The black sand still peppers the bathroom, glimmering in the florescent lights and gathering in pools in the corners of the shower. Our shoes are still full of the volcanic powder, eking out the sides as we attempt to wash them. We were warned that the sand will stay with us for the rest of our time here, and possibly even continue to cling to us as we leave this country behind. Even now I’m still finding grains on my sheets.
The day started out pretty clean. The program directors thought it would be appropriate to give us a tour of the area from urban to rural. We started with the top. The top of Mt. Eden that is.
The familiar view of the city stretched below our group of 34. Things were different this time however. The day started off sunny but the skies soon sagged with mist, eventually shrouding the distant volcanic hills in grey and shadow. The sun was fading. It felt like some presence was on the horizon, closing in. And yet we stayed, in our rain jackets and hiking boots, snapping pictures on our phones and cameras as our guide and University of Auckland professor told us about the geological history of the scene below us.
Our tour continued with a slow trundle through what used to be the most expensive street in New Zealand and then on to something much more unassuming. Simply put, it was a field. Off to one side was a grand memorial to PM Michael Joseph Savage and on the other was a traditional Maori marae (tribal center). In between was just an undulating green expanse.
Our guide gathered us in the middle, and as the mist rolled in, he gave us a brief history of the past that lay beneath those bright blades of grass. In 1977, Maori occupied the land to protest pakeha (white New Zealanders) settlement of what used to be Maori tribal land. Police eventually broke up the protest in 1978, but the area remains undeveloped and has become an important historical landmark and tourist attraction.
After that solemn history lesson, we made our way to the nearby Orakei beaches to gaze at the pulsing waves, the looming Rangitoto Island, and the milling Pokemon Go! players. We stayed long enough to make a bathroom stop before hoping back onto the bus to drive out of the city.
The volcanic hills we spotted through the encroaching mist on top of Mt. Eden now surrounded us. They were fuzzy with vegetation and moisture as we drove through their valleys. A few sheep dotted the green fields that sat along the along the roads; their bodies hunched in the drizzling rain.
We soon stopped at Cascades Kauri Park, and rushed through the rain into the shelter of the trees. We took our time in that tropical forest, stopping here and there as our guide pointed out local flora and fauna including the famous Kauri trees. Leaves dripped, birds called, and we continued walking.
We eventually ate our packed lunches on the bus to hide away from the rain as we drove on to our next stop. Before we got off, our guide suggested that we take off our shoes for this next area. It was optional because of the cold, but highly encouraged. Knowing my feet’s tendency to freeze, I decided not to. I would later regret my choice.
Once again, we filed off the bus and followed our guide through a car park and down a violently green path. The people with bare feet complained about the gravel and the prickly grass, but everyone quickly shut up when the path ended and we saw it: The black sand dunes of Lake Waimanu.
After the initial shock wore off, a general euphoria swept the group. Some people ran through the sand, stretching their arms wide to take in the beauty. Some laughed and yelled, shouting about the awesomeness of their surroundings.
“I wanna cry,” one girl said, “because…nature.”
I felt that rush, a bloom of excitement within my chest. The landscapes around me were unthinkably beautiful, unspeakably gorgeous. It didn’t matter that the wind was picking up or that the mist obscured the distant hills or that we were slowly getting soaked in the light rain. In fact, it added to the general surreal and breathtaking atmosphere.
We slowly made our way to the lake, occasionally stopping to take photos or to frolic along the way. Once at the lake, some people jumped in. (We had been told to bring our swimsuits the day before.) More photos were taken as the sand began to cover our bodies and our backpacks.
The wind was becoming ferocious as we moved on, all climbing to the top of a dune. Once there, our guide then showed us how we could safely jump off. And so screaming and laughing we went, falling a few yards down the side of the sandy cliff before being caught in its soft volcanic embrace. That is how the sand made its way into the crevasses of my clothing, into my shoes, and deep within my socks. But it was worth it.
As soon as we had our fill of jumping, our guide then bounded down the sandy cliff towards the creek at the bottom, motioning us to follow him. Wanting to protect my camera, I took a longer route down and ended up with a few others at the back of the group. As we carefully tried to pick our way through the waters, we fell further and further behind until we could see no one else upon the horizon. We were all alone.
But we continued along the creek because had a vague notion of being told before that was what we were going to do. However, we began to doubt ourselves as the waters soon creeped up our legs. My “waterproof” shoes began to squelch with every step. My feet were freezing. And I wasn’t the only one.
We were tempted to turn around or at least down a fork in the path to escape the encroaching creek, when our guide showed up to rescue us from his own abandonment. Turns out we were headed in the right direction. He soon guided us along to a path next to the stream so we were able to finally step out onto dry land. Then after a while, cold, wet, and covered in sand, we eventually made it back to the bus with the others.
We were exhausted. Everyone was. But the tour wasn’t over. There was still one more stop on our itinerary.
It was a short drive to Te Henga (Bethells Beach), a west coast expanse full of waves, black sandy plains, and mounds of volcanic rock. It was this wild beach that some of the first European settlers were set down, alone in a Maori-controlled land. No settlement awaited them, just the forests and the black sand.
We were allowed free reign upon the beach. I had broken down and taken off my soaked shoes and was now filling up the last bit of my camera’s memory card. We were heading back when my camera beeped. 647 pictures and I could take no more. I looked up and took in the wind-swept, black sand beach and knew this image would always be with me, years after the last bits of sand finally disappears from my things.