Lisa Jansen starts at the top of the South Island and keeps going up, as she explores some of the more off-grid attractions beyond the better-known delights of this treasured region.
Golden Bay, in the very north of the South Island, is a favourite destination for many travellers. The golden beaches that give the region its name, the warm and sunny summers and destinations such as Abel Tasman Regional Park, Motueka, Kaiteriteri, Mārahau and Tākaka are what attract thousands of visitors each year.
While all those are excellent reasons to visit the northern tip of the South Island, there is more. Those who continue north past Tākaka and Collingwood will discover hidden gems that can easily keep up with the region’s more well-visited attractions.
Join a Farewell Spit tour
If you keep heading north until you run out of road, you will find yourself at Farewell Spit, a 25km long sandspit at the very top of the South Island. It is the longest natural sandbank in the world – and it’s also a wetland. Thousands of migratory birds come here each summer to feed on the fertile sand flats. From mid-spring to mid-autumn, gannets, godwits, white herons, oystercatchers, spoonbills, and more can be found on and around Farewell Spit.
Farewell Spit can’t really be called a ‘hidden gem’ – it can be seen from space, after all! However, many visitors come for a quick look from the car park only and thereby miss out on fully experiencing this gem. The best secret about Farewell Spit is only discovered when joining Farewell Spit Tours for one of their excellent excursions across these barren, brutal dunes.
Starting from Collingwood (pickup is also possible from the campgrounds north of Collingwood), the six- to seven-hour trip takes you to Cape Farewell, Fossil Point and along Farewell Spit all the way out to the lighthouse, and up one of the dunes so you can admire the stunning scenery from above. Along the way, you are likely to see a wide range of birds as well as seals and other wildlife, and the knowledgeable guides provide interesting commentary and can answer your questions.
If you don’t want to join a tour, you can walk onto Farewell Spit from the car park north of Pūponga. However, you can only get about 4km up the beach. To protect the wildlife, public access is not permitted beyond that point. Therefore, this is an example of where a tour is worth it.
Farewell Spit to Wharariki Beach
If you like walks with stunning views, you won’t want to miss this one. From Farewell Spit car park, the track takes you up the hills for vast views over the Spit and Golden Bay. It keeps climbing up to Pillar Point before descending to Cape Farewell. From here, the track continues to Wharariki Beach. The trail is steep in parts, and proper footwear and a decent level of fitness are required. However, the views more than make up for the effort. Be prepared for the odd sheep encounter on your travels, as the walk goes across farmland – don’t worry, they are very used to visitors and won’t mind you being there in the least!
The entire track is about 8km long and takes between three and five hours one way. Those who don’t want to walk that far may want to consider shorter sections. At the eastern end, Hilltop Track connects with Fossil Point Track to form a loop that takes about two hours. Other options include out-and-back walks from the Cape Farewell or Wharariki Beach car parks. If you can make it to Wharariki Beach though, try to aim for low tide so you can walk the length of this spectacular beach.
Look for seals at Wharariki Beach
Whether you walk there via the Hilltop Track or drive, the stunning Wharariki Beach is well worth a visit. With its majestic white dunes, impressive cliffs, rock pools and river mouth, Wharariki is often named one of the most scenic beaches in New Zealand. If you’re lucky, you might well get a glimpse of some seal pups, who can often be found playing in the rockpools. Adult seals are often found soaking up the sun on the beach on good days; enjoy this incredible insight into our marine friends, but don’t get too close as they can be dangerous, especially if there are little seal pups around.
Wharariki Beach is an easy 20-30 minute walk from the car park, which should be doable for most people. While the beach is incredibly beautiful, it’s worth remembering that it’s also known for its big waves, strong currents, and rips. Therefore, swimming is only recommended for those very comfortable in such conditions.
Visit the Westhaven Marine and Wildlife Reserve (Whanganui Inlet)
Once you’ve ticked off the sights at the very northern end of Golden Bay, it’s time to head west and into off-the-beaten-track territory.
Turn west onto Whakamarama Road, and you will reach the eastern end of Westhaven (Whanganui Inlet) after about six kilometres. This glorious part of the country was the first estuary in New Zealand to be protected by a combination of marine and wildlife reserves. It’s a botanist’s paradise, with coastal forest including kahikatea, pukatea, rātā, beech, rimu and nīkau palm, as well as eelgrass and salt marsh, which all works together to maintain the area’s health and diversity.
The Westhaven (Te Tai Tapu) Marine Reserve covers 536 hectares of tidal sandflats and channels within Whanganui Inlet and protects all plant and animal life within its boundaries. Fishing and shooting are not permitted in the marine reserve at any time. Around 30 fish species use the inlet at some stage in their life; the waterway is an important breeding area for snapper, flatfish, kahawai and whitebait, and many fish come for the rich food supply found in the eelgrass beds.
Westhaven is also vital for wading birds, particularly godwit, knot and oyster catchers. It is also the only place on the South Island’s west coast you’ll find the threatened banded rail.
The eastern side of the inlet is easily reached, and intrepid RVers will find plenty of spacious motorhome and caravan friendly parking shortly after the road turns from sealed to gravel. At high tide, this is a great spot to launch a kayak or paddleboard and explore the waterways.
Scenic drives and a true surfers’ paradise
Thrill seekers can continue on Whakamarama Road to the remote Paturau Beach. The road winds its way along the inlet, offering ever-changing but always beautiful views. The road is gravel but wide enough in most parts for easy passing, and there is only one mid-sized hill. Unfortunately, there aren’t many opportunities to pull over and park up along the way, so if you do see one, take advantage of it. However, if there’s very little traffic, it’s generally possible to stop for a photo opportunity or two.
After about 27km, you will find yourself at Paturau Beach. Take the right turn just after the bridge to get to a lovely freedom camping site by the beach and river mouth (Certified Self Contained vehicles only). Surfers can often be found riding the left hand point break at the southern end of the beach, while the rest of the sandy beach has several peaks which are fun to ride for everyone. It’s by a river mouth, so if you’re heading into the water, watch out for rips and currents.
If you’re not a surfer, Paturau is still worth a trip; it’s wild, remote and rugged, and beautiful. Go for a walk on the beach or sit back, relax and watch the sunset.
Relax at Anatori (if you dare to get there)
If the road up to this point has taken you close to (or past) the limit of what you’re comfortable driving, then enjoy where you are; there’s plenty of natural beauty to keep you happy for ages. Those who think they (and their vehicles) have a bit more in them, however, can continue for another 10km to Anatori. Be aware that the road gets narrower and a lot bumpier after Paturau Beach – you’re very much off the beaten track here so make sure you’ve got everything you need with you.
Those who do make the drive will be rewarded with stunning coastal views and another scenic freedom camping spot in Anatori. There is also a marked walking track to Lake Otuhie (about one hour return) that starts from the side of the road about halfway between Paturau and Anatori (just after the little bridge).
While most maps suggest that the road continues past Anatori, there is no bridge across the river and driving through it is probably something most RVers shouldn’t attempt – although if you have a separate 4WD, you might want to go adventuring (at your own risk) and see what’s on the other side.
Where to stay
There are several excellent camping options in this part of Golden Bay. Pākawau Beach Camp offers beachfront sites for very reasonable rates. Farewell Garden Holiday Park in Puponga and Wharariki Beach Holiday Park are great options for exploring nearby walks and sights. In addition, there are marked freedom campsites at Paturau and Anatori (no facilities at either). For NZMCA members, there is also a POP at the Old School Café in Pākawau.
There are no dump stations north of Collingwood (including none at the campsites), so make sure you take the short detour to Collingwood if needed before continuing north.
If you plan to stay in one of the paid campgrounds, it’s a good idea to call ahead and book, especially if you’re travelling during busy periods. The camps are small and can get very busy in peak season.
Farewell Spit Eco Tours: farewellspit.com
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