After our long spate of bad luck with the weather, and gruelling ascent of Mt Taranaki volcano, we were in serious need of some sunny, relaxing, beach time. Sadly, we are always running out of time, and this time was no exception: we only had a few days left to see the North Island coast. We relunctantly gave up on going all the way to the Bay of Islands, opting instead for the Coromandel peninsula, much closer to Auckland where we had to return the van, and just as attractive from what we had heard.
Having arrived late the previous night, and still nursing our stiff muscles, we took our time at breakfast that morning. We were in the best free camp we had been to so far, spacious, grassy and sunny, the play of light on the dying leaves adorning it in autumn colours.
We drove most of the day, stopping only a few times: a small town for a dose of wifi at the library, and a short walk to the impressive Wairere Falls. At 150m high, they were the highest on the North Island, and probably the highest we had seen thus far on our whole trip. Thanks to recent rainfall, water plumeted plentifullly all the way down.
We also passed by Hobbiton, the set of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the hobbit-holes still intact. But we decided against the visit, at $85 dollars a head, it was way out of our price range! We arrived on the West side of Coromandel peninsula by sunset, just in time to witness a noisy congregation of seabirds on the beach. That night we stayed at a cheap friendly campsite with good amenities, there being no free sites on the whole peninsula.
We crossed over to the East side the next morning, leaving behind the mussel farms and muddy beaches of the West. There are many viewpoints along the way. The windy road, lined with lush tropical forest, had suffered some damage from rock fall and mud slides due to the recent cyclone.
We stopped en-route to visit a square-shaped Kauri tree and take in the scenery from the viewing platform. These native trees live for hundreds of years and are sadly rare in New Zealand, having suffered from over-exploitation up to the turn of the century.
Our first visit on the East side was New Chums beach. The pristine beaches here display delightful colours: white-washed sand, grey mud banks, and turquoise water, its crashing waves thick with blood-red kelp.
We wound our way through the rocks to reach the beach just in time for the rain to start! We felt like Robinson Crusoe as we had lunch under a shelter made of dry palm leaves. I stayed put, while Renaud went for a swim.
On the return journey, we were amused by the ‘no shitting please’ pictogram, and entertained ourselves for a good half hour watching a mini-river work its way to the sea, betting how long it would take to wash away the sand bank where we had left our shoes!
We did more exploring of the area in the van, ending the day with a chill-session, sunset and beer on Otama Beach, probably the prettiest we saw on the whole peninsula.
We loved it so much, we returned the next day for breakfast, and a morning tanning session until the clouds came in. We decided we had to try Coromandel’s famous mussels, and so we did, at a cute outdoor beach bar. The mussels were huge,with bright green shells and juicy flesh flavoured with garlic and chilli.
The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting Cormandel’s main tourist attractions, along with hundreds of other travelers. Cathedral Cove: a nice walk and view on the calm sea that looked a bit like those iconic pictures of Thailand with clumps of forest dropped randomly into the ocean. We couldn’t be bothered to walk the whole way, it was hot and there were people everywhere!
And finally, we visited the famous Hot Water Beach which is really worth it (and free), if you are willing to brave the crowds. Underground freshwater is heated by a huge pocket of lava 2km down, and comes up bubbling to the surface on the beach. All you need to do is dig a deep hole in the sand, mix-in a bit a cold seawater so as not to burn to a pulp, and voila: a jacuzzi! Make sure to plan the visit around low-tide, as the cold water returns within 2 hours, quickly destroying the jacuzzis and filling them with ice cold water! We took off soon after, enjoying our last New Zealand sunset and beer on the beach.
We still had a few hours’ drive to reach the first free camp en-route to Auckland, and a lot of cleaning and packing to do before returning the van the following day. These chores were conducted in the dark and rain, a fitting end to our very wet NZ trip!