Thundering waves crash along 100km of wild, dune-backed sand on Northland’s west coast, accompanied by effervescent sea spray. This is Ripiro Beach, otherwise known as The Shipwreck Highway, where shifting sands reveal and then reclaim the fractured timbers of long-buried vessels. Visitors in search of these skeletal ships can drive or horse ride the whole length of the beach. Around 110 ships are known to have met their end along this turbulent shore three hours from Auckland. These include a legendary 15th-century Portuguese vessel, allegedly spotted just once before disappearing again under the waves.
It’s this air of mystery and the sense of shifting identities that attracts people to Ripiro, whether for one trip or every summer. It seems to have a special lure for creatives, from writers and painters to masters of the arts of fishing and gastronomy. The common denominator that appeals to all is the wild and bedazzling ocean, serving up inspiration and ingredients, whether these artists are working on canvas or over a grill.
Painter Sean McDonnell has been capturing Ripiro’s surf-swept landscapes in abstract geometries of land, sea and sky for 15 years. He showcases his bright blocks and swirls of oil paint at his own Kelly St Gallery. From painting to writing, the shifting sands of her own story brought author Caroline Barron to Northland to research her family’s past. When she first visited, she felt as if somehow she’d been to Ripiro before.
“It wasn’t until after we’d bought a beach house here in 2016 that it came to light that this is the area my Māori ancestors came from,” she says. Restoring the 1930s-era beach house (now a charming Airbnb) and exploring Ripiro’s wild sands helped Barron heal as she explored her own history, clouded by mystery and tragedy. This ultimately inspired an award-winning memoir, named for the beach she now calls her summer home.
Barron’s charming board-and-batten house is one of a collection of colourful ocean-chic dwellings that make up Baylys Beach, a small settlement to the north, considered to be the gateway to Ripiro’s many kilometres of sand and dunes. Another is local marriage celebrant’s Josie Scott’s delightfully historic 1920s bach (a NZ term for a beach house). Its yellow clapboard exterior is as distinctive and inviting as its evocative vintage interior.
It’s this air of mystery and the sense of shifting identities that attracts people to Ripiro, whether for one trip or every summer
Just as inviting is Scott herself, who has an easy smile and is known for adding personal touches, such as freshly-baked goodies, for those who stay at the cute beach hut. “We love helping guests have a meaningful stay,” she explains. “We kept as many original features as possible, so you get to experience a traditional Kiwi holiday.”
Josie’s husband Graeme is happy to take guests wanting to channel their inner Hemingway out for night-fishing forays. Or visitors can strike out on their own, joining the locals surfcasting for kahawai and kingfish, or wading into the shallows to net grey mullet. The local catch can be enjoyed cooked over the bach’s barbecue grill.
Alternatively, an icon of New Zealand seafood can be sampled at Sharky’s, a laidback diner a few minute’s walk from the Baylys Beach shore, quirkily decorated with broken vinyl records. Its generously portioned NZ green mussel fritter burger is an oval of seafood succulence well deserving of its iconic status. Another favourite is pan-fried gurnard with roasted kumara (sweet potato) salad. And the New Zealand food-and-drink flag is kept flying with beers from Kiwi breweries such as Monteith’s and Speight’s.
After dinner, according to artist McDonnell, there’s one thing you absolutely must do at the end of a long summer day in Ripiro: “You experience the best sunsets in New Zealand from here,” he says simply.
After sunset, Ripiro’s isolated coastal location makes it a prime stargazing hotspot, offering stunning celestial vistas. Lying on the sand gazing upwards, as your eyes adjust, the shimmering arc of the Milky Way comes into view. It makes writer Caroline Barron’s description of Ripiro come dazzlingly to life: “There’s something ancient and compelling about this beach.”
What to Eat
Check out the seafood chowder at Blah Blah Blah cafe, a few miles inland in Dargaville.
Dig in the sand for local clams – tuatua – and cook them up back at your bach. They’re delicious with garlic and wine, or minced into fritters and served fried with lemon.
What to See
Discover the history and culture of this whole area of Northland at the Dargaville Museum. While in Dargaville, visit the Woodturners Kauri Gallery to browse crafts including wooden bowls made from ancient wood found at Ripiro. Take in Sean McDonnell’s seascapes at the Kelly Street Gallery, 3 Kelly St, open by appointment.
The white sand Kai Iwi Lakes, 30 minutes’ drive from Baylys Beach, are ancient dune lakes offering an idyllic and tranquil spot for water sports, a contrast to the waves and currents of Ripiro.
The 19th-century wooden Pouto Lighthouse, at Ripiro’s southern tip, is an iconic landmark in a stunning location.
What to Do
You’ll see plenty of people driving or quad biking along Ripiro’s sands, but there’s growing evidence that this is harming the local ecosystem, crushing young shellfish for example. Better options for adrenaline thrills include surfing, paragliding, parasailing, land yachting or horse riding.
Where to Stay
As well as Josie Scott’s 1920s cottage, Caroline Barron’s Big Tree provides a holiday let for larger groups (three bedrooms, six beds) in a secluded setting at Baylys Beach, surrounded by native bush.
The Baylys Beach Holiday Park offers a diverse array of accommodation options, including camping, budget cabins and self-catering cottages.
Ripiro Beach is a three-hour drive from Auckland Airport. To learn more or book a flight to Auckland on Singapore Airlines, visit the official website.