Cruising the Coromandel

April 2022

Part 2 of my holiday of 2 parts and I was back in Auckland to pick up my little hybrid car for the next few days.  It was a real shock to go from the roads of Great Barrier Island to driving on the vast Auckland motorways and I was glad to be out of the city as soon as I could get out.

The Coromandel Peninsula is, not surprisingly, a peninsula stretching 85km long and 40km wide at its widest point.  My first stop was to be Thames, at the bottom of the peninsula and only 1.5 hours drive from Auckland.   Unfortunately, I did not have any time to explore the former gold mining town as I was only here for the evening and I didn’t realise that my accommodation was out of town, up a long narrow winding road surrounded by bush – just like being back on Great Barrier Island lol. 

It looked like the rain had followed me as it had started to rain lightly as I headed out.  After a quick stop at the ruins of the Burke Street Wharf (once part of a large harbour scheme of the 1920’s, until the harbour silted up, making it unusable and leaving it to rot) I met a friend for dinner and a lovely catch up. 

After a good night’s sleep in the most comfortable bed, I headed north along the beautiful, windy road, following along the coast and through small seaside communities.  The sun was even shining … but it didn’t last long 😂.  

I had spotted a waterfall on the map that did not seem far off my route and so I took a detour inland to Waiau Falls – was it worth the drive down the narrow windy dirt road 🤔🤔🤔?  I am not sure it was, but it was still pretty.

I arrived in Coromandel (the town, not the Peninsula) with a population of less than 2,000 people, just in time for a quick photo of a beautiful rainbow over the harbour before I drove the short distance to Driving Creek. 

Driving Creek is a unique attraction and the inspiration of Barry Brickell, a local potter who started it as a location of his pottery studio.  He used the clay from the land around him, and began building train tracks to go further up the hill to source more clay.  Today the site still has a pottery studio and shop, a predator free nature reserve, New Zealand’s only narrow gauge mountain railway line which takes you on a ride through regenerated kauri forest and an amazing ziplining experience.

As I arrived at the site, the skies opened and the rain came down, thankfully it did not last long and by the time my Ziplining experience was about to start it had cleared up.  The experience (all 2.5 hours of it) was so much fun – we got kitted up with our harnesses and then set off on the train up to the top of the hill.  From here we took 8 different ziplines down (a couple upside down if you chose to lol).  Between the ziplines there were short walks with some great information panels, explaining the gold mining and kauri felling that took place in the area.  The regenerating Kauri and other native bush that we see today was planted by Barry and his mates over the last 40-50 years. 

With no time to waste, I had a quick lunch before driving over the Coromandel Ranges to the east coast of the peninsula (only around a 30 minute drive) to make the pilgrimage to New Chums beach (also known as Wainuiototo Bay)– once voted one of the world’s top 10 beaches and described as “pristine curved perfection”.

There are no buildings, no roads and no infrastructure and the only way to get there is to walk from the north end of neighbouring Whangapoua beach (a beauty of a beach in its own right).  After crossing the stream (easiest to do at or near low tide), you walk along the rocky peninsula and the over the ridge covered in nikau and pōhutakawa.

The rocks were a killer to walk on and I spotted a track just off the rocks.  Unfortunately, the track was really muddy, and it was not long till my sandals were bogged down in mud – so I decided to go back to the rocks, but now my feet were slipping in the muddy sandals – I could not win!!! 

Finally, over the ridge I came out on the beautiful, famed beach, the skies were not blue, but the beach was a stunning, long white sand beach surrounded by bush clad cliffs with only a couple of other people on it.  Was this one worth the effort??? Yes, I think so, but the photos do not do it justice 🎉🎉 (and the walk back was a little easier once I had cleaned off my sandals in the sea!)

Back in Coromandel (on the west side of the peninsula) I got some dinner and checked in to my accommodation. As with Thames, it is nice but too far out of town to be able to walk in 🤦🏻‍♀️.  Still it gave me a great view of the sunset over the harbour (the motel was called Harbour View 👍🏻).

I was awake before 7 the next day so decided to do one of the small walks in the area – the Kauri Block walk.  It is an easy loop track through regenerating bush with a lovely view from an old pa site.  It was overcast but not rainy – warm and a little humid with mist hanging in valleys.

The walk took me over the ridge and down almost to town and then back along the waterfront road around to my motel.  The water was like silk, so calm but I was surprised that there are not more birds.  There are a few fantails but not much else – not in the bush or on the shore (had seen loads of shore birds on the drive up) but none here. 

I took a quick amble around the cute little town, admiring the great street art) before heading back to the same dirt road I had driven down the day before looking for the waterfall (why do I do this to myself!!).  At the time, I did not realise that just past the mediocre waterfall was a Kauri Grove, home to most of the remaining mature Kauri on the Coromandel peninsula.

Now, this was well worth the dodgy road.  The rain had stopped, and the reserve had great tracks and boardwalks that lead you up to the massive trees.  The bush around the Kauri was beautiful, rain drops dripping from the trees, a roaring river and bird song filled the air.  The Kauri themselves were spectacular and there were some great information panels.  According to the information, the oldest Kauri in this grove is around 600 years old (and around 2m wide!) and the oldest on record was 4,000 years old when it ‘died’.  They also have a unique Siamese Kauri, when what had started as two, joined together as they grew into each other’s space. 

Funnily enough, this terrible road was actually the alternate road across the ranges and over to Whitianga, so I braved it and went all the way lol. 

Whitianga looks so fancy, so many beautiful boats moored in the harbour, and lots of development going on to create the kind of houses on canals where you can park your boat outside your house!  It also had a real tropic feel and it was so humid.  I popped into the museum for some respite. It is in fact the ‘coolest’ building in town as it once housed the town’s diary (where they made butter) and there was built to keep cool inside.

I took a quick walk around the waterfront, had a bite to eat, before driving the last 30 minutes to Hahei my final destination and were I would stay for my last 3 nights. I was instantly thrilled with this decision. 

Hahei has a permanent population of around 300 people, swelling by almost 10 times that many in peak tourist season.  I dropped my bag and quickly walked the few minutes down to the beautiful Hahei beach.  It is a small bay, but the beach was beautiful.  It has a real tropical vibe with hibiscus flowers lining the road – I love this so much. 

As if the beach and the hibiscus was not enough, my accommodation was right next to gelato shop called Little Lato – it was amazing, and I was convinced that I may just eat there the whole time I was there lol.  Having done some research, it is award winning gelato and is unfortunately, only currently available in the North Island (or perhaps that is a good thing). 

As is my habit, I was early to bed and early to rise – a 5.30am start for a sunset mission.  Hahei is the starting point for the walk to the world famous Cathedral Cove.    It can only be accessed by foot or boat, and the walk, starting just near my accommodation, takes around 45 minutes.

I set off in the dark and it was worth the early start for a couple of reasons – firstly, there was a unique planet alignment visible in the pre-dawn eastern sky with Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in alignment and it was visible to the naked eye.  Secondly the pre-dawn sky and sunrise at Cathedral Cove itself was amazing.  There were only a couple of other people who had made the early morning effort.  It was not only sunrise, but also low tide which meant you could walk right through the arch (which is not always possible at high tide). 

By the time I left, the tide was already coming in so that you had to time your run through the arch.  It was a beautiful walk back now I could see things and the sunlight filtering through the bush.  I enjoyed the company of a family of about 30 Californian Quail who ran along the track in front of me for some time before remembering they could fly.  I also took the opportunity to stop off at the other little bays – Stingray and Gemstone.

Back in Hahei it was time for coffee and breakfast and a change in to shorts for a relaxing morning on the beach.  It turned out that there was an Ocean swim event on – lots of crazy people 😂 not all in wetsuits, ready to set out on a 4km swim to Cathedral Cove and back.  (They probably think that I am crazy walking around to cathedral cove at 5.30am 🤔😂).  It was refreshing to have almost a full day to relax as my normal holiday mode is definitely on the go morning and afternoon. 

I had one more sunrise mission on my trip, this time to Hot Water Beach – another famous tourist destination (which I would avoid like the plague if there were a lot of tourists in the country)!  It is here that the volcanic activity that created the peninsula creates hot springs where the water seeps through the fissures in the base rock.  2 hours either side of low tide, you can dig a hole in the sand and create your own ‘hot’ pool’.

I was lucky that low tide corresponded with sunrise (as with the day before), but there was still only a small amount of beach to dig as the tide, despite being low, was still pretty high.  There were only a few other people this early and it took 4 of them to dig and fortify a hole from the sea but no spot was unscathed from the waves of the now incoming tide. Not sure if the tide normally goes out further or what??

I was happy to find a warm patch for my feet and watch the day begin.  It was beautiful with the steam rising from the sand, but not as nice sunrise as the day before and by 6.50am there were already more people than there was space on the beach, so I decided just to take a walk along the 2km beach.  There were a few surfers out by the time I walked back along the beach, waiting with anticipation for a decent wave.

My final activity for this trip was a ride on the Hahei Explorer.  A small boat adventure that takes you along the coast, exploring hidden sea caves, offshore islands and Cathedral Cove from sea.  The trip normally departs from Hahei beach, but the swell was too much, so I had to drive about 15 minutes to Cooks Beach.  I wasn’t mad about it as I took the opportunity so see the lovely bay and stop at Shakespeare’s lookout for a great view down the coast.

Part of the area around Cathedral Cove is a marine reserve, the Whanganui A Hei (Cathedral Cove) Marine Reserve and the boat trip was a great way to see all the bays, including Cathedral Cove from a different angle.  (Apparently it is New Zealand’s most photographed geological features.)

The seas were that inviting turquoise blue and there were plenty of people enjoying them from the beautiful small bays, and some mighty big snapper swimming around safely in the reserve.  Across from the mainland, we jetted around Mahurangi Island.  The home of a sheep farm until the 1970’s, it is now uninhabited and home to regenerating forest in the hope of becoming an offshore refuge for native bird life.

It was really choppy on the way back across the sea to Cooks Beach … and was a lot of fun. 

Back in Hahei for my final evening a took a final walk on the beach and headed back to the gelato shop to have my favourites (I didn’t quite get through all the flavours but did a remarkable job at trying if I do say so myself) lol.

My last morning saw me take a relaxed drive down the east coast (with a beautiful rainbow) and back over the ranges to Auckland (well it was relaxed until a car skid across the road in front of me, spun around and smacked into the bush on the side of road – thankfully everyone was ok).  There were lots of sign’s warning that the road was “slippery when wet” and they were lucky there was no one coming up the hill the other direction.

I can add the Coromandel Peninsula to the list of beautiful parts of the New Zealand that I must return too.

East Cape Escape – Part 3: Flora, fauna and sauna

November 2021

This morning I was off on the road trip part of my road trip (lol) around the Tairāwhiti region – first stop was Whakatane via a lovely road around lakes and through small towns.  But my one and only reason for coming to Whakatane was to do a day trip to Moutohorā or Whale Island. 

Moutohorā is one of the most restricted pest free sanctuaries in New Zealand.  It is situated just 9km of the coast of Whakatane, not far from Whakaari/White Island which is now world famous for its eruption in December 2019 which killed 22 people.  It is just over 1.4km2 and is the remnant of an eroded volcano.  There are still geothermal areas on the island today (which is one of the highlights of the visit).

There is evidence of early Māori and European settlements, including an unsuccessful whaling station (catching only one whale 🥴), mining of sulphur (which was too poor quality) and then rock for construction of the Whakatane Harbour wall (in 1915). 

In 1965 the island was declared a wildlife refuge and once goats were cleared, a planting programme planted 12,000 native trees and grasses.  Today the island is free of not only goats, but rats, cats and rabbits (there were apparently up to ½ million and were used by Cray fisherman for bait) and is a safe haven for 190 native species. 

Because of its pest free status, bio security checks are an important part of the boating process for all passengers.  In the “Biosecurity Caravan” we had to empty our bags to ensure there were no pests, followed by checks of our shoes for soil and seeds and finally we walked through a tray of disinfectant before boarding the boat. 

It was a beautiful warm day, already 18c and sunny before we set off out through the heads at the mouth of the Whakatane River and passed The Lady on the Rock statue on top of Turuturu Rock.  The statue commemorates the bravery of Wairaka, the daughter of Toroa, the captain of the first waka to arrive in Whakatāne after a long and dangerous journey from Hawaiki (their ancestral homeland).  As the men went ashore, the canoe started to draft back out to sea and Wairaka grabbed the paddle to bring the waka back to shore (it was forbidden for women to handle a canoe!)  She cried our “Kia Whakatāne au I ahau” – I will act the part of a man – hence the name of the city.

I was travelling with White Island Tours – the only way you can visit the island (unless you work for the Department of Conservation).  Not surprisingly, they are the main company that used to run the tours to Whakaari White Island prior to the eruption and were on the island at the time, losing staff members.  One of our guides had been on the island earlier in the morning – as the volcano quietly smoking away in the distance, I can’t imagine what is must have been like to have been on the water the day it erupted … or to continue to see it every day!

After a quick 15 minute boat ride, we landed on Moutohorā.  There is no wharf or jetty so need to be prepared to get wet feed as you wade ashore.  Unfortunately we were about 1-2 weeks too early for the full bloom of the Pohutukawa tress which covered the islands.  Luckily there were a handful that bloomed early and where already surrounded by beautiful tuis👍🏻.

The island is a wonderful haven for New Zealand’s wildlife and it was not long before our guide pointed out a juvenile common gecko (in a purpose built ‘gecko hotel’ – really just a small, covered area, which is easy to lift to spy on the current guests).  Did you know that New Zealand geckos, unlike other reptiles around the world, give birth to live young rather than eggs.  It is believed to be an adaption to adjust to the colder climates.  They are not only slow breeding, but they are also long lived – living up to 50 years.

The air was full of bird song, but even louder was the hum of bees around the flowering kanuka.  I am not sure I have ever heard so many bees. 

As we walked through the island (the guides in bare feet lol 🥴) we passed (or were passed by) North Island Saddlebacks – remember I met their South Island cousins on Stewart Island back in 2020.  Here the juveniles are born with their ‘saddle’ markings as opposed to the South Islands one who do not develop it until they are older.

The highlight of the day for me (although the whole day was a highlight) was seeing my first Tuatara in the wild 🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻.  Tuatara are endemic to New Zealand and are the only survivors of an ancient lineage of reptiles whose ancestors lived along side dinosaurs, over 220 million years ago.

They used to live throughout the country, but populations were decimated by rats etc. and today are now only found in predator proof fenced sanctuaries and offshore islands.   They are active mainly at night but also come out during the day to bask in the sun.  To avoid being eaten by adults, juveniles tend to feed during the day!! 

Females can lay 6-8 eggs per year and are buried to keep warm and as with some other reptiles, the egg temperature can determine the sex of the young.  Once hatched they have to fend for themselves and if they survive ‘childhood’ they can live between 80-100 years.  

Did I mention just how excited I was to see them??  I had seen them before in wildlife parks (in fact I used to work at a park where we breed them), but never in their natural habitat.  It was really a thrill for me.

Kiwis have been introduced to the island, but they have not breed well, no one really knows why but it is possible they are competing for burrows with grey faced petrels that also nest in burrows on the ground.   We actually passed the bodies of a couple of petrels along the way – apparently, they are terrible at landing, often using trees/bushes to break their fall, sometimes this does not work for them!

After a walk around some of the tracks we stopped by the hut for some lunch (it used to be possible to stay the night but now it is only used for rangers).  I only had snacks rather than lunch so was finished quickly and took the opportunity to hang around by the flowering Pohutukawa’s (right by the toilet lol) watching the tuis attracted by the flowers.  I was also lucky enough to spot some of the resident Kakariki (a green parrot) but not close enough to get a photo.

From lunch we took one of the tracks around the side of the island and down to Sulphur Bay – not surprisingly the remaining geothermal area on the island.  There were once pools in the area, but they were buried by a landslide, but you can still see the steam vents and you can definitely smell the sulphur.

The geothermal activity makes this an incredible ‘hot water beach’, you can actually see the sand bubbling in some areas it is so hot – it actually felt like I scalded my feet at one point 🥴.   The idea is to dig a hole in the sand, the perfect depth so you get right temperature water in your self made hot pool – too shallow and it was way too hot, too deep and it was too cold!   There are hot water beaches in other parts of the country, but it is rare that you find one which you can have all to yourself.

It was beautiful sitting on the beach in the sun, soaking my feet in the hot water while watching isolatied rain showers across the mainland.  What a way to spend the day.

As we headed back towards the boat, which was waiting for us at another beach, there was word of a whale sighting so instead of heading back to town, we headed out to sea.  It was already 1.45pm and they had said we would be back by 1.30pm – no one was complaining though.   On our impromptu boat trip, we saw diving petrels and penguins in the water 👍🏻 but sadly no whales today.  It was great to see the island from the sea as well, with its interesting rock formations and NZ fur seals lazying around the shore line.

We finally arrived back back in Whakatane over an hour late – what an amazing trip which I highly recommend.

Back on the mainland it was time to hit the road as I still had some driving to do before my stop for the night.   I could not pass up the opportunity to stop at what is apparently New Zealand’s favourite beach, Ohope Beach.  It was pretty impressive with 11 kilometres of beautiful sand beach, despite being a little windswept today.  The Ohope spit itself is approximately 6 kilometres long and only 300m wide at its narrowest, making it very easy to walk from the beach on one side to the Ohiwa estuary on the other.

I was starving by this point, so stopped to have some lunch at the General Store, overlooking the estuary.  Unfortunately it really only had fried food (which becomes a theme for the trip) so fried food it was!

I’d been lucky to avoid the rain so far, but it finally came down as I was driving my last leg for the day.  Despite the rain it was a lovely 35 minute drive around the estuary and through small rural villages to my stop for the night at Opotiki.