03/14/11 - Bethells Beach
Our days were numbered. With less than a week left, it would've made sense for us to focus solely on Auckland. Most people would. It's New Zealand's largest, most well-known city and has a myriad of things to experience and explore. But Katie and I aren't most people…
Before leaving the U.S. we'd booked a cottage in an out-of-the-way place called Bethells Beach. It resides only seconds away from the waterfront and was the ONLY place we could find that didn't involve paying a king's ransom.
Bethells Beach is west of Auckland, about forty minutes outside of the big city, and is most known for its black sands and bodacious surfing waves, dude. Katie and I aren't surfers, and being from California we've seen our share of beaches, so why would we squander a couple days of valuable New Zealand time to stay at Bethells Beach? I have one word for you: Xena.
Yes, you read that right. Xena. The Warrior Princess.
Don't look at me like that! I refuse to be ashamed of my unabashed fandom. Just thank your lucky stars we didn't do this trip ten years ago or our cave exploring and glacial hiking would've been replaced with days devoted to finding that rock Cyane stood upon in the Amazon Land of the Dead. You would've needed a “Nerd-Alert Decoder Ring” to understand what was going on! As it is, I'm going to spare you many of those inane details. Not all, but many. Well, some. A few. OK, I won't blame you if you skim this blog entry.
Now where was I? Ah, yes, the cottage...
After a long drive south from the Bay of Islands, we found our way to a small green beach house that looked quaint and charming. Just what we'd hoped for. Beach-themed knickknacks adorned the porch where a stainless steel grill sat, housing our hidden set of keys. My mouth watered at the thought of our upcoming barbeque meal: Grilled salmon, vegetables, corn on the cob, and a ginger beer to wash it all down. Yes, renting this place was the best idea we'd ever had. Then I opened the door...
A thin light cast a pallor over my surroundings while musty, dusty air wrinkled my nose. Inside our quaint cottage getaway sat all the stylings of a thrift store. For those of you that know me, you may think I'd be into that, but let me clarify: A thrift store is somewhere I like to go to get good deals on funky stuff, it is NOT a place I want to sleep. I shudder at the thought. But there we were, standing in a home that felt like a dirty old rug desperate for a beating.
To say the place was lived in would be an understatement. A walk around told me everything I needed to know – an elderly woman lived here and she had grandchildren. The signs were everywhere: Artificial flowers, a mess of crayons, fifty year old furniture, sticky toys, random movies, expired frozen food, a hodgepodge of kitchenware and chalky knickknacks. I was a little astonished that we'd been given free rein of someone's home. In no way did it feel like a rental space, it felt like Grandma Esther was going to walk in at any moment and call the police:
"Help! There're intruders in my home! Oh, my heart!" She’d shriek, clutching her chest.
On further inspection we found the bedroom closets to be packed and the dresser drawers to be filled; years of someone else's life resting below the dusty surface. How were we supposed to "settle in" to this place?!
Despite our disappointment, we did manage move our belongings in and eat a lovely dinner on mismatched dishware.
That evening, with a little over an hour of sunlight left, we decided to walk to the beach. A short stroll down the road took us to a small parking lot and then straight onto the sand. A thin stream flowed to our right, accompanying us as we walked to the ocean. And before we knew it, there we were, standing on the shores of the Tasman Sea.
The beach was deep, long, and positively gorgeous. Tussock grasses covered the sandy dunes behind us and long arms of rugged land jutted out into the sea at both ends. It would be a bewitching sight for anyone to behold, but for a Xena fan? This was Mecca. Left, right, and center, we recognized landmarks that signified at least a dozen different episodes off the top of our heads. When you consider that we met because of this silly little television show, it was rather cool to be standing there, together, enjoying the view.
Our feet fought their way through the sand to the other end of the beach where a large sea cave had wormed its way into the cliff side. For fellow fans out there, this is best known as "Callisto's Cave," the place where Xena and Callisto started their chariot race at the end of "Return of Callisto." The cave was much larger than I imagined, and very deep. While within, my surroundings went pitch black beyond a certain point, but I could hear dripping water and taste the sea salt in the air.
The moon was high by then and the tide was slowly creeping in. We shot a few pictures in silhouette, posing like heroes, before making our way back across the sand. We watched the sun fall below the earth's edge and pour into liquid gold, flooding the horizon. It was one of the most spectacular sunsets I'd ever seen.
By the time we reached the pathway home we could barely see the ground. Our combined memories and a few meager street lamps helped guide the way back. I have to say, I wasn't thrilled to return "home," and even less thrilled when I slipped into bed – holey, dusty, dirty sheets, Batman! When was the last time this bedding was cleaned??! There is nothing I hate more than lying in a filthy bed. No, it wasn't filthy. It was stale. I honestly don't think those sheets had been changed since grandma was home. Yuck.
We aborted bed #1 and hightailed it into beds 2 & 3 in the grandkid's room. It wasn't ideal, but it was a few ticks above “yuck,” thus an improvement. I pulled myself between the sheets and cautiously sniffed. "Better," I thought to myself. "I can sleep here tonight. I can do this." Then began one of the worst nights of sleep I've had in New Zealand. Not only was I uncomfortable, but I couldn't trust the hygienic conditions of my surroundings. Plus, I couldn't stop myself from feeling...weird. There was an eeriness in the silence. A stillness around me that seemed to hover. It felt as if grandma was still at home, you know what I mean?
If that was the case, the least she could've done was change the sheets.
In the morning we quickly geared up for a day out and about. We had a lot to see and absolutely no desire to stick around in our luxurious rental home.
At the rear of the backyard happened to be a sandy trail that led to the exact place we longed to explore: The Bethells Valley Sand Blow. I know what you're thinking: "What on Earth is a sand blow?" Well, according to Wikipedia: "A sand blow is a cone of sand formed by the ejection of sand onto a surface from a central point. The sand builds up as a cone with slopes at the sand's angle of repose." And if that doesn't do it for ya, how about this – It's a big bunch of sand! There you have it.
Close your eyes and imagine a gigantic heap of black sand piled high on a valley floor: Steep slopes cut down at the sides; dry and nearly lifeless in the middle; lush forests all around; a small lake pooled at one end with a glimpse of ocean peaking out at the other; a desolate desert of sand resting in a valley of life. That is what we saw when we rounded the bend.
Heat rose up from the dark dunes while the hot sun beat down upon us. Our long shadows stretched backwards as we marched up, smiling from ear to ear. It was a gorgeous place that held a great deal of memories – adventures we'd lived time and time again because of a campy television show filmed on the other side of the planet. It made me think of college, staying up all night, laughing, talking, friends and fun. It made me think of Xena.
It's kind of hard to explain, but that show gave us a lot of joy back in the day. We loved it, made fun of it, and reveled in all its cheesy glory. And at that moment we were standing in a place where everywhere you looked marked a time in Xena's history: Over there was Siberia, where Xena fought the Berserker; Britannia, where Xena joined Boadicea; That's where Callisto killed Perdicus and walked with Gabrielle; And on and on and on. Ancient Greece with all its twisted Xena history laid out before us, and man were we geeks!
Katie, my geeky accomplice, had prepped some episode clips on her iPod for reference, and from there madness ensued. We ran up hills and slid down slopes. Pulled off shoes and kicked through the shallow waters. We checked angles and sized up landmarks, enjoying every "Ah-ha!" moment to the fullest. "That's where Xena rode up the hill during the opening teaser for "Adventures In The Sin Trade--"
Ahem…let me go ahead and dispense with the dorky minutiae…
Beyond the extreme geekiness there was the sand blow itself, perfectly formed and dazzling in its enormity. How could you not love this thing? No one was around, so we had it all to ourselves, and its come hither waves beckoned us. It was our own private sandbox of joy!
With fun in mind, I sat down on the edge of the dune and slid off my shoes. I was planning on running barefoot down a sharp incline of sand which I'd done a few years ago back in Death Valley, CA. There's nothing like your feet sinking into cool sand as you run down it. But boy, what a difference black sand makes...
Hot! Hot! Hot! Thud. I dropped to my bum. I was only a third of the way down and my feet were on fire! The sand was as cooling as a pile of hot coals. I felt like Yosemite Sam blowing at my heels ("What in tarnation!"), but climbing back up wasn't going to solve my problem. All I could do was sit for a bit, grit my teeth, and continue my way down. So that's exactly what I did.
Hot! Hot! Hot! Thud. "What in tarnation!"
Now I was two-thirds of the way down. The soles of my feet were on the verge of melting off. But there was no going back. The water at the base of the hill called to me. Just a bit further and I could douse the flames. So I hot-footed it the rest of the way down (pun intended) sighing with relief the moment my toes hit the stream. Steam rose on contact.
All this time Katie was viewing my shenanigans from the top. Now it was her turn. Luckily, my swearing had thoroughly prepared her for what was to come. I got the camera out to record the occasion:
Power On. Grind, grind, grind. Uh-ohhhhh...
"Katie, the camera's broken," I called out, a note of panic in my voice. Then I proceeded to shake, blow, and prod our beloved camera, begging it to not give up – Fight, dammit! Fight!! But it was no use. Only error messages filled its display. The fine sand granules had sunk their way deep inside the gears, rendering it useless. After all it had survived, only to be crushed by the smallest of foes...
Death by Sand Blow. Tragic.
We rushed back to our haunted abode and grabbed any tools we could find in hopes of breathing life back into our beloved friend, but it was no use. We had no choice but to close the lens and declare a time of death. Included in this blog is the last photo taken by our comrade in arms. RIP, fellow traveler. You served us well.
Having adored the photos we'd taken thus far, I took the loss of our camera quite hard. We still had so much to explore and now no way to capture it. Luckily, Katie wasn't as distraught as I, and quickly suggested that we drive to the nearest city to buy ourselves a new camera. In the grand scheme of things we were actually very lucky. Instead of breaking our camera hundreds of miles away from civilization we managed to do it half an hour away from a mall. Quite fortuitous, if you ask me. Less than two hours later we were back with a new camera in hand. It was a lesser model, but it would suffice for the remaining days of our trip.
Katie and I sat in the car starring down the dirt road in front of us. You see, a few hours earlier we'd noticed that there were a few cars near the lake at the base of the sand blow. People had been down there doing some kind of maintenance and research around the water, so we knew we could drive in. The question was whether we should. The first issue was Scottie, our rental car. He wasn't built for rough terrain. And this "road" was through shallow creaks and up sandy hills. Katie thought we could do it. I was more dubious. The second issue was legality, as in, private property. Was this private property? It was a grey area. Yes, there was a sign saying you could hike to the lake, but it clearly delineated that the surrounding land was private. And hiking isn't driving. There were no definitive signs with regard to driving. But Katie and I had already lost significant time with the camera debacle and we wanted to get back to the lake asap, so we decided to roll the dice...
At first, smooth sailing. Scottie took the bends and turns skillfully, not giving us a moment of grief. The watery course didn't phase him. Then it got a bit rougher. Our hesitation grew. We nervously eyed the landscape, weighing our options before plowing ahead. We got past the water unscathed only to exit onto open sand. It was moist, thankfully, and we kept moving at a steady pace...right past some hikers. We’d been alone all day until now. Perfect. They gave us an odd look that can only be described as: "What in the hell are they doing??" I avoided eye contact and pressed the gas.
Now I was getting anxious. I loathe being caught doing something wrong. Katie sensed my fear and told me to chill. She argued that if we were told to turn around we'd do just that. There were no signs saying people couldn't drive in. It was an honest mistake. No big deal. She was right, of course, but that didn't stop moisture from beading on my forehead.
The sand beneath us started to dry out. Right then a string of cattle came lopping down the hill to our left, jogging along a fence. A truck was leading them on a dirt road. Private property. No doubt in my mind. And that fence? It opened up onto the very sand we were driving on. Did that mean we were on private property? Oh Dear Lord... Here’s what happened next:
Revvvvv, revvvvv The wheels loose traction. Revvvv, revvvvvv, revvvvvvvvv... Tires spin out in sand as dry as my mouth. Gulp.
"We're stuck!" I grip the wheel, panicked. Katie calmly gets out of the car to push. I spy the hikers in my rear view mirror closing in. The farm truck pulls over and a woman gets out shading her eyes and staring down at us. I slump down in my seat hoping to disappear.
Rocking. Rocking. Rocking. Back and forth. Nothing. No progress. No escape. People and animals closing in. Yes, animals! One of the cows breaks away and weaves through the open fence, trotting right at us. The hikers yell: "Get in the car!" Katie looks confused, stupefied, as the cow picks up speed running directly at her. It's going to ram her!!! What kind of cow is this??!!!
She jumps in the car and we hastily roll up the windows just as the giant bovine bumps its nose against them. The hikers shoo the mammal away. They explain that Katie's red shirt was egging the animal on. Apparently, its not just bulls that go ballistic at the sight of red. Then the farm lady comes stomping up...
"Can I help you?" She says with pointed annoyance.
"We wanted to go to the lake?" I reply innocently.
"This is private property. You need to turn around and leave."
"OK." I retreat happily, wanting to break free from this den of humiliation as quickly as possible.
Unlike the farm lady, the three hikers are extremely friendly, and they help us break free of our sand trap with a 1-2-3 push.
Every inch back on the quicksand road feels like an eternity. I'm horrified of getting stuck again, and the Gods must've truly condemned me because now we're encountering car after car on this one-lane gauntlet of shame. I pull off into washes and reeds trying to let them by; each pit stop is a gamble. Eventually our wheels meet solid ground and I’m zipping home with thank you prayers on my lips…
Needless to say, I was an emotional wreck when we got back. What a day it had been! First the camera breaks, then we get stuck in sand and charged by a mad cow while trespassing!
In light of my frazzled state, Katie suggested we get a head start on packing so that I could decompress. It was a good idea and it worked like a charm. I made a master list of items to declare at the airport while we spread out the balance of our rock collection into various bags. My mind lulled into a Zen-like mood. Cataloguing really soothes the nerves.
We spent the rest of the evening on Bethells Beach enjoying our last night on the coast. The sunset was completely different but just as spectacular. Cloud-diffused rays of light floated across the skyline. We climbed up a craggy hillside to get a better view. While elevated, we gazed down the coastline and saw silhouettes of our ancient heroes walking below. Yes, we were still thinking about Xena. And no, we weren't done exploring Bethells Beach or the sand blow. Did you think we'd throw in the towel so easily? Never! We hadn't given up! Come hell or high water we were going to hike back to that lake tomorrow and see the very spot where Joxer acted like Attis: The Ape Man, dammit!
(Please don't judge me)
Car packed and ready to go, we drove away from our spooky bungalow and pulled up to the head of the trail we had abandoned the day before. This time we set out on foot. The sign clearly stated you could hike to the lake – No ifs, ands, or buts about it. So I felt good and confident when I peeled off my boots and started my trek through the shallow creek toward the lake.
Katie and I kicked our way in and out of the water until we reached the lake and started our walk around it. A light rain sprinkled down as we pushed our way through tall, thick grass. This trail wasn't well trodden. At the other end of the lake we came upon a solitary hawk standing on the path. It was resting within tall cattails. Obviously injured, it hopped its way off the trail and let us by. We kept a wide birth. Just after our bird encounter we saw a wee waterfall come into view and then the trail opened up. By now the rain had subsided, the sun had come out, and gorgeous trees were ushering our way around the lake.
My favorite New Zealand bird, the fantail, came twittering up to us. First one, then two, then at least twenty fantails were jumping and fluttering around us. They dashed from branch to branch, hopping and turning and fanning. We stood still, delighting in their curiosity. It was a beautiful sight and a wonderful moment. (It would have been even more wonderful if one had landed on my outstretched hand, but I digress...)
When we circled the lake we reached the very spot where the Xena episode "Fins, Femmes, & Gems" was filmed. Right away, we tossed down our towels, threw on our swimsuits, and went swimming in the lake. Well, Katie did this right away. I needed a little coaxing (I was cold!). But when the sun broke overhead I finally followed, diving into the water Xena-style. We spent the next couple of hours swimming, sunning, snapping pictures, and being geeks to the nth degree. It was fun.
After our dorky detour we enjoyed a slow march back across the dunes. The wind was low and steady, picking up a translucent veil of earth that tickled our ankles and poured waves upon the sand. We made one last stop at the beach before our final departure, pocketing some keepsake seashells and bidding adieu to that magnificent place. Yes, it had touched our geeky hearts, but aside from that it was a unique and stunning landscape; a place of endless exploration. Katie said it was the most beautiful beach she'd ever set foot on. I agree. We hope to go back there again someday and enjoy every inch of it once more…
Minus the ghosts, cows, and humiliation.