A striking palm frond sculpture. A steep climb to the top of the cliffs. The beach gets a little rocky. Passing through the grand archway. The pohutukawas are striking.
The Mangawhai Heads Cliff Top Walkway starts at the Mangawhai Heads Volunteer Lifeguard Service building at the Mangawhai Heads Reserve at the end of Wintle Street.
I make a point of this because if you pick up a brochure on the walkway you will likely be informed that it kicks off at the Mangawhai Surf Lifesaving Club, which had me temporarily concerned, wondering if the club was actually at the Heads or somewhere else.
Any worries were quickly dispelled, though, by scanning the glorious golden beach in front of me on arrival. A couple of surfer dudes were carefully unloading their boards and, on the almost deserted beach, the odd swimmer was checking out the waves.
The few people about appeared to be ready for a good time and, with what has been described as one of the best coastal walks in New Zealand in front of us, there was no reason why we shouldn’t too.
First decision: Hike boots or sneakers? Given the promised high quality of the tracks, I was tempted to stick with sneakers, but the boy scout in me urged boots.
As it turned out I’m glad I did, though that did not seem to stop some on the walk making their way in jandals, and one family apparently doing the entire thing in bare feet!
Slipping across the dunes and on to the firm sand, we turned north and our trek began. You walk for about 15 minutes before hitting the looped track, signalled by a Department of Conservation sign on your left.
Nearby there is a striking sculpture of palm fronds two or three storeys high. The massive leaves twist and turn slowly in the breeze, tracing random patterns in the sky.
At this point you need to make another decision. You can head for the track that takes you up and along the cliff tops; do this and you will complete the loop by returning via the beach. The other option is to continue along the beach and return via the cliff tops. The advantage of taking the beach first is that you can appreciate the cliff top views with the sun behind you. The other consideration is the beach section can only be completed within three hours either side of low tide. Be sure to check the tide times before setting out, otherwise your loop walk could turn into a cliff top there and back.
We opted for beach first and what a beach it is. Stunning rock formations, boisterous surf and various islands of the Hauraki Gulf etched vaguely on the horizon. Look out for oystercatchers fossicking around the water’s edge. This is when I was glad of my boots because there are some pebbly stretches and some rock clambering required.
The beach bit ends with the grand Archway Rock. At this point we met a few walkers coming from the opposite direction and gathered a few snippets on what lay ahead.
Passing through the great arch, we found the signposted steps on our left that take you up to top of the cliff. This is the most physically taxing bit. Not too tough for a fit person, but you might want to take a breather somewhere on the way up.
The reward once you make it to the top is the shady groves of bush and nikau palms – a real cooling treat if it’s a blistering hot day, as it was for us.
Emerge from the bushy section and there’s a sharpish right turn. It’s here that you will get your first glimpse of the magnificent coastline. There’s no real describing this. Just watch the waves breaking over the rocks far down below, take your time and drink it all in.
Friends of ours claim to have seen schools of dolphins from the cliff top. We didn’t, though several pohutukawas were in full bloom and especially striking due to their stunning location on the cliffs.
It’s an undulating track from here on, mostly boardwalks and well maintained. Occasionally you disappear into bush then emerge again to recapture the glorious sea views.
Soon enough we were heading down to the beach again, pausing again by the palm frond sculpture, and retracing our steps along the sand.
Unfortunately, we had to dash to pick up our children finishing early that day from school. But if I was doing it again, I’d say the beach provides the perfect spot for an invigorating swim after your walk followed by a hearty picnic and a refreshing beverage or two.