September 18, 2012

Sand By Any Other Name…

If New Zealand’s East Coast has lapping waves, the West Coast is wild and rugged. There was one very important reason we dedicated the days and made the trek west: black-sand beaches. We had never seen such a thing before. It was a beautiful moment when Vanna pulled up to our first beach and we just started running. 

We spent time at both Mokau and Tongaporutu beaches, where I would describe the color as jet black. It felt like walking on powdered ink. It was the softest lava ever!

The sand is truly incredible for so many reasons. For starters, it sparkles like diamonds when the sun is shining. It’s magnetic because it contains so much iron…it literally jumps when you hold a magnet near it. You can draw designs in it just by barely touching your toe…kind of like how you draw with your finger on a frosted piece of glass. For two beach kids from California, this was entirely new territory.

The uniqueness of the West Coast’s black sands is matched by the little treasures that wash up on shore amongst the driftwood. The most special are tiny “ram's horn” shells.

What’s weird is that no animal actually lives inside these shells…rather the shells live inside the animal. A little squid uses the shell as its internal buoyancy compensator by filling the chambers with gas, which helps the squid maintain its head-down position in the water. When the squid dies, its body disintegrates and the shell floats away – eventually making its way to the black-sand beaches on the North Island’s West Coast. Once again, pure New Zealand…so unusual, and yet, completely natural! 

We definitely have unfinished business at Tongaporutu. There are all sorts of natural treasures around here, but sadly, we missed a lot of them.  The weather was a miserable wet mess, and we completely screwed up the tide schedule. We arrived at high tide when we were supposed to be there at low tide. All dejected, we met a young mom on the side of the road  who brought us into her home, looked up the tides for us, and then proceeded to her garage where she insisted that we take her double kayak out for a spin. She figured that if the tide was keeping us from walking to what we wanted to see, we could at least get to see portions of it from her kayak!

We were also able to salvage a short (but incomplete) walk along the Whitecliffs Walkway.

As a consolation prize, we found oh-so-perfect Mike’s Brewery. They have great microbrews including a vanilla coffee porter that tasted more like a dessert liquor. We had the biggest pizza I’ve ever seen outside of Cosmos in Boulder, with chicken, avocado, bacon, cranberry, and pumpkin. Yum!

Just south of the black sands is Mount Egmont, a conical volcano that completely dominates the landscape. It is almost always covered, so we felt really lucky when the clouds parted ways for about 10 minutes right as we were pulling up.

Also inside Egmont National Park is the Goblin Forest, where the gnarly tree roots are used as trail steps which lead down to Dawsons Falls. 


From the beaches and through more farmland, we wound up in the “big” city and New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. If Auckland is known for its volcanoes, Wellington is known for its earthquakes. This poor city has the Earth’s pacific plate cutting right through its middle! Even the Prime Minister’s house sits along the fault line.

We visited Wellington on a very rare non-windy day. We had a lovely time looking out over the city, strolling the quirky shops, and visiting the Te Papa cultural museum. We even had a good laugh at the wind prepardness signs they have posted around town.

Later on we went back up to the lookout for a nighttime view, and sure enough, a storm completely engulfed the city in about 30 second’s time. We could barely walk back down the staircase to our van without getting blown over. Crazy Wellington! And Crazy North Island! It went far too fast. Can’t we go back and do it all again?

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