The image of black-sand beaches didn't initially appeal to me, as a golden-sand, Pacific Ocean, East Coaster. But I didn't know they would sparkle in the sun and shine like pewter, or that the sand at Piha would feel like softest talcum powder and leave a shimmer on my skin.
Skiing or rather surfing down the dark sand dunes at Whatipu also took me by surprise. It felt like being semi-submerged in blancmange ... or rather 'noirmange'. There was slight resistance and an odd viscous feeling as I slid down the slope, triggering a black avalanche. I sank knee-deep into the moving mass, my hiking boots weighed down with fine black powder.
At Karekare Beach, the retreating tide left a crunchy coating like black meringue. I sat on the wind-swept sand and dug my fingers through the crust into the wonderfully cold, smooth layer below the surface.
I could visualise a forlorn Holly Hunter in her long dress and bonnet and a young Anna Pacquin standing there on the beach beside their beleaguered piano in Jane Campion's 1993 Oscar-winning movie, The Piano.
Karekare was recently voted one of the world's most beautiful beaches. I can see why. The sight of the silvery breakers smashing on the shimmering dark sand against the silhouette of The Watchman rock was mesmerising.
Having watched the television series Piha Rescue, which features the courageous deeds of the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club lifeguards, we knew we were in for an adventure when we headed out west for our mid-winter family get-together — but what we did not bargain on was being transported to a place of such high drama and spectacle.
The land and seascapes confront the senses — the staggering height of the cliffs; the ferocity of the waves; the texture and colour of the sand; the fire of the sunsets; the wispy beauty of the waterfalls; the cool, lushness of the nikau palm forests; the vast, empty expanse of the Tasman Sea stretching to infinity; and the dark, misty, moody Waitakere Ranges.
At The Gap, a narrow low point between Taitomo Island and the cliffs opposite, I found myself rooted to the spot, as if attached to the barnacle-clad rocks. The fury and confusion of the incoming tide with waves smashing through the cleft in the rocks was hypnotic. I had to make a rapid retreat when the foamy waves started to swirl around my feet.
From the safety of Puaotetai Bay, I watched the tide relentlessly advancing, swamping the nearby Blue Pool. The waves were coated in froth which smothered the pool and blew along the beach like suds overflowing from a washing machine. I later discovered Puaotetai means "foam of the sea".
As we walked along the beach, we saw a veteran surfer in a full wetsuit taking a shortcut to the Piha surf via the Keyhole, a tunnel in the torso of Taitomo Island. I held my breath as he hurled himself and his board into the surging current and was swept through the gash in the rock to a prime spot behind the breakers. Getting the timing wrong is not an option. His devil-may-care attitude seemed to epitomise the nature of the place for me — risky, untamed, confronting, intense, astonishing.
We spent our days hiking sectors of the magnificent 76km Hillary Trail that runs from the Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitakere Ranges to Muriwai Beach. The trail is named in honour of Sir Edmund Hillary who came to the rugged Waitakere Ranges to prepare for his expeditions. His family have had a bach at beautiful Anawhata Beach since 1925.
In four days, we managed a sizeable chunk of the trail, all the way from Whatipu to Anawhata and adding the exquisite six-tier Kitekite Falls, iconic Lion Rock and the gnarly Zion Hill track in between.
In the past, we've lugged ridiculously-heavy packs around back country huts but this time we did it the cruisy way, returning to our lovely home-base — Dave and Emma's Love Home Swap house perched on the ridge between Piha and Karekare beaches — every night. When we met true-blue trampers slogging uphill with tall packs on their backs, we had smug thoughts of the luxurious spa pool, comfy beds and fridge full of delectable food waiting for us at the end of the day.
The variety of terrain on the trail is astounding but the most spectacular part for us was the Mercer Bay Loop Track. It's high above the sea with staggering views of sheer cliffs, the rugged coastline, the endless ocean and rocky off-shore islands.
At Te Ahua Point, there's a striking pou (Maori carving) of a beautiful, young noble woman named Hinerangi who died of a broken heart after her husband was swept away by a wave while fishing off the rocks. Her sad face is said to be etched in a cliff face called Te Ahua o Hinerangi — The Likeness of Hinerangi.
Sometimes, it was a relief to walk in the bush, not just because of the shade and the pretty dappled effect of the sunbeams through the trees but also because my eyes ached from over-stimulation. The landscape of the West Coast is so demanding and attention-grabbing, I needed the occasional break so that my eyes and camera could rest.
But even in the bush, there was little respite — the nikau palms of the Marawhara walkway and the windswept manuka above White's Beach and on the Zion Hill track were stunning.
In the evenings we often joined the locals at the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club for beer, burgers and sunsets that took our breath away. I fully expected to see the sun sizzle as it slid below the watery horizon. Such is the drama of this place.
It was hard to drag ourselves away from beaches with sand the colour of black pearls. Our East Coast golden sands and placid seas suddenly seemed tame by comparison.
Weeks later, I was still finding tiny sparkles in my hiking boots and clothes. It literally and spiritually gets under your skin.
IF YOU GO
• If you have time, hike the whole 76km of the Hillary Trail especially Whatipu to Anawhata. If not, climb iconic Lion Rock and Kitekite Falls, and walk along the beach to the Gap at low tide or via the Tasman Lookout at high tide. The scenery will blow your socks off.
• I joined Love Home Swap in 2013 and Dave and Emma's house is one of many fabulous private homes we've stayed at all around the world. It often does not suit members to swap simultaneously so the Love Home Swap points system, a form of currency, provides the flexibility and freedom to stay wherever and whenever you choose. Membership starts at $20 a month. You can sign up for a free two-week trial to see how you like it. Be warned: it's addictive.
Getting there: You can hire a vehicle from JUCY Rentals to get around.