Auckland’s west coast beaches are renowned as a rugged haven of pounding surf and black sands. Barely 30 minutes from the city centre, you find yourself entering another world. One that is painted from the palette of natural tones – deep greens, bright blues. Ochres. From Muriwai in the north to Whatipu and Huia in the south the Waitakere Ranges drape the landscape like a lush emerald blanket. And you need to visit it. What better place to set up an exploratory base than Piha Beach?
Piha has been high on the must-see sights of Auckland list for as long as I can remember. It’s an excellent day trip (45 minutes from the city) and many Aucklanders will make the pilgrimage to hot-foot across the burning, iron-filed sands from the car park to the water at least once during the summer.
For the most part, time has stood still in the Waitakeres. The trees are tall and green, the rivers trickling; many of the lesser visited beaches untouched. Until you get to Piha. The drive out to Piha has certainly become easier than I remember it as a child (I didn’t stop to puke once on the winding roads). This has encouraged some residents to set up a more permanent base. There are fewer true kiwi baches. A lot of properties now have town water supply; though many still use tanks. Careful locals insist new builds must keep the spirit of the place alive. They even have a cafe now. Some progress, it seems, cannot be avoided.
Although it has changed a lot over the years I still recommend a Piha trip to anyone passing through Auckland. After my most recent visit, I have decided you need more than a day trip to get the most out of this magical place. We’ve just returned to the big smoke after four days camping at the Piha Domain Campground which is run with near military precision by the locally renowned Fiona Anderson.
// Camp like a local
No matter which style of ‘camping’ you choose they’re all pretty Kiwi. Piha Domain Camp offers small (and I mean tiny) cabins, as well as sites both powered and non-powered for caravans and campervans. But if you want to really relive my childhood you need to camp in a tent.
A great camp consists of multiple tents. Preferably a big central tent with two or three separate rooms. You can use one to store all your essentials – namely the chilly bin (cooler). It’s a good idea to set up a small gazebo, too. This will create a lovely shady communal area for everyone to enjoy. From here, smaller two or three man pop-tents create your miniature village. Your kiwi camping haven.
If you want to find out more about the Piha Domain Campground, including rates and facilities, check out their page on the Piha website (yes, they have a community website!)
// Surfs up!
Now camp has been assembled, it’s time to head to the beach. Piha Beach is probably the most famous beach in New Zealand. This is attributed primarily to its unforgiving surf which has attracted surfers since the 1950s. The rips are a powerful and easy ride out for experienced surfers, but terribly tiring for recreational swimmers. So do take care – see the afternoon swim section for advice on keeping safe in the water.
// Escape to somewhere more secluded
Hiking, or tramping as it’s known here, in the Waitakere Ranges is really diverse. There are gravelled trails for the occasional walker, but the real gems are the isolated coves you can get to only by committing to a steep climb. Multiple awesome day and half-day round trips proffer endless options to fill your days.
A Recreation Map of the Waitakere Ranges (also known as a topographical map) costs $5 at the Arataki Visitor’s Centre. Pick one up on your way to the beach for access to miles of trails across the ranges.
// Stroll to the falls
Just as the day is reaching its hottest you are met with two choices. Firstly, go back to camp and siesta. OR – take the short track up to Kitekite Falls. Thus getting you out of the sun when it’s at the most dangerous point and fitting in a little light exercise.
The walk takes about 50 mins return from the Glen Esk Road carpark. 1hr 30mins from the campsite. Walk upstream using the right-hand path and return on the other side to make a nice loop. While walking you will learn about the river and falls’ saw milling past.
Take your swimsuit with you because it is thoroughly acceptable to take a dip in the pool at the base of the waterfall.
// An afternoon swim
If you’ve been perspiring in the tent village all afternoon, it’s probably time to cool off. The mid-afternoon, from 3-5pm in the summer, is a great time to get down to the sea. After baking in the sun all day the black sand will be as hot as coals. Head to the Domain Carpark and walk up the river to cheat yourself out of the almost literal baptism of fire that is walking on the sand near the Piha beach-front carpark.
The treacherousness of the current won’t have changed, though. So if you’re going to Piha for a casual swim, only ever swim between the flags. The beach is monitored by the Piha Surf Life Saving Club (of Piha Rescue fame).
Check out these tips for getting out of a rip current !
// Pop Another One on The Barbie
Okay. No one in New Zealand says that.
Although the Piha Domain Campground has a cookhouse for your cooking needs, you absolutely must bring a small barbeque with you. We picked up a cheap but awesome, two-burner from the Warehouse for $99. My brother Jack named it Delilah and she produced delight-ful sausages, kebabs, and bacon rashers for three days straight.
While the sun is hanging low in the sky, pull a beer our of the chilli-bin and let it perspire while you assemble the token salad and give the sausages a partial tong-turn.
// Finally, Enjoy the quiet nights
After the day-trippers have gone home you get to enjoy they same tranquillity enjoyed by the locals. Finish off the day with a walk on the beach, watch the sun set over the Tasman Sea and drink in some more of those sensational views.
Back at camp, switch the torches off and try to count the stars.
Who’s coming on the next camping trip?
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