Being from Colorado, we never fully appreciated how much of a concern the tides are when walking on the beaches in New Zealand until we lived here. Many scenic beaches essentially become inaccessible during the twice-daily high tides, requiring you to plan your trip accordingly. And this isn’t just some idle concern. A fair number of beaches back up to sheer cliffs. Time a long beach walk wrong when the tide is coming in and you can become stranded, or literally be smashed up against rocky cliffs and drown.
Even to be on a remote beach when the tide starts coming in can sometimes be nerve-wracking. Each surge of the waves slowly, relentlessly begins to come higher and higher, the water surging and lapping toward your feet, with the spit of beach sand on which you walk becoming narrower and narrower.
Checking tidal charts has become part of our routine when accessing remote beaches. It is often best to time a hike an hour or so before low tide, so that you have the maximum flexibility and time to explore.
This is the case with a series of dramatic, 25-meter high, rock formations, called the Three Sisters on the Taranaki Coast on the southwest side of the North Island. Access is only at low tide.
Like so much of New Zealand, the signage is in no way proportional to what you are about to see. In New Zealand, a tiny, easy-to-miss roadside sign can lead the way to a place that would virtually be a national monument anywhere else.
Despite the sign saying ‘Three Sisters’, as a matter of record, one of the rocky sea stacks, the sisters, actually collapsed a number of years ago, and many people now refer to the rock formations as the Two Sisters or even the Two and Half Sisters. To confuse things further, in the 1800s there were actually four sisters. The sea seems to be claiming sisters one at a time.
You enter this fantastic beach area by waiting for low tide. As the tide recedes a narrow strip of rocks becomes visible along the cliff allowing you to walk out to a beach. On the day we were there, we were the first ones out after the tide had turned and the beach was pristine and bereft of footprints having been licked clean by the sea.
You round a small curve in the beach and the sisters and rock archways loom before you. Like so much of New Zealand, it is all so primeval. You feel like you are walking during a time when the earth was just being formed. The sea, the sky, the rocks, the cliffs—everything is so raw and untouched.
There are numerous small sea caves and several arches where the ocean has eroded through the cliff.
Farther down from the sisters is “Elephant Rock”, a rock formation shaped like an elephant. To be honest, we didn’t know it was there and didn’t look for it. Here is someone else’s photo of Elephant rock. If you are ever in the area, check it out.
A short drive farther south down the coast from the sisters is the Whitecliffs Walkway Loop. Luck wasn’t with us on this one. This is a loop track where you follow a track along dramatic cliffs and then follow the beach—at low tide again—back to your car. Well, it was super high tide when we got there, and the track on top of the cliffs, which crossed private land, was closed due to lambing, the time of the year when ewes are pregnant and give birth to the lambs and generally don’t want to be disturbed.
Farther up the coast, Waikawau Beach is a lesser-known and perhaps one of the strangest beaches in New Zealand. Here in 1911, three men with picks and shovels dug an 80 meter long tunnel through the sandstone cliff in order to drive cattle and sheep along the beach to and from a station (ranch). You can now walk through the tunnel to access this remote beach. This is also a low tide beach with the waves crashing directly into cliffs and the base of the tunnel when the tide is high. We timed things right for this one, and no one else was there.
Emerging onto the beach through the tunnel, you enter another primordial world—a deserted stretch of rocky beach full of strange rocks, sea caves and tidal pools backing to steep cliffs.