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Cruising around the Coromandel: By road, in New Zealand

Published
July 20, 2020
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THE Coromandel Peninsula sits east of Auckland, on the far side of the Hauraki Gulf. Generally known just as the Coromandel for short, the peninsula’s not really on the way to anywhere else. So, you have to make a special trip. And it’s really rugged, mostly covered in forested mountains with a low density of population.

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New Zealand ten-metre satellite imagery, from Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), accessed 16 July 2020, with names of Auckland and The Coromandel added for this post. North at top. LINZ content is CC-BY-4.0.

The region’s largest town, Thames, has seven and a half thousand permanent inhabitants. In total, only about about fifty thousand people live permanently in the whole of the area shown in the next map, hand-drawn for this post. And that’s even though, as you can see from the scale down the bottom, the peninsula is quite large.

To get to the Coromandel from Auckland, you can either drive around the sizable Hauraki (‘north wind’) Gulf, or catch a ferry from downtown Auckland to Coromandel town. It’s also possible to fly.

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Closer Map of the Coromandel Peninsula. The green lines are the main tramping tracks (hiking trails), and the red lines are a selection of the local roads, with an emphasis on roads that lead to trail ends and to the marked destinations. The purple line is the Hauraki Rail Trail for cyclists (marked). N.C.B., near Whangapoua, is New Chums Beach. Not every township or locality is shown, and some tracks shown may also have been closed to limit the spread of Kauri Dieback Disease. North at top.

All of which makes the Coromandel a top holiday destination and hippie hangout! The more so, because the peninsula is really scenic, with a ton of lonely beaches and offshore islands, as well as inland tramping (hiking) tracks. In fact, the population on the peninsula can soar past a hundred and thirty thousand in summer as holidaymakers descend on the region, mostly from Auckland.

Three Māori iwi or tribes share the peninsula: the Ngāti Whanaunga, the Ngāti Maru and the Ngāti Tamaterā. These are three of the five iwi of the Maruatūahu group or super-tribe which takes its name from Maruatūahu, a joint ancestor. There are about ten thousand Marutūahu today all told.

Moehau, a prominent mountain which watches over the tip of the peninsula, is sacred to the Maruatūahu, who have interred many rangatira and ariki, or chiefs of different degree, on its top. And not only Maruatūahu chiefs. The name Moehau is short for Te Moengahau-o-Tamatekapua, ‘the windy sleeping-place of Tamatekapua’, an ancestor of the Rotorua-based Arawa iwi who is also said to be buried there.

The peninsula has two Māori names, Te Tara-o-te-Ika a Māui (the jagged barb of Māui’s fish, a reference to the stingray-like shape of the North Island), and Te Paeroa-a-Toi (Toi’s long mountain range).This information comes from the educators Charmaine Pountney and Tanya Cumberland, who describe some additional Māori names, to which I have added hyperlinks, as with the above:

Whitianga: Te Whitianga-a-Kupe (Kupe’s crossing)

Mercury Bay: Te Whanganui-a-Hei (the great harbour of Hei)

Hauraki Gulf: Tīkapa Moana (an allusion to ceremonies designed to protect Tainui and Te Arawa tribes, which took place at a small island off Cape Colville known as Tīkapa or Takapū, which means gannet).

An interactive graphic on Te Ara, the online Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, provides a map that you can mouse over or touch for a whole range of Māori place names of the Coromandel Peninsula.

As for the name Coromandel, this comes from India, strangely enough. The original Coromandel is a section of south-east Indian coastline after which a number of British ships have also been named. In 1820, exactly two hundred years ago, HMS Coromandel stopped in at the harbour of the future township of Coromandel to pick up kauri logs for masts. The current name of the peninsula either comes from that Coromandel, or a later immigrant ship of the same name.

I took the following photos in the middle of winter, just this July. That’s why the sun is low in some shots. Though clearly, this end of the country is, even in winter, lot more tropical-looking than Queenstown.

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Pokeke and Motueka Islands

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The Islands of Whangamatā

As head toward the Coromandel, its exotic, jungly mountains loom larger and larger. It’s really worth hiking up to the Coromandel Pinnacles, also known just ast the Pinnacles, which lie toward the southern end of the peninsula.

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The Coromandel Pinnacles

There’s a whole network of tramping tracks in that area, accessible from Thames and Coroglen, and the mountain peaks are really spectacular there, as elsewhere.

There’s not much in the way of farming, but there are a few farms, with old picturesque sheds.

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And old picturesque towns. But it’s mostly the lengthy, island coast that’s the main attraction.

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There are all sorts of things to do on the Coromandel coast, including surfing. Surf beaches include Waikawau Beach, Kuaotunu Beach, New Chums Beach, Whitianga (two spots), Hot Water Beach, Te Karo Bay, Tairua, and Whangamatā Beach. There are competitions held at Whitianga and Whangamatā.

And there are scenic beaches as well like Cathedral Cove and New Chums (both scenery and surf), and, of course, the spa bathing opportunities presented by the volcanic Hot Water Beach in addition to the surf. Or, you can just go fishing.

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There is also clear water for diving, since the Coromandel’s rivers mostly run pure through the forest. And the peninsula’s got a lot of off-the-beaten-track character too.

Check out the local tourism-promotion website, TheCoromandel.com. This is quite simply the best tourist website I’ve ever seen, complete with drone flyovers, and tells you a lot more than I could, including all campsites and freedom camping sites. There’s also a Coromandel app that you can download for Android and Apple devices.

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You shouldn’t confuse such information sources with Coromandel.com, which sells deep-storage batteries to the local off-grid hippies. Of whom there are also quite a few. In fact, a lot of the Coromandel has a sort of countercultural look. Many people have signs up opposed to mining.

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And that’s because, along with the pillaging of the local forests (of which more, below), mining used to be the economic lifeblood of the Coromandel. There’s still a big gold mine in Waihi, the Martha pit, which the town is organised around like a ring.

The mining era began with a gold rush in 1868, and to this day even Thames, the biggest town in the region with a population of 7,000, has something of a Wild West look, the date 1868 stencilled above a number of hastily-erected and now-historic buildings.

Adding to the atmosphere is the fact that you can buy everything you need to make moonshine in the local shops, this being perfectly legal in New Zealand (and just about nowhere else). You’re in Luminaries country here, basically.

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The owners of the Golden Cross Hotel in Waihi — in small-town NZ, ‘hotel’ really means tavern — seem to have garnered enough of the yellow stuff from their patrons to erect a permanent-looking façade in front of an earlier, wooden structure.

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Also in Waihi, one of the downtown attractions is the Cornish Pumphouse.It once housed machinery used for dewatering the local gold mine, which still produces gold to this day. The old pumphouse was moved to its present site in 2006 in a feat of modern engineering, being slid 300 metres on Teflon-coated bearers.

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The Cornish Pumphouse in Waihi, which once housed machinery used for dewatering the local gold mine, which still produces gold to this day.

The famous Nambassa hippie-cum-rock concerts were held on farms outside Waihi, to the east of Waihi in the Golden Cross Valley in 1978 and 1979, and west of Waihi in 1981. The 1979 festival was attended by at least 75,000 people (they lost count eventually): which is a lot when you consider that only three million people lived in New Zealand at the time (five million today). Per capita, Nambassa ’79 definitely put Woodstock in the shade!

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‘Nambassa 1979 Cultural Performance with Dragon Dance’. This photograph by an official Nambassa photographer belongs to the Nambassa Trust, which used to operate the website www.nambassa.com, and Peter Terry, the organiser of the Nambassa festivals. CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Waihi is on the other side of the scenic and historic Karangahake Gorge, from the town of Paeroa. There’s lots of amazing industrial archaeology in the Karangahake Gorge, as well as in Waihi.

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Old Mining track on the southern side of the Karangahake Gorge, which joins to the ‘Windows Walk’ via the bridge shown. Public domain photograph by Ingolfson, January 2011, via Wikimedia Commons.

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The Crown [Mining] Battery in the Karangahake Gorge, photograph by Russell Street, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via the New Zealand Department of Conservation

Here’s the Paeroa New Zealand Centennial Museum and also the Information Hub, the old post office, with a recent Māori anchor stone sculpture outside.

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I mentioned the pillaging of the forests. A lot of the really big trees on the Coromandel were lopped down in nineteenth century and into the twentieth century as well. Thereafter, the jungle-like bush that covers most of the peninsula was left to regenerate.

The weird shapes of the mountains come from the fact that they are eroded volcanoes. The peninsula is volcanic, and that’s why it’s rich in minerals: the two tend to go together: stuff coming out of the ground, and all that.

The volcanoes of the peninsula are millions of years old and considered to be well-extinct, but there’s still some residual heat. On the east coast of the Coromandel, near Whitianga, there’s a place called Hot Water Beach. If you time it right you can dig out a hole on the beach, have it fill with seawater percolating through the sands and relax in a hot bath.

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Another major attraction near Whitianga is Cathedral Cove, where erosion has carved a cave into the shape of a gothic cathedral, and created a number of other weird-looking rocks.

In the summer it’s a one-and-a-quarter hour walk from a carpark at Hahei, which is really nice in itself, and in winter a 45 minute walk from a lookout where you can’t park in summer. Hahei is a shortened version of the Maori name for Mercury Bay, Te Whanganui-a-Hei.

It seems that when traditional Māori names, which often tell a story and thus make a book of the landscape at full length, have been made official in the modern sense of making it onto the New Zealand Gazeteer of Place Names, they have generally been gazetted in a shorter version. Although, there is at least one notable exception to that rule.

(Ironically, when my editor Chris was looking all this up and consulting the Gazeteer to see whether any of the Māori names for the Coromandel Peninsula had been gazetted in whole or in part, he discovered that the peninsula actually has no official name at all! The mountains that run along it are officially known as the Coromandel Range. But the peninsula itself is officially nameless.)

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One of the best ways to do Cathedral Cove is actually by boat. You can even do a glass-bottomed boat tour.

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Just north of Whitianga there’s also a really lonesome beach with no signs of development anywhere nearby that you have to take a track to, called New Chums.

In fact if you mainly want to do beach and coastal stuff, the area around Whitianga — did I mention Cooks Beach, as well? — is hard to beat.

As to my itinerary this July, I started out from Thames, where my dad lives, and travelled more or less clockwise around the peninsula. I started out by exploring the funky Thames markets.

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Māori carvings at the Thames markets

Then went north along the coast to Waiomu, where there is a coast walk through kauri forests to the east coast of the peninsula as well as entry to a network of tracks that leads to the Pinnacles. It’s important to note that some tracks through kauri forests may be closed because of the spread of Kauri Dieback Disease, however, so do check this first before making plans!

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There was a beach cafe but no petrol station at Waiomu; the nearest one was at Tapu. There were people fishing, and cormorants diving for fish as well.

Then I travelled north to Coromandel town halfway up the west coast of the peninsula, the place where HMS Coromandel loaded logs two hundred years ago. Coromandel town is where you can arrive by ferry from Auckland. I think that an ideal way to explore the Coromandel would be to take an EBike over on the ferry from Auckland!

Coromandel town is famous for its picturesque appearance and generally laid back quality. There are also lots of bushwalks nearby.

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Coromandel town

While I was at Coromandel town I visited the Driving Creek Railway, a bush tramway built by the late potter Barry Brickell, and also hiked the Kauri Block Track to the Pā Lookout (Pā means Māori village) which has great views over Coromandel town’s harbour (with more islands!), and shot some video which I’ve put up below.

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You can head further north through Colville, where there is the Mahamudra Buddhist centre, and on to the tip of the peninsula with Mount Moehau, Waikawau and the coastal walkways.

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Then I came back and turned east to go to Matarangi and Kuaotunu Beach (also in the video below) and then down through Whitianga to Coroglen and from there to Hot Water Beach.

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They say that in the goldfields, the real money’s made by the people who hire out the spades. A local entrepreneur has decided to give that idea a go at Hot Water Beach, too!

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And Cathedral Cove. Well, almost to Cathedral Cove as I suddenly realised I was running short of time. Here are some pix I got off Facebook — I think you should make the effort to get to Cathedral Cove, after all!

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A good place to stay on the Coromandel, if you are going to be based on one spot, is Whenuakite, which is quite central and cheaper than other places. It’s pronounced fenua — kitay, roughly speaking, not kite as on a string.

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Mount Puka, at Tairua on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula

I carried on down through Tairua, with its pinnacle-like Mount Puka, to Hikuai where I visited the Broken Hills Campsite. This is another industrial archaeology site. The Puketui Valley Road leads to it from two directions, but you can’t drive right through the Campsite.

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And then on to Opoutere where a friend of mine lives, and visited the nearby beach.

Opoutere Beach is in the final scene of this video of coastal scenes which starts at Kuaotunu in the north, then sows the bay west of Coromandel town from the Pā Lookout on the Kauri Block Walk, and then Opoutere Beach.

On the way back to Thames I went by way of State Highway 25A. There are some lovely walks off there such as Kakariki, which leads to a waterfall, and Ruaakite. In the southern part of the peninsula and the plains to the southwest you also get good views of Table Mountain.

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Table Mountain or Whakairi (Coromandel), photographed by F. Causley, published in the supplement to the ‘Auckland Weekly News’, 28 September 1905, p. 14. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19050928–14–3, no known copyright.

Yes, Table Mountain. It isn’t as well known as its South African namesake, but only because Coromandel’s a bit off the beaten track, unlike Cape Town.

Like the Table Mountain in South Africa, the Coromandel’s Table Mountain is home to a variety of rare plants that grow on the plateau on top.

Such a prominent feature also has a Māori name, naturally. This is Te Kohatu-whakairi-a-Ngatoroirangi, meaning the Upraised Rock of Ngatoroirangi, the priestly navigator of the waka or voyaging canoe Te Arawa, said to have brought the ancestors of the Arawa people to New Zealand: the land that would later be known in Māori as Aotearoa. These ancestors included Tamatekapua, the one who is buried on Mount Moehau. The short form of the name is Whakairi, meaning Upraised.

There’s an article about the Coromandel’s Table Mountain in New Zealand Wilderness Magazine, which even includes a photo of the Table Mountain, or Whakairi, complete with a white ‘tablecloth’ cloud: just the sorth of thing to make Cape Town dwellers homesick.

Whakairi is a bit hard to get to even on foot, the Department of Conservation being in no hurry to improve access and thus endanger its rare plants. The New Zealand Wilderness Magazine article asks whether an ascent of this mountain is, in fact, New Zealand’s worst tramp. But you can still admire it from afar.

This post will be reproduced in my next book A Maverick New Zealand Way: The North Island, which is forthcoming soon.

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