After Christchurch, we have just 5 days left of our New Zealand journey. We are back in North Island, taking some time to explore the Coromandel Peninsula, staying in Coromandel Town which lies about half way up the west coast.
We had short internal flight to Auckland with Air New Zealand (tip – they are very good, and friendly) and a slightly longer drive across country to Thames (These English names are everywhere!) then up a very picturesque but twisty coast road to Coromandel, arriving at our destination during the late afternoon.
Clockwise from top left: Sign outside roadside cafe en route to Coromandel; This is what passes for a Service area in NZ; Three views from the roadside on the way to Coromandel.
The guide books describe Coromandel town as quaint and quiet. It is a centre for mussel fishing and is a haven for artists and crafts people with all manner of items being shown at exhibition or offered for sale in the quirky shops. The settlement was named after HMS Coromandel, which called by in 1820 to load Kauri spars (wood) for the Royal Navy.
As with many small towns in New Zealand, mining featured heavily in its early history and the town was built up on a find of gold in Driving Creek, close to the town. As with many gold mines, the precious metal eventually grew scarce but some fine examples of Victorian and colonial architecture are still standing and serve as a legacy in the town from that era. The town today has a relaxed laid back atmosphere and the beauty of the surrounding coastline and forests means that it is popular with, but not overrun by tourists.
Some of the old Colonial buildings in Coromandel. Bottom right – Sign outside the junk shop!
Two of the oldest buildings in Coromandel
The town sits slightly inland from the coast, but a short drive northwestwards towards Long Bay brings the coast in view. Long Bay is the end of this particular road, but a short way along it, a narrow track leads up a steep hill to a walking trail known as Harray’s Track. This is a two hour walk through the bush which links up with the other road, back into town. This was a pleasant walk along an undulating path with some great views from a lookout point facing west back to Long Bay, and nearby McGregors Bay. The only challenge apart from some very steep steps was a stream crossing we had to negotiate. We had previously been advised that we were guaranteed wet feet if we crossed this stream and so it proved. The crossing point was devoid of all but a couple of stepping stones, which meant a long jump of olympic proportions or get a soaking. It was a shallow stream, but deep enough to cover my walking shoes. Lyn’s solution was to move slightly upstream and walk through a wider but shallower, more rocky part, barefooted. I elected to emulate a long jumper and take a jump off one of only two stepping stones protruding above the water. I leapt, and with one bound I emulated, not a long jumper but a triple jumper, as my left foot landed squarely in the water up to my ankle, and the momentum generated, accelerated me to the opposite bank. With one soaking foot and one dry one I walked uncomfortably back into town. Happily for us, no photographs of our crossing efforts exist.
Three views from the viewpoint on Harray’s track
Travel the other way to the north east and the metalled road eventually turns north then bends around towards the west coast again, eventually degenerating to a track at a village named Colville. From there the track runs up and round the peninsular and back down the east side. Our drive out to Colville started bright and sunny but clouds were on the horizon. We stopped at Amodeo Beach for some “Another Day in Paradise” pictures and the sun shone through the ever building clouds.
“Another Day in Paradise” with the rain clouds building to the north and sunshine to the south! It was a lovely sight though.
By the time we reached Colville however, the sun had gone and we were in the midst of another kiwi downpour. This did nothing to inspire us. On the outskirts of the village, a number of large cattle truck were parked on the roadside waiting to transport their cargo of live animals away. According to the notice, a large auction was going on and we did not want to hang around to find out the fate of these hapless creatures. I am sure the village is very pretty in the sunshine but in the wet, with clouds hanging low over the hills, it was deserted save for a few cattlemen taking a break from the business of the day. We quickly turned around and left.
Coromandel has two “attractions”. The School of Mines Museum is located in the building that used to be “The School of Mines”. It was set up in 1887 to teach subjects such as Geology, Mathematics, Surveying, Mineralogy, Mechanics, Chemistry and Physics, serving to provide a grounding for those who desired a mining career. By the turn of the 20th century it was home to around 60 students, but with the subsequent gradual decline in mining in the area, the school was closed down in 1926. The building was initially opened as a museum in 1957, and with additional preservation and improvement work being done over the years, the museum in its current state opened to the public in 2012. Its features include exhibits about the original local hospital which dates from 1873, the local Freemasons Lodge and the discovery of gold, which was how Coromandel was founded and built up. It was an interesting and eclectic mix of exhibits.
Coromandel Museum Exhibits – Top to bottom: Story of HMS Coromandel; Model of the ship; HMS Coromandel story; Guidance for Police Officers 1890’s. Policemans Bike – Note the lack of brakes……..and that saddle. Ouch!!
The other major local attraction is the Driving Creek Railway, a narrow gauge railway about 15 minutes drive from Coromandel. The story of its creation is as interesting as the trip itself.
In 1961 a young potter cum teacher, Barry Bickell arrived in Coromandel from Auckland to become New Zealand’s first kiwi born full time hand craft – potter. His aim was to establish a pottery collective for artists and sculptors to be able to create, and sell their work. At this time he acquired a 22 hectare property, rich in the clay resource required for his work. In 1973 he started work on constructing a short, narrow gauge railway to transport the clay and wood to fuel his kilns. Over the next twenty years the railway line expanded as his hillside estate grew, Bickell doing all the line laying and construction work himself. He did sub-contract major civil engineering work like digging tunnels and building bridges, but the rest he did by hand over many years of effort. He also did all the surveying and bush clearance work himself.
Clockwise from top left: Lyn at Pottery; Driving Creek site; Tin hut at Driving Creek; Potters hut; Sculpture on platform.
Our trip, on a wet, grey day was a real delight. The start/end point was also the site of a studio for visiting potters and craftspeople, and it gave the impression of a rather ramshackle set up. The small diesel railcars (also hand built) took us slowly up the inclines, through the tunnels, over the bridges eventually to end at the Eyeful Tower, a large wooden covered platform 165 metres high, which on a clear day, provides stunning views over to the west towards Coromandel. Even with our rainy, misty weather the views were stunning.
Barry Bickell died in 2015 and he was buried at his favourite point on the railway, in a clearing overlooking his favourite view. A cross marks his last resting place. The railway now forms part of a trust and part of it’s remit is forest restoration and the management of a wildlife sanctuary within the bounds of the property. A truly remarkable and determined man whose legacy is the railway and the trees he re-planted as part of the forest preservation.
Clockwise from top left: Rail car from Driving Creek Railway; Tunnel, one of three on DCR; Lyn on the Eyeful Tower; Us on Eyeful tower.
Barry Bickell’s last resting place; Inscription set into a retaining wall
Two views from the Eyeful Tower in the mist and rain.
The weather over our four days in Coromandel had dictated what we what we wanted to do. So far it had been mostly blustery and wet. The last day looked more promising so we decided to head over to the east side of the Peninsular to explore one of the two iconic sites on that side.
Hot Water Beach is known for its geothermal activity. Take a space and dig yourself a hole, and it will fill with hot water that you can then lie in and sunbathe to your hearts content. You can be basted by the thermal water and the sun’s rays. As we are not beachy people and were not in need of a sand bath, we headed for the other site, namely Cathedral Cove.
Cathedral Cove is accessible only on foot, about 1 hour’s walk from Hahei village, a small but very popular beach resort on the eastern side of the Peninsular with wide golden sands, as good as anything the UK has to offer. With the sun high in the sky and barely a cloud, it was the perfect place for a beach holiday if that is your thing. One feature of this, and many of the resorts in NZ is that there is normally a huge car park on the outskirts where everyone parks, and it is free. Yes, free parking. UK resorts please take note!
Hahei Beech from the cliff path
Four views from the path to Cathedral Cove
The walk started on the beach and headed up on to the cliff top. The cliff top path afforded some stunning views of the coastline. The guidebooks suggested that it was a testing walk for the reasonably fit, but apart from the odd steep descent onto Cathedral Beach we found it was easy. On the way we passed such delights as Gemstone Cove and Stingray beach, as well as the New Zealand National Memorial Forest, planted and dedicated to those Kiwi’s who had fallen in two world wars and other conflicts. Shortly after this we descended close to one hundred steep steps down to the the beach that was Cathedral Cove.
Several views of the arch at Cathedral Cove
The feature that gives the cove its name is an enormous arch tunnel through which, at low tide you can access the next beach along. The arch was created over many thousands of years of erosion and now is a long, tall tunnel in the shape of a Cathedral window. It is a very popular destination for tourists and locals alike and it is the most crowded place we had seen anywhere in New Zealand apart from the cities and Milford Sound. When we got there the tide was on the way out, so we could walk under the arch, but to get to the next beach would have required a deep paddle or swim, something neither of us was prepared for. We lingered long, taking pictures, and getting revenge on those people with Selfie sticks by standing far behind them whilst they composed their pictures. I dread to think how many pictures are about, where we appear in the far background and are now doing the rounds of South East Asian social media! Revenge is Sweet!!!
Top: Views of the beach at Cathedral Cove: Middle:Lone Tree and us on the path. Bottom: Lyn at the start of Cathedral Cove walk.
With a slightly heavy step we walked back to the village and the car park. It was our last day out in New Zealand. Home to packing, a beer in a local bar named the Star and Garter and reflecting on our time in New Zealand.
We leave with heavy hearts, having had some wonderful experiences and visiting some memorable places. The weather has been mostly kind, the people, warm, open and friendly and the pace of life unhurried (unless you are in front of an impatient “ute” driver*). We will be back some time, as there are a number of places where we have unfinished business. For now, thank you New Zealand for your friendliness, and hospitality, and for being the best destination we have ever been to.
Our last night in New Zealand
*Ute = Sports Utility Vehicle – those massive vehicles designed to carry your family around in, with a boat or a ton of fishing gear in the open space at the back.
Saving the best until last. Sunset over MacGregor Bay Coromandel.