Along the west coast of the most northerly part of New Zealand lies Ninety Mile Beach, for over a hundred years the playground for thousands of people – local residents, visiting dignitaries, adventurers and tourists.
This great stretch of beach with its glorious breakers and golden sand has been the scene for a huge range of activities: all types of fishing, shellfish gathering, picnicking, boating, swimming, athletics and car racing. And many tragedies and triumphs.
European history in the Far North coincided with Abel Tasman's ships sailing along Ninety Mile Beach in December 1642, finally anchoring - but not landing - at islands Tasman called the Three Kings.
But Maori history goes much further back, and every knoll and stream has its name and story, some fairly modern but others dating from the dim dawn of man's first days in New Zealand.
Starting at Ahipara Bay Ninety Mile Beach sweeps northward to just south of Cape Maria van Diemen, past the Bluff, Motupia Island and Scott Point.
From Cape Maria van Dieman it is only a short distance (as the crow flies) to Cape Reinga and the lighthouse.
The actual length of Ninety Mile Beach is more like 60 miles (96 km), but visitors need not feel short-changed as the scenery is breathtaking and seemingly never-ending.
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Maori called it Te Oneroa a Tohe - the long beach of Tohe.
Although the beach is navigable by vehicle it can be treacherous and many cars have bogged down over the years because drivers miscalculated the times of incoming tides; other tragedies have occurred because of reckless speeding or irresponsible behaviour.
The main approaches to Ninety Mile beach are at Ahipara and further north – the Waipapakauri ramp.
During the war the RNZAF and Army maintained a presence at Waipapakauri and there was often speculation – and fears - of a possible Japanese invasion; there were even rumours of alien lights being spotted out at sea.
The war years saw local baches on the beach front taken over by the military.
The Bluff, a popular fishing and camping spot, so called because it seemed in earlier times to be the end of the beach, is treacherous in heavy seas and has claimed the lives of a number of fishermen who misjudged the force and frequency of sudden waves which swept them out to sea or dumped their bodies mercilessly on the jagged rocks below.
It was not until 1965 that Ninety Mile beach became a regular thoroughfare for tourists buses and other vehicles travelling to the Cape.
Access to the inland road is along the wide but shallow Te Paki stream, a safe enough journey for those who know the area, but dangerous to the unwary whose cars sometimes meet a sorry end.
The man who probably did much to put Ninety Mile Beach on the international tourist map was Phil Quilter, who in 1965 started mini bus tours to Cape Reinga lighthouse, going via the beach, then through Te Paki Station to the Cape, returning along the inland road.
When Quilter first started his tours he was scoffed at for his 'ridiculous' idea, but by the early 1970s he was transporting over 20,000 tourists to the Cape each year ¬ mainly during the Christmas - New Year holiday season; sometimes he needed the use of up to 18 buses, some complete with hostesses.
Up to about the 1980s Ninety Mile beach was occasionally used for droving – especially cattle from the 40,000 acre Te Paki Station near North Cape.
It was always a picturesque sight seeing Ken Lewis, one of Northlands most celebrated horsemen, and his drovers herding thousands of cattle down the beach, against a back-drop of magnificent breakers as far as the eye could see.
But there was plenty of tradedy.
The fully rigged Forrest Hall came to grief on Ninety Mile Beach on februay 27th, 1909, about 25 miles south of Cape Maria van Diemen.
Carrying a cargo of coal, from Newcastle, the ship. was heading for Chile in favourable weather.
So why did the ship founder and break up in the surf? Oddly, the captain had ordered a course towards the beach and although this was immediately countermanded by the chief officer, it was too late and the ship foundered on the beach.
The captain was later found to be suffering from 'ill health'.
There were other shipwrecks just north of Ninety Mile Beach; the Elingamite in 1902 near the Three Kings islands; the Wimmera also near the Three Kings in 1918 and the Kaitawa, which sank off Cape Reinga in 1966.
All suffered tragic losses of life.
Shipwreck Bay, next to Ahipara Bay, was also the scene of an early misfortune when the paddle steamer "Favourite" sank in 1870; at the time it was engaged in the gum trade.
On a happier note, in 1928 Charles Kingsford Smith made his first flight from Ninety Mile Beach across the Tasman in 14 hours and 25 minutes.
In March 1933, with an airmail service shortly to become established, he again flew from the beach to Sydney in 13 hours and 42 minutes.
The same flight in 1934 clipped 19 minutes off the time.
Flight Lieutenant C.T.P. Ulm also did much to publicise flying in the Far North, using Ninety Mile Beach for his “Faith in Australia” airmail flight in 1934, which saw the introduction of the first official trans-Tasman airmail.
These activities spawned an enthusiastic Kaitaia Aero Club membership for a time during the early 1930s, the club using the beach for many of its activities.
Norman Wizard Smith, the brilliant but controversial car driver, did a lot to make Ninety Mile Beach internationally known.
There was much excitement in the Far North when it was announced at the end of 1931 that he would try for a new world land speed record using the beach.
After much preparation and frustrating weeks waiting for favourable conditions, the race was run on 26 January 1932, ending with the celebrated breaking of the world record.
From 1922 up to about 1927 the beach was a favourite place for annual car races which were patronised by members of the Auckland Automobile Association and other southern drivers.
But in 1927 a woman passenger was tragically killed in a freak accident, after which the races were abandoned.
There must be few coastal areas in New Zealand that can compete with the smorgasbord of pleasure, history, tragedy and triumph, usefulness, excitement and the spectacular beauty that Ninety Mile Beach provides.
It is one of Northland's many popular tourist spots and a unique geographical part of New Zealand.
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