Hot Water Beach

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The sign is not kidding.

New Zealand has many, many natural wonders. For me, Hot Water Beach was one of the best. As soon as I read about it I decided it would be on our itinerary. Upon our arrival, we thought we’d spend an hour, maybe two. We were wrong.

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Hot Water Beach is exactly what it sounds like. How water, on the beach. Very, very hot water. At the center of the hotspot, which moves around slowly, the water is hot enough to scald the skin off your feet in an instant. The nifty sign above explains what’s going on – two springs of thermally heated water emerge on the beach. When the tide is high the frigid ocean water keeps things cool, but during low tide the area turns in to a spa.

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My South American tan, gone.

You can see us lying in a dug out pool of hot water, borrowed shovel to the left, pale white skin threatening to burn. The trick is, dig a hole such that you can control how much water is coming in and leaving – the water near the center is boiling, and the water further away is pretty cold. Mix the two just right and your pool will be perfect. I personally prefer it very hot, which often turns into jumping out of the way of a nearly-boiling stream of water.

Since this place is rightfully very popular and people leave all the time, it’s common to wait for a pool to free up and jump in. This is especially useful for those of us who didn’t bring a shovel and didn’t want to rent one. The trowel really doesn’t do much, a small shovel at least is needed to move the sand quickly enough. Switching pools is also really the only way to get hotter water if you’re out on the periphery.

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The beach is a great place to go with friends in groups big and small. It’s hard to make a huge pool, so everyone splits off into smaller groups in the sandy tubs. Despite the large crowd of people, there are plenty of free spots and you rarely have to wait longer than ten or fifteen minutes to grab one. Notice the people-free zone to the right in this photo – the water there is scalding hot.

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The day is not particularly cold, but everyone huddles in the pools of hotspring water like monkeys on a snowy day.

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I am unabashedly one of the huddling people, wanting to soak in the amazingly hot water as long as possible.

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Some people relaxed and lounged on the sand. How they resisted the siren call of hot water I do not know. In the far center back you can see someone repairing their pool. Digging sand out to keep the pool deep and heated is a constant source of amusement and activity at the beach.

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One of the best parts of this beach is the waves. They’re mighty strong, enough to send you flying shoreward if you ride one, or kick you into the water if you’re not paying attention. It’s great to ride the waves until you’re numb – the water is refreshingly cold – and then run over to a hot pool and soak until you’re sweating and ready to cool down again. Swim, soak, repeat.

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As the day wears on and the tide starts to come in, the pools are eaten away and flooded with cold water. At this point, you have to move further up, away from the waves, to keep a warm pool going, and it won’t be as hot as it would have been during the earlier parts of the day.

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Eventually, all the pools are wiped out and flooded. The day of soaking in hot water on the shore is over. Six hours after our arrival we were kicking sand off our feet and driving to the next camp spot.

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A wrinkly adios! My hand was like this for hours.

Hiking without a goal

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Sometimes a hike doesn’t work out. For us, a successful hike is one where either we reach our goal or we enjoy it so much along the way that the destination wasn’t too important. Our go at the Kaipawa Trig Track was neither of these things.

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We’d be driving for a few hours now, bored and stiff. The weather was mildly gloomy, occasionally drizzling. At the top of a hill were parked several cars, a clear indication of a trailhead. Ponchos and boots on we wandered around the picnic area looking for the path in. We found it and up we went on a nominally steep but miserably slippery grade. The drizzle had wet down the whole trail and many sections were now just exposed, slick rock. This is normally a good indication that the hike will be tough, but we don’t mind increased difficulty.

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If the path were dry, I’d imagine this to be a fair trail with some mild climbs. As it was, we were growing increasingly wet, tired, and I’d threatened to fall several times. We’ve faced worse conditions and tougher climbs, but without a clear goal or reason for going, the hike became a slog. Because we need an end-point, we decided to go to the first Trig. Incidentally, you might be wondering what a trig is. We did too. It’s a marker used in geographical and geological surveys of an area. A trigonometric marker. We never quite made it to this one.

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There were several hill climbs along the way, and the scenery was beautiful to be sure, but conditions were just bad enough that without the need to get somewhere, we decided to turn back. The thought of putting more sliding slopes between us and the car was not palatable, and by this point in our journey the ponchos we bought in Cusco were starting to let in water and smell kind of funny.

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In the end we got what we wanted, sort of. We’d seen a part of the New Zealand wilderness and stretched our legs. We felt somehow unfulfilled at the end of it though. We didn’t reach our goal, and mist and cloud made the trail seem much more constricted than it otherwise would have been, all the vistas obscured by fog.

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Looking back on the photographs we took, the hike seems much more interesting than we experienced it. Ours was a hood-blinded, sweaty trek. From the pictures we took though, the nature around us was abundant and vibrant. New Zealand’s tramping site lists this track as going through “regenerating forest”. A regenerating forest is one where something took out a large portion of the older trees, and saplings quickly established themselves.  No information was provided on whether this forest is under human assisted regeneration or natural regeneration after a fire.

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A Kauri tree stands tall, a canopy unto itself.

Either way, the verdant green of the forest shows it’s doing very well. The rain also gave me an opportunity to see one of my favorite sights in nature : wet moss.

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Well, to feel really. Wet moss under the fingertips is a lovely texture, and really only available in rainy forests. Done appreciating the small things along the way, we headed back to the car. On the way there I almost fell a few times, but to my credit, my balance has increased tremendously over the course of our travels. For someone with better balance than I, the final downhill before the parking lot would make for an amazing slide. Safely back at the car, we were very ready to dry off and get on the road.

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The windswept trees saw us off to our next destination.

 

Valentine’s Day dinner

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On the road out of Auckland, headed to the eastern shores of the North Island, we encountered a very long and flat beach. We mostly stopped there because our app said there was a bathroom there. There was one, and there were also groups of people walking around with buckets on the beach. This is always of interest to us – people with buckets means something worth collecting is nearby.

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We asked a local with a full bucket and quickly found out the thing worth collecting was cockles. There’s a sign on the road that says you should only take fifty cockles per person, far more than a feast calls for. Our friend told us they and many other families gathered up bucketfuls for their gatherings. We’re not much into mollusks but we have a hard time passing up foraged food. There’s a satisfaction in cooking and eating something you found and gathered yourself, though for us it’s normally mushrooms and berries.

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We headed right down to the waterline, pokey spiral shells under our feet. When we got there, we realized we had no way to hold the cockles we found. Back to the car, then back to the waterline, this time with supplies in hand. A trowel to help with digging and a waterproof bag to hold the cockles. It turns out, as expected, that the waterproof bag holds water in almost equally as well as it keeps it out. It also, thankfully, doesn’t retain smells.

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It took us a while to find our first cockles. At first we only saw these spiral shells up and down the beach, making a life in the soft mud. Figuring that we had no idea what to look for, we found holes left by other cockle hunters. When we found our first tiny cockle we were ecstatic. In the bag it goes! Then came another, and another, and at the next hole came five more. Pretty soon we were bogged down in cockles, picking and choosing the largest and freshest looking.

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While foraging we found other sea life, this time sadly dead. I’d never seen the underside of a starfish so this was pretty interesting.

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About half an hour later, we were proficient cockle hunters. The best method we found was to abandon the trowel and sift through the mud with bare hands. Grab a cockle, fling it into a nearby pile. When the pile gets big enough, pick out the five or ten biggest ones. To call this hunting is a stretch. The cockles are more plentiful than a berries in the summer, have no thorns, don’t hide well like mushrooms, and can’t run away.

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We wound up with fifty medium to large sized cockles and some seawater in our bag. We decided to leave the smallest ones to keep growing, and not take too many for just the two of us. It turned out that fifty was a good number for two people. If we go hunting again we would probably take the same amount. Overharvesting is really the thing to avoid. The cockle population can support a fair amount of hunting, but too much will cause population collapse. In certain parts of New Zealand they are under threat, with various monitoring and closure measures being taken to protect them.

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Bag of cockles in hand, we hit the road. While wondering how to cook them, looking up recipes, and managing the slight flow of water out of the bag, we came on a very curious sight. A hoard-flock of birds were camped out on the shore. It was like something out of a migrating animals documentary. They are the Variable Oystercatcher, and they were previously hunted, now protected with numbers rising. I could not find information on why or how a single flock got so huge, but there they were. The best thing about roadtrips is finding the unexpected around the next bend.

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A night and a day passed. Adventures were had and Valentine’s Day evening came. Our recipe called for lemon, butter, and white wine. We’d luckily picked up a bottle of white on the outset of the trip, and the local minimart offered a lemon and a tub of garlic butter. Our cockles had been fed some crackers to help get the sand out, to a mild degree of success. Everything was ready for dinner, except us.

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While I’ve spent time on a farm and know where the bacon comes from, killing my own meat is still a relative rarity. Natalie similarly hadn’t hunted an animal since childhood, so we were both a bit hesitant. We took a moment, said thank you to the cockles for providing our meal, then put them in the simmering wine and butter. To cook cockles you essentially steam them for a few minutes until they open. Those that don’t open are not good to eat.

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This is what they look like when they’re done. The meat comes out with just a slight pull. The cockles were delicious and every bit worth the time to gather and cook. They tasted better than cockles from the supermarket or at a restaurant, fresher and less chewy, without the sometimes overwhelming ocean-water taste. If you’re in the area I would highly recommend stopping for a quick cook-out. Beaches all along the eastern shore have them, ours was near Coromandel.

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As good of a Valentine’s dinner as we could ask for. Candle courtesy of an early “in case of emergency” purchase on my part, which baffled Natalie at the time.

Waipoua Kauri Forest

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Yakas

On the eastern shore of the north peninsula are the world’s largest Kauri trees. These are, by volume, the largest trees in New Zealand, and they are amazing to behold. Driving down the freeway, a small dirt parking lot and a picnic area appear. To one side is a shoe-cleaning station and the entrance to four fantastic walking trails. There are three distinct trails, between fifteen and forty minutes long. One trail holds two named sites, so four sites total.

The draw of this forest is, of course, the huge trees. New Zealand Parks services have kindly labelled them for you, starting with the seventh largest Kauri known, Yakas. Named after a gumdigger who grew intimately familiar with the forest, and helped to find the largest trees, Yakas is about twelve meters of trunk and another thirty meters of canopy. All told he’s about as tall as a 14 story building, and just under a car-length across.

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Te Matua – Father of the Forest

The second largest Kauri, Te Matua is my favorite, wearing an unbelievable crown of tree-sized branches. He’s not as tall as Yakas, but is wider by an extra meter – a huge distance when dealing with diameter. Two thirds of this tree’s height are in the branches – twenty meters worth of tree-trunk style canopy.

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Tāne Mahuta – Lord of the Forest

The last of the big ones, and the most popular tree in the park. The Lord of the Forest is about as wide as Yakas, but stands an impressive 51 meters tall, about 17 stories. There are two viewing platforms for this tree, one further back than the next, so you can get a really good sense of just how large he is. When you head back to the parking lot, climb the little picnic hill and turn around – Tāne Mahuta will be rising out of the forest canopy, taking up a breathtaking volume in the sky.

Restful Hokianga

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On our way south towards the next Kauri forest, we made a pitstop in Hokianga. We weren’t really sure what to expect of the place – I’d wanted to take a ferry nearby which proved too expensive with the car, so we grabbed lunch and strolled around the town.

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And what a lunch it was. Despite the huge “Fish & Chips” sign, I can’t resist lamb when it’s on the menu. This was a juicy lamb patty with a fantastic mint cream sauce that together made one of the best lamb burgers I’ve had the pleasure of trying.

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The town is almost all waterfront and very quiet. A few cars went by as we ate lunch, maybe a dozen people total. Besides the ferry landing, there are a handful of historical houses (entry fee required) and a mangrove forest walk. As it turns out, we were in town the same day a classic cars club was meeting.

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I don’t know much of the history of cars, but I do know these were well cared for vehicles.

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The cars were parked just along the shoreline, and across from them, on wood floating in the bay, sat birds.

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The bay was peaceful, the birds mostly so.

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Bright sun, sunscreen selling sun, shone down on the scene.

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Built and maintained by volunteers in the town and surrounds, the Mangrove Walkway is a 20 minute or so walk that takes you through the mangrove forest ecosystem, points out interesting facts and highlights damage done in the name of industry. It is also entirely free to visit.

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It’s all on elevated walkway, so even though the mangrove tree’s natural environment is mostly underwater, you can enjoy the sights without getting your socks wet.

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Mangroves are interesting plants. They thrive on the border between land and water, living with the tide. Half the day their roots are covered entirely by water and the other half they stick out above the mud. To deal with the saltwater they live in, they concentrate it out to their bark or leaves, forming a thin salty layer. Mangroves are luckily widespread around the shorelines of the world and can tolerate very harsh conditions.

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As with any other living thing that survives on the edge, the mangrove forest is fragile. Industrial dumping, damming, and clearcutting threatens mangroves around the world. Not only is this damaging for these wonderful trees, it destroys a vibrant and vital ecosystem. The mangrove forest at Hokinaga suffered greatly from industrial damage decades ago, and is fortunately on its way to recovery after the businesses closed. The walkway is both nature-walk and reminder that without care, these environments will suffer and dissappear.

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Sweet Northland Beaches

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New Zealand has some fantastic beaches. They’re plentiful, pristine, and varied. On the way north we saw calm, sheltered bays. On the way back south towards Auckland we visited two much more spectacular ones. The first was Rarawa Beach, a long strip of black and white sand with shallow water and small but powerful waves.

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Like many other beaches in New Zealand this one has a massive stretch of sand, 50 meters or more from the high water mark to the edge of the water, perfectly flat. The sand at these beaches tends to be constantly compacted and a little wet, no wispy yellow clouds dogging your steps.

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When we got there, no one was swimming. Of the half dozen or so people there, not a one seemed interested in touching the water. We’ve been to beaches that look great but have massive “no swimming” warnings, we hoped this wasn’t one of them.

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In we went, boogie board serving its purpose fantastically. The issue with the beach, as it turns out, is that the water is very cold. Not instantly numb cold, but uncomfortably cold. I always hesitate at the first submersion, Natalie jumped right in. After getting out the chill persisted. Even with the bright sun, the wind was just strong enough to keep us mildly shivering until we towelled off and got in the car. Which I guess explains why no one was swimming.

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A quick shower and a bit of driving later, we were presented with a view of forever. The landscape in New Zealand does this a lot. Not so far after that, we got to see how the country handles logging.

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At first it seemed like any other logging site, but bigger. Huge swathes of countryside laid bare, devoid of trees, grass growing in small patches. Any logging site looks a bit sad to me, a manmade scar on the land. With good practices though, the land heals, more trees grown, and the logging is sustainable.

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This site looked abandoned. There were none of the usual markings of a next harvest – neat rows of tiny trees. Weirdly, piles of sun-bleached logs lay all over the place. Natalie, who knows more than I do about trees, noted that the remaining logs must have been there a long time to get that bone white, even in this weather.

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We’re not sure what the context was here, but for a country as obsessed with its nature as New Zealand seems to be, something feels amiss. Our best guess was that the logging company finished up, and left the useless logs on site.

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We continued south and wound up at the southern end of Ninety-Mile Beach. Though the beach is only fifty five miles in actual length, it may as well be five hundred as viewed from any one point. It goes on forever in either direction.

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The thing to do on this beach is drive. It’s legally a road and any 4×4 can go down it. The drivers here tend to go pretty fast so it’s good to keep an eye and ear out. The other thing to do here is stare at the sky and surf. This is one of the best looking shorelines we’ve seen. The sky and the surf are enchanting, espectially near sunset.

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The sand here is a shiny brownish-black and much of the beach is covered in a thin film of water. It’s a lot of fun to walk on, but flip flops have a habit of getting suctioned down making it hard. The water has a tendency to bury lots of pretty shells under just a thin layer of sand. We spent a good hour beach combing and looking up at the ever-shifting cloudscape.

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The Giant Sand Dunes

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On the far right of this picture are two people walking across the dunes. They are the tiny black speck lost in the seas of beige-ish yellow sand. In the center is a tiny oasis – no visibly water, but plenty of plant life. These sand dunes are appropriately giant.

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What greets you once you cross the tiny stream from the parking lot to the sand – the first set of dunes, commonly used for dune-boarding. I have my board ready, but first we went to explore.

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At the crest of the first dune, you see the giant desert-like expanse. It stretches seemingly for forever. For scale, two people walking in the distance.

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Continue climbing and you’ll see some of the extremely delicate plant life growing on the upper dunes. Much rarer than the wide swath of plant life at the base of the first dune, these plants exist as isolated guardians against the winds.

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All of the plants here are important, but up on the shifting dunes this holds especially true. It is absolutely vital that they not be damaged in any way – their existence is difficult enough, and stepping on them only destroys the fragile ecosystem of the sand dunes.

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Reach the top of the dune desert and you’re greeted with a barren view. Nothing lives up here – the sand is ever moving and the wind is strong.

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From here you can see the southern edge of the dunes, where the river runs strong and plants grow thick and wild.

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On the dune-side of the river, a tangle of plants secure the sands.

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If you crouch down to sand-level, make sure to cover your face. The wind blows sand along, up, and over the edge of the dunes with strength enough to hurt. That fuzzy layer of sand is flying up the dune.

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Keep going to the west, a long way to the west, and the ocean becomes visible in the low distance. You won’t be anywhere near it – it’s several hours to hike – but seeing the bright blue waves from the top of the dunes is spectacular.

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Some notes on boarding down the dunes. The board you bring should have a smooth bottom. Ours was a woven plastic material and the friction was amazing. We’d get on the board, kick off, and wind up stopped inches down the hill.

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Fortunately, the dunes offer plenty of distraction. Sitting there, stuck in the sand, I contemplated the scale of the place. This picture is the oval-ish structure at the bottom of the valley I was trying to board down. In one picture it looks tiny, in the next, massive. It was a very large ridge of sand.

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For want of a horse, the rider was not lost. My two favorite things to do in the sand are one, roll down the hill, and two, take huge jumps and be caught by the soft sand beneath. Rolling is fun, but gets sand everywhere. Jumping makes you feel like a superhero.

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At the bottom of the valley I took some time to practice my sand bending.

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And then climbed right back up to go again. Climbing up the dune to get another go is the most exhausting part of the experience, and it leaves with a great workout. We climbed back up many, many times.

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At the top of the dunes, there’s a real danger of your hat blowing away, so keep a tight grip. Behind me is a very interesting sand structure, and people for scale.

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It looks like it was once a solid dome of compacted sand, which has now worn out and collapsed in a ring around the center.

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It offers an ever-changing sight as you walk around, above, and below it.

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Some angles are almost unrecognizable as being the same thing.

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Briefly the clouds circled overhead in two layers making for a wonderful view.

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Sand textures very differently depending on where on the dunes it lies. Mostly it’s a fine particulate, but in some areas it’s compacted, and in others deposits of tiny stones make for an interesting texture.

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It’s well worth the detour to see the dunes. They’re spectacular in scale, dwarfing perceptions of distance and size. Exploring them is difficult but rewarding – every new peak is its own, different vista. Take care of the plants, be prepared to clean everything of sand, and have a fantastic trip!