Piha and Walking the Waitakeres

All winter long we were addicted to a TV program called Piha Rescue, a half-hour reality show following the news. Every week the brave hunks from the Piha Surf Life Saving Club screamed around in inflatable boats saving swimmers, surfers and kids on boogie boards. Piha is a popular beach town not far from Auckland on the wild west coast. It has big surf, rip tides and scary offshore currents. Predictably summer afternoons are prime time for rescues. The beaches are heavily patrolled and swimming is allowed only in the area between the flags. Nonetheless rescues seem constant. Strong currents and rips change so quickly that the flags—which are about 100 meters apart—are moved many times each day. Given the conditions, you wonder why they even allow swimming here.

The town is on the fringe of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, a large wilderness area with more than 150 miles of trails. Because it’s nearby and has great hiking, we decided to make a three-day weekend with Piha as our base. On Saturday we hiked south of Piha in Karekare along the scenic Comans Track and Ahu Ahu Track. This route has spectacular views of Karekare Beach and further south. This is where The Piano was filmed in the 1990s because it looks so untouched. The Comans Track was steep, muddy and slippery, which would become a theme for all the hikes we took this weekend.

The only campground that would allow dogs—in fact the only campground for miles—was the Piha Domain Motor Camp. By campground standards, it was simple, but clean and the owner was very friendly. We pulled into one of the few available spots only to be snarled at by a long-term camper saying we were in a walkway. We couldn’t see any walkway but to make him happy we moved over about six feet. On the other side, two friendly guys came over to offer us a glass of wine at their campsite. We accepted and found Steven and David to be a charming couple with an over-sexed pug named Louis who fell hard for Sam.

Surfing in Piha is like skiing in Aspen. People walk around in wet suits carrying their surfboards. Surfing clubs line the beaches and there are several major surf rescue groups. Next weekend a major surfing competition is scheduled for Piha and the town will be packed with surfers. We spoke to a “surfer mom” who told us that Piha Rescue, the TV program, was actually hours and hours of film edited for the action. She said no single weekend is really that bad. However, by Sunday afternoon, helicopters had flown in for two rescues and the season was yet to start.

On Sunday we took a longer hike to see the Kitekite falls and the trails beyond. The track to the waterfall was wide and good, like walking at Whitney and Thayer Woods, but after the falls, which are the destination of most Sunday walkers, the trails turned—you guessed it—steep, muddy and slippery. As we went up one steep spot, Sam rushed to get past Steve and started slipping off a rock face. We couldn't reach her and the cliff dropped off maybe 60 feet into a gully. Finally, finally, her scrambling paws caught and she raced ahead, oblivious to the terror left in her wake.

We renamed the Winstone Track that we were hiking the “Wetstone” and trekked on. At one point I stopped to take a photo, putting down my backpack and Sam's leash that I was carrying. Further along I realized I'd left Sam's leash back where I'd stopped. I was really upset—this leash was also Maggie's and Moose's and I'd had it for a million years—so I left Steve and Sam with the packs and headed back along a narrow, muddy, slippery trail that dropped off steeply along one side. As I rushed along, I realized that if I went over the cliff, Steve would never find me—the bush is that thick. In fact, if you need to dump a body in Auckland, this is the place. When we finally came out at the trailhead, we had to scrub tons of mud off our boots and clothes in a very icy stream. What a sight; too bad we missed the photo.

On Monday we drove out to the end of the peninsula, a spot named Whatipu, for a picnic lunch. This area is very wild and beautiful—empty beaches, sand dunes and dense bush. It makes up the north side of the channel into Manukau Harbour, one of the two harbours that enclose Auckland. This is a really big harbour with a treacherous approach over the Manukau Bar. There have been many shipwrecks here including the historic wreck of the Orpheus in 1863 where 189 people died. Yet another TV program, called Coastwatch, is a reality show about marine rescues and it featured a recent rescue in this area. It may not seem it, but we really did do more than watch TV last winter.



Last update:
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Copyright 2004 - Ellen Freda