The Coromandel Peninsula is one of NZ’s most-loved holiday destinations. Its spectacular coastline provides a mix of sandy bays and rocky coves, while the rugged, volcanic backbone is cloaked in a dense robe of native forest and boasts some of NZ’s best hiking. From the old gold mining town of Coromandel, with its laid-back artisan community, across to Mercury Bay’s magnificent Cathedral Cove on the east coast and south to Whakatane and the Bay of Plenty, visitors will find a region with a rich gold mining history and a wide range of activities to enjoy. We take a three-day drive and visit a migratory bird sanctuary, discover old gold mines and stamper batteries, hunt for flounder, call in to visit local potters and artisans at their home studios and take a life-changing trip to the live marine volcano of White Island off the coast of Whakatane.
Leaving Auckland we drive south through Clevedon to the Seabird Coast. The road travels alongside the still waters and startling-white shell banks of the Firth of Thames from Kaiaua to Miranda with its world-renowned, 8500-hectare, intertidal sanctuary for migratory birds. We stop at the Miranda Shorebird Centre, where detailed display boards explain how the region is a temporary abode for thousands of migrating shorebirds navigating their way from Eastern Siberia and the Alaskan tundra to spend the summer in New Zealand. The bar-tailed godwit and lesser knot are the most commonly sighted tourists. “It’s a long way to come for a little R&R,” jokes Bob, as we stand on the shoreline scouting for birds. There are hundreds including pied oyster-catchers who return to the Firth after breeding in the South Island.
We drive past the popular Miranda Hot Springs, where the waters of these once swamplike natural springs were transformed in 1959 into what was then the largest thermal pool in the Southern Hemisphere, and on to Waitakaruru where two one-way bridges pass over the same river.
Stretching our legs in the Waitakaruru antique store, we hear from an old-timer that the army built the second bridge for the Queen’s visit to New Zealand in 1953. ”Up in a day,” he grumbles, “Don’t see that now!”
We cross the Kopu Bridge and ten minutes later we’re in Thames, a town that had a larger population than Auckland back in the height of the 1880s gold boom. There are a number of old buildings and relics from that era, particularly at its northern end around Grahamstown.
We pop into Eco People, with its dazzling array of hand-crafted soaps. One novel product is ‘Washy Squashy’ moulding soap; it’s similar to kids’ play dough, but easier on the clothes and home. Some of the soap, like the blackberry, sweet kiwifruit, feijoa and mandarin bars, smell almost edible and I keep an eye on Bob - when it comes to him and food, nothing would surprise me!
In Tararu we park on the quiet shore and enjoy a cup of thermos tea, then continue north. Our route takes us through contorted pohutukawa trees growing so thickly on the cliffs that the telephone lines must leave the bank and journey across the water.
A steep hill provides superb views of the Coromandel Peninsula, the Firth of Thames and Auckland hiding behind Ponui and Waiheke Islands. We descend to Coromandel Town, home to around 1400 keen boaties, conservationists, lifestylers and craftspeople.
Strolling around town, Bob’s kept busy taking snapshots of the fine Victorian buildings and relics from the gold mining and timber industries. We call into Weta, the Source and Art Xtreme, where local artisans display their wares.
Over Panini’s at Success Café, we decide to spend the afternoon taking a train ride at Driving Creek Railway, and soaking up local history at the Coromandel Stamper Battery. When we arrive, Bob’s amazed by the size of the river-powered waterwheel standing 7.5 metres high. Ashley Franklyn shows us around. “Gold was discovered at Driving Creek in 1852 and the battery was erected in 1898 to determine the quality of ore,” he says, demonstrating how it works and answering our many questions.
“There’s not much he doesn’t know about gold mining in this town,” says Bob as we leave and drive the short distance to Driving Creek Railway, a project that has been 40 years in the making and the brain child of Barry Brickell, a highly creative potter.
Fortunately we get to meet Barry himself, a colourful local character. He tells us that he never intended his railway to become a tourist attraction and that the first sections of track were built to gain all-weather access to the clay.
We hop aboard and with a toot we’re off, chugging along a narrow-gauge 15-inch track, which winds up the hills behind the potteries. There are tunnels, spirals, and a double-decker viaduct en route and the track zigzags its way up the hill to Barry’s latest creation, the ‘Eyeful Tower’, a wooden terminus providing truly eye-popping views of the Coromandel.
Sad Note: Coromandel potter and New Zealand identity Barry Brickell died Saturday 23rd January 2016 in Coromandel aged 80. He leaves the legacy of Driving Creek Railway and Potteries for our continued enjoyment.
Later we check in to our accommodation for the night, a self-contained kauri cottage built in the 1850s, and dine on bowls of freshly steamed green-lipped mussels – the kai moana (seafood) for which Coromandel Town is renowned.
We finish our evening at the beach where locals are hunting for flounder by flashlight. They lend us some gear – a couple of torches and knives strapped to sticks of manuka – and we slowly wade through the water looking for the tell-tale outlines in the sand of these flat fish. I spear the first and Bob (ever the great fisherman) races over to help get it into the bag. Shortly after there’s a loud whoop and he scores another. We thank our newfound friends and head home with our breakfast.
A tree outside the cottage provides a lemon in the morning. After a sumptuous feed we decide to skip SH25 in favour of the 309 Road and the Waiau Waterworks. We depart, but first call into the Coromandel Smoking Company where we pick up hot smoked trevally for our picnic basket.
At The Waterworks we find creative feats of engineering and large sculptures sprawling over the Ogilvie’s four-and-a-half acres.
“I’ve always wanted to do silly things with water,” says Chris Ogilvie when we arrive. We walk through its gardens beside the Waiau River and there are several fun rides, all of which are powered by water, plus a variety of water-powered clocks, butter churns, waterwheels and intriguing pedal-powered pumps. Feeling energetic Bob takes a ride on the Flying Fox, which like many of the Waterworks creations, is made from recycled materials – it even includes brake callipers from an old car.
We leave and drive across the peninsula past the Waiau Falls and Coromandel Forest Park before rejoining SH25.
A ten kilometre drive north leads to Whitianga, the main hub for marine-based activities departing for the Te Whanganui A Hei Marine Reserve, which stretches from Cooks Bluff and Motukoruro Island through to Mahurangi Island. But we head south as you can also access this park from Hahei.
En route we call into the roadside Wilderland Organic Shop and fill our picnic basket with ripe avocados and delicious peppery rocket.
In Hahei we join Nigel Horne’s Hahei Explorer and cruise to Cathedral Cove, where a gigantic arched cavern penetrates the headland and forms an arch. Hidden beneath the waves are many other similar structures, which shelter unique marine life and plants. We continue south to explore the Orua sea cave. Bob gets a fright when a large drop of icy water lands on his forehead, but Nigel assures him that this is considered good luck by local Maori.
Duly blessed, we return to Hahei and drive to Hot Water Beach. We eat our picnic sitting on the beach watching people dig holes in the sand. Then we dug our own private pool and wallow in its warm thermal waters until the tide begins to turn.
In Whenuakite we visit Alan Rhodes’s eco-friendly potting community where potter Bobby Neal shows us around. Clay is dug onsite and pottery wares are created using a variety of firing methods. Bob adds a blue butter dish to his collection of purchases, which are now housed in a box in the boot.
We drive to Mt Paku in Tairua, and take a short hike to the top. From here we have outstanding 360-degree views of Tairua’s harbour and the long sprawl of holiday homes at Pauanui. Maori legend has it that if you climb to the top of Paku, you’ll return here within seven years. Bob’s more than happy with this arrangement but wonders out loud if they’ll also shout him a ticket.
We cross the one-lane bridge at the southern end of Tairua and head south through the Tairua Forest, turning off at Opoutere. A ten minute hike through pines leads to its broad sweep of sand and we complete a loop through the Wharekawa Harbour Wildlife Refuge, where New Zealand dotterel and variable oyster-catchers breed, back to the car park.
As we leave Bob spots a sign for Topadahil Studios, and we drive up a long steep driveway to meet artist Guity Evelyn. Her paintings explore light, colour and depth, and have an incredible energy and warmth. I pick up a framed print entitled ‘Moon Glow’ for $25, before we continue on to Whangamata to check into a B&B.
A popular surfing resort and more recently a favoured place to retire, Whangamata provides many good cafés and restaurants including The Coast, The Bach and Oceana’s Restaurant. We head to the latter and enjoy an early dinner of delicious pan-fried gurnard with a salmon and dill sauce, sautéed potatoes and bowls of fresh salad greens.
Later we return to our B&B via Whangamata’s beautiful white sandy beach and are lulled to sleep by the sound of waves breaking on the shore.
After a light continental breakfast in-house we depart and drive to Waihi, an old mining town where gold bearing quartz was discovered in 1878. There are many quaint buildings lining Waihi’s main street, including several old miners’ cottages. We stop for lattés at an antiquated coffee shop and discover that gold and silver production still continues at the Martha Mine, but it’s hidden well from view.
Interest piqued, we explore the town’s colourful past at the Waihi Gold Mining Museum and Arts Centre, then climb aboard a vintage train which puffs its way along these historic tracks to Waikino station, where the Victoria Battery began its ear-splitting work in 1896.
Returning to Waihi we leave town and travel south on SH2 to Katikati, driving alongside the harbour to Tauranga. Here we order a delicious wood-fired pizza for lunch at Mills Reef Winery before continuing south on SH2 to Te Puke, where the NZ kiwifruit industry had its beginnings.
Outside Longridge Park we debate whether to take a guided tour of a working kiwifruit farm. We choose instead to continue to Whakatane and join a tour to White Island, an active volcano which puffs and splutters endless tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, some 49 kilometres off the coast.
On the wharf we join 16 others and board Pee Jay, a luxury launch purpose-built for the journey. We’re thrilled when hundreds of bottlenose dolphins join us for the ride, merrily ducking and dancing on the bow waves.
Under the charred silhouette of White Island we don hard hats and - gas masks swinging at the ready - board the inflatable and disembark on White Island’s formidable terrain.
Many visitors turn back on arrival and Bob is in awe as we trek past the grotesque blistered remains of the old sulphur mine rising from the ashes.
The ground shudders beneath our feet, groaning as we follow our guide across a stony, lunar-like landscape. Jagged red ridges rise above vivid coppery-yellow fumaroles that discharge gas under such pressure that it roars through holes in the ground like a squadron of B52 bombers, its choking emissions surging in cumulus formations across the barren wasteland.
Cautiously we peer into a blackened crater. Inside, the milky limegreen crater-lake is peacefully sublime in comparison with the highly active vent, which spews forth a constant torrent of burnt black ash and billowing gaseous vapours.
“It’s as though the earth is alive,” says Bob, looking around in horror as the ground shakes and a deep rumbling sound comes from beneath our feet.
By the time we return to Whakatane and check into our motel the sun has set. We have takeaways for dinner and with the thunderous roar of the island’s gassy belches still ringing in our ears, discuss the powerful forces of nature that we’ve witnessed.
Bob is absolutely stunned by the experience. “I just can’t believe it” he repeats over and over again when I tell him that there’s nowhere else in the world where you can experience a live marine volcano at such close proximity. “Can we go again tomorrow?”