Ninety-Mile Beach's 103km of jollity

By Paul Rush

The sights and stories offer a ninety-mile high. Photo / Kings Tours
The sights and stories offer a ninety-mile high. Photo / Kings Tours

The moment I hear the musical theme of Bonanza, I'm galloping across an endless prairie into the sunset of my vivid imagination. It's an instinctive reaction to the dramatic pulsating rhythm of the popular theme.

The last place on earth I expect to experience this imaginary ride is in a coach travelling down the Ninety Mile Beach on a Cape Reinga tour.

Our tour coach driver, in a whimsical display of driving prowess, extends his left arm with knuckles clenched over imaginary reins, rises and falls in his air-cushioned seat and skilfully manipulates the foot brake of the bus to simulate the motion of a galloping horse.

My fellow passengers are spellbound and goggle-eyed as the 600hp luxury coach segues into a thoroughbred stallion in full flight. It's a virtuoso performance with surprising realism and we all love it. A beach ride will never be the same again. To intersperse humour into a commentary on this highway of hard-packed sand is no mean feat.

Te Paki Stream, the access point for coaches making the return trip on the beach at low tide, is a gently flowing, seemingly harmless, braided watercourse on shifting sand.

"We've asked people to get out and push on occasions," our driver says, causing some anxiety among the incredulous passengers. "This is not a good place to break down, break down, break down," he intones, touching the brakes to simulate an engine's death throes.

Everyone on board enjoys the joke, once they realise that we are still rolling down the waterway.

"Last Christmas we had numerous cars stuck in the creek, even a 4WD vehicle towing a caravan. The owner spent the night in the caravan, which had sunk to the chassis with water flowing over the floorboards - he called it his waterbed."

With stories like this, our group of travellers from Australia, Britain, Germany, Japan, Korea and Taiwan give a collective sigh of relief when the beach hoves into view.

We emerge from the stream in a surge of pent-up horsepower and make straight for the pounding surf.

"We're going into the Tasman Sea folks," is the call, which brings a chorus of "No, No, No" from the bemused visitors. No doubt they had heard of the "crazy Kiwis" syndrome before, but this was clearly their first experience of the phenomenon.

At the last moment we turn abruptly and head south on a broad, sweeping expanse of sand that merges with a mirage of heat and salt spray far in the distance.

"Welcome to the Ninety Mile Beach. To the south we have the South Island; to the west we have our West Island, Australia. If you look carefully you will see our flag flying on the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The West Islands have
inexplicably added two stars to our flag. You'd think they could have come up with their own design."

Some passengers are aware that the beach is actually 64 miles (103km) long, so the question has to be asked "Why is it named Ninety Mile?" Our driver is not lost for an answer.

"How many of you good folks would come all the way up here to visit a 64-mile beach? We call it Ninety Mile Beach to attract more visitors."

He then provides a plausible explanation. In pioneering days, cattle that grazed at Cape Reinga were driven down the beach to the Ahipara stockyards over a three-day period. The stockmen rightly believed they were averaging 30 miles a day.

What they overlooked was the effect of incoming tides on the route, forcing the cattle to zigzag to the softer sand and back again when the tide receded. This
extended the walk but not the distance travelled in a straight line. It was many years before anyone got round to measuring the beach.

Pioneer aviator Kingsford Smith took off from this beach on flights over the Tasman. Land speed record holder, Norman "Wizard" Smith, once set a new world record at the sizzling velocity of 164mph.

However, Ninety Mile Beach is best known as a tour coach highway, with the 3.5m tidal variation dictating the direction of travel. The sea runs right up to the dunes so there's no room for error.

"The tour operators only lost two coaches last year,' our driver tells us in a tone that suggests this was a meritorious achievement.

"A driver parked his 48-seater on the sand for a `walk round' and the vehicle sunk up to the chassis. The tide came in and pushed it over. The next day a large digger exhumed it in bite-size pieces.

"Two weeks later a 21-seater hit soft sand and bogged down and the tide turned it upside down."

He hastens to tell us these vehicles were not from his company. When we reach The Bluff, a popular fishing reef, there is a brand spanking new coach parked
up for a walk round. "You may well ask why an operator would have a brand new coach on the Cape Reinga run?" our driver says.

In February/March each year Ninety Mile Beach hosts one of the world's most lucrative surf fishing contests. The largest snapper each day wins $3000 and the largest over five days wins $50,000.

"We have to dodge 1000 fishermen, 1000 chilly bins, 1000 rod stands plus kids and dogs," says our irrepressible driver.

Our tour coach pulls off the beach at Waipapakauri and heads to a refreshment stop at Awanui's Kauri Kingdom. This fascinating showcase of swamp kauri carvings and artefacts has a remarkable spiral staircase hewn out of a huge
kauri log. It is thought to be the only internal log staircase in the world and definitely the oldest kauri log at 50,000 years.

Returning to Paihia with our wheels thrumming on the solid, immovable tarmac roads, I reflect on the hardship, sacrifice, drama and humour that can be found in the inter-tidal zone of Ninety Mile Beach. It's a public highway like no other. One that should never be taken for granted. It can be a source of infinite good humour and enjoyment with miles of smiles, certainly it's a ninety-mile high.

Paul Rush travelled to Cape Reinga Courtesy of Kings Tours, Inter City and Copthorne Waitangi Hotel.

- Herald on Sunday

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