One of the activities I was most looking forward to during our trip to Northland over the holidays was taking our cute little 2WD Toyota Ractis to 90 mile beach. Stretching along the western coast of the far north from Ahipara to Scott Point (just south of Cape Reinga) this official highway is an open playground of never-ending beach and the coolest route to travel in New Zealand!
A funny fact about 90 mile beach is it’s actually only 55 miles (90 km). The origins of the misnomer are unclear, but many believe it stemmed from the days of riding horseback. An an average horse could travel 30 miles in a day and since the journey along the beach took 3 days, it was assumed they had traveled 90 miles. However, not taking into account the likely slower pace on the sand, they had in fact only traveled 55 miles.
Recommended for only 4WD vehicles, this stretch of highway is only passable within 2 hrs of low tide. With stories of lost cars in the wet sand flats and dozens of cautious cars stuck daily, it’s no wonder rental companies have specifically called out this highway as a banned road for rentals. Despite the warning signs there was no way Jordan and I were going to miss the chance to drive down an open straight stretch of beach with our little 2WD Ractis!
The night before we stayed at a holiday park next to the entrance in Waipapakaur so Jordan took a stroll down to the beach to scope out our entry point. The soft, dry sand at the entrance is by far the sketchiest part to get through but once you are, it’s clear sailing along the hard packed sand flats. He watched as several cautious BMWs slowly crept their way down the platform and into the sand, only to find themselves stuck and having to pay a local to pull them out. We were taking notes at their expense – GO FAST!!!
The next morning we headed down to the beach to get a closer look of the ramp. Since it was the holiday season it had been busy with 4WD trucks running up and down the beach carving massive ruts in the sand. Using our feet to flatted down the sand and increase the clearance for our car (since we had so little!) we created a little runway that Jordan was able to zoom through to the sand flats. SUCCESS!!
From there we were cruising along the beach, ‘pedal to the metal’ with nearly noone in sight! With no painted lines, lanes to stay in or road signs to distract you, it was complete freedom on the open road as the waves whizzed by us! With Jordan behind the wheel, I crawled outside the window with my hands in the air and the wind blowing through my hair feeling like a kid in a candy store! Loving life and feeling free!!
It wasn’t long though before we saw a police car pass us down in the wet sand by the water. I guess since it’s an official highway it does need to be patrolled, but I’m not really sure what the rules are as to what you can and can’t do. They didn’t seem to mind us hanging out of the car and doing some donuts as we were being responsible enough to stay in the hard packed sand and stayed far away from the wet sand by the water, and the dry sand by the dunes (which is where most people get in trouble).
Although we really didn’t want to get off 90 mile beach, we decided to play it a little safe and listened to the recommendation from our trusty NZ Frenzy book to set our odometer for 17km and take the turn off at Hukatere Hill. With uncertainty of the exit points further up, we didn’t want to take a chance getting stuck as we wanted to get up to Te Paki sand dunes for some more sandboarding!
At the end of the dirt road just before the Te Paki stream, we stopped at Dave & Rose’s sandboard hire to pick up some of the ‘fast’ sandboards. Believe me when I say it’s well worth the $15/day hire to get the right boards. These white bottom, glossy boards make a world of difference when you’re on the dunes!!
From here we had the option to park with the rest of the cars, or venture through the Te Paki stream to get closer to the sand dunes. Of course we decided the more risky option and cruised through the stream, pulling up into the hard packed sand whenever we could just to be safe. Again our NZ Frenzy guide was right – yes it was a little freaky at first, but perfectly safe for a 2WD as long as you’re smart. Keep moving when you’re in the wet stream, don’t spin your tires and if there’s any more than a few inches of water- just don’t go.
Around the corner was a large hard packed sand flat – pretty much a perfect parking lot situated at the bottom of the large sand dune. A few tour buses were parked and a sea of people were making their way to the top of the hill. Listening to the suggestion of our NZ Frenzy guide, we climbed to the top but continued on towards the back side of the sand dunes. Most people are too lazy to go beyond the first hill (or are on a tight schedule with a tour bus) but when you get over that first spot a massive field of dunes appears.
From here you could see sand for miles! It felt like a completely different world – you could be in the middle of a desert! Except for the fact that the ocean was visible in the distance, this definitely felt like nowhere else in New Zealand. With our eyes set on the highest point we took off on the hot sand to get the best vantage point. Climbing up the ridgeline, it felt like we were scaling a mountain – we just didn’t have our mountaineering gear on this time!
The sand was soft and smooth, our footprints covered within a minute from the wind blowing the sand to cover it. That meant the sand would be even faster compared to Ahipara as there weren’t any huge ruts and tracks to slow us down. With that we took one last look to calculate our path and leaped onto the boards, whizzing down! Yahoooo!!! Man it was FAST! And soooo much fun! Again Jordan managed to speed ahead of me and kick back sand in my face, but it was a pretty awesome ride!
After a few more runs (and a couple crashes into some of the bushes below) we decided to walk back to one of the interior hills to hit some jumps. The one down side to sandboarding is the ride ends pretty quick, and the bigger the hill, the longer the climb up (and more exhausting). So the slightly shorter, but faster rides that offered a few jumps were pretty appealing.
About three-quarters of the way down the hill was some hard packed sand jutting out from the dune. A naturally formed jump it was the perfect spot to catch some air!
Jordan even tried one down towards the Te Paki stream that sent him flying down the hill, crashing into the water below! Wasn’t such a great idea though as the board (and Jordan) got pretty wet, but some guys driving by in their truck got quite a chuckle watching him come crashing into the stream!
It’s funny how your confidence really builds after some time at the dunes. When we first tried it, we were quite cautious and dragged our feet to slow ourselves down. After tackling the intense Ahipara, and in reality we actually loved Te Paki so much we ended up visiting 3 times, we really got used to the speed and began to crave more!
Even lying on the board just wasn’t enough anymore. We tried our luck standing on the board and while we would keep our balance pretty good for the first few sections, it wasn’t long before we took a hard crash into the sand. At one point Jordan and I were racing down the hill but he managed to fall off and his board which flew out ahead of me and ended up taking me out! I hit the board with my face pretty hard so had I had to lay there for a few minutes to shake off the impact! I still have a feeling it may have been intentional – sore that I was beating him at our stand-up game 🙂
I have to say sandboarding in Northland has rocketed up towards the top of our list of favorite activities in New Zealand. It’s right up there with Rere Rockslide in Gisborne, and while it may cost you the mere $15/day board hire, it is more than worth it and provides hours of entertainment! Seriously, if you come to New Zealand you really need to consider heading up to Northland. It’s a bit out-of-the-way, but we feel it’s so worth it!
One piece of advice would be to plan to come as early as possible as the sand gets REALLY hot midday. I’m talking “feet feeling like it’s burning off your skin” hot! Not only will you beat the crowds, but you’ll catch an awesome sunrise and the temperatures will be way more comfortable. Only challenge is the board rentals don’t open till 9:30am, so if you can make do with any boards you already have until that time (or find out where they buy the good ones and pick up one first), then you’re set! Don’t forget HEAPS of water, sun screen and something to cover up from that intense sun! Have fun!