West Auckland: Sweet isolation

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright discovers what locals have long known: winter is the best time to visit a west coast beach.

Danielle Wright's children explore uninterrupted on an empty Anawhata Beach. Photo / Supplied
Danielle Wright's children explore uninterrupted on an empty Anawhata Beach. Photo / Supplied

My husband Gavin had cooked a Lancashire hot pot to take with us to remote Keddle Bach perched above Anawhata Beach, the remotest of the wild west coasts, and Sir Edmund Hillary's favourite beach; I can't help thinking we're a bit too organised.

To serve us right for feeling smug, when we arrive, the code we're given for the entry doesn't work, and neither do cellphones. When we finally do get coverage, and a new code, we drive down to Keddle Bach, only to find painters double-booked in the cottage.

Fast forward a few weeks and our reception at privately owned Puketi down the road is completely different. We're greeted by owners Meg and Kit McMillan, who offer us a glass of wine, crackers and guacamole made from the day's avocado harvest, while a log fire is burning and fresh Waitakere daisies and forget-me-nots sit in a vase on the table.

The McMillans have owned the land here since the 1970s but the eco-house was built only five years ago. The way they make time to meet their guests, even though they live in Mt Eden, gives some indication of the care taken in all things here - from the spotlessly clean and modern home to the carefully tended vegetable garden.

"It's a touch of the South Island West Coast, on the North Island," says Meg about Anawhata, as we look at only a handful of houses brave enough to nestle in bush above White's Beach, which Meg considers crowded if it has another person on it.

After they leave, we light candles and try to find shooting stars for the kids, listening to the relentless noise of crashing waves. It's in these very hills that George Wilder, who held a NZ prison escape record, hid in the bush, leaving thank you notes as he went - one is still preserved on a cupboard door in a neighbouring property.

With no television, and after games of Jenga end with the kids fast asleep, we read more about the area in Puketi's library of books, many solely on the west coast beaches and full of information unavailable by searching online.

There's something charming about the locals here: from late farmer, adventurer and collector of vintage cars Graham Craw (whose homestead is newly refurbished and available for bookings), to the parents-in-law of Sir Edmund Hillary and the way walking in bush here helped heal many hurts, as well as the Laughing Man Institute, a group of American truth-seekers unceremoniously evicted by the council in the 1970s.

The next morning, we don't see a soul - charming or not - on our walk towards Anawhata Beach, which Bob Harvey (in Untamed Coast) describes: "At Anawhata, the beach and the bush remain places of unease. No one has lived in this place with comfort for long."

After the scramble through scrub to the beach, it's easy to see why: it's desolate. Thin tree roots washed white by the waves are strewn across the black sand as if the beach was littered with bones.

Luckily, our kids find plenty of fun in the dunes, creating their own sandy playground complete with a slide and a grass rope to climb up. Later, they draw pictures with sticks in the flat blackboard sand and find logs resting on rock clusters to climb along.

We follow rabbit footprints and discover a spectacularly carved tree root, have a winter picnic on the beach and manage to terrify the black oystercatchers, so unused to humans, rummaging the rugged coastline.

We piggy-back the kids up the steep walk home to Puketi and find an opening in the bush, leading to a lookout with a seat dedicated to deceased locals, who once loved this land.

It seems Anawhata has taken the heart of many visitors. It's not my favourite west coast beach and the constant rushing sound of the waves seems to add drama to your thoughts.

But, as a line in Elizabeth Smither's poem The Sea Question in Puketi's library, says: "(The sea) doesn't presume to wear a white coat / but it questions you like a psychologist / As you walk beside it on its long couch."

It's true. There's something about this stretch of land and ocean that seems to make everything seem all right, perfectly in its place even. Maybe this is why it has become so revered.

We head home after only a night away feeling as if we've had a week; glad of the false start a few weeks earlier that led us to this slice of paradise and the hospitality we found at Puketi.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Where to stay: Puketi is at 240 Anawhata Rd, 50 minutes' drive from Auckland's CBD and overlooking White's Beach. Rental starts at $130 twin-share per night, bring your own linen. Contact Meg on (09) 623 1474 for more information.

What to do: Walk the Hillary Trail on a short trip or do the full four days.

Where to eat: Elevation Cafe at 473 Scenic Drive offers authentic Italian pizza and panoramic views as far as Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel.

- NZ Herald

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