There is something about a walk on the beach that soothes the soul. I find if my mind is busy and I need to clear my head, a walk along Oakura Beach seems to work wonders. By the time I’m a short distance down the beach, the expanse of ocean stretching to the horizon with clouds scurrying above is the only thing on my mind. It’s therapeutic. Friend and poet Elizabeth Smither has a poem called The Sea Question that explores this idea. This last verse captures the idea succinctly:

It doesn’t presume to wear a white coat
but it questions you like a psychologist
as you walk beside it on its long couch.

The top of Paritutu provides a bird’s-eye view towards Oakura

I am lucky to live by Oakura Beach in Taranaki and most days, like many locals, I make time for a walk along the beach. By late afternoon the beach is covered in an array of footsteps – large barefoot imprints, smaller female prints, random dog paws form scratchy circles – but dominating all are the deep indentations left by horses galloping along the sand. Sometimes I walk along in someone’s set of prints, matching the stride and wonder who they belong to. Each day presents a fresh canvas as the tide washes away the signs of the previous day.

A view east along Oakura Beach towards Back Beach

The beach walk may prove to be the day’s social highlight as I cross paths with neighbours, friends or strangers and stop for a chat. It is a good opportunity to catch up on news or discuss the surf conditions. If you’re walking a dog it’s a definite conversation starter, as the dogs stop to sniff each other in places I won’t mention.

An interesting place to walk to from Oakura Beach is west to the far end of Weld Road beach where the rusted steel stern of the SS Gairloch sits on the rocks. Mid-to-low tide is the best time for the walk, as the wreck is exposed and the firm sand is easier to walk on. An alternative is to walk along a path above the beach that starts at the west end of Oakura Beach campground. The path joins Ahu Ahu Road and crosses a swing-bridge at the end of the road where the walk goes around the headland. There is a swing-bridge over the Weld River if you don’t want to cross the river; it can be deep at high tide. Once over the bridge, walk across the field to the beach where the shipwreck will be visible.

Black-sand beaches are derived from volcanic rock

The SS Gairloch was a coastal steamer that ran aground on a moonless night in 1903. The reports say the Gairloch had just narrowly missed her sister ship, the Ngapuhi, when she hit the Timaru Reef. The captain and crew abandoned ship and rowed 13km to the New Plymouth port where they were housed for the night at the Breakwater Hotel. Silverware, linen, upholstery and spirits were salvaged the next day by the harbour board dredge. The wreck was extensively holed so the harbourmaster assessed it as unsalvageable.

A New Zealand fur seal (kekeno) below Paritutu Rock, Back Beach

Looking northeast from the wreck on the horizon is Paritutu Rock and the power station chimney, a New Plymouth landmark. Another scenic beach walk takes you along Back Beach to Ngā Motu/Sugar Loaf Islands and Paritutu. Access to the foreshore is halfway along the beach by the Herekawa Stream where there are two parking areas, one on beach level and the other on the clifftop. Back Beach is another mid-to-low-tide walk, it is unsafe at high tide because waves sweep against the unstable cliffs.

Starlings swarm over Motuotamatea (Snapper Rock)

In the 1700s Herekawa Stream, was recognised as an artificial boundary between Te Ātiawa and Taranaki Iwi. Māori were active in this area with men fishing, women preparing flax for dying and children using the beach for games that included flying their manu tukutuku (kites). Today the beach is popular for surfing and walking dogs, and is very photogenic with many moods and changing light around the islands. At low tide you may be able walk out to Motuotamatea (Snapper Rock). On windy days, of which there are many in Taranaki, paragliders soar in the thermals along the cliff tops.

Motuotamatea (Snapper Rock) from the clifftop above Back Beach

Large cliffs tower over the black-sand beach, and in the distance along the beach are some of the islands that make up Ngā Motu/Sugar Loaf Islands Marine Protected Area. The seven islands are the remains of an ancient but massive volcano, much older than Mt Taranaki. Formed 1.75 million years ago, the soft rock has been eroded to form spectacular undersea canyons, large pinnacles, caves and crevices. It is an interesting area for diving, with over 89 species of fish. The islands are visited by 19 species of seabirds, with an estimated 10,000 seabirds nesting there. The reserve is also home to a breeding colony of New Zealand fur seals.

The cliffs above Back Beach provide another viewing platform for the marine reserve. At sunset one evening, I watched hundreds of starlings swarming magically in the sky before settling on their island nests. When the sea is rough I like to stand on the cliff and watch the waves cross as they circle around Motuotamatea (Snapper Rock) and Motaora (Round Rock).

There is a steep descent from the top of Paritutu Rock

To get an overview of Back Beach, Port Taranaki, New Plymouth, and Mt Taranaki there is a steep hiking trail up to the top of Paritutu Rock. The climb is not for those afraid of heights. I have hiked it several times and it involves a little non-technical rock climbing near the top. The reward is the view. Looking out over the marine reserve at the island remnants of the ancient volcano, the sweeping coastline view across to Mt Taranaki, and southwest to the wreck of the SS Gairlcoch, it certainly is a remarkable area.