To Port Jackson and back...

Trip Start Nov 03, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of New Zealand  , Waikato,
Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Coromandel Peninsula is that chunk of land sticking out to the east of Auckland, completing the Hauraki Gulf. It's celebrated for it's natural beauty and is where lots of kiwis themselves go on holiday (I suppose the Costa Del Sol is a little far for them...). To summarise, this chunk of land has a central spine of sparsely-populated, rugged hills blanketed in sub-tropical rainforest - the human population lies almost entirely on the flanks, places like Thames and Coromandel Town on the west coast and Whitianga and Whangamata on the east coast...we couldn't wait to find out for ourselves just how beautiful and rugged this part of NZ really is! Our time here had a limit on it - we had to be back over at the base of the Northland peninsula, for our ferry ride over to Tiritiri Matangi, within a fortnight or so...
Our first stop was the town of Thames, named so by (who else) Captain Cook, who named the nearby Waihou River 'Thames' "on account of its bearing some resemblance to that river in England"...and you know, he was right. It does look like the Thames, only this river has grass and trees on it's banks instead of Cutty Sarks and souvenir stalls...
Thames is a lovely little place - to give you an idea of population here on the Coromandel peninsula as a whole, Thames is easily the biggest town. It's population is 10,000 people. That's 6,000 more people than the next biggest town on the peninsula...Thames has a pretty beach, which is the half-swamp, half-sand coast of the Firth of Thames, which teems with bird life. The shallow stretches of water provide rich feeding for wading birds like godwits, plovers and variable oyster-catchers (very similar to our European oyster-catchers but, well...variable). It was great slowing the car to photograph them (even Thames' main road was deserted, so it wasn't dangerous to do something like this) but later in the day, after a bite to eat at a lovely little picnic spot under the shade of some seriously cool, Middle Earth-looking trees, we found a proper bird hide, the first one since landing in NZ. It was the Karaka Bird Hide, apparently built with compensation funds from the Rainbow Warrior bombing and it was on the end of a boardwalk that headed off the tarmac and pavement of 'town' for about 100m, through mangrove-like trees and swampy riverbank and finished on the edge of the Firth itself. Gorgeous isolation. Loads of birds to watch. Needless to say, Lorna enjoyed the novelty, but the look out ledges in the hide were a little high and awkward for her (and even a little for me) and after 10 minutes my twitching began to we returned to the 'civilised' world. Indeed, just a few hundred yards down the road we found the very epitome of civilisation - a small gauge railway. It has 900m of track, a little station, everything. Very cute...
The next stop, up the west coast, was Coromandel Town itself. Only 1,600 people strong and felt very...'exclusive' I suppose is the word? Everything was 'bistro-this' or 'boutique-that';
antiques and lattes as far as the eye could see. Although Coromandel Town's only 60% up the peninsula, there really ain't too much population further north it was our final opportunity to stock up on food, drink or fuel. We could have just settled here for a couple of nights and sampled the seafood and window shopped, but that's not really what Lorna and I are interested in, so we stocked up and hoped our seventeen-year old people carrier would get us round the northern extremity of this wild part of the North Island...
Forty five minutes after leaving Coromandel Town the tarmac ran out and we were faced with an unsealed, narrow, gravel "road".  In exchange for risking our lives we had the most amazing view of the Hauraki Gulf to our left.  We were of course facing West so the sun at this time of day was low and created the most magnificent colours and reflections on the still waters of the coastline. The rich golden light helped to highlight the intricacies of the rocks and the twisting pohutakawa trees that were growing out of them.  The pohutakawa tree is known as the New Zealand Christmas tree because of it's dark green leaves and beautiful bright red blossoms that come out during the Christmas season and these were in their full glory as we drove along this winding road. We filmed and took lots of photos from the passenger seat, swapping seats every hour so the other one could enjoy the vista.  Whilst Lorna was driving we were held up by sheep (not at gunpoint) and being animal lovers we didn't mind this at all, while we were grinning and cooing over our woolly friends, a large Maori gentleman in his pick up truck rather sternly beeped his horn at us to get us moving.  I guess it's not much of a novelty being held up by sheep in these parts but for us it seemed like a quintessential New Zealand experience.
As the sun lowered we finally made it to the very basic DOC site we were aiming for called Fantail Bay.  We had enough time to have a bowl of cereal for dinner before we realised the sun would now be on the horizon and sinking fast.  We took our drinks and quickly headed down from the campsite to Fantail Bay itself which is a small rocky inlet two minutes away.  What we write here will not do the sunset justice, but we will try, several thick fluffy clouds were lit up orange and highlighted by purple and pink shadows in a huge expanse of sky that reflected on the water below.  We sat under a huge contorted, gnawled old pohutakawa tree in silence for fifteen minutes, it was beautiful.
In the morning after a cold shower and another bowl of cereal we decided to keep pushing our car by heading even further North to Port Jackson.  The same stunning views accompanied us there and the road got even scarier.  There were one or two tight corners that were literally on a cliff edge; meeting a car coming the other way meant someone would have to reverse back to a layby that were few and far between, oh and also on a cliff ledge...
Port Jackson was obviously very popular there were plenty of tents already up and we chose a spot next to a Maori family and under a tree.  The campsite came with two built in hot-plate outdoor barbeques and a seating area, later that evening we made the best toasties ever and ate them looking out over the crashing waves of Port Jackson.  The campsite also came with a mother duck and her waddle of tiny ducklings, as you can see from the pictures they were spectacularly cute and it made our day to earn their trust enough to feed and even hold them...all under the watchful eye of the very laid back mother duck.  We spoke to the DOC ranger and she advised us of a walk over at Fletcher Bay that we should check out - it was called the Coromandel Coastal Walkway and led round the tip of the peninsula all the way to Stony Bay, on the north-easten shore. Between Fletcher and Stony Bay there is no road, no way for a car to drive there at all, so we knew that we would have to simply walk back to Fletcher Bay in order to get in our car again, but we decided to walk as much of it as we could before it started to get too late in the day...we packed sandwiches, left the car in the Fletcher Bay car-park and set off along very hilly and tiring terrain, never more than 20 metres or so from the shoreline. The brisk wind and spray from the sea was exhilarating and we felt that we could go on for ages... however, about 30 minutes into this scenic excursion the path sort of faded away into the grass and on the sloping valley in front of us we encountered dozens of bulls. That word, 'bull', instantly conjures up visions of muscular rage snorting and aiming razor-sharp horns towards you, but these guys were very cuddly-looking and seemed quite docile. Just wandering around, munching grass. Lorna then helpfully piped up that she'd read that on many occasions, a group of all-male cattle can easily get spooked and charge down any human that is in the vicinity with carefree abandon, stomping their guts out and using the carcasses as toilet paper...Matthew scoffed at the very notion of such chilled out vegetarians posing any danger to us. Matthew was Man the hunter and he was not about to be intimidated by some steak on legs...until we got about 20ft away from the first ones, and they started to stamp, snort and fidget a little. Suddenly, those huge dark brown eyes and sloppy, chewing mouths of theirs took on a different character. They seemed to get more and more panicky the nearer we got. So we walked briskly down to the beach to eat our sandwiches, as there was nowhere else to go that was safe. But they were on the beach too. It was like the Cravendale advert, but directed by Alfred Hitchcock. After a hushed discussion we decided to retreat back up to the path we had come along and leave these possessed animals to their next human victims...
As we had run out of road we had no choice but to follow the same route back to tarmacked civilisation.  Our next stop was Whitanga, the largest town on the East coast of Coromandel.  Occupying the serene Mercury Bay and with plenty of cafes and little parks, Whitanga was the nicest town we had seen so far in Coromandel.  We parked the car near the harbour and took the tiny passenger ferry over to Cooks Bay, a smaller bay within Mercury Bay.  Here we followed a great walking track that first went via the beach and then up an extremely steep cliff to a fantastic lookout point.  This is where our old friend Captain Cook dropped anchor and conducted his observation of mercury passing across the sun, hence the local place names.    On the way back down from the lookout point we noticed a skylark sitting atop a big conifer singing it's heart out - only a little thing, we know, but it sang to us with such effort that it deserves a mention here for the record :-) ... We returned to the ferry port at about 3pm and once back at the car we decided to have a picnic on the harbourside, returning to the car about forty five minutes later we realised we had left our car unlocked, not only that but every door was left open apart from the driver door.  We are happy to report that nothing was stolen and we have definitely learnt a lesson from that day!
Hot Water Beach was next on our list, recommended by kiwi's, tourists and guide books alike.  We found a campsite and hired two spades and set off for the beach just before low tide, which on that day was 6pm.  Hot Water Beach is the point where an underground volcano comes very close to the surface of the earth, so if you dig here you will create your own natural hot bath.  We chose the perfect day for it as it was mild and overcast rather than hot and sunny which meant we felt the full effect of the hot water.  We both sat in the pool we had made and shared it with a couple from England, we all chatted in the warm water whilst looking out to sea.  It was a perfect evening.
We had heard about a drive that is a 'must do' if you are in Coromandel, it is called 'The 309 Road'.  It is known throughout Coromandel for it's twisting, winding route right across the middle of the peninsula, through the hills and forests.  There are several stop offs along the way, the first one we chose was 'Stewart's Pig Farm'.  Stewart is a barefooted, muddy hippy who has 50+ pigs of various sizes, ages and breeds, along with a score of chickens and a peahen.  All these animals are free to roam from one side of 309 to the other which is unfortunately why Stewart no longer has a peacock. Apparently the peahen still calls for him at night :-( ... We got out, jaws agape at the melee around us as we were bombarded by sweet little pigs, huge swine and tiny piglets. Stewart came to greet us and we chatted for an hour or so as he pushed pigs into our arms and described what it was like to live on a farm in the middle of a rainforest with pigs and chickens. I wasn't sure exactly what Stewart did for a living but he certainly didn't kill/eat/sell any of the animals; they were "all my pets, I love each one of them"...
We ignored the next handful of stops on Road 309 as they seemed a little too gimmicky and expensive, but we just HAD to stop at the last couple - first a walk through the rainforest to see a huge Kauri tree on the top of a hill and small waterfall.  The next being 'The 309 Honey Shop'.  The shop consisted of a shed in someones back garden with an honesty box in the corner, the beekeeper came out who was a lovely lady and we spoke to her about the different types of Manuka honey and the daily life of a beekeeper etc.  After trying several varieties of honey we decided on one we both liked and carried on our journey looking forward to honey on toast for breakfast the next day.
As exciting as Road 309 was to drive on, Lorna didn't get a chance to get behind the wheel and we both thought that the drive was much more tame than made out on the brochure.  To compensate for this Lorna decided to drive back across the peninsula on a road that looked much more adventurous.  The beauty of the forest we passed was spectacular, although the gravel under the wheels made for a very bumpy ride and the corners were hair raising, what a relief when we reached tarmacked road again...

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