The Ninety Mile Beach is one of the most unusual highways I’ve ever driven.
At low tide it becomes a legitimate highway. It’s an alternative to state highway 1 and often a scenic route for tour buses.
But the 90 mile beach can be as dangerous as it is beautiful. The tide can catch tourists off their guard resulting in their vehicles stuck in the sand and an unexpected overnight stay in the dunes behind the beach.
Luckily, my kiwi friend, Jono, and I had deliberately worked an overnight stay into our Ninety Mile Beach plans.
With plenty of fish to catch from the beach and another food source under our feet in the sand, we had all we needed to survive several days on one of New Zealand’s most beautiful and remote beaches.
Beauty and danger
The Ninety Mile Beach stretches along the West Coast of the Aupouri Peninsula. Its name is a misnomer, as the beach is actually 55 miles long. Even the metric conversion falls just shy of 90 at 88 km!
But who cares about semantics when you’re speeding down it, taking in all its beauty?
Driving 100 kph with nothing but nature around you is incredibly freeing.
Sand stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. Waves curl in one after the other spreading a thin seam of water across the beach like a mirror in motion. Dunes loom behind you with grasses folding back against the coastal winds.
This landscape can easily distract you from a potentially hazardous situation.
The risk for getting stuck on the beach at high tide is imminent with a beach this long and few roads connecting it back to the peninsula’s central highway.
Signs on the road entering the beach warn drivers about riding on it too close to high tide. While at low tide it’s a solid ride, the upper part of the beach is much less solid.
Keeping track of the hour is imperative. Staying off the beach between one hour before and one hour after high tide would ensure our safely. Otherwise we would be forced to choose between getting stuck in the ocean waves or getting stuck in the deep sand of the dunes.
But we had planned for an overnight stay in the dunes. Jono’s utility truck with its 4 wheel drive took us back across mud and deep sand to The Bluff campsite, one of the only campsites on the Ninety Mile Beach.
Safely tucked behind the dunes, we parked and set up camp to stay for the next few nights.
A food source at our feet
The best local secrets are often right under your nose or, as in this case, under your feet!
Before arriving at our camp for the night, we met a fisherman on the beach. He was sitting in a lounge chair with two poles stuck in the sand and his line stretching out into the waves in the distance.
He led Jono out to where the watercourses were sweeping over the sand and began digging with his foot.
Under the surface, maybe an inch or two down, were Tuatua!
These bivalve clams are only found in New Zealand and, “They’re everywhere!” he told us.
At least they’re everywhere on the 90 Mile Beach. Stop almost anywhere along the 55 km stretch of sand, walk down to the water line, and look for where the sand bubbles up ever so slightly.
Or just start digging!
We pulled up so many of them we had them as an appetizer one evening.
Not only are they delicious eating on their own, they also make excellent bait. Fish love to eat them, too.
Long line fishing
New Zealand waters are often over-fished to the point there are no fish left for locals to catch. The Ninety Mile Beach does not share this problem with much of the rest of the country, however.
Commercial fishing boats do not dare enter the treacherous sea off the West coast leaving these waters teeming with fish.
The only safe way to fish here is from the beach, either with a pole or a long line. We made use of both methods.
I explained long line fishing in my post from when I met Jono in Napier in December. But briefly, a Kontiki, or motorized lure puller, sends a line out perpendicular to the beach. Bait is attached on shorter lines every several meters, spread out in a "long line."
From a trace board, we attached each short line with tuatua and hunks of Kahawai fish we caught on another occasion. The Kontiki cuts through the waves and weights drop the bait right down to the fish.
We only left the bait out for half an hour the first time we tried the Kontiki on the Ninety Mile beach because the tide was going to come in soon.
To our surprise, even this short amount of time yielded a good feed. One HUGE snapper and another great eating sized one. They loved the tuatua.
Another day we left the line out for about 2 hours and came up with a huge haul of snapper.
I was a bit overwhelmed with how many we caught.
What would we do with them all?!
There were several campers we met who were ecstatic to receive free fish for supper. Jono carved the snapper up into perfect fillets and handed them out to any who wanted some.
There were definitely a lot of happy tummies on the Ninety Mile Beach that night, including our own!
Fishing from the Bluff
Most of the campers at the Bluff campsite were local New Zealanders. We partied with them one night and they shared tips with us about fishing the area.
Apparently this was prime snapper fishing time. There was even a snapper competition happening later in the week. The largest snapper caught would win a big prize. I thought Jono’s snapper from the previous catch was pretty big but supposedly they get even bigger! Yikes!
We learned the Bluff, directly opposite our campsite, is a popular—yet dangerous—spot for fishing.
It’s a portion of the land that juts out from the beach and the only rocky part of the 88 km stretch. Huge swells and waves crash over the rocky outcrop here. Kelp plants swirl around the base of the rocks and fishing line can easily get caught in it.
If you’re not careful about where you stand, a swell can suddenly surge up the rocks and pull you under.
We caught a lot of kelp fish here but nothing worth keeping. Regardless, the location was definitely a thrilling spot from which to fish. And I just loved all the crabs scurrying around the rocks—they were so colorful!
The Ninety Mile Beach is definitely not a place for the casual tourist. Perhaps the best way to see it is to take a scenic bus tour scheduled to go up the beach at the safest hour. Otherwise, if you’re up for a bit of deviation, go with a fellow kiwi and go prepared.
Know the tides, have a good vehicle, and bring fishing gear so you not only survive but thrive on the Ninety Mile Beach!