To most outsiders, there’s not much to distinguish one part of the Auckland isthmus from another. But for those who live there or visit the area regularly, Auckland’s west coast is a world apart, cut off from life “over the hill” by the rugged Waitakere Ranges, a mostly uninhabited mountain range covered in dense forest and scarred only by the remote roads.
“The attraction to the west coast is one of its extraordinary wild, funkier spirit, its rolling surf, its great cliffs, its wonderful seascapes, its sky and its sunsets,” says Bob Harvey—author, historian and Mayor of Waitakere City. “People are drawn to the coast for that and its special beaches, which are like magnets to people wanting to find a sense of place, solace and somewhere they can escape Auckland City.”
Harvey has written four books about Auckland’s west coast and describes Karekare as his “greatest passion”. After decades of owning a bach there, he is building a house overlooking the beach where he plans to spend the rest of his life.
The west coast, from Manukau Heads to Muriwai Beach, has a way of bewitching people, and once ensnared, it’s hard to leave.
When Harvey first glimpsed Karekare from his bike as a 14-year-old, the roads were notoriously bad, and although gravel has given way to tarseal, getting there can still be a daunting experience, particularly for first-timers. The trip involves winding over “the Waitaks” for 20 minutes before navigating in low gear the steep incline known as The Cutting.
Karekare has a permanent population of 48 and is one of four main settlements along the coast. The others are Piha (669), Bethells/Te Henga (99) and Muriwai (2214). Whites Beach, accessible only by foot, has a handful of houses high above the beach; Anawhata has three dwellings; and Whatipu has only a lodge, frequented by fishers and others looking for solitude.
While these settlements are relatively close by boat (a journey rarely made due to treacherous seas), rugged terrain and a scarcity of roads have meant they are isolated from one another and insular in nature. Locals tend to have a strong community spirit.
“It’s one of the things I love about living here. People rally around and help each other; they’re incredibly socially minded,” says nursery owner Jody Lusk, who has lived at Bethells/Te Henga with her family for 15 years.
On the surface, Auckland’s west coasters appear to be a collection of surfers, families, retirees, artists, musicians, commuters, freelancers and tradespeople, but there’s something that sets them apart from their city neighbours, says Piha garden designer Paul Thompson. “They’re characters who don’t totally conform, people who in some shape or form like their independence.”
Piha’s wildness and its proximity to Auckland were the main drawcards for Thompson when he emigrated to Piha from the United Kingdom seven years ago. “Piha offers this extraordinary mix of totally accessible living and totally accessible escape.” But life out west has its challenges, especially in winter when the south-westerly storms blow in from the Tasman Sea. “Energetically it’s a very powerful place.”
As well as the challenges presented by nature, locals face a drive of more than half an hour over the hill for groceries and school, and many endure a long commute to work in heavy traffic. “I think it takes a few years to settle into living here,” observes Thompson. “But I love it. It’s so elemental and has such a profoundly impressive natural landscape.”
This landscape has captivated writers, artists and holidaymakers for more than a century, and on an average summer weekend, thousands of visitors and dozens of holiday-makers head west to swim and lie on the black-sanded beaches.
This is the new face of the west coast—a far cry from the days when kauri was felled in the hills, milled in the valleys and transported south by a single-gauge tramway to a wharf at Whatipu. Given the unforgiving nature of the coast, the tramway was a tremendous feat of engineering and optimism.
Centuries before that, Auckland’s west coast was home to Te Kawerau a Maki. There are many sad chapters in the iwi’s history, and an eerie loneliness lingers around sites such as the Watchman at Karekare, a large volcanic headland from which many Te Kawerau a Maki were driven to leap in 1825 to escape enslavement by Nga Puhi. For almost 170 years, the iwi mourned the coast in exile, only returning in 1993 to reclaim the mana whenua of their ancestors. From vantage points high above Karekare, Piha and Bethells/Te Henga, the vast dune-lands of Whatipu can be glimpsed to the south, an unpopulated wilderness running all the way to the Manukau Harbour; and to the north, Muriwai, with its 70 km stretch of sand reaching like a tendril to the Kaipara Harbour…a slow tapering off of Auckland’s wild west coast.