Wharariki Beach is undeniably one of the most inspiring, captivating and amazingly beautiful places I have visited in New Zealand. For some strange reason those gigantic jagged rocks protruding from the ocean, the vast empty dunes and the ever-present wind driving the waves relentlessly against the shore are inexplicably alluring to me. Ever since I first saw images of it on the internet, I knew right away that Wharariki Beach has to be on my itinerary. I waited eagerly with excitement and anticipation for the moment when I finally see its beauty with my own eyes. Often such high expectations can easily turn into disappointment. But not this time.
As is so often in life, great things have to be earned and this is definitely true for Wharariki Beach. Located just west of Farewell Spit and South Island’s northernmost point Cape Farewell, Wharariki Beach is hundreds of kilometers and many hours away from New Zealand biggest towns or main attractions. Because of how remote it is, getting to it is no easy feat. Much as I admire it, going there might not be the best idea when visiting New Zealand for two weeks or less. It can definitely be done, but it took us a full day of driving from Kaikoura just to get there and then another day driving to Hokitika and back to a more conventional South Island itinerary route. Personally, I enjoyed every moment of it, but it does take a certain type of dedication, determination and desire to see it to pull it off.
A visit to Wharariki Beach makes more sense as part of a longer trip that is focused entirely on the northern part of New Zealand’s South Island. With Abel Tasman National Park and so many other beautiful places nearby it is a great area to spend a few days or even a few weeks in. At any rate, I suggest planning at least a few hours to cover Wharariki beach and a full day to also explore the nearby hikes. Keep in mind that accommodation is sparse in those parts, so unless you’re camping, the options for an overnight stay in the area might be rather limited. We spent the night at The Innlet Backpackers and Cottages and, while rather basic, it was very comfy and had everything we needed. Be sure to bring some supplies though – there aren’t many places to eat out or even simply buy food around. Personally, I would advice to stock up in Tanaka on the way there.
To reach Wharariki Beach, head to Puponga and then turn left onto the dirt road leading to Wharariki Beach carpark. The dirt road is well maintained and easily passable on any vehicle. Just drive carefully and expect the last 5 kilometers to be quite slow. From the carpark the shortest route to the waterfront is a twenty minutes or so hike along the hills and through the forest. Another option is to follow a longer path west through the farmland that emerges in the far end of the beach and then head east along the shoreline taking the shorter path back to the carpark. This longer hike is only doable during the low tide, however, as the passage between the eastern and western parts of the strand may otherwise be submerged.
Wharariki Beach is best photographed at sunset, so if landscape photography is of any interest to you, plan an afternoon visit. It’s a large beach too, so allow yourself plenty of time to walk around, explore and find a good composition. We spent approximately four hours there and I felt this was just the right amount of time for me to do all the necessary scouting and pick the most interesting spots for photos. But that’s me and I’m pretty obsessed with photography, so most visitors and casual photographers probably won’t need that long to get a feel of the place.
Another thing that is imperative for getting great images from here is knowing the tide schedule. While Wharariki beach is accessible any time and there isn’t any real danger of being cut off by the rising tide (still, always mind the surroundings), it is at its best when the water level is low. That’s when most of the shore is exposed, which allows for some great reflection photography with the rocks reflecting beautifully in the wet sand left by the receding waves. It is also when it is easiest to access all the different caves and caverns found along the coast here. These are super fun to explore and for photographers they really open up the creative opportunities for some interesting framing shots.
To check the tide schedule, head over to official New Zealand tide prediction page and download the chart for Westport. Then, download the offset file for Whanganui Inlet and do some simple math. Though somewhat intimidating initially, it is actually quite simple once you get the hang of it. Knowing tide schedule is often important in New Zealand so if you’re planning to explore or photograph any kind of seascapes, I suggest learning to do these calculations early on.
But of course, the most interesting subject is not the caves but the magnificent archway islands just off shore that are the signature feature of Wharariki Beach. These stunning rocks are what captured my imagination in the first place and what drew me all the way here. And let me tell you, they are nothing short of amazing. These islets fill the place with some mysterious yet very real energy and I honestly feel like I could spend hours on the shore doing nothing but watching the cliffs and the waves, listening to the wind and the sea birds and breathing the fresh salty ocean air. It is really an incredible and unbelievable place.
Oh, and windy. Did I mention the wind yet? Northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island is well known for its ferocious winds. Any hope we had for a calm afternoon evaporated as soon as we stepped out of the car. The oceanfront met us with a nasty gale sending tons of flying sand our way and slowing down our every move. So my advice is to dress warmly and for photographers to think in advance about what gear to use. Believe me, this is not the place to be swapping lenses, so pick one and try sticking to it. A wide to mid-range zoom, such as 24-70 or 24-105 would be my first choice. And be careful flying the drone if you have one. I didn’t even think to risk it when we arrived, but as sunset approached the wind subsided to a point where I felt comfortable giving it a try. Still, I struggled to bring the drone back back and nearly lost it as some unexpectedly strong wind gusts carried it away.
If you like hiking, Wharariki Beach is also a starting point for the Hilltop Walk trail that follows the coast to Cape Farewell and then to the Pillar Point lighthouse. We didn’t attempt it ourselves (though originally we intended to), but from what I have read it is a lovely hike with lots of stunning views and beautiful scenery. One thing to be aware of is that to access the path from the beach, you will have to cross a shallow stream. The stream is knee-deep at most, yet we saw no way to get across without taking off the shoes (or getting them soaked). That was actually one of the reasons we decided against doing the hike. We were both still recovering from the cold we caught before flying off to New Zealand and fording a chilly stream barefoot didn’t really seem like a great idea.
Instead we focused on the beach and the caves and while the sky wasn’t really at its best that day, I managed to come away with a few images I’m happy with. We left Wharariki at dusk, feeling inspired, humbled and amazed. Though it was still early in our journey, for me it remains the most vivid memory of the trip. All the hours of driving, though tiring at the time, seem insignificant in hindsight and when I think about the places I would love to revisit in New Zealand, Wharariki Beach is undoubtedly the first one that comes to mind.