Auckland’s wild west coast is just a stone’s throw from the city, but once you emerge from the dark bush canopy of the Waitakere Ranges, you feel as though you’re on another plapan>

For a family of East Coasters accustomed to the Pacific Ocean and the golden sands of Gisborne, the land and seascape took us by surprise. We walked along vast empty expanses of sand the of black pearls; skirted cliff edges so high they gave me vertigo; scaled steep, gnarly, ankle-breaking tracks to spectacular lookouts over the Tasman Sea; wandered through cool, lush, tropical palm forests; climbed to the top of wispy waterfalls and watched dazzling west coast sunsets.

Sunset over the Tasman Sea with Taitomo Island on the left. Top: Walking back along North Piha Beach after the Marawhara-White-Laird Thomson circuit

The occasion was our annual family get-together, a time when our daughters fly in from faraway places to reconnect as a family. Accommodation was scarce over Auckland Anniversary Weekend, nks to my membership of the international home swap club, Love Home Swap, we were lucky to find a primo place in a perfect location, perched on the ridge between Piha and Karekare beaches. I joined Love Home Swap in 2013, and Dave and Emma’s stunning house is one of many fabulous private homes we’ve stayed at all around the world – free. Our ‘stays’ are managed by an exchange of points, a form of currency, rather than an actual home swap, although that’s always an option. It often does not suit members to swap simultaneously so the points system provides the flexibility and freedom to stay wherever and whenever you choose.

We arrived at the house in the pitch dark after negotiating our way from Auckland city along a narrow, serpentine road, so our first day was a voyage of discovery. We ventured down the sndy road and came to an abrupt halt when we first glimpsed the iconic Lion Rock, crouching majestically with surf swirling around his front paws. Apparently, he’s lost some of his lion-esque facial features in a recent rock fall, but he still looked astonishingly like the largest of the feline whanau to me.

After crossing the famous black sand beach where a surfing coach was tutoring a group of eager young novices, we climbed up the lion’s hindquarters to a pou (Māori carving) depicting Ngataro Taua, a Te Kawerau a Maki ancestress who loved this spot.

The information board told us that Lion Rock was known to early Māori as Te Piha, named after the wave patterns created by the rock which resemble the bow wave of a waka (canoe). Te Kaweaki people lived on the rock during their fishing seasons, and the summit of the rock was the tihi or last line of defence when under attack from other tribes. It would’ve been a formidable task to penetrate the terraces and pits at the top, with sheer drops to the rocks and waves below.

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