The iron-rich sand is black against the white of the spirula spirula, or ram's horn, shells we're collecting from Whatipu Beach - except they're not shells, rather the backbone of a small deepsea squid.
When the squid dies, the buoyant "shell" floats to the surface and is washed up on beaches after storms. It shows the cruel nature of the water here that there are so many of these rare squid remains washed up; the beach is covered in them and our children fill their buckets, ready to make patterns on the sand before the tide rises to reclaim them.
The storms here have been so bad in the winter that Manukau Bar was closed, something unheard of in recent history at least. But treacherous conditions are not new and it's here the worst shipping disaster in New Zealand's history took place in 1863 when the HMS Orpheus sank, with a loss of 190 lives. You can see part of the ship's mast, as well as other artefacts from the wreck, on display at the Huia Settlers Museum nearby.
The treacherous conditions add a bit of notoriety to the area but to us the wild weather only makes it more fun as we're blown up the beach in search of the lighthouse sitting watchfully at the top of a craggy rock.
The tide is coming in fast and we don't like our chances of making it home for the night if we continue our quest so we head back to the other side of the beach, where the remains of a timber tramway can be seen poking out of the sand and rocks.
The famous Piha tramway used to transport timber from Anawhata in the north to a wharf at Whatipu, before milling ended in 1921.
Now a refuge from city life, Whatipu was once a bustling timber community and tribal settlement for Te Kawerau a Maki.
The iron spikes create a talking point for beachgoers and we meet a couple from Utah on a mission to convert Kiwis to the Church of Latter Day Saints. Our kids build dams with stones around the remains as we watch fishermen take risks on the rocks nearby.
The sand dunes are the next attraction for the kids as they slide down, run up and tumble sideways through them. There are also huge caves to discover, which were once used as dance halls.
The Whatipu area, now a scientific reserve owned by DoC and managed on behalf on the Auckland Regional Council, is untouched wilderness and there are many walks in the area ranging from the ¼-hour Signal House Track to the 2 ¼-hour Omanawanui Track.
The drive here alone is worth the trip and after the pretty village of Titirangi, you head through bushland, past an impressive dam, along a stone-lined coastal road and across a ford. There's even a large lighthouse letterbox on the way that tourists take pictures next to; perhaps, like us, they had failed to reach the real one.
It's easy to get to, and the drive - once you're past the Avondale bustle - is lush and a feast for the eyes. With its sense of history, a lighthouse and a majestic west coast beach at the end, it's a favourite beach for our family, and a remote showcase of Auckland for visitors to our city.
* Whatipu is 42km (a 1 hour drive) from downtown Auckland. Head west to Titirangi and then follow Huia Rd. Take care driving on the last 7.5km from Little Huia on the winding, gravel Whatipu Rd.
Places to Stop:
* The Huia Beach Store and Cafe sells great coffee as well as everything from fish 'n' chips to Muzza's pies. 1194 Huia Rd, Cornwallis.
* The Huia Museum at Karamatura Valley is open weekends from 1.30pm-4.30pm and by appointment. Groups welcome, entry by donation.
* The Art Post Studio welcomes visitors with a giant postcard above its door. It's a tribute to the former Parau Post Office, which resident Nicky Hartley and a group of local artists have turned into an open studio. Stop for a cup of tea and to buy local artworks. 624 Huia Rd.
* Dogs are not permitted in the scientific reserve but they are allowed on a lead in mown grass areas and on all tramping tracks.
* There is no surf patrol and the Auckland Council advises against swimming. Take special care fishing or exploring around the Ninepin and Paratutai Island on the far left of the beach. There can be sudden large waves and dangerous currents.