Keeping track up north
WE climbed the narrow track through the long, wet grass, up one last steep slope and, suddenly, there before us was the magnificent sight of the Hen and Chickens, Sail Rock and Little Barrier, framed by Whangarei Heads and the stone figures of Manaia to the left and Cape Rodney to the right, all floating in a glittering silver sea.
We had reached the start of one of the most spectacular sections of Te Araroa - the national walkway system - the Mangawhai Cliffs track.
The section of track we had walked that morning, starting from near Lang's Beach, is known by locals as "the Missing Link", because when it opened in 2009 it joined together the established Brynderwyn and Mangawhai Cliffs trails.
And, in many ways, that's a perfect description of what the Te Araroa Trust has achieved since it was formed in 1994: filling in the many missing links between existing tracks to produce a long pathway - Te Araroa - stretching 3000km from Cape Reinga in the Far North to Stirling Pt near Bluff in the deep south.
The first such link was built by the trust in 1995, from Kerikeri to Waitangi, and enough joining up has been done over the years for the whole pathway to be officially opened this weekend.
Catered Coast Walks, which was hosting us for our walking weekend, provides a great example of the spin-offs from Te Araroa: a successful small business which takes advantage of that marvellous long pathway as well as opening up a further network of tracks on private land.
Natalie and Jac Spyksma came up with the idea of setting up a coastal walks business while they were doing the Routeburn Track and pondering life after selling their garden centre and café in Mangawhai Heads.
"Suddenly it came to us that there were equally spectacular tracks back home that we could help walkers to enjoy," said Natalie. "We talked to a lot of people, did a lot of research ... and here we are."
So on Friday evening after work we headed north to the Spyksma home, set on 15ha of regenerating bush with spectacular views of Bream Bay, where a wing originally built for the children now provides two double-bedrooms, a lounge and a dining area for walkers.
Dinner that night - yes, that's why it's called Catered Coast Walks - showed the benefits of Jac's previous life as a chef: Moroccan chicken breast and roasted vegetable stack with lemon and coriander drizzle, poached asparagus and snow peas and a mixed salad, with a rhubarb meringue sandwich for desert. Yum.
Next morning after breakfast, and with a tasty lunch in our packs, Natalie drove us down to Waipu Cove for our first walk. The plan was to go along the beach as far as the mouth of the Waipu River, then retrace our steps and head back to Lang's Beach.
Alas, we had barely got past Waipu Cove Surf Club when my walking buddy, John, got the first in a series of important calls. I left him sitting on a sign proclaiming the presence of a wildlife refuge and wandered on, enjoying the mix of amazing coastal views, interesting patterns on the sand dunes, beautiful shells on the tideline, kayakers fishing and surfers trying to make the most of the small waves.
A series of notices along the edge of the dunes advised that endangered New Zealand dotterels, fairy terns and variable oyster catchers were nesting here. A brightly coloured sign, presumably by a local youngster, added: "Stop! Fairy terns nest here. Beware or wash your hat."
I soon discovered the significance of the warning when a fairy tern circled over my head This was exciting stuff - despite the risk of having to wash my hat - because there are only about 50 fairy terns left in New Zealand so Keeping track up north so they're as rare as it gets.
Further down the beach were several devoted pairs of variable oyster catchers and a couple of dotterel families. One oyster catcher put on a performance of having a broken wing but the dotterels trusted their camouflage.
It was now about an hour since I left John to his calls so I thought I should see how he was going. Back down the beach, he was just finishing another call but had at least been able to watch a lone dotterel, a pair of oyster catchers and even a couple of white-fronted terns as he did so.
Back at Waipu Cove, we had a reviving coffee at the Cove Cafe then headed for Lang's Beach via a coastal track developed by the Waipu Lions Club. The track was a bit rough but there were more great coastal views, nice patches of bush and some fascinating rock formations.
As we hopped from rock to rock, John said they looked rather like layers of limestone while I thought they were similar to the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks.
Shortly afterwards, I found a small notice tacked to a pohutukawa tree saying that the rocks were indeed layers of sedimentary limestone and the only other place they were found nationally was Punakaiki. Snap.
It was worth the walk just to see their amazing shapes, patterns and colours (some were orange).
After checking out a secret viewing point in the middle of suburban Lang's Beach, we did some rock hopping round to McKenzie Bay where Natalie was waiting to lead us up a network of tracks through their neighbours' land, past more viewing spots and some superb stands of kowhai, kauri, rewarewa and puriri, back to base.
By the time we got there, we'd be walking for nearly six hours so I don't mind admitting I was a bit tired. But a shower and grandad nap had me all set for Jac's offering of flash roasted fish with a lemon caper topping, potato gratin and an orange, olive and red onion salad with cumin and paprika dressing, followed by a vanilla bean and rosewater creme brulee. A bit better than our usual camping fodder.
Next day, we had a shorter walk, down a newly cut track through regenerating bush on the Spyksma property, across Cove Rd to Bream Tail Rd, on to the missing link track which basically runs through Bream Tail Farm and up to Mangawhai Cliffs.
The views here were the best yet so we wandered slowly along the clifftops, enjoying the coastal panorama and some nice stands of nikau, then climbed down a staircase track to the beach.
You can return to the coastal walks base by walking along the beach and round Bream Tail to McKenzie Bay.
But, unfortunately, the tide was too high and anyway we really needed to get home.
So we just headed along the sand to Mangawhai Surf Club where my kindly wife was waiting with the car.
As it happens, we were still walking along Te Araroa, which runs along the beach, swoops inland from the surf club to get around Mangawhai Harbour, then returns to the coast and runs south along Te Arai and Pakiri beaches, heading for Auckland.
It looked like a great walk ... but that's for another day.