Sun, Sea & Sandy Nostrils on 90 Mile Beach
Date: 21st April 2005
Subject: Sun, sea and sandy nostrils on 90 Mile Beach
Place: Waitiki Landing, North Island, New Zealand
“Two days chilling out on a beach, just like any normal family weekend,” exclaimed Stuart, cycling across the sand and straight into the sea, to the delight of his excited passenger.
“You’ll get salt in your cones. Your wheels will rust and fall off, and you’ll never complete the last hundred kilometres,” I shouted to be heard above the crashing waves.
“Yes I will, on a bus,” Stuart shouted back, soaked through from spray, but obviously happy.
Let’s cycle along the beach
Ninety Mile Beach stretched magnificently before us, the smell of salt air filling our nostrils. Pipi and other shellfish snuggled deep into the sand at the tide line where the steely blue Tasman Sea met the pale yellow sands, and sea worms left tiny holes where they had burrowed underground.
We scanned the horizon for cars or wild horses, unsure of which was the biggest hazard to cyclists. This beach provided the last few kilometres of State Highway One and anyone was permitted to drive, ride, gallop or surf it. There was no road though, you just had to pick a path and hope you didn’t sink. We had cycled onto the sands with caution, in a low gear, at first just a few tentative pushes on the pedals. We then breathed more easily when the bikes barely dented the sand, and the buggies held their ground on the hard-packed grain.
Ninety Mile Beach would provide two days of coastal riding towards Cape Reinga, a sacred place for Maori. After death, they believe the spirits travel to the headland at the Cape for their final journey into the afterlife. It was also our final destination, the last few miles of our epic adventure before we headed for the unknown of our cycling afterlife.
Ninety miles of beach to ourselves… almost
For an hour or so we had the beach to ourselves. We watched thick sea mists form several kilometres ahead and pedalled in companionable silence. It wasn’t hard to imagine the spirits flying along the sands to Cape Reinga, blown by the wind and applauded by thunderous seas. Then one by one, out of the mist, ghostly apparitions appeared, revealing themselves eventually, not as Maori spirits, but fifty two seater coaches, ferrying passengers to the end of the land. The ‘Dune Rider,’ ‘Northern Explorer’ and ‘Awesome Adventurer’ drove close to the sea giving passengers the choice of a thrill or a heart attack, depending on age and state of health.
“Just who is having the awesome adventure here?” Stuart asked as the wind caught the rainbow flags on his buggy, and he blasted along, for once undertaking a North Island riding day without a single hill.
Ninety miles of beach to ourselves
Twelve coaches later, the flotilla had moved on and the beach was ours once again. The crashing waves were deafening as the surf curled towards us, but despite this the beach felt suddenly silent and brooding, lonely in its’ wild emptiness. Cormorants and marine life seemed its’ only residents, the birds hurrying busily back and forward at the waters edge spying for prey and springing any careless fish. Our boys clamoured to be let out of the buggies. We let them run free for a while, dipping their toes in the water, running along beside the bikes and stuffing their pockets with pipi, broken shells and grimy feathers.
Late afternoon and the headland gave way to reveal the perfect camp; a grassy clearing surrounded by dunes, packed with dry firewood and a stream for Matthew and Cameron to paddle in. We set up the tent, etched our names boldly in the sand, collected wood for a fire we all knew we would never make, and paddled in the surf. Then at dusk, we raced down to the beach to get a sunset photo.
Cycling into the sunset
“Look, the sun is about to disappear” said Stuart, cycling towards it.
“Stop stop come back sun,” Matthew ran after him, quickly joining in the game.
“Don’t go sun. Don’t go, Mummy, the sun all gone,” wailed Cameron trailing behind.
The others stopped, panting for breath, but Cam carried on running, his hands held out to the sun, his legs trundling along the sands, trousers flapping at the waters edge.
“The sun gone mummy, the sun gone,” he turned back, tears streaming down his face. For him this was no idle game.
“It’s not gone Cameron, it’ll be back in the morning.” I gathered him up, wiping his tears on my fleece and holding him tightly.
In this environment he seemed so small, so vulnerable.
I looked into the orange sunset, surrounded by translucent sea mists and shivered. It was the hour of the travelling spirits, and no time for us to be on the beach.
“Let’s go back to the tent.” I said, clutching my son to my body to warm us both up.
Up with the dawn
Cameron was awake with the dawn to check the validity of my claims. Fiddling impatiently with the zip, he called to me to come, and sprang into the morning air. The scene was exactly as the morning before; miles of beach, crashing surf, pale dunes and mist. And the sun was in its’ usual morning place in the East. I pointed it out to Cameron, who was searching out to sea for it.
“Look Cam, the sun has come back to us, it only went to sleep for the night.”
Cameron turned around; glared at the early morning sun and flapped his arms at it.
“Don’t want that sun. Want the one over there. Don’t like that sun. It stupid and filthy. Want Daddy.”
And off he padded to the tent to complain that the old sun had been kidnapped.
Not cycling but sand surfing
And then the day continued much as the day before. The scenery was almost identical, the coach drivers recognised us and waved as they sped down the beach, and the children begged to be allowed out to play. And we carried on cycling, desperate to complete our own high spirited journey to the Northern headland.
Our final encounter with the Kiwi sand came two days later, just before we set out on the gravel track to finish the journey to the Cape. We were staying at a tiny backpackers place ran by a collection of young fishing guides, who were equally keen to show us the pure power of the dunes. Boogie boards in hand, Craig, our guide for the event, led us as we climbed, crawled, and clawed our way up the shifting, crumbling sand dunes. Then after brief instructions on how to stay on the board, we launched ourselves boldly onto the rippled slopes, Matthew in the lead. Racing down the dunes was magical; the soft sand an airy cushion; the momentum thrilling. Matthew was straight back up with his boogie board but Cam refused to follow us at all and sat at the top anxiously, his natural caution inhibiting any downward progress.
A mouthful of brotherly sand
“Brother, I no like sand.”
“Here Cam, we’ll do it together said Stuart, grabbing the child and plonking him down in front of him.
“Wheyey let’s go.”
The two of them shot down the sand, and the board upended with the unbalanced weight, leaving Cameron dumped head first into the soft dune; ears, nose and hair stuffed with golden sand.
“No like sand,” wailed Cameron, standing up on wobbly legs, his head resembling a sand castle.
“That was fun wasn’t it Cameron?” said Stuart, “Shall we try again?”
“Don’t you like the sun or the sand?” called Matthew, unusually sympathetic to his brothers needs as he whizzed down past him.
“No like it,” confirmed Cameron, wiping sandy snot on his sleeve.
“Do you like the sea Cameron?” asked Matthew as he slogged back up the dunes with his surfboard.
“S’ok,” Cameron conceded, sulkily kicking his own board, sending it further down the slope.
“Dad, Dad, Cameron likes the sea. I think we need to go sailing next,” called Matthew, gliding happily off into the white, powdery distance.