Escapism

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Wharariki Beach: A rugged Tasman gem

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A seal pup is almost camouflaged as it perches on rocks at Wharariki Beach. Photo / Jill Worrall
A seal pup is almost camouflaged as it perches on rocks at Wharariki Beach. Photo / Jill Worrall

Wharariki Beach, just a few kilometres from Farewell Spit and the northern-most tip of the South Island, used to be something of a well-kept secret.

Well, that's how it felt when I first visited it. But sometime in the intervening decades someone's spread the word about this remote, wild and wonderful coastline. Maybe a guidebook is responsible, or even a blog... in which case I'm possibly about to make things worse.

It's not that Wharariki is now the domain of bumper-to-bumper tourist buses, Mr Whippy vans and architecturally designed beach homes - there are none of these. It is just that where there would once be one or two cars parked literally at the end of the road and nothing else, there is now a car park, signboards, a coffee caravan and a loo.

It's hardly Queenstown but it's a little less untouched than it was.

However, because Wharariki can be reached only by a walk variously described as taking 15, 20 or 30 minutes it is never going to be overrun with visitors.

There's a bit of a slog up a sandhill or two as well, which might put off even a few would-be walkers.

The shortest walking track into Wharariki begins with a gentle climb through pastureland dotted with sheep. It then winds through a grove of manuka before emerging on the first of several ridges of high sandhills.

Although this beach is almost north-facing it is technically a West Coast beach and is often buffeted by tempestuous winds that stir up colossal seas. The manuka provides an early-warning system - if the wind is blowing gale on the beach the forest will be alive with creaking and groaning. (Wharariki is best visited early in the day before any wind does get up. When it is windy you'll be painfully sandblasted once you emerge from the trees).

However, on the day I visited the air was still and the sky cloudless, while just a few kilometres to the south Golden Bay was blanketed in cloud and drizzly rain.

Wharariki's swathe of white sand swept into prodigious dunes by the wind would be spectacular enough on their own. But Wharariki is book-ended by sheer cliffs and off the beach are monumental wave-buffeted islands.

Over the millennia the cliffs and islands have been eaten away by the sea, creating arches, stacks and caves.

I arrived at low tide and a narrow isthmus of sand and rock pools linked one of the islands to the beach. Two seal pups were playing in one of the pools. They performed lazy barrel-rolls, flippers waving in the sunshine, then dived like little black torpedoes through the shallows.

Another pup lay on the rocks nearby, its dark fur providing almost perfect camouflage. Off the shore, more pups and seals sunbathed on tumbles of rock or swam in the waves. Terns and oyster catchers pottered along the shoreline.

The sea was relatively warm, for an early autumn day, but this is not a beach for swimmers. Rips, currents and big seas make conditions too dangerous and there are no lifeguards here. Better to swim in the sea across the hill in Golden Bay where sometimes there is not even the smallest of waves and wading through the shallows is your most serious challenge (apart from the odd cavorting stingray).

The cliffs, islands and promontories are riven with caves and clefts - walk into them with caution. I once walked past a grumpy leopard seal that was hidden on a ledge. I only realised it was there when it barked menacingly at me.

Today, with Wharariki's greater popularity you're possibly more likely to encounter humans in the cave - families picnicking or couples mistakenly thinking they've found the perfect isolated cavern...

But even with these minor perils, Wharariki is a place to explore, to follow a stream into a cave just because you can, to scramble through rock pools and to run down sandhills, shoes in hand.

It still feels remote and wild even if a cappuccino and a muffin can be had just 30 minutes away and solitude is not hard to find.

Long may it stay that way. If anyone ever suggests putting in a road to this beach I'll be among the first to lie down in front of the bulldozers.

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