Beach people talk about their place in the sun, and Te Araroa's first leg reaches its ending

In the morning, I kept walking. Last night's lights had disappeared and the beach ahead showed no sign of Waipapakauri. Ninety Mile Beach was by now a familiar place. The blackback gulls were rising to a height of 15 metres or so, dropping a tuatua, stooping down, examining the shellfish victim for fracture, then rising again, dropping it again. The blackbacks had been doing that all the way down Ninety Mile, like they were trying to teach me something, though the few times I'd gone into the water to find tuatua I'd failed.

Another shark lay on the beach in its death circle. This one I photographed - and disappointed myself later that I didn't examine the fish closely enough while I had the chance, to confirm what others would later suggest - that the sharks drifted rudderless into the beach to die after they were caught in nets, had their dorsals cut off by the trawler fishermen for the oriental soup market, and were then dumped, still living, back into the tide.

The photograph though, when I looked at it later, seemed to show the dorsal cut off at an angle.

And Ninety Mile, as always, had its surprises. A flash of colour caught my eye. Out of the surf, out of nowhere at all, a bodyboarder came cruising in to shore.

I looked at him astonished as he removed his fins, and stepped toward me through the shallows, togged in a wetsuit, with the board tucked under one arm.

Body boarder

"I don't believe this," I shouted at him.

"I don't believe it," I said as he came closer.

"Yeah, yeah," said the bodyboarder.

"I mean, I'm walking along this deserted beach, and you come from nowhere - I mean - nowhere." "

"Yeah, yeah," he said.

"Just - nowhere. Australia or something?"

"Yeah, yeah," said the bodyboarder, and it suddenly occurred to me not only that he was a man of few words, but that I probably appeared over-wrought. We walked up the beach together.

"You're a local?"

"Yeah."

"Maybe you can explain something to me. Last night I saw a light in the forest. It was huge. It wasn't car lights."

The bodyboarder had a think. "What," he said, "extra-terrestrials?"

"As I've walked down Ninety Mile Beach," I said, "I've studied tyre tracks. I've been guided by tyre tracks sometimes when the wind was strong and I couldn't look up. It occurred to me then that any aliens who landed here would look at those perfectly patterned tracks that extend 100 kilometres from one end of Ninety Mile beach to the other, and take off in a funk at the fabulous development of a civilisation that could do such a thing, without ever knowing about the wheel."

"Yeah, yeah," said Vinda.

"What do you think the light was?"

"Sometimes they work in the forest at night, and it's lit up like a Christmas tree."

"Okay," I said, " these lights lasted about five seconds. It was like the sun coming up"

"Pig hunters?"

"Whatever - anyway, how did you get here?"

He worked in the local Triboard mill. He was on a day off. He was a keen surfer who'd driven down on forestry roads behind the dunes to do some solitary surfing. The only name he would give me - it was something to do with the surname Curry - was the one by which his mates called him. Vinda.

I walked into Waipapakauri at around 10 am, ordered up bacon and eggs and a 7Up at the store, and sat down at a trestle table on the wide store-front deck while 31Ž2 year Lara sought repeatedly on her tricycle to break her own deck speed record.

From the trestle table, through Paradiso corner, on down the bark garden straight, moving smoothly into the Tiptop chicane before halting again at the trestle, she'd toss her head, pull back on the handlebars of the tricycle, look squarely into my eyes, and enquire casually whether I'd seen how fast she'd gone. I had, but I'd also laid out my map, and confirmed that the distance from Hukatere-Waipapakauri was more like 20 kilometres than 12. That was another by now familiar phenomenon of the beach - the people who'd stopped in cars to offer me lifts, and from whom I'd enquired about distances, had usually got it wrong. Walking and driving Ninety Mile Beach is two different things, and the car-drivers consistently underestimated distances.

Lara's mother, Justine Adams, came out to water the bark garden.

"Don't mind Lara - she's very - sociable."

Then Lara's father, Carl Wahrlich, came out with the bacon and eggs breakfast, and asked where I came from.

Justine and Carl and Lara

"Auckland? Justine ran a lawn-mowing contract down there. I was doing building and decorating. We sold our two-bedroomed bungalow at Te Atatu for $150,000 three years ago and we bought this place for $58,000 and put the shop in.

"And we love it. You don't hear the neighbour's toilet flushing. You don't hear the sirens at night or the smashing windows. It's mellow, but not too mellow."

I asked him about the light in the forest.

"Pig hunters maybe. Dope growers. It could be anything at this time of year. The rumour is the police go in there to practise their pistol shooting. A very bright light? I don't know."

I asked him about the sharks.

"It's the trawlers. At night they're so close you can throw stones at them. You can hear them talking on deck. They throw the sharks out of their nets, and they're too tired. Sharks don't commit suicide for nothing - sharks, seals birds, we had a pilot whale come in, 15 or 20 metres long maybe and it had the net marks on it.

"You do notice the difference after the trawlers have been through. They take what the locals live off, and we've had incidents - someone with an AK47 shooting at the boats from the dunes. They never used to fish this close in. They do now, but those sort of subjects are really touchy up here, and people can get their houses burned down.

"You can still catch snapper though, and lots of them. I'd have caught 250 snapper this year just surf casting off Waipapakauri ramp. Maybe 100 trevalli, a couple of hundred kahawai, flounder - heaps - you can go get 70 on a spear if you want to, just a spear and a light. They come in with the sweeps.

You have to know what you're doing. I watch for that brown stain in the water - what do whales eat? Yeah plankton, there'll be mullet hanging around that and snapper underneath. Low tide fishing is definitely snapper because you're getting out to deeper water, and the less waves, the more chance of a hole. You get gurnard, trevalli and kahawai off the mouths of the streams. Puffer fish - well, they're garden ornaments, when they're dry they look alright."

Justine and Carl did the shop, but for their food, they fished. Carl also turned a few extra dollars by watching up the beach for cars stuck in the tide - an SOS signal by torch, or even the flashing hazard lights of a stuck vehicle were visible for 10 or 12 kilometres at night and he'd get there in his Chevy Blazer, treated for beach-work, undersealed then gold-sealed with Fisholene, to haul them out.

He'd been raised close to Muriwai Beach and as a child had been the family spotter for the toheroa beds that the rest of them then dug for fritters. But he was pessimistic about the chances of the big shellfish's survival on Ninety Mile Beach.

"They were seriously depleted during the war. They dredged the sand with tractors, tinned them, and sent them to the troops. They destroyed the beds, and it takes so long for them to grow. You find them, quite small, around the 5-inch mark, but that has taken 10 years, and people are still digging them up - everyone does.

" But look - put down Ninety Mile beach as still the best beach fishing in the country. Justine has got her diving ticket, I have, and one way or another we live off the beach. Fishing is how everyone lives up here - that and the tuatuas. They say if you go hungry in the north, you're doing something wrong. "

I asked about getting tuatuas.

"That's easy. There are tuatua beds all the way from here to Ahipara. You just go into the water at low tide and twist your foot in the sand, you'll feel them underneath, and if you're quick enough you can slide the shell apart just pushing with your thumb and eat them right then - food while you're fishing."

I left Waipapakauri along a Juken Nissho forest road for it offered a few kilometres of shade from the midday sun, but crossed down through the dunes for a 2 p.m. low tide. I had one more thing to do on Ninety Mile Beach, and I walked out amidst the blackbacks rising and dropping shellfish on the beach, into the water and ground my foot in the sand. Sure enough, you could feel the tuatuas underneath. I dug, and taking the advice of Carl Wahrlich, shucked a shell. It worked. I ate raw tuatua, and the taste was salty, muscular, the taste of the beach.

I went up into the dry sand and boiled up the rest of my haul for lunch. The 12 kilometres between Waipapakauiri and Ahipara was sparsely populated now with surfcasters and shellfish gatherers, and vehicles were speeding along the beach, or simply stopped. I watched a man with one leg swing himself out of a mini-van on crutches until he was waist deep in the surf, could let the crutches drop and get tumbled shoreward by the surf. His whanau righted him again, helped retrieve the crutches, but the beach, even with dozens of people on it was still sufficiently vast to isolate each group utterly. The long reflections in the wet spoke more of emptiness than human occupation, and the shouts of every distant group were attenuated into something as thin as gulls crying. I walked on to Ahipara, and passed bright pockets of kiwi lifestyle. The 4WDs and utes drawn up along the beach. The dogs, the children, the men drinking out of the back of their wagons. The beach was a wonderful place - it was sometimes a terrifying place. It still claimed three or four lives a year, typically cuffing the unwary off the Bluff, but sometimes pulling them from the beach itself. Those dead had not known that the rogue wave, moving in over the long shallow fall of the beach, could quite slowly mount until it was rearing two metres higher than expected, smashing over the rocks, or sweeping that extra 30 metres up the sand.

I walked on towards the end of Ninety Mile Beach. Later that evening I stood at the open door of John and Caroline Locke's house overlooking the ocean at Ahipara. John was Welsh and had come to New Zealand in the 1970s, attracted to a teaching career. He was now headmaster at Kaitaia College, and he was a sailor who loved the sea. He'd taught himself welding, and built a steel yacht that took most of his time when he was not running the college.

We stood in the enclosed courtyard of the Locke house on the hill, and opened the sliding doors at the end of the courtyard to feel the breeze and to watch the ocean. The same planets were strung out from the moon, and the beach was spread out below.

"It's a high energy beach," said John Locke. "You get constant storms in the Tasman Ocean. The waves move out through hundreds of kilometres of ocean but when they hit this coast they still have a high percentage of that storm force. The bays and the headlands simply get worn away, and the beach - any west coast beach if you compare it with the east coast - becomes long and straight.

"Look at those waves - they're coming in at a steady 12 a minute - you can see where the wave begins to distort and rise to that point where the surfers are paddling to catch the ride in. It's rising because the bottom of the wave is touching the sea bed, but there's more happening than a good ride. Whatever is loose on the seabed is being pushed shoreward by each successive wave. Those waves are making the beach, and both the waves and the wind are sorting the sediment. The sand tends to be extremely uniform - between 200 and 300 microns, no more no less - because that is the range between what is too big for the waves to shift from the ocean bed, and what is so small that, once on the beach, it simply gets blown away.

"Without bays or headlands to halt the drift, the movement of sediment up the coast is a significant force. It creates a long beach, a tombolo, where offshore islands have been linked by a spit. It's a classic landform, and a wonderful thing to study because you can see the changes going on so readily, and the interaction of the forces that create it. There's a reason why the west coast beach is shallow. Why the sand level drops in winter. It's all part of the Ninety Mile landscape, and I bring the kids down here to study it all, and try to show them that the beach is a bit more than they thought it was."