Wharariki Beach on the northwestern tip of the South Island of New Zealand is regarded by the Maori as a portal between worlds, a place where the souls of the dead are said to depart from this life.
Wharariki Beach is a remote and windswept spot reachable only after a long drive and then a hike across fields and dunes. We first heard about it from the owner of the hostel where we were staying (this was when we were touring on our own, before joining the Maori culture tour). When he heard we were interested in holy sites, he knew immediately where to send us. “Wharariki Beach is the place,” he said. “But be prepared for the wind. It’s a wild spot.”
We drove up Golden Bay and parked our car, then hiked through fields past curious sheep and grazing cows, finally descending through a thicket of trees to reach this spot:
According to Maori tradition, this is o te wairua o nga tangata o te Waipounamu, the place from which the spirits depart. (We later learned that the North Island has a similar departure point for spirits on its northwestern tip.) If you die on the South Island, this is your jumping off place to the life-beyond-death.
We were fortunate that the wind, while brisk, was not oppressive on the morning we visited, and even more fortunate that we had the place to ourselves for more than an hour. We walked amid the sculpted rocks in silence, and I don’t think “enraptured” is too strong a word to use for our state of mind.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to see many amazing landscapes, but this exquisite shoreline ranks among the most beautiful. The beach stretches for perhaps half a mile, a pristine expanse of sand bordered by cliffs on one side and arched rocks lapped by waves on the other. Some of the rocks seem like great prehistoric beasts, slumbering in the sea.
It is obvious why this is considered a sacred site, for it has all the markings—that sense of being a thin place between worlds, of mist and wind and wave shape-shifting with each change in the light.
It is fitting to end here, at the gate of mystery. So much of our time in New Zealand was indescribable, even for someone who is adept with words. This place most of all.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.