Auckland city is built around the Waitemata harbour with its beautiful city and north shore beaches. When we lived there I loved its clean sparkling water, white sand, generally safe swimming and generous scattering of islands to visit. The downside for me with Auckland beaches is that whole summers went by without a single beach day that was warm enough for me to swim.
With all that sand and salt air on offer so close to the city it takes quite a bit to convince someone to hop in their car and drive 45 minutes across town to the west coast but it was something that was on my ‘must do’ list on my last visit back to Auckland. You really should take a look, you won’t believe the difference that 40 odd kilometers can make.
When you arrive at Murawai beach the calm waters of the east coast are replaced with surf, the sand is black and the views of the rugged coastline from the cliff tops are stunning.
Our first stop was Otakamiro Point for the Takapu (Gannet) Refuge track. There’s a reasonable amount of car parking on the cliff top, clean restrooms and amazing views down to the beach below. The start of the track to the gannets leaves from the northern end of this carpark.
The breeze can feel quite cool up on the cliff so you might want to take something warmer to put on. As you can see we visited on a sunny day but we still had two squalls of rain come through out of nowhere and disappear again into the blue sky while we were there so a rain jacket may also be handy. Multiple ‘seasons’ in a day are characteristic of Auckland weather.
Takapu is the Maori name for the Australasian Gannets you’ll see nesting here. They’re a large seabird that weighs around 2.3 kg with a wingspan up to 1.8 metres. The nests are tightly packed on both the cliff and offshore rock island but somehow the birds seem to be able to find their own nest easily and land safely. As one of the pair arrives back from fishing they greet each other with a sort of dance with their head and neck that’s quite entertaining to watch, I guess this is a gannet hug.
The colony has grown steadily over the years and I believe it’s now the second largest land based colony in New Zealand after the one at Cape Kidnappers in the Hawkes Bay. That one is definitely worth a visit if you get a chance. When we were kids you got there in a trailer pulled along the beach behind a tractor which was fabulous fun and that’s still an option although if we get there again I want to drive myself on a quad bike which is a newer option.
Gannets start arriving in New Zealand in August returning to the same nesting area where they were born. They stay in Muriwai until around March and then begin the 2,800km migration to Australia. It’s a long flight for the chicks who are only around 15 weeks old by this stage and potentially as many as 80% of the new fledglings sadly don’t survive the journey. Those that do will spend the next 2-3 years in Australia before joining the adult birds in their annual migration back to Muriwai Beach.
You can either continue on and follow the Takapu Refuge trail down onto Muriwai Beach or return to your car and drive a minute down the road and park in the beach car-park. It’s an interesting beach to walk on with it’s black sand. It wasn’t as dark black as I remember it from years ago but is still something quite different. In summer the iron ore in the sand which gives it the black colour heats up making it too hot to walk on without shoes and can actually result in minor burns. Black sand isn’t unique to New Zealand but it’s one of the few places iron sand is so prolific. The first time I experienced west coast beaches I was quite fascinated by the magnetic properties of the sand and how it formed a thin but crisp crust as it dried.
New Zealand and Japan are the only countries I’ve heard of making metal from sand, NZ Steel mines black sand for commercial steel production and Japanese traditional swords have historically been made from iron from black sand.
There’s a range of other activities to enjoy in the area too. Several excellent walking and mountain biking tracks weave along the coastal cliffs and fisherman in the surf were reeling in a good catch if a spot of fishing is your thing. If you really want to experience Muriwai like a local you’ll need to join the surfers out on the waves Even if you’ve never been surfing before you can organise a lesson at the Muriwai Surf School just up from the beach.
Muriwai Beach Visitor Information
The trip from Auckland city to Muriwai beach is a pleasant drive and will take under an hour if you have access to a vehicle. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to identify a practical option for making the day trip using public transport.
Gannets only nest in the colony between August and March, they are completely absent through autumn and winter. The beaches and tracks are interesting outside of those months and a variety of other local birds including gulls, terns, tuis and fantails will still be seen. Surfing and fishing are popular activities on the beach all year round.
The park is open to walk in visitors 24/7, however the park gates, facilities and car-parks close at 9pm in the summer and 7pm in the winter.
If you’ve visited the Auckland west coast beaches I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments.