FolkestoneJack's Tracks

The desolate beauty of Whatipu

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 15, 2019

Our last adventure on this trip brought us to the spectacular and desolate wilderness of Whatipu, a black sand beach on Auckland’s rugged west coast. The drive out to the beach from central Auckland takes about an hour, with the final stretch from Little Huia on a particularly windy gravel road. It’s pretty remote so there was not much in the way of traffic, though it was something of a surprise to find temporary traffic lights (sensor operated) in the middle of nowhere after the road had been narrowed by some washouts.

Whatipu Beach and Paratütai Island

It is hard to imagine many people coming here at the best of times, but there are likely to be even less at the moment as many of the tracks in the area are closed due to the threat of Kauri die-back disease (entrances to the tracks are sealed off and signage blanked out). Thankfully, the beach and the track to the caves were still open (though not the camping ground near the caves). There were about five cars parked up when we arrived and that number stayed pretty constant throughout our 3 hour visit.

The reward for our slightly awkward drive was a wander through the scientific reserve with its beautiful combination of black sands, volcanic rock, wetland, dunes and wild sea almost undisturbed by other humans. It’s a popular spot for visitors of the flying kind too. As we explored we came across plenty of birds, including fantails, a spur-winged plover, black oystercatchers, paradise shelduck, pūkeko and some juvenile black-backed gulls.

Bluebottle at Whatipu

The black sands looked at their most desolate against driftwood that had been twisted into strange positions, including one that looked a bit like a crocodile waiting to pounce. There was a real threat here, albeit somewhat less deadly, in the form of stinging bluebottle jellyfish (otherwise known as the Portuguese man-of-war) that had been washed up onto the beach where they lay half buried in the sand ready for any unwary souls walking barefoot.

The waters here at Whatipu are pretty treacherous for all. The strong rips and currents mean that swimming is inadvisable and the threat to shipping from the constantly shifting sand is signalled by a lightbeacon (one of seventy five around New Zealand) situated atop nine pin rock. It is also worth being a little cautious around the land-locked cutter rock which half collapsed in 2007.

New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster occurred here with the sinking of the Royal Navy corvette HMS Orpheus on 7th February 1863. The corvette had ignored the signals issued by the Paratutai Signal Station and took an ill-fated course that saw her break up on the Manukau Bar with the loss of 189 souls. After further incidents the Royal Navy withdrew permission for their ships to enter the Manukau Harbour.

Driftwood at Whatipu

After exploring the beach we headed back inland and along the volcanic rock cliff face to the Whatipu caves. Hard as it is to believe, the largest of the caves (Te Ana Ru cave) once reverberated to the sound of music as revellers danced the night away on a kauri ballroom dance floor now buried underneath the sand.

There is more information about the history of Whatipu in the Whatipu Heritage Walk booklet provided by Auckland Council along with a map showing which tracks in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park are still open.


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