Monday 29 April 2019

Giant Dunes- Te Paki


From our base at the Tapotupotu Bay DOC camp ,we drove 15kms back down the main highway to visit one of the top tourist attractions in the Far North; the giant Te Paki Sand Dunes. A small inconspicuous sign post points the way down a short gravel side road to the dunes. Ahead of us, multiple clouds of dust indicate we're not the only ones visiting the dunes today and it doesn't take long for mounds of gleaming white sand to appear through the trees in front of us.

The dune carpark is busy and we're lucky to find a space, I've heard that on some days cars are parked haphazardly back along the road edge for a couple kilometres. 

The dunes are huge and from the carpark we can see a several groups of people, looking like tiny ants slowly making their way up the sides of the nearby dunes.

The Te Paki Sand Dunes are a coastal strip of ever changing sand 10km long, 1km wide and 150 metres high. The Te Paki Stream flows past in front of the carpark and heads for the coast through the middle of the dunes.

This entrepreneurial young guy from the local iwi (tribe) has the best job in the world he tells me, he says he travels the world from the back of his truck, meeting many different nationalities as he hires out sand boards to tourists that arrive to surf the dunes. He also has the gift of the gab and is well suited to his job.

I decide that it looks too much of an effort to climb to the top of the dunes and I also don't want to end up with sand in every nook & cranny so today I'll just sit and watch everyone else enjoy themselves. It's also very hot and the white sand is blinding, you definitely need sunglasses to cut out the glare.

Once people have crossed the stream (some leaving their shoes behind, they'll struggle walking over the hot sand), the climb begins easy enough but as they start climbing the steeper ridges it becomes a tough slog through the deep loose sand and I watch as feet and sometimes legs up to the knees are swallowed up by the sand with each laboured step. 

Some people decide it's just as much fun sliding down the slopes on the other side of the stream.

We have lunch at one of the picnic tables and watch as the keen ones make it to the top of the tallest dune. 

Once again I'm pleased I have my zoom lens (click on the photos to enlarge)-

Many wipe out soon after leaving the top, then it's a slow haul back up to the top.

It's recommended to take a scarf to wrap around you head; covering your ears, nose & mouth to stop the fine sand from getting in if you have a major wipe out. 

The Te Paki Stream cuts around the base of the nearby dunes as it heads to the sea. This wide braided stream bed is actually the 3km access track to the famous Ninety Mile Beach. If you've driven or taken a tour up the beach from Ahipara or any of the earlier access points, Te Paki Stream is also the last exit from the beach before Cape Reinga.

I'm disappointed when I see signs saying the track is temporarily closed due to a washout, I really want to drive through to the beach but David's not keen to take the ute anywhere there is salt water. While we're having a little discussion a Subaru shoots past us and off down the track.

I walk over and have a chat with my friendly entrepreneurial guy and he looks around furtively and then just to be sure he's not heard, he whispers from behind his hand that the track is fine for 4WDs. They (that's the royal they) have left the signs up to deter inexperienced overseas drivers in rental vehicles from driving through. He also mentions that he's been charging people a couple of hundred dollars to tow their vehicles out of the sand when they've ignored the signs & his warnings. 

I manage to convince David to at least see what's around the corner...

We follow other vehicles tracks, the sand is mostly firm and smooth although we can see where vehicles have taken a different track and become a little bogged. We meet a small tour van coming towards us, one of the occupants is standing atop a sand bank taking photos as they come through the water. The people from the Subaru that we'd seen heading down the track earlier, were now attacking the tallest dune from a different angle, clambering up the spine to the very top.

Rather than a washout, there's been a large sand slide over one section of the track at some stage. It's been packed down by passing vehicles but we still slip and slide through it before lurching out onto a very wide section of the stream bed. It's easy to follow the wrong tracks but we try to keep to the firmer wet sand until finally...

...we pop out onto Ninety Mile Beach.

Ninety Mile Beach is actually only 55 miles (88 kms) long. It is thought that European settlers named it because they knew their horses could travel up to 30 miles a day. Unfortunately they didn't account for the slower pace of travelling on sand.

Looking north to Scott Point and the top of 90 Mile Beach...

... and south along miles and miles of deserted coastline. Travel on the beach is recommended 3 hours after high tide. Most rental companies do not allow or insure their vehicles on the beach. There have been many instances of vehicles coming to grief along the beach in soft sand or being caught out by the tide which comes in a quite a pace.

David stops the ute where the fresh stream water dissipates into the sand, he's won't be going any closer to the salt water, so we walk down to the water's edge and check out a flock of seabirds resting along the wave line. You never know when you might spot an odd man out in amongst a regular flock of seabirds but today it's just a group of gulls and terns.

Another vehicle has come out from the stream bed and is quick to head south along the beach. I zoom in on it and in the background I can see clearly the tunnel in Matapia Island, a tiny island just offshore and the only one along the beach's length.

It's time for us to head back up the stream bed and once again it's difficult to follow the tracks and also remember which braiding we came through on the way down. One set of tracks cut through some soft sand and we're certain we didn't come this way earlier but we push on through and safely get to the other side. The Subaru has now gone from the base of the dunes and all they've left behind are dozens of footprints weaving their way up the dune. 

We stop alongside our mate at the truck to let him know he'll not be getting $200 from us today, wave cherrio and head on back to camp.

Monday 22 April 2019

Journey To The Top


We left Tokerau and the beautiful Karikari Peninsula heading north once again, north on our way to the very tip of the North Island. I'm sure every Kiwi has a pilgrimage to Cape Reinga on their 'must do once in a lifetime' bucket list. I know it's certainly on many overseas visitor's list going by the amount of tour buses, rental cars and campers we pass on the road.

The trip to the top for most people usually involves travelling part of the journey along 90 Mile Beach (which, despite the name, is only 55 miles long) but of course with the 5th-wheeler on the back this wasn't going to be an option for us. Although having experienced the beach and the access points later in our visit, we decided we could quite easily take the rig along the sand. We had a quiet chuckle imagining the looks on people's faces as we sailed by (literally if it was high tide!). 

We'd decided to drive to the top, stay in the DOC campground near Cape Reinga for a few days and then explore more slowly on our way back down the 100km long Aupouri Peninsula-the finger of land that forms the top of the North Island.

Of course this didn't mean we weren't able to stop along the way so I could add a few more church photos to my collection; the first one just outside Kaitaia; St Josephs Anglican Maori Church built in 1887.

The Seven Day Adventist Church at Te Kao has seen better days but I've included it here because I wanted to tell you a funny story about taking this photo. Well it is funny now, but at the time it wasn't, it was the most scariest thing I've experience on this journey of ours.

David had pulled up just off the road edge in front of a couple of rural houses. The church was on the other side of the road so I got out, crossed the road and took a few photos and then made my way back over the road and behind the rig to walk up to the front and my passenger door. As I walked around the back of the van this large barking, snarling, teeth bared mongrel of a dog burst out the open gate of one of the houses, charging straight for me.

I have never moved so fast in all my life, I took off down the side of the rig yelling for all I was worth and hoping David would see or hear me and do something, though I'm not sure what. As I reached my door I yanked it open but I was travelling too fast to leap inside so I kept running, pulling the door wide open and jumping behind it. I then shoved the door back & forward a few times like a shield, shouting and screaming at the dog.

By now a guy had also come charging out his gate shouting at the dog (which took not one bit of notice). David's looking at me through the gap in the door like, 'what the hell are you doing, crazy woman?', not having seen or heard anything until I wrenched the door open. Thank God the dog must have thought where did she go and stopped in his tracks and started sniffing around the rear tyre of the ute and then disappeared behind the ute and out onto the road. I leap into the ute and slammed the door and David quickly pulled out. I didn't look back but I can tell you the heart & adrenaline were pumping for many miles afterwards. Now instead of David calling out watch for traffic when I get out to take photos, he's taken to saying check for dogs too!

We stopped again just a couple of miles up the road when I saw one of my 'must have' churches ahead of us, the distinctive Ratana church at Te Kao. I've had this church on my list for a very long time and it was great to actually see it in the flesh. And this time I had a good look around before I opened the door.

Further on we had another exciting but much tamer encounter, an emu! An emu just walking along the fence line through a scrubby paddock beside the highway. Emu farming was a new enterprise back in the 1990s but difficulties in getting the birds slaughtered soon caused a decline in the industry. During that time some birds had escaped their fenced enclosures, others were kept as domestic pets and it has also been rumoured that some farmers released their birds to roam wild.

Sightings of random emus has been reported in many areas around Northland & the Far North and in fact this was my 3rd sighting of a bird. I'd seen one near Kawakawa and another near Tauranga Bay and although they didn't look fenced in, I couldn't be sure as it was a fleeting glance as we drove past. This one though was the closest I'd seen and in an area where it could wander at large so it definitely wasn't a captive bird.

As we drew closer to the top of  peninsula, the landscape opened up; big skies, rolling farmland intermingled with swathes of native scrub and bush, dune lakes, wetland swamps and out on the edges huge golden sand dunes. 

Five kilometres before we reach the top we turned right down a narrow dusty gravel road...

....that drops down through the manuka scrub into Tapotupotu Bay and the DOC campsite we'll be staying at for the next few days.

At the bottom we're greeted by small sandy bay and a lovely golden sand beach tucked in between two headlands...

...and two camping areas- I call them corrals- one for campervans and the other for tents.

I can understand the tent corral, this DOC Camp is on the 48km Te Paki Coastal Walk and at the start of the 3000km Te Araroa Trail so tenters need some space of their own...

...but I have no idea why the powers that be would want to corral all the campervans & motorhomes together because...

...carry on around the corner and there is a huge amount of open space to camp, right on the edge of the estuary.

Which is where we set up...

...and two or three other clever clogs! I thought it was Kiwis that followed along like sheep. In fact I think it's because foreign tourists are sometimes unsure of what to do and where to go and don't want to do anything wrong so follow the leader.

There was plenty to see parked on the side of the estuary, the tide range was so great we were able to watch the lagoon fill and empty with each tide, bird watch out the back window and watch boaties come and go...

...including this group of guys who had a lot of fishing gear set up on their jet skis. In fact they were doing some filming for a TV programme one guy told David as his drone whizzed about around the estuary.

We saw them later in the afternoon when we visit Cape Reinga, far out at sea. We watched them skirt around the outside of the islands off Cape van Diemen and then pass around Cape Reinga as they headed back to Tapotupotu Bay, again way out so as to miss the turbulent waters below us where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. You can see to tiny splashes of white, centre right in the first photo, they were just tiny dots and we would have missed them had we not known they were out there.

The camp, estuary, stream and mangrove margins were ideal for bird watching- here are a few of the usual suspects; clockwise- A Eurasian Skylark, an epic struggle between a male Sparrow & a Grasshopper, not a bird but just about as big, a Giant Bush Dragonfly, a female Ring-necked Pheasant, a Black Shag and a Welcome Swallow.

This rather plain but dainty little lily was flowering along the edges of the tracks, and through all the thick grasses, it's not a native and I've not seen it before. 

I was up early every morning to search out two specific and very secretive birds. The sunrises weren't quite as spectacular as I had been capturing but still lovely as the suited the subdued surroundings.

I had managed to spot two Banded Rail/Mioweka from the kitchen window, they were across a wide expanse of exposed sand feeding amongst the mangrove air roots along the edge of the stream that fed out to sea at low tide.

They were very quick to disappear into the mangroves and tussock behind at the slightest movement from our side of the estuary though.

Click photo to enlarge- two Banded Rail centre
I did manage to sneak up on them once but only took a fleeting photo as one of them flashed past. I didn't mind though. After my very first sighting and taking a couple of good photos at Whangaparoa's Shakespear Park, then another sighting at Sandspit, this was my third sighting up north so I was just pleased to see them once again.

I knew there were Fernbirds/Matata about when I heard their distinctive clicking calls as I was walking along the boardwalk and over the bridge near our campsite. 

Often heard but rarely seen, Fernbirds aren't quite as shy as the Banded Rail but they are just about as impossible to find because they move fast, skulking through the dense vegetation at ground level and seldom poking their head out of the greenery. 

'You looking for me?'
But they are nosy and if you sit quietly in the middle of their territory watching for the slightest of movements in the reeds or thick scrub around you they'll often poke their head out or jump on to an open branch nearby to check you out. But as quick as a flash they'll be gone again. 

If they have a mate nearby or feel threatened they can also call briefly from the top of a nearby bush, but they'll disappear just as quickly to appear again not much further on, atop the next bush. 

We explored along the boardwalk and track (part of the Te Paki Coastal Walk) up into the bush over the hill on the other side of the estuary a short distance...

...and then along a 4WD track that followed the Tapotupotu Stream deeper into the valley behind the camp. It would be great kayaking quietly up this backwater, we flushed a number of different birds but the dense undergrowth made it hard to spot them.

Each day, as the tide went out I also watched from the window a pair of beautiful steely grey Reef Herons/Matuku Moana stalking prey along the receding waterline. They were very wary too and I only got a little closer to them by putting a bush between them and me and then quietly sneaking up on them using the bush as cover.

Looking like stealth bombers, with wings flattened out to keep their profile low and to help them see fish in the shadow, they carefully paced up and down the water's edge...

...until they spotted a hapless fish which, with lightening fast speed, they caught and swallowed.

Even though I suspect the reef herons were a pair, one of them did not like the other to be within sight and they both did not like the local White-faced Heron/Matuku feeding or flying by either. The dominant Reef Heron spent a lot of his time chasing the other one away and they both chased any nearby gulls and the White-faced Heron away. He just flew up to his favourite tree stump and laughed at them.