Marcy Barack Black

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New Zealand: South Island thrill rides

You can saddle up or drive to pristine beaches, mountains and valleys while enjoying summer in winter.

By Marcy Barack, Special to The Los Angeles Times         Oct. 22, 2006

Except for a couple of bull seals sunning themselves on the silvery sand, my family had New Zealand's mile-long Wharariki Beach to ourselves.

The unclouded sky paled at the horizon over dark blue water lined with cresting rollers. Retreating waves molded the sand into a wet mirror that reflected the sky, the seals, the Archway Islands offshore, me and my three grown children on horseback.

The kids took off ahead of me, whooping and hollering as their horses pounded through the surf. I held back my steed, Sultan, to drink in the scene, delaying gratification for one more exquisite moment. Then I let him go. Hoofs drumming on the sand, wind whipping my face, we raced to catch up with the others.

The thrill lasted all of 30 seconds. That's when the rocks at the end of the beach loomed large, and I started worrying how to halt that headlong rush. Funny, my long-cherished dream of galloping across a tropical beach never included hauling at the reins and screaming, "Whoa!"

The ride was one of the first activities I booked online when my husband, Bill, and I decided to take our son Owen, 23, and daughter, Amanda, 17, to New Zealand in December, at the start of the Southern Hemisphere's summer. Our excuse for traveling around the globe from our home in Maine was to pick up Justin, our 21-year-old son, after his semester abroad in Christchurch. Midway through our adventure-packed, two-week trip, we planned to relax on the beaches at the northern tip of the South Island.

So we set off for Abel Tasman National Park, apparently just like thousands of other tourists. Abel Tasman is the smallest national park in New Zealand — only 87 square miles — yet it attracts the most visitors — about 200,000 annually.

After swimming with the seals of Tonga Island, we lunched on Onetahuti Beach, one of a string of sandy crescents arcing up the jungled coastline. It was filled with hikers tramping Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of the nine Great Walks that lead through some of the country's best scenery; swimmers stripping off snorkels, masks and fins; and kayakers stretched out in the sun next to their slender plastic boats. A succession of seagoing taxis dropped off fresh adventurers and picked up tired campers along with their gear, hauling the kayaks onto the stern of the taxis.

We were glad to leave the rush hour behind as we headed up the only road that leads to Golden Bay. For 16 miles, it zigs and zags 365 times up and down the 2,600-foot-high summit of Takaka Hill.

From a roadside lookout at the top of the hill, you can see the Takaka River draining northeast into Golden Bay. Herds of cattle, sheep and deer graze the lush valley between Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Park, site of another great walk, the Heaphy Track.

Our first night in Takaka, the main town on Golden Bay, we had a spacious suite at the economical Anatoki Lodge, a motel on the main drag, Commercial Street. While stocking up at the local grocery store, we were surprised when the Takaka Volunteer Band marched into the parking lot. Led by a blond drum major, about 20 musicians in gold-braided blue uniforms played carols and performed again at dinnertime from a pocket park across from the Wholemeal Cafe.

Judging from the crowded bulletin boards at the entrance to the cafe, much of the action in Takaka seems to take place in the nearly 100-year-old theater building. My kids went back later that night to dance to a dreadlocked reggae band.

We got up early to reach Cape Farewell Horse Treks in time to beat the tide to Wharariki (pronounced Fah-rah-ree-kee) Beach. The outfitters, Gail and Don McKnight, raised three daughters on their spread in Puponga, at the entrance to Cape Farewell, the northernmost tip of the South Island. The McKnights call it "the most beautiful place in New Zealand." Sheep pastures and forest mingle above hidden beaches and steep cliffs overlooking the sea.

After I introduced my kids, Gail said proudly, "These are my boys," leading us to her lively, well-mannered horses.

She missed her calling as a psychologist. After spending a few minutes observing my children and how they handled their mounts, Gail pegged each with a one-sentence analysis that was spot-on.

As my first-born kicked his horse into a canter out of sight up the road, she said, "He doesn't think, just dares and damns the consequences."

Then she nodded at my middle child, gently urging his mount forward after his brother. "He's the thinker," she said, "more cautious about things."

"Wait up," called my daughter, trotting after her brothers.

Gail smiled, saying "She's got a bit of both in her."

Her instant insight matched my two decades of mothering those kids.

It took nearly an hour to clear the verdant hills and descend to Wharariki Beach, which is accessible only at low tide. Gail took photos with our cameras, then turned us loose. After our wild gallop, we tethered our horses to explore rock tunnels, arches and caves on foot.

A back injury kept my husband from riding or hiking nearby to Farewell Spit, one of the world's longest natural sandbars. This 16-mile sword of sand jutting east from Puponga is a sanctuary for birds but a hazard for whales. A pod of 116 pilot whales stranded themselves on the beach days before our arrival. Volunteers helped dozens out to sea, but many died. The carcasses had been cleared away by the time we got there.

After our ride, we headed by car to Cape Farewell. A rutted road through a cattle gate terminates in a parking area below the grassy headland facing the Tasman Sea. It was an excellent spot. We dined on salami purchased from a vending machine at a roadside shack, local bread, cheese and luscious boysenberries.

For dessert, we shoehorned the kids into the back seat of our rented sedan and drove south along Golden Bay to Collingwood, which proclaimed itself free of plastic shopping bags in 2005.

After the gold rush

Maoris, the original settlers here, built a pa, or fortified settlement, on the site of the town, at the mouth of the Aorere River. The town boomed during an 1850s gold rush — which gave its name to Golden Bay — but Collingwood has since dwindled to a few hundred people.

Appropriately, roses bloom in the garden outside Rosy Glow Chocolates, a pink cottage with gingerbread trim. Inside, Miriam Bermingham sells her mother's handmade dark chocolates. These are not delicate morsels the dimension of a sugar cube. No, Rosy Glow has Rubik's Cube-size confections meant to be shared.

So we traded tastes on a bench under a huge shade tree while playing with a friendly black-and-white pooch.

Still licking our fingers, we pushed through a narrow tangle of pink-and-white bindweed to another absolutely empty expanse of soft-sand beach.

We drove to Te Waikoropupu Springs, one of the largest freshwater springs in the Southern Hemisphere. It also claims to be some of the clearest water in the world, with more than 200 feet of horizontal visibility.

A short trail winds across a stream, through mature and regenerating forest, past abandoned gold-mining works, to Pupu Springs. About 370 gallons per second fountain out of the basin.

To prevent contamination, no one is allowed in the water, and a viewing platform (it's all done with mirrors) allows visitors to observe the distinctive aquatic jungle that flourishes in the springs. Trout and eel play hide and seek among the liverworts and pondweed, underwater mosses and milfoil. Then we continued past Takaka on to Pohara, where we would spend the night.

A photo album in the sitting room of the eco-friendly Sans Souci Inn documented every step of the construction of the Mediterranean-style bungalows on a 4-acre paddock. Vera and Reto Balzer, an energetic young Swiss couple, built the inn with their own hands, from the ocher-tiled floor to the whitewashed adobe brick walls supporting the earthen roof abloom with flowers.

Perhaps the most singular feature of the seven-room inn is the central bathroom. Hot showers, a spacious bathtub and composting toilet stalls ring a circle of sinks clustered around tropical plants growing under a skylight.

On Christmas morning, the fluting song of bellbirds and tuis awakened us. One son slept in while the rest of us headed for Tata Beach and a morning paddle with Golden Bay Kayaks.

The drive to the eastern end of Golden Bay passes the Abel Tasman Memorial, a white obelisk above Ligar Bay. Interpretive panels tell how the Dutch seafarer, under contract to the Dutch East India Co., anchored nearby on Dec. 18, 1642, the first European to visit the islands. His initial encounter with the native Maori left casualties on both sides, and Tasman dubbed the site Murderers Bay. European settlement didn't commence in earnest until the mid-1800s.

Our guide, Paul, had only arrived in New Zealand from his native Devon, England, four weeks earlier. Sporting a red Santa cap, his kayak garlanded with gold tinsel, he took us out to see the colony of spotted shags, a cormorant native to New Zealand, nesting on the limestone cliffs of the Tata Islands.

Pointing at a ledge, Paul yelled, "Blimey! That's the second seal I've seen!"

By that time in our trip, a bull seal hauled up on a rock was old hat for us.

We poked around the point to view the mussel farms in Wainui Bay. What looked like strings of floating black tires dangle lines that are home to spat — baby mussels. These mature into succulent, green-lipped bivalves as long as your big finger. The seabed around the islands is covered with their wild kin. We put in at another deserted crescent beach for a snack. I collected a bird skull and a pine cone the size of a grapefruit and picked two yellow passion fruit from the weedy tangle growing up the steep slope behind the beach.

Rising westerly winds cut short our outing. That afternoon, we strolled the length of Pohara Beach under thick clouds and intermittent rain. Gusts had brought out several kite surfers, who skipped over the waves, and a buggy with a triangular sail that sped across the sand.

That was the only time we shared a beach on Golden Bay. Under sunny skies, its golden sands were our own private playground.

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GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Air New Zealand has connecting service to Nelson, New Zealand. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $923.

From Nelson to Takaka, it's almost 70 miles, or nearly two hours on the road. Don't forget to drive on the left.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international dialing code), 64 (country code for New Zealand), 3 (area code) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Nearly every farm with a spare room in Golden Bay has a sign out welcoming backpackers.

Sans Souci Inn, 11 Richmond Road, Pohara, Takaka; 525-8663, http://www.sanssouciinn.co.nz . Gardens and vineyards surround the eco-friendly Mediterranean-style inn across from Pohara Beach. Communal bathroom. The on-site restaurant serves a sumptuous set meal each night for about $18. Doubles from $63.

Anatoki Lodge Motel, 87 Commercial St., Takaka; 525-8047, http://www.anatokimotels.co.nz . Every spacious suite in the clean, modest motel includes full kitchen facilities. Doubles $70-$89.

WHERE TO EAT:

The Wholemeal Cafe, 60 Commercial St., Takaka; 525-9426, http://www.virtualbay.co.nz/wholemealcafe/index.htm . Specializes in curries and local salmon, lamb and beef. Entrees $8-$15.

Golden Salami, State Highway 60, Takaka; 525-9385, http://www.goldensalami.co.nz . Get a nitrite-free, preservative-free half salami (about $8) for a picnic.

Rosy Glow Chocolates, Beach Road, Collingwood; 524-8348, rosyglowchocolate.co.nz. Hand-dipped confections.

Windjammers Café & Bar, Abel Tasman Drive, Pohara; 525-7672, http://www.thetaste.co.nz/goldenbay.htm . Kiwis crowd the bar here. The cafe serves mussels as big as bananas along with local wines and a variety of beers. Dinners about $18.