On The Wild Side

This account by Stephanie Holmes was published in the Sunday Herald on 5 March 2017.

There’s surely nothing better than a hot bath at the end of a long day. Even better, after a long day in which you’ve pushed your body to its limits and your muscles are burning.

And I think I just may have found bath perfection, at the guest lodge of Bream Head Coast Walks in Northland’s magical Whangarei Heads.

Under the awning of a shady wooden outhouse, the bath itself is nothing special. But the tranquility surrounding it is bliss. Bathing outdoors on a hot, sunny late afternoon is a treat in any sense of the word. Add to that a serene garden, bordered by native bush, where the only sounds are the buzz of bees, distant lowing cattle, and the tinkle of birdsong, and you’ve got the all-time, No 1 best bath I’ve ever had.

It probably helps that this bath came at the end of a punishing five-hour hike. The Te Whara track is only 7.5km long, but it climbs to an altitude of close to 500m, much of it a relentless uphill slog.

The walk is the hardest option of those offered by Bream Head Coast Walks, a private business owned by long-time local Claire Pearson.

She has lived for decades along Ody Rd, a dusty gravel road with farmland and bush on either side. She loves the area and the sense of community she has found alongside the many neighbours who have lived here for a similar time.

After 30 years as a teacher, Pearson was looking for a new opportunity where she could work from home. Inspiration struck after hiking the Tora Coastal Walk – a three-day, three-night walk through Wairarapa private farmland, coast tracks, ridge lines and native bush, where hikers are hosted at private lodges each night. In 2008, she launched Bream Head Coastal Walks, offering two- and three-night itineraries with accommodation at a purpose-built comfortable lodge at the end of her driveway.

As well as a comfortable bed for the night, home-cooked meals and transport, Pearson’s itineraries include rewarding walks through the beautiful local area – public tracks up Mt Manaia and Mt Aubrey, the aforementioned Te Whara track through Bream Head Coastal Reserve, plus a walk across private farmland accessible only to Pearson’s guests.

We arrive about 4pm on the Saturday of a sunny long weekend, and are greeted by the other guests who will be sharing the lodge – Tom and Diane, a super-fit 70-something American couple who have hiked some of the world’s greatest tracks, including Kilamanjiro and Everest Base Camp. They’re just back from their first walk – a five-hour return trek from the lodge to Ocean Beach – and they’re delighted at having seen a pod of dolphins close to shore.

Pearson talks us through our options for the next few days. Although it’s tempting to relax this evening with a glass of wine and a platter with Tom and Diane, we want to get moving while we still have enough light. Pearson recommends we take on half the Ocean Beach walk, and she’ll come and pick us up when we’re done.

We waste no time; lacing up our walking shoes, slopping on some sunscreen and heading out the door, with the well-written information booklet Pearson has prepared tucked in our pack.

I’ve been known to be directionally-challenged on walks in the past, but there’s no chance of getting lost as we amble across private farmland, owned by Pearson’s close friend Murray Jagger, and accessible only to Bream Head Coast Walks’ guests. Through dry paddocks and gorse-lined scrub; past reed-lined swampy streams and dusty dune tracks; with a soaring Harrier hawk and the umami scent of seaspray in the air; we eventually pop out at Ocean Beach itself – an undulating 5km stretch of pink-tinged golden sand.
There’s hardly another soul around – just a small group in the distance – and we revel in having this glorious beach almost to ourselves.

It gets even more magical as we push our way along the beach. We notice a seagull staring contemplatively out to sea and wonder what he’s looking at. Just like that, a dolphin leaps into the air, mere metres from where we stand, perhaps showing off to the rest of its 10-strong pod who are alternately slapping their fins on the surface or body surfing the breaking waves.

We watch in awe until they grow tired of performing for their admiring audience then we too move on to the end of Ocean Beach, where we take a refreshing dip in the cool waters; a soothing balm for our hot, tired feet.

Back at the lodge, there’s no need to worry about what we’ll have for dinner; Pearson has taken care of everything, with a homecooked vegetarian lasagne that just needs to be put in the oven when we’re ready.

It’s the same story the next morning – everything is there for us to make our own breakfast; the hard part is choosing between delicious homemade muesli or fresh free-range eggs from the Pearsons’ chickens. There are also supplies for us to make packed lunches to take on our walk . . . and we’re undoubtedly going to need a lot of sustenance as Claire warns us this is a strenuous hike that challenges even experienced hikers.

She drops the four of us off at Ocean Beach, with a quick rundown of the route map, and then leaves us to go on our way. There was no false promising – it’s one of the hardest walks I have ever done, with a steep climb right from the get go. These mountains were once used by Maori as a burial ground for chiefs. Now they are managed by three DoC rangers and boast some of the best coastal rainforest in the North Island. The bush is also home to a significant population of North Island robins, part of a successful relocation programme thanks to the Bream Head Conservation Trust, and the dense bush is thick with birdsong as we huff and haul our way to the summit.

Along the ridgeline we continue, veering from steep uphills – including the 476m Bream Head and the 395m Mt Lion – to knee-punishing downhills; shady bush trails to sundrenched lookouts – and there’s never a point where we’re not challenged. But it’s rewarding, too; this beautiful native bush, with its intimidating drop-offs either side looking out to Whangarei Heads and the sparkling deep blue ocean beyond.

Just when we think our knees can’t take it anymore – after more than 1000 DoC-installed steps, as well as the root-strewn unformed parts of the track – we arrive at the relative sanctuary of some rolling farmland, where Jagger’s Guernsey cows graze happily in the sunshine.

We swim at the picturesque Smugglers Cove, where once upon a time whiskey was illegally brought in to avoid paying taxes, then phone Pearson for a well-deserved ride back to the lodge.

We’re exhausted but proud – we’ve challenged our bodies; seen a part of the country neither of us have seen before; and done something worthwhile with our weekend.

Tomorrow we’ll be heading out again, stretching our aching legs with a somewhat gentler walk round the base of Mt Aubrey. But for now I’m content to spend the rest of the afternoon wallowing in the outdoor bath, drinking a glass of wine and immersing myself in the serenity. After all, there’s no need to worry about dinner . . . it has been left in the fridge for us, ready to go.