“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”, said Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sailor in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and, finding myself in a similar situation, I concur. It is mystifying and somewhat dismal to be surrounded by water yet find none of it suitable for quenching a thirst. That is what it was like, on 90 Mile Beach on New Zealand’s North Island, when, after trundling several miles to the nearest campsite, I found the camp grounds water tank to be empty. And because I had assumed the campsite would have water, I didn’t bring a filter which I could have used in the nearby stream. Oh dear.
Measurements Gone Mad
Contrary to its namesake, 90 Mile Beach is not 90 miles in length. Many moons ago, missionaries riding their horses along the sand calculated it was 90 miles long as it took 3 days to ride end to end, and horses happily travel 30 miles a day before needing to rest. However a slight oversight of the fact that horses are slower in sand meant that the beach’s length was overestimated by some 35 miles and is actually only 55 miles in length. A more likely name would be 90km Beach, but even this would overshoot it by a few extra clicks.
Regardless of title, the beach is magnificent. Stretching as far as the eye can see, golden sand, heaving waves and the deep blues of sea and sky merge effortlessly in to one stunning vista. Enormous rolling sand dunes – the size and grandeur of which you would expect to find in the Sahara Desert rather than New Zealand’s battered West Coast – undulate throughout the landscape.
The beach itself, however, is gloriously flat. And 2 hours either side of low tide, the sand is compact enough to take the wheels of mighty buses and bicycles. So upon my mighty bike, I set off to experience my first ever beach bike ride.
Depending on whether you travel North (from Te Paki Stream) or South (from Ahipara) dictates whether or not you start the ride with wet feet. From the northern end of the beach, the access is via Te Paki Stream, which, 2 hours either side of low tide, is a calf height affair at most, requiring you to paddle and push your mount through (the sand is not compact enough in the stream to ride) the 3km or so to the beach itself. At high tide, by all accounts, it is a treacherous and silly thing to attempt to walk through, so the advice is – don’t.
Te Paki Stream is one of several streams which meanders its way from land to the great ocean, and on the beach itself a handful more present themselves to be traversed. However, these crossings are mere seconds of splashing down one side and out the other compared with the good half hour that Te Paki Stream takes.
Once on the beach, tyres sail as speedily as if they were on tarmac. I cycled during winter, and had the not-quite-90-mile-beach to myself most of the time. Apart from a handful of tourist busses, some lazy dog ‘walkers’ who throw their dogs out of 4 x 4’s and race along with the dog chasing after their vehicle, and woeful stranded jellyfish who scatter the sand like banana skins on a Mario Kart race track, it is virtually empty 90% of the time.
Perhaps it is because I tackled it in winter that it was so quiet, but even at the waterless campsite I had only two camping companions – hikers on the Te Araroa trail, a 3,000km odyssey from top to toe of New Zealand on foot. Their movements from this particular spot were not determined by the tide; the Te Araroa here follows the beach from a sensible distance just off it. For cyclists, the sandy wasteland is the only option to experience the beach in its full splendour.
The temperatures are surprising on 90 Mile Beach. Daylight hours bring desert like heat; in the evenings, cool air and clear skies give way to freezing conditions. Clothing for all conditions are a must!
I didn’t see the hikers the following morning; they must have got up at the crack of dawn. Low tide wasn’t due till late in the afternoon so I had a relaxing start watching the Manganui Bluff Reserve –a small formation still connected to the mainland but removed from it by the trembling sea at high tide – being battered by nature. It stands proudly amidst crashing waves encroaching on all sides, its ocean facing facades being engulfed by waves that overcome it, leaping to great heights and burying umpteen molluscs with tons of chilly sea.
The Tide Is High…
It is astounding how much the tide changes the surroundings. When high, the beach is nothing more than a thin treacherous strip of yellow, being edged out by callous waves and cheeky surf. When low, the beach is wider than a motorway. It is for this reason that the beach can only be accessed at certain times of day. Many a vehicle has been lost to the encroaching tide. Being on a bike does mean you can escape up a sand dune if you’re getting caught out and wait the hours for it to change again. Manganui Bluff Reserve is the ‘island’ in the above photo which is not an island at low tide!
Thankfully, as I was waiting for the tide to lower, a local Maori man appeared and topped up my water supply and oddly donated me half a smoked marlin (it was delicious!).
Beach Biking Wears Everything Down…
The novelty of riding a bike on a deserted beach takes some time to wear off, but eventually, it does. After miles of nothingness – beautiful, yes, but also un-altering – counting kilometres on a beach named in miles is somewhat soul destroying when you realise there’s still a hell of a long way to go in whatever measurement you’re working in.
The novelty really wore off for me when the saying ‘tide and time wait for no one’ became a reality, as the sun began to set, the stars to come out, and the tide to come in. Such is the joy of riding 90 Mile Beach when low tide is at 4:40pm and the sun sets at 6pm. Headwinds also know when it is most inappropriate to make their appearance, and the last 15km was a slow struggle battling obnoxious winds and a darkening sky.
To complicate matters, cycles and sand do not mix. The crank-crank-crunch of the gears and the chain angering each other over sand and salty air is an unpleasant and noisy companion. It is a worrying thing to hear your only form of transport decimate beneath you, and with no option other than to emaciate essential bike parts until you’re back on ‘normal’ terrain.
However, just as the tide was threatening to turn against me and the gears to give up, I turned off the beach – I had reached the glinting lights of Ahipara, and after setting up my tent at Ahipara Holiday Park, warmed myself by the log fire in reception – a glorious way to finish an epic beach ride.
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For a full list of recommended cycling gear, check out my Ultimate Cycling Kit Lists.
This was recommended to me by Chris and Tim at Hunters Cycles in Kerikeri. It is AMAZING stuff! They told me about a race which took place on 90 Mile Beach. All but three contestants used standard lube on their bikes. All but three contestants had to get new chains fitted at the end. The other three – they used this chain wax and carried on riding. I cannot rave about it enough. One application lasts ages and is wonderful stuff! Even if beach riding isn’t your thing – for any riding – road, dirt, trails – this is a great investment for your bikes well-being.
The Kennett Brothers are a set of boys who have cycled the whole of New Zealand. Not just North to South, but East to West and everything in between. This is The Guide for doing a cycle tour of New Zealand. This edition covers the North Island, but there are also South Island editions available). The ride from Cape Reinga and down 90 Mile Beach to Apihara is in this North Island Guide. This is the guide I use and it is fab!
I have a Surly Troll bike and these are the tyres it came with. So far, they have been brilliant at handling all kinds of terrain – and 90 Mile Beach was no exception. Any mountain bike tyres will do the trick – Schwalbe Fat Sams are another good choice. If the Surly tyres weren’t already on the bike, I would have gone for the Schwalbes, but having ridden on the Surly tyres I would certainly buy them again – though that won’t be for a long time due to their durability.
The award winning LifeStraw is a pretty awesome product. Weighing next to nothing and being super small, this portable water filter uses hollow fiber membrane micro filtration with a 0.2 micron pore size to ditch out any nasties (9.9999% of bacteria and 99.9% of protozoa, to be exact). Simply pop your LifeStraw in a water source and suck – it’s that simple. I didn’t have my LifeStraw with me on this trip – but sitting at Manganui Bluff Reserve with dwindling water supplies and several kilometres before the next water tap I wished I had! You can’t use this in chemically contaminated water or sea water, but there are plenty of streams to cross along 90 Mile Beach. LifeStraw have a programme called ‘Follow the Liters’ where, for each LifeStraw filter or purifier purchased, a child in a developing community will be provided with safe drinking water for an entire school year. How brilliant is that?!
If you want to go one step further with your water filtration, the LifeStraw Go 2 stage filtration bottle is a great package. Water bottle, UV filtration and ‘traditional’ filtration system in one, this is literally a go to (or Go 2) product for safe water on the go. LifeStraw products don’t use chemicals, don’t require pumping and don’t require any energy input (suck as batteries) so are great for you and for the environment.
You can’t underestimate the power of the New Zealand sun. Being under the hole in the ozone layer, it’s more important here than in many other parts of the world to cover up well. I burn easily so use SPF 50. This sunscreen is made in Australia specifically for the New Zealand rays. To make it more portable, I transfer enough for a week or so in to smaller bottles. It’s non greasy and well worth every penny.
You Can Do It!
- This is part of the Cape Reinga – Bluff Cycle ride, a 3,000km cycle from the furthest-most north of the North Island to the southern-most south of the South Island of New Zealand.
- Check tide times before heading on to 90 Mile Beach. You can only ride 2 hours either side of low tide. Woe ‘betide’ (sorry!) anyone who attempts this at any other time.
- You can cycle 90 Mile Beach in either direction. You can start or finish at either Te Paki Dunes or Apihara.
- The last place to get supplies is Waitiki Landing, just shy of 9km from Te Paki Dunes. It is an overpriced store selling essentials and ice cream. Stock up well before if possible. There is a Pak N Save at Kaitaia, 104km South of the Dunes.
- Use mountain bike tyres with good treads.
- Wax your chain prior to going on the beach, and rinse sand and salt off it when you stop overnight. If you chose to stay at the Manganui Bluff Reserve campsite, there is a stream adjacent to it. Other sites have hoses (ask the owners). Read the Beach Biking Tips for more info.
- There may be areas where your tyres will sink, particularly around the streams. Choose your path carefully – just off the water is ideal – or follow the tyre tracks of the buses and cars.
- Be aware of jellyfish! Woeful jellyfish scatter the sands, stranded yet still with delirious tentacles. It would not be fun to stand on one (for you or the jellyfish).
- Take plenty of water – there is a water tank at Manganui Bluff Reserve but this was empty when I arrived. There are other sites en route, such as Utea Park where you can resupply.
- There is limited cell phone signal along this route. Stand on top of a sand dune for the best chance of getting a connection.
- Cape Reinga (the northern-most accessible point of New Zealand) and it’s famous lighthouse are 20km from Te Paki Dunes. It’s worth checking out the Cape and including this in your cycle. Note, you cannot eat at Cape Reinga.
- There are tons of beautiful hikes, including the start of the Te Araroa Trail, in this area.
- You can sand board at Te Paki Dunes. Board hire is available at the car park. It is a steep climb to the top and a very fast descent down the sand!
There is parking at both Te Paki Dunes and Apihara. You cannot park overnight at Te Paki Dunes. There is only one road to Te Paki Dunes – the Te Paki Stream Road, which comes off SH1. SH1 ends at Cape Reinga.
- You cannot stay at Te Paki Dunes. There is camping at the Manganui Bluff Reserve (24km from Te Paki Dunes/61km from Apihara). This wasn’t manned when I was there and is basic to say the least. If all you want is a plot to pitch your tent and a rather grim toilet block (collect water from local stream in the provided bucket to flush) then this is perfect. There is an honesty box for the camp fee ($10).
- There are camping and cabins available at the rather hippy Utea Park (53km from Te Paki Dunes/32km from Apihara). When I passed by it was deserted and their fee was whatever you feel like donating. Since then, it seems to be $10 a night but does include WIFI for people who can’t be off grid for too long!
- Opposite Utea Park is the Hukatere Lodge and Camping Ground (53km from Te Paki Dunes/32km from Apihara). I didn’t check this place out but it has excellent reviews and WiFi.
- There are plenty of places to stay in Apihara. I stayed at the Apihara Holiday Park which has cabins, camping and a YHA youth hostel. Prices start at $18 for an unpowered tent site. You can use all facilities (kitchen, showers, WiFi, TV and lovely log fire).
You can also use my TRVL site to find your perfect accommodation. I get a small commission when people book accommodation through this site, so would appreciate it if you do!
Top 10 Beach Biking Tips – my ultimate guide to successfully cycling on sand!
Tide Timetable – check the tides before you head out.
Campermate – free app with a map which shows you all the campsites in your area, plus deals and discounts.