Wish You Were Here: Empty Waves and Immaculate Beach, Castlepoint, New Zealand

by Owen James Burke

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Created undersea 2.4 million years ago, Castlepoint was named — after it took its first breath of air — by Captain James Cook in 1770, above sea. The rock itself was larger and wider until a recent earthquake sent the top of it sliding back into the sea. Photo: Owen James Burke

At the edge of a little fishing settlement on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island lies a 2.4-million-year-old, 530-foot-tall seamount made mostly of scallop shells and other sediment which was once buried beneath the waves.

There you’ll find no traffic, no stop signs, and not much business of any kind, save for the local fishing fleet, a couple of bed and breakfasts and the obligatory couple of sheep farms. It’s a quote pace of life for the 1700 or so residents of Castlepoint, and a bohemian’s paradise.

But for a few tourists coming up to visit the lighthouse and a handful of locals enjoying a Sunday avo (that’s afternoon in Kiwi), Castlepoint is a serene strip of coastline. The lighthouse, which is about the only thing out there, was completed in 1913 to alert Wellington-bound sailors from South America that they were nearing land. It’s still operational and can be seen from up to 26 miles out at sea. Surely it’s saved the lives of more than a few weary mariners.

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The population is under 2,000, and being a good two to two-and-a-half-hour drive from New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington, you’ll have no trouble finding your space. If you pick your days, you can surf, fish, swim and hike in relative safety at Castlepoint. On the wrong day, you’ll also find that you can do yourself in with just as certain ease.

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This was a smaller day, with 5-foot breakers smashing the reef, though swells of 5 meters are not uncommon and tend to rise and fall drastically with the tides. Many a fishermen has been washed over, and it takes days to find them. Photo: Owen James Burke

Fishermen and reef walkers best both beware: at least one person, suspecting or otherwise, meets a watery grave being washed over this shell-studded skerry each year, and many countless others donate a little flesh and blood as easterly swells obliterate the reef frequently, notwithstanding anything (or anyone) that may be on top of it. Thanks to the unique landscape, Castlepoint is amenable to a wide array of fishing methods. Whether you prefer surf fishing, throwing lures in tidal rips or flyfishing in shallow sand flats, all the options are there. Likewise, more intrepid anglers can test their wits on the top of the reef in hopes of a more prized catch, while others can elect to toss a line in and rest at ease along the inner tide pools on the shoreward side. If you do take your chances on the reef, check the swell forecast and don’t say you weren’t warned.

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Just another empty, clean right peeling along at Castlepoint. Photo: Owen James Burke

Surfing, however, happens to take place in a much safer venue, and despite the dramatic landscape, Castlepoint’s wave, locally known as “the gap,” is one of New Zealand’s more ideal novice/beginner beach breaks. Pulling onto the beach from the bay, you’d probably never recognize the little inlet to the south, tucked between the reef and Castle Rock. Still, you’d probably do best to make sure you paddle out during the start of an incoming tide, just to be on the safe side. Make sure to bring gear, or rent some ahead of time (your best bet is back in Wellington). Like most things of modern convention, you probably won’t find surf equipment for hire here.

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Depending on swell direction, the bay just to the northwest of the light can be calm as you like, and also offers great swimming, but it’d be a good idea to check with a local fisherman before trotting in for a dip. Swarms of bluebottle jellyfish sweep by on occasion. Photo: Owen James Burke

If land-based activities are more your cup of tea but you still like to get a little salt air into your gills, there’s plenty of climbing and hiking to do, and Castlepoint is also home to one of the oldest and longest running horseback races in New Zealand, going since 1872 (apart from a few gap years) when it was held for loose coins and bottles of rum.

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During winter months, Castlepoint Light will be one of your best chances of spotting humpback, blue and southern right whales with its 200°+ panoramic ocean view. Photo: Owen James Burke

If you ever happen to find yourself on New Zealand’s north island, you’d do yourself well to stop off at Castlepoint, rent a cottage for a few days, stock it with a case of Sauvignon Blanc — the country’s finest — and lose yourself.

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