Black sand and burnt feet: Navigating the West Coast beaches of New Zealand

New Zealand rocksNew Zealand is a country of contrasts. From the rolling hills of the North to the majestic, snow capped peaks of the South, it truly is a place of epic variations. Where the East is home to smooth waves and white sand, the West is united by jet black coastlines and turbulent waters loved by surfers worldwide. Both are as beautiful as the other, and can leave you breathless with wonder or lifeless if care is not taken.

Welcome to the Wild West……..

New Zealand is renowned for its black sand beaches. Just a short drive from central Auckland hails the mighty Waitakere Ranges and some stunning examples of what the wild NZ West Coast has to offer.

The decision to write this article is not a whimsical idea but born from a real need to make travellers who come from overseas aware of both the beauty and dangers that these shorelines hold.

New Zealand iron sand

New Zealand iron sand

Let’s start with the black sand: Black iron-rich sands are found along much of the Western Coast of the North Island. Because of the high percentage of iron oxide (titanomagnetite), the sand tends to heat up to very high temperatures which have been known to give unsuspecting beach goers 3rd degree burns! This is actually no joke.

There are a number of  things you need to take to a West Coast beach (apart from your swimming gear):

  • A hat that will stay on your head in gusty winds
  • Sun block
  • Sunglasses
  • Footwear of some kind
  • Something warm
  • Water to drink

These are the absolute basics that you must take with you.

Kerekere waves

Kerekere waves

Something else to consider is the unpredictable and often rough water. Even the most seasoned swimmers can have a hard time when the West Coast decides to pull a mood swing. Rips are the most common and dangerous phenomenon; having claimed the lives of many unsuspecting paddlers. Enough to warrant its own TV series: Piha Rescue!

A rip current is a narrow, powerful current of water running perpendicular to the beach, out into the ocean. These currents may extend 200 to 2,500 feet (61 to 762 m) lengthwise, but they are typically less than 30 feet (9 m) wide and move at up to 5 miles per hour (8 kph) or faster.

Rip currents move along the surface of the water, pulling you straight out into the ocean. Although it is a surface current, it may still knock you off your feet in shallow water and if you thrash around and get disoriented, you may end up being pulled along the ocean bottom. But if you relax your body, the current should keep you near the surface.

Piha life saving flags

Swim between the flags!

When you’re at the beach, keep an eye out for narrow, muddy streaks in the ocean where there aren’t any wavesbreaking. This is an indication that a rip is present.

If you get caught up in a rip, do not swim against the current. Either try to swim sideways, parallel to the beach or let the rip take you our past the sandbar where it will be much calmer. You can then head back in.

The most important thing to do is not panic. You need to conserve your energy and as soon as you can, raise your hand high so that the life guards can see you. They will soon be out to get you but not if they can’t see you so make sure you SWIM BETWEEN THE FLAGS!

Here’s a great video on how to spot a rip (It’s an Australian clip and very informative):

Another thing about the West Coast waters are the big waves. Depending on the tide, you can be standing in knee deep water one minute and over your head the next, as huge waves push vast amounts of water towards the shoreline. If you happen to stand in a little ditch that a wave has made, then you can be in over your head in seconds. This is especially dangerous for little children and the pull of the current can be incredibly strong and no fun if you have little legs!

On the upside though, the big waves and strong current enable many to partake in a favourite West Coast pastime: boogie boarding! Never tried it? Then you are definitely missing out! This is the final must bring item to a West Coast beach. It’s easy, great exercise and can be done at any age. Just grab a board and jump on an incoming wave. Oh…take a top to swim in though as a boogie board rash can be extremely uncomfortable (as will be losing your swimsuit in the waves)!

Here’s some basic safety tips in a nutshell:

  • Swim only at lifeguard patrolled beaches
  • Always swim between the red and yellow flags
  • Listen to advice from lifeguards and heed safety signs
  • Never swim alone and don’t leave children unattended
  • Never run and dive into the water. Check water depth first.
  • Avoid alcohol – it affects your judgment and the ability to hold your breath
  • Don’t depend on flotation devices, such as boogie boards, as you can lose them in large waves
  • Be aware of rips. Regularly check your position against a landmark, such as lifeguard flags, to help maintain a fixed position and alert you to dangerous currents
  • Don’t wear street clothes in the water
  • If you get into trouble, raise your arm for assistance, float and wait for help
  • Stay out if you are not sure about the surf conditions or your own ability

So now we’ve discussed the pitfalls, let’s look at how to get to some of these little black gems:

Bethells Beach

Bethells beach

Bethells beach

Te Henga / Bethells means sand…. black sand for almost as far as you can see. The skyline is broken only by the life guards’ tower where they keep a close eye on all. This is a great fishing spot and also a place people love to go to walk their dogs. Close by, a little inland, is one of the region’s best wetlands: a refuge for wildlife.

How to get to Bethells beach

From Scenic Drive, Waitakere Road, Te Henga Road, Bethells Road.


Karekare was made famous by the Oscar winning movie ‘The Piano‘. This is a truly special place surrounded by volcanic cliff faces and native bush. You can hear the waves booming in the distance as you arrive and is a much loved place for families and their dogs as it is a little less crowded than the more popular Piha.

How to get to Karekare

Head along the north-western motorway. Get off at Lincoln Rd. At the end of Lincoln Rd turn into Great North Rd. At first set of lights turn right into Henderson Valley Rd. At the roundabout take Forest Hill Rd and drive to the end. Turn right into West Coast rd. At the end of West Coast Rd turn right into Scenic Drive. Take Piha Rd at the junction 200m on. Karekare and Anawhata are signposted off Piha Rd.

Distance from Auckland CBD: 50 km


Lion rock Piha
Lion rock Piha

Piha: A place of big surf, big crowds and big scenery. If you’re not into swimming, climb Lion Rock or take one of the many bush walks nearby. Check out the rock pools at low tide or just go for a stroll along the beach. There is a reason this place is so popular!

How to get to Piha

Head along the north-western motorway. Get off at Lincoln Rd. At the end of Lincoln Rd turn into Great North Rd. At the first set of lights turn right into Henderson Valley Rd. At the roundabout take Forest Hill Rd and drive to the end. Turn right into West Coast Rd. At the end of West Coast Rd turn right into Scenic Drive. Take Piha Rd at the junction 200m on. Stay on Piha Rd and it ends at Piha Beach.

Distance from Auckland CBD: 40 km

Campervan access
Summer: Self contained campervans can stay for 1 night in the Log Race Road or Glen Esk Road SCC parking areas.

Winter: Self contained campervans can stay up to 3 nights in Log Race Road or Glen Esk Road SCC parking areas.

Camping is available all year round and is a short walk from the beach.

If you are looking for a great way to see some of the New Zealand countryside, then check out Transfercar‘s free cars and campervans!

If you liked this, you may like:

Crossing the Cook Strait, New Zealand by ferry: Travel times, booking, prices & other interesting information

The difference between Campers, motorhomes, 4WDs, and other campervans: An Australian and New Zealand perspective

The dos and don’ts of travelling abroad: Backpacking in New Zealand

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