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Ninety Mile Beach

Plankton is the collective name for all the forms of drifting or floating organic life found at various depths in the ocean or in fresh water. It is associated with automotive accidents as often as Donald Rumsfeld is mistaken for Donald Duck. Except on the North Island of New Zealand's Ninety Mile Beach. The finger-wagging "Beautiful but Dangerous" leaflet warned me to watch for such hazards as tidal sweeps ("Do not drive in the sea at any time"), quicksand, rainwater run-off channels ("Hitting one of these unexpectedly can break an axle"), sand holes, and patches of slippery plankton. That gives a new meaning to amoebic dysentery if you lose control and slither into the Tasman Sea.

I have driven in deserts, but spurring the Land Rover Discovery along a strip of sand flanked by ocean and dunes was a novel experience. The ebbing tide and a stiff breeze had patterned the stream-crossed beach with ripples and whorls by the time we nosed through the dunes. Although the surface appeared to be as firm and trustworthy as Abe Lincoln's handshake, the "Beautiful but Dangerous" warnings deserved to be taken seriously, despite the absence of any reference to speed limits. At first, 50 mph seemed reasonable, but the V-8's wuffling got louder as confidence increased. However, there were moments when what appeared to be easy going was soft enough for steering to twitch and revs to rise as the Goodyear Wranglers briefly lost traction. Then it was gently back onto the gas, and let's see how she feels at 80.

Skidding on plankton concerned me far less than the risk of suddenly encountering something solid. I came close to disaster years ago while driving an AC 427 along a Welsh beach. The needle was nudging 140 mph when I realized that the coupe was going to miss a truck tire by a few heart-stopping fractions of an inch. It must have been washed ashore and nearly buried by sand. Flicking the wheel would have been almost as disastrous as clouting the tire at 200 feet per second. Down on lonesome Ninety Mile Beach, valor took a back seat to discretion when I visualized trying to change a wheel with nothing more solid than sand under the jack.

Cranking things up a few notches, we reached the point where driving up the Te Paki Stream was the only way to return to civilization. Quicksand is a "serious hazard" here, so we didn't stop to contemplate the scenery. That was sad, because the huge dunes made it like driving up a river in the Sahara.

Ninety Mile Beach had been on my must-see list since I read about it in a childhood geography book. This is where Norman "Wizard" Smith tried to bag the world land-speed record in 1931-32. One of motoring's forgotten heroes, Smith made his name in the '20s racing trains and setting city-to-city records in Australia and New Zealand before such exploits were outlawed. One run saw him jumping a 39-foot-wide river after building a shingle launching ramp for his Chrysler. He also assembled a monster whose main ingredients were an 18.7-liter Rolls-Royce aero engine and a Cadillac chassis fitted with a racing-car body.

Smith's Ninety Mile Beach car was designed by Don Harkness, an Aussie who went on to build successful racing aircraft. His contender's sensationally sleek shape was inspired by the 925-horsepower Golden Arrow in which Henry Segrave had raised the bar to 231.44 mph in 1929. The Smith car's ice-cooled Napier Lion engine was supercharged to produce 1450 horsepower, which should have been more than enough, but problems obliged Harkness to fit a radiator that looked like a king-sized kennel. High tides and razor-sharp shells added to the problems, which together prevented Smith from claiming anything more dramatic than the world's ten-mile record, which he raised to 164.08 mph. His quickest runs were around the 180-mph mark. Less than half that speed was more than fast enough for me, which makes the point that heroes are at least twice as brave as mere mortals.

Trip Notes

Location: Far north of North Island, New Zealand.

General information: Tourism New Zealand 866-639-9325, www.newzealand.com.

Where to stay: Shipwreck Lodge, 70 Foreshore Road, Ahipara, (011-64-9-409-4929; www.shipwrecklodge.co.nz); Loredo Motel, 25 North Road, Kaitaia, (011-64-9-408-3200; www.bestwestern.co.nz).