Dark, brooding, dangerous. Hmm, curiosity has been registered; interest most certainly is sparked. It was with these seductive qualifyers that my travelling companion pursuaded me into the navigator’s seat of her rented car for a road trip like no other, bound for the weather-battered ecosystem of New Zealand’s North Island and its tempestuous west coast.
Where we begin? Urbane, amicable Auckland. Journey’s end? Rugged, unforgiving Piha. It is to this forboding surfing beach and its loyal wind-blown coastal community of 600 that we fix our compass. 40km of hair-raising, teeth-gnashing drivetime through precarious mountain ranges later…
Piha, a sleepy village surrounded by the Waitakere Regional Parkland, is New Zealand’s most famous beach; its surreal raw beauty attested with the title bestowed upon its crown: Place of Outstanding Natural Landscape.
The drama of Piha, all black iron sand, jagged moutain passes and ferocious winds, was created by violent activity of undersea volcano Waitakere erupting periodically, its rocky lips eventually piercing the waves as an island. Destructive mudflows of mud, rock and water led to the makeup of coast: volcanic conglomerate and breccia.
Today’s Waitakere Ranges are the uplifted and eroded eastern flank of this great volcano, the shoreline gradually eroding by the relentless power of the Tasman Sea.
The scene is moody, misty and mysterious, wild, wet and wind-swept. Often the township’s power goes off, and every now and again the solitary road in and out of Piha becomes blocked with the detrius accompanying sudden storms.
But not is all Cimmerian destruction here, for Piha can lay claim to a stellar berth in the chronicles of surfing history. The first surf boat race held in New Zealand was at Piha in the 1930s, and in 1956 two Californian lifeguards introduced malibu board riding on these breaks. When Uncle Toby’s Iron Man Contest was held at Piha in 1997, canoes were snapped in two. The Iron Man Contest has never returned.
To this day, the quality of surfing changes according to the alarming wind and with the movement of large slugs of sand up the coast. Having said that, the safety of beachgoers is guarded by the Piha Surf Club, established in 1934, and the first club on the west coast.
Nearer to the township two streams meander into the sea. The Marawhara and the Wekatahi rarely join forces but when they do, sand dunes are dismantled. Today’s turbulent conditions propel their flow into each other- I watch their buffeting currents – destiny foretelling they be expelled as one into the ocean.
Upstream, and along their calmer banks can be found rushes and lagoons which provide sanctuary for Piha’s assortment of wildlife.
My sanctuary comes in the form shelter from this unimaginable storm, and from hot tea, served with a knowing nod by the owners of the Piha Store. My fingers say grace for the instant blast of warmth receive as they curl around its warm serving mug.
Piha – hazardous, serpentine, unsafe, you are also strong and eternal. This day you granted us passage and with great respect, my travelling companion and I vow to return.