When I visited the Isle of Skye, I thought I had experienced the strongest winds I ever would….winds that held you up as you leaned into them, that pushed you down hills, that slammed any door worth slamming. That was before I visited Wharariki Beach in New Zealand’s Golden Bay region. My Couchsufer travel companion, Jim, and I had been enjoying a day of beautiful summer weather in Golden Bay, soaking up the sun and spending time in the wee town of Takaka. We decided to drive up and check out the Farewell Spit, a large bird estuary, and Wharariki Beach, which had been recommended to us for spectacular scenery. As we drove, we briefly picked up a hitchhiker who had already been to the beach and said it was amazing. He said that we would hike over a hill and get a little sand blown in our eyes, but then it’s incredible. So we excitedly headed in that direction and pulled up to the grassy hills that led to the beach.
We followed a little footpath that took us through some green rolling hills and lots of woolly sheep. The wind was a bit strong, but nothing too serious. As we walked towards the beach though, we passed people who looked a bit…battered…. One woman had a grim expression on her face and said to us, “it gets worse” while a few groups we passed smiled wearily and gave us a quick “good luck.” This concerned me a little, but it has also been my experience that many people you meet on the beaten road tend to be pansies that can’t take a little of what Mother Nature likes to dish out. So I wasn’t too concerned.
Walking up the last hill, we got a view of the beach spread out before, looking a bit grey and dark. But we clambered down towards the ocean and had just reached the beginning of the sand dunes when it hit us. It being, well, the sand. The wind was picking it up in gigantic sheets and blowing it across the dunes, creating a thin, ever-moving veil above the ground. I immediately wrapped my hood around my head tightly, as the sand pelted against my face. We started down into the dunes, making slow progress leaning into the incredible wind. Another pair of trampers were walked next to us and we all tried to work out the best path down against the wind. There was so much sand being blown about, that copious amounts of it were getting into my eyes and mouth. I went so far as to wrap my hood completely around my face, only daring to peek out of a tiny slit I left to see where I was going. After about ten minutes or so of struggling through the sand on the ground, the sand in the air, and the gale that was smashing itself against us, the other trampers turned around and headed back for the hills. Jim turned to me and asked if I wanted to go back, to which I defiantly puffed out my chest and said we had come this far and it would be ridiculous to not see what we had come to see. Down by the water, the sand would be wet and wouldn’t be blowing. We could do it! I definitely at some point called the other trampers wussies too.
So onward we went, with sand stinging at any part of our skin that was bare. Now when I say stinging, I mean it felt like I was being whipped with a thousand tiny metal barbs. My mouth and throat were coated in sand, I could feel it crunching between my teeth, and if not for this experience, I would have never thought one could have such an unbelievable amount of sand in their eyes and still be able to see at all. Jim suggested we just make a run for it, so run we did. At this point, the sand was so painful against my face, that I had wrapped the hood completely around my face and was just running blindly in the direction I thought the ocean was. We ran and ran until finally…..finally! We were at the ocean’s edge. I was so battered and disorientated that when something caught my eye by the water, I was so confused why there was a black bear cub running on the beach. Then I realized it was a dark seal loping across the sand.
Being on the beach was like being in the eye of a storm. We could look back at the dunes and know that we had to somehow get through them again. But at least here it was quiet and calm. The beach itself, recommended for its beauty and splendor was, well, dark and grey. Except for one other crazy person in the distance, we were the only ones on it. We snapped a few photos and wandered around a couple seals hanging out in the surf, then turned to face the dunes, as we knew we had to go back. The second we looked at one another and nodded as a signal to start running back, it started to downpour. Naturally.
We took off for the dunes, rain soaking our clothes instantly and sand sticking to them and still stinging our skin. We were running with the wind this time, which at least meant that sand wasn't automatically flying into our eyes. But everything else got worse. I found that once I started running, the wind was so strong that it pushed me hard enough that I couldn't stop. It’s a very strange feeling to not have control over your own body. So I’m screaming and failing as I run, desperate not to be driven off the steep sides of the taller dunes. And then, the wind got a strong enough gust that it actually knocked me down and rolled me across a dune. I've been pushed around by wind before, but never actually taken down by. I got my ass kicked. Once I was down, it was extremely difficult to stand back up against the wind. My jacket and shirt had blown up on my back, so the sand was delightfully lashing all the newly exposed skin. I know at some point I assumed the fetal position. Thankfully, Jim was able to help me up and we ran as fast as we could back towards the sanctuary of the hills.
Once we finally made it, we ambled back to the car…shoes filled with sand, pockets filled with sand, bags filled with sand, pants filled with sand, clothes soaked and covered in sand, hair full of sand, sand sticking to every inch of skin…we were a mess. We even tried rolling in the grass to get some of it off, but to little avail. Once we got back to the hostel, we were able to make a giant sandy mess there with all our clothes (sorry!) and take showers, which took me about an hour to finally feel like I had gotten most of the sand off my body. I also discovered later that the reason my eyes weren’t hurting too much from all the sand in them was because my contact lenses had been protecting my eyeballs from the thin layer of sand that had coated the inside of my eyelids….and when I took them out I was in a whole new world of pain. And the rest our trip, we kept finding sand EVERYWHERE…in our clothes, car, electronics (eep!), and bags, despite our best efforts to keep shaking everything out.
But being on that beach, caught in that sandstorm, was awesome. It was scary, miserable, and painful, and I secretly loved it. Sometimes in the first-world, we need reminders of how much power Nature can have over us, when we’ve gotten too comfortable in our cushy, temperature-controlled houses. Now admittedly, there are terrible, destructive ways in which we can get these reminders, but to get a little one that is ultimately harmless but sends a message- ‘Don’t think I can’t still whoop humanity's ass, no matter how advanced you get’- is something I actually treasure and humble myself with. So it was amazing. And hopefully something I never have to do again.