back to the car park due to impending darkness.
My memory is of a wild, windswept expanse of flat sand with waves crashing on it, backed by grass-speckled dunes, and a colony of seals barking in the distance, just in front of the setting sun. It was stunning.
That twenty minutes wasn’t long enough, and ever since that day so long ago I’ve meant to return to Wharariki Beach. I even mentioned it a while back in my post about ‘My Top Five Destinations I’d Like to Revisit’.
And finally, last week, I made it there.
The journey to the beach begins with a car ride, from Takaka, the main town in Golden Bay, past the very small village of Collingwood and through a couple of tiny hamlets, until the sealed road turns to gravel for the last six kilometres.
From the car park the walk starts, through Puponga Farm Park, a DOC-managed property meant to act as a buffer between civilization and the delicate environments of Wharariki Beach and Farewell Spit. The track goes across some rolling hills, past some of the least fearful sheep I’ve seen in New Zealand, and through small bits of forest before turning to sand.
Then, over the crest of a hill, Wharariki Beach lies before you.
It’s stunning in its stark rawness, the rolling dunes leading down to a vast, flat stretch of sand that extends far into the distance, to a headland that appears simply as a dark outline through the spray created by the waves.
Rocky outcrops dot the shoreline, breaking through the dunes to meet the sea at high tide and leaving caves for us to explore at low tide.
A few rocks stand alone in the water, mammoth islands of stone with arches cut through them by the pounding waves.
And around one particular rocky islet, a small pool is formed at low tide, surrounded by small sandy beaches and rocky perches perfect for fur seals. The seal pups gather here, and they play together in the pool, darting and diving through the water, flipping and jumping like dolphins, barrel rolling and lazing about before exiting the water for a preen and a nap on the beach.
This is where they learn and practice the skills that will sustain them through their lives in the wild ocean. It’s fascinating to watch.
They challenge each other, roaring in the style of big bull seals fighting for territory or females, but in their tiny baby squawk rather than a real bellow and with a bravado that they have yet to actually acquire.
Being just pups, they’re clumsy, and sometimes the transition from rock to pool results in a rather ungraceful and hilarious flop.
If you’re standing there watching they might also come up to you to check you out, curious and completely unafraid.
I’m pretty sure I could sit and watch seal pups play for hours.
The track works as a loop, and at low tide once you’ve reached the beach you can walk all the way down to the other end, working your way around some rocks and through an arch to emerge on another part of the beach before taking the track back up over the dune and across fields of sheep back to the car park.
I went to Wharariki Beach three times. Once simply wasn’t enough, and the first time I made the mistake of going with someone else. And while he was very nice, after waiting so long to see this beach again I should’ve just gone alone and let the full force of its beauty hit me.
I stayed on the beach well past the time my companion had departed (saying ‘it could be any beach anywhere’…I felt a bit sorry for him that he didn’t seem able to appreciate it), wading through the incoming tide, taking photos, and just immersing myself in it.
After taking another, longer walk through the farm park, I went back to the beach for sunset, as I had that first time. And while it wasn’t the best sunset I’ve ever seen, it was still lovely and a stunning place to be for it.
My third visit was even better. The late afternoon sun was out, turning the dune grass golden and showing the multiple colours of the rocks.
There were far more seal pups in the pool than the first time, and they were extremely playful and active.
I lingered for a long time, reluctant to leave this beautiful place for what would probably be the last time.
I can’t believe it took me seven and a half months in New Zealand to finally get to Wharariki Beach. Considering it was the one thing I refused to miss in this country this time around, you’d think I would have gotten there sooner! But it was entirely worth the wait. I just hope it’s not another thirteen years before I make it back there again!