Walk 7 - Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway

The Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway is at the extreme northern tip of the North Island of New Zealand. Like many tramps in New Zealand it is not a circuit and transport has to be arranged to one or both ends. In this case, we stayed at Waitiki Landing Backpackers the night before and after the walk and arranged to be dropped off at the starting point, Te Paki Stream, and to be picked up at Spirits Bay, 48km by foot away, three days later. As the operator said - "pay us when we pick you up, that way you will be sure we will come and get you". If our brief walk along the beach at Waipoua renewed a taste for coastal walking, the Cape Reinga Walkway was to provide the full banquet with long beaches, large dunes, cliffs, inlets, lagoons, sandy coves and a variety of vegetation and wildlife.

Day 1 - Te Paki Stream to Te Werahi Beach

We had seen the large dune systems in the distance as we drove up to Waitiki Landing and were looking forward to seeing them more closely, so although the Walkway officially started at the mouth of the Te Paki Stream, we asked to be dropped off higher up where the the shallow fresh waters of Te Paki first met the massive complex of shifting golden sand, and flowed gently for 3km between 60-70m dunes to reach the Tasman Sea at the 90 Mile Beach.

The soft sand bed of the stream, known to swallow cars if they stayed still too long in one spot, was our pathway to the sea and we took off our sandals and waded barefoot down the ankle-deep water in high spirits.

Start of the walk at the Te Paki dunes

70m dunes along Te Paki Stream

Ambling down the Te Paki Stream

Busload of day-trippers wheeling in from the 90 Mile Beach

Near the stream mouth, we made our solitary encounter with commercial mass tourism, as a number of buses and four-wheel drive vehicles splashed past us - many individuals and several busloads of tourists each day make day trips along the hard sand of the 90 Mile Beach from the south before turning in at Te Paki Stream to rejoin the road and visit Cape Reinga and its lighthouse. Happily, when we reached the stream mouth we turned north along the wide hard sand of the beach, away from buses, cars and civilisation into the splendid isolation of this coastline, the roar of the breakers to our left and the massive silence of the dunes to our right and the seabirds for company.

Heading north along the deserted 90 Mile Beach

The imperious Pacific gull

Oyster catchers on the run

Blackcapped tern in flight

Plastic spade with pipis - now what journey has that made?

View south along the 90 Mile Beach

After a few kilometres we reached the northern end of 90 Mile Beach and, after a short break, climbed up on to Scott Point, where a tremendous view south of this incredibly long stretch of beach disappearing into the sea haze awaited us. For another few kilometres the track meandered across the manuka heathland holding a shallow layer of soil to the sandstone ridge of the point.

Scott Point

Track through the manuka heath

At the northern end of the ridge, the view opened up over Twilight Beach showing our path over Cape Maria van Diemen, New Zealand's most westerly point. We descended onto the beach for a bite of lunch in the warm sun, before resuming our trek north across the deep soft sand of Twilight Beach. We hadn't reached halfway before we received a lesson in the vagaries of New Zealand's weather; the sun suddenly vanished as a dark cloud band moved in from the south-west. A small front was rapidly approaching - fortunately for us it past us by as quickly as it came and, after several minutes sheltering in a grove of Pohutukawa trees from the few drops of rain, we were able to press on. By the time we reached the end of the beach, the sun had returned.

Descending on to Twilight Beach

A rain front passed rapidly over Twilight Beach ...

... but had gone by the time we reached the northern end

The track over Cape Maria van Diemen led up into the fore dunes and on to a long undulating climb through a section of low heathland, each rise revealing more incredible views on all sides.

Silhouettes of Cape Maria van Diemen and Motopao Island

On the seaward side the stark cliffs of the cape and Motuopao Island stood out against the cobalt blue of the sea, while inland the green of cattle-grazed kikuyu pastures contrasted to the pale yellow of the dunes.

Ahead lay the imposing sandy outline of Herati Hill. We left the heath and followed the vague track across sand, clay pans and stony outcrops, up and around the hill, before descending down again to Te Werahi Beach.

Views toward the grazing lands of the interior

We had covered almost 20km with our heavy first-day out packs and it was time to stop - a flat grassy area next to the meandering Te Werahi Stream in the lee of large sand dune provided an excellent site to set up our tent. Our only companions for the evening were a pair of Paradise ducks and their 6 ducklings.

The distant lighthouse at Cape Reinga flashed every 12 seconds as we slept to the lulling sound of the waves - for a brief period there was nobody further west than us in all of New Zealand.


Cabbage trees in the manuka heathland

Crossing Herati Hill

Descending to Te Werahi Beach with Cape Reinga
in the distance

Sunset over Cape Maria van Diemen

Day 2 - Te Werahi Beach to Tapotupotu Bay

It was still and sunny when we set off in the early morning light, each lost in our own contemplations as we wandered up the deserted sands of Te Werahi Beach, the distant silhouette of Cape Reinga growing ever larger in front, the long drawn out form of Cape Maria van Diemen shrinking into the sea haze behind.

Flax flower spike over Te Werahi beach

Bush camp at Te Werahi Stream

Silhouette of Tarawamaomao Point

Cape Reinga lighthouse

After an hour we reached the end of the beach and climbed slowly up through the flowering flax plants along the cliff edge that led to the Cape Reinga parking area. Dropping our packs, we walked down the path to make the obligatory "been-there done-that" visit to the lighthouse, for all purposes other than geographic, the most northerly point in New Zealand. Out to sea the waves surged and eddied, as the currents of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean met.

Cape Reinga

Looking back to Cape Maria van Diemen

Cliffline east of Cape Reinga

Leaving the cape behind, we turned east along a rugged coastline that had once been farmed. The path descended down a mown kikuyu track, through regenerating bush of manuka, flax and cabbage trees. As we descended a narrow ridge toward the beautiful inlet of Sandy Bay, the deep blue of the Pacific provided a brilliant backdrop to the green-clad cliffs leading away from the cape.

A final sharp rocky descent saw us on the beach, where we stopped for a bite to eat and a rest in the shade of an old Pohutukawa tree.

Descending down to Sandy Beach

Under the shade of the Pohutukawa
These superb trees, jutting out of rocky outcrops all along this coastline with their gnarled, spreading branches, dark green foliage and downy white buds, have become my favourite New Zealand tree; in a few weeks time they will be a blaze of crimson flowers, but for the moment, the prolific cover of swelling buds and odd precocious bloom tantalised us with the imagination of what this would be like.

Sandy Bay

View over Tapotupotu Bay and inlet

A pair of Paradise ducks scolded us for invading the privacy of their beach, while a pair of dotterels hearded their solitary chick away from the spot that we occupied. We left them to the seclusion of their small bit of paradise and commenced our third and last steep climb for the day up the opposite slope, before the track flattened out across the flax-covered ridge.

Soon, the white sand horseshoe-shaped beach of Tapotupotu Bay appeared beneath us: its regular, perfectly shaped 1m waves attracting a small group of surfers into the cold water. This bay is accessible by a gravel road and has a well-serviced campground, where we set ourselves up for the night.

Tapotupotu Bay

It had been a shorter day's walk than yesterday, giving us a few hours to relax, sit once again in the shade of a Pohutukawa tree and watch the surfers at play and the aerial and high-diving genius of a gannet as it hunted fish in the bay. The antics of the possums as they rustled in and around our campsite during the night were less appreciated.

Day 3 - Tapotupotu Bay to Spirits Bay

It was fortunate that the tide was low next morning, as our first steps on leaving were into the water to cross the sometimes quite wide estuarine inlet at the back of Tapotupotu Bay. For half a kilometre we strolled along an overgrown road, past the mangroves lining the estuarine stream in a shady grove of tall manuka. All too quickly, a sidetrack appeared which led us steeply (yet again) up to the crest of Darkie's Ridge and the start of an undulating walk along old farm tracks, heading away from the coast line and into the manuka scrubland behind the cliffs.

Pacific cliff-line

The Tapotupotu Estuary

Climbing up to Darkie's Ridge

View inland from Darkie's Ridge

The air was still, apart from the occasional perfumed waft from the pink and white manuka blossoms. Hoverflies and the odd golden-winged dragonfly zipped to and fro as we passed by to a background pittering from the miscellany of small brown birds and the occasional drone of an errant blowfly. It was definitely spring in the north of New Zealand.

Inland, the views from the ridge opened out over the bush-clad hills to the distant sand dunes that we had crossed two days earlier, while towards the coast, the long white strip of curving sand defined our intended path along Spirits Bay.

Old farm track along the ridge
The delicate beauty of manuka blossoms

Looking east over Spirits Bay

Road to Pandora

Pandora Beach

Shell of the giant
predatory kauri snail

The farm track led us to an old disused four wheel drive route, that wended slowly down to Pandora Beach, a magnificently secluded stretch of white sand, framed by the hills and cliffs of Te Paki Reserve and lapped by the crystal clear blue-green waters of the Pacific. There are not many beaches which insist that you to take your gear off and go in for a swim. This one did and I obliged, albeit very briefly in the 15ºC water. After lunch under the obligatory Pohukutawa tree, we headed on with some regret - this was the most beautiful beach we had yet visited in New Zealand.

The beautiful white sands of Pandora

Old man Pohutukawa at the mouth of Waitohoro Lagoon


Low tide in the morning means high tide in the afternoon, and our beach route out of Pandora was blocked, meaning a slighty tiresome walk up and over the gorse-infested headland to its east.

Coming back down to the beach at Waitohoro Inlet, we fould ourselves at the last stage of our journey; a 7 kilometre walk along a hot exposed track just behind the sand dunes of Spirits Bay and following the shoreline of the Waitohoro Lagoon.

One last look back at Pandora

The sound of the surf and the call of the isolated beach was too great, however, and we soon crossed over the dunes to stroll once again in auto-pilot along a stretch of wave-washed sand.

How different Spirits Bay was to the 90 Mile Beach. No broad, flat hard sand beach here, moreso a steeply-sloping, shell-gritty sand, where the breaking waves were absorbed by the coarse, steep beach before they had a chance to roll back into the seas; a wild, yet strangely serene place.

Spirits Bay and Waitohoro Lagoon

Track at the back of the dunes

Alone again in Spirits Bay

Wild horses of Te Paki

Another couple of kilometres and we found ourselves at Spirits Bay campground, our pick up point. After the long sun-drenched walk from Pandora, and with an hour to spare, it was good to lie down in the shade, relax and reflect upon the great coastal landscapes through which we had passed. Yes, you guessed, it was under the shade of a Pohutukawa tree.


Leave only footprints

The lagoon at Spirits Bay camp ground

New Zealand has 9 "Great Walks", but only two of these have any real coastal element to them, strange for an island nation with an immense and beautiful coastline. This walk has everything required of a Great Walk, a variety of brilliant landscapes, beaches, cliffs, inlets, ridges, sand, heath, bush, plus fitness-challenging climbs, and would compliment the others with its primarily coastal setting. I hereby nominate the Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway to be the tenth Great Walk of New Zealand.

On second thought, I withdraw that nomination - if it is successful, they will only put the price up.