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Destination: New Zealand

Southern Exposure

90 Miles (or 60) to the end of the world on a beach fringed by nature's wonders

April 05, 1998|RYAN J. DONMOYER | Donmoyer is a journalist who lives in Alexandria, Va., about 8,400 miles from Cape Reinga

PAIHIA, New Zealand — It was barely 7:30 on a brilliant December morning, and already I was reaching for my sunscreen when the four-wheel drive from Dune Rider stopped in front of the visitor center in this port town on New Zealand's North Island. I regarded the vehicle with some trepidation.

It was part bus, part dune buggy and part camper van, with tinted windows, stubby tires and a rubber partition that split the vehicle just behind the driver's seat. The Dune Rider glistened in the intense sunshine, bringing a twinkle to the eye of the grinning face painted on the side. The doors folded inward, and the man whose mustachioed likeness adorned the vehicle peered out at my traveling companion, Molly, and me.

"G'day! My name's Dave," he said, adding, in the thickest Kiwi accent we had heard since arriving in Auckland a week earlier, "If you need to use the loo, you best go now. There are no toilets along Ninety Mile Beach."

Dave was our guide for a daylong tour to Cape Reinga, the northernmost point in New Zealand. Once believed by the Maori, New Zealand's native people, to be the end of the Earth, Cape Reinga is renowned now for its lighthouse and astonishing view of the collision of the warm Tasman Sea, which separates New Zealand from Australia, and the frigid Pacific Ocean. Maori legend also holds that the cape is the gateway to the next world for recently departed souls.

I lived in New Zealand as a kid but had never been this far north. Most of this trip would be driving, but we decided on the tour because it offered an opportunity to ride on the hard-packed sand of Ninety Mile Beach. Our rental car had come with strict instructions to keep off the beach because tourists who attempt the drive have been known to get stuck in the sand and lose their vehicles to high tide.

"This is Molly and Ryan from America," Dave sang out to the other passengers as we climbed aboard. There were about 20 of us, a mix of Japanese, Australian, German, British, American and New Zealand tourists.

Once we were underway, Dave briefed us on the day's itinerary, which would cover about 280 miles, "mostly on tar-sealed roads." New Zealanders are awfully proud of their tar-sealed highways, and the fact that they are worth mentioning speaks volumes about the condition of the rest of the country's roads, many of which are dirt or gravel.

In some ways, we were taking a trip back in time. Pahia and its twin city, Russell, are the jumping-off point for tours of New Zealand history and the Bay of Islands, named for the 150-odd uninhabited islands offshore. This, New Zealand's subtropical Northland region, is home to the country's oldest European settlements, and the Maori lived here for at least 1,000 years before Capt. James Cook claimed the land for the British. Russell, on the east side of Wairoa Bay, a few miles across from Pahia (reachable by ferry) was once known as "Hellhole of the Pacific" for its tough reputation as a whaling port. The country's first capital, Russell boasts a beautiful harbor, a museum that is home to a replica of Cook's ship, Endeavour, and Christ Church, the country's oldest house of worship, built in 1835. That this is the most "historic" part of New Zealand serves as a reminder of just how young the country is.

On our tour's first stop, the Waipoua Kauri State Forest, we saw something far more ancient than civilization. Mammoth kauri trees--one of them 2,000 years old--towered over us, living relics of colonial days when their milky-white gum and lumber were New Zealand's first and primary exports. Outside the preserve, swamp kauri is harvested from peat beds where it has lain for 50,000 years and turned into products such as furniture--again, for export.

Once we were back on the road, it was about an hour's drive to the turnoff for Ninety Mile Beach, which is closer to 60 miles long but seems twice that in its monotony and isolation. Immediately, I felt gratified by our decision to let someone else do the driving; a family of tourists was desperately trying to dig their rental car out of the sand, but succeeding only in digging themselves into a deeper hole. "They'll be all right," Dave assured us. "They're far enough away from the high tide mark. You can drive on the beach. Just don't stop." The Dune Rider's special tires for beach driving (and stopping) kept us moving smoothly and the shore stretched ahead forever like a sandy highway to paradise.

To our left, the breathtaking blue-green Tasman crashed incessantly, spraying theMaori legend also holds that the Cape Reinga is the gateway to the next world for recently departed souls.

glass with tiny droplets as some of the plumpest sea gulls I have ever seen dived for their catches just inches from our tires. About 50 yards to our right, a natural wall of sand and bush shielded us from farmland, completing the illusion of otherworldly isolation.

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