Those unfamiliar with New Zealand geography are often surprised to find the Waikato River, which they first met at Taupō in the heart of the Central Plateau, cropping up again and again as they drive north.
And if they happen to head out west just south of Auckland, they’re further surprised to find the Waikato emptying into the Tasman right there, after a 425-kilometre journey.
The river terminates in a swampy delta, an estuary and then a shallow bar harbour, once maintained as a sea port and still called Port Waikato, as if to commemorate the coastal trade that passed this way, the naval expeditions that departed upriver to harass Māori and the occasional shipment of sand and shingle that still heads north to the Manukau from here.
The main drawcard of Port Waikato is no longer commerce: far from it, this is one of the spots where people in the know go to get out of the rat race, usually with a surfboard strapped to the roof of their car.
The beach, black with the fine iron sand typical of this stretch of the west coast of the North Island, is called Sunset Beach for its most striking feature: the glorious blaze of the sunsets that paint the horizon of an evening.
Like Auckland’s west coast beaches to the north and Raglan down the coast, Sunset receives the big, muscular Tasman Sea swell, and is at its best in an easterly. It’s a long, left-hand bar break, one of the best in the business on its day.
The area was an important source of kaimoana for Māori and remains a good fishing and shell-fishing spot today. You can try your luck surfcasting for kahawai from the beach or set-netting for mullet and flounder at the river mouth.
The only time the locals will give you a dirty look in these parts is if you produce a whitebaiting frame from the boot of your car between 15 August and 30 November each year: up and down the country, there’s a gold rush mentality about these slimy little critters, and everyone has their own possie and set of territorial instincts.
Port Waikato is ideal for a day-trip, but there are accommodation options ranging from the local campground and baches for rent to farmstays and bed and breakfasts. It also works well into a stopover on the road less travelled, down the wild west coast to Raglan.