We sat on pillows of long grass, buoyant above the cold ground and only just tucked out of the wind, and surrendered to our lunch, at last. With the backpacks between us, my brother and I dived into the homemade Marmite scrolls Mum had packed us up with. It wasn't what I'd pictured, us eating our lunch with the view of this bush and the creeping feeling of goosebumps as our muscles cooled down; but I wasn't ungrateful. The scenery had been amazing so far.
The Te Henga track on Auckland's West Coast had been on my brother's radar for a while, and we finally had some time to hike it together. We decided to go from South to North, walking towards Muriwai, but it's accessible the other way around as well. Setting out from central Auckland, the journey to the start of the track was an easy 45-minute drive, ending with spaghetti-like roads and a gravel car park. The smell of the sea hit immediately upon opening the car doors and as we laced our boots up, filling our lungs.
We walked with daypacks: 1.5 litres of water each plus lunch and snacks, and extra layers of clothing. The forecast hadn't been too bad, but seeing as the West Coast - and coastal tracks in general - are liable to change weather conditions very quickly, I wasn't taking any chances.
The southern end of the track started with an unforgiving steep hill that warmed the heart, lungs and legs all in one. A beautiful vista lay out before us and we could see ant-sized people on the sand below. Te Henga is the Māori name for the area, initially referring to the long foredunes on the beach that look like an upturned waka hull. The area became known as Bethells Beach after the Bethells family settled there during European immigration, but in 1976 it was officially named Te Henga again, with Bethells Beach in brackets.
The ominous sea was blue-grey with white caps and it was easy to believe this had been rated the fourth most dangerous beach to swim at in New Zealand. Silver ferns adorned the leafy track beneath our feet and we were surrounded by native fauna. Soon we had arrived in O'Neill Bay, a private
beach nestled at the foot of the switchbacks. Zig-zagging up the mountain-face, we became increasingly buffeted by a strong wind pummelling our bodies, and emerging at the top we came almost face to face with brown cows grazing in a lush paddock. We kept our heads down while traversing the ridge line of the cliff, continually edging further north. The track was easy to follow; one lone coastal route with the occasional reassuring marker.
The mud swallowed us soon after that, and our eyes were torn from the empty, glistening horizon to watch our feet disappear in brown puddles. My hands instinctively (but illogically) gripped flimsy arms of flax as I got used to walking through such terrain. We were scrambling down one of the more challenging pieces of rock just as a group of women met us coming the other way. Each cheerfully passed us with gators and walking poles, dutifully informing us there were 12 in their group and they were quite spread out.
At some point, our hungry tummies dictated it was time to eat even though we hadn't made it as far as we'd hoped to along the coast, since the mud had slowed us (me) down. As we finished our Marmite scrolls and fruit, the sky was turning into a thunderous grey, and the wind felt significantly more chilly after a break. We decided it'd be best to turn back now, and skip the part of the track that endeavours inland from Bartrum Bay towards Constable Rd.
Our return was satisfyingly familiar, and soon the warm layers came off again. In front of me, my brother stopped suddenly and gestured to a baby field mouse at the edge of some dry leaves. We watched it for a few moments before it scurried back under cover and we continued, listening to the sound of native birds in the tree tops above us. A small glider-like aircraft circled above us, lifting in the thermal drifts and picking up speed over the rolling coast. Around O'Neill Bay, we passed other people starting the track in jeans and wondered how they would fare in the mud that would soon be coming their way.
With jellied legs, we inched down the very first hill we'd climbed, the angle not seeming quite so severe now, and all at once we were back at the car. It was four o'clock and the sun was starting to lower; surfers were standing on the dunes eyeing up the waves, and we sighed with audible pleasure as we peeled our boots off our feet and wiggled our toes. We sat in the boot of the car, swinging our legs, and shared a celebratory Crunchie bar.
Fifteen kilometres, six hours, a wholesome picnic and stunning views were just the injection of nature we'd needed. If you haven't yet checked out Te Henga, pencil it in for a weekend day trip and let the wind blow your concerns and tensions away.
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