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Cruising Around the Coromandel, some more

Published
December 9, 2022
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This week's post follows on from Cruising around the Coromandel: By car, bike and on foot, in Aotearoa New Zealand. Part One: The North. In this post, I focus mainly on the southern part of the peninsula.

AS you can see from the following five photos, all taken on the Coromandel in the middle of winter, this part of Aotearoa New Zealand is green all year round.

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A deserted Coromandel beach on a pleasant winter day

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Looking into the low sun, with some people

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An overcast Coromandel day
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Pokeke and Motueka Islands, east of Whitianga

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Two of the three named Islands and one named offshore rock at Whangamatā

As you head toward the Coromandel, whether by road, by boat, or by plane, its exotic, jungly mountains loom larger and larger. There’s a whole network of tramping tracks along the peninsula’s mountainous spine. These tracks are mostly accessible from Thames, which with a population of 7,000 is the largest town on the Coromandel, and a smaller town named Coroglen.

If you only get one chance to visit the mountains of the peninsula’s interior, it is especially worth hiking up to the spectacular Coromandel Pinnacles, also known simply as the Pinnacles.

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The Coromandel Pinnacles

The best way to get to a track that leads to the Pinnacles is via the Kauaeranga Valley Road, which leads into the interior from Thames.

There’s not much in the way of farming on the Coromandel, as it is so rugged. But there are a few farms, with old picturesque sheds.

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Old barns in the Coromandel countryside

And old picturesque towns. But the coast is the main attraction.

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Yachts in a harbour, on the Coromandel coast

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Seagulls on the rocks

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 go fishing.

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The Waikawau River Fishing Bach, or cabin, near the northern end of the Coromandel peninsula

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Fishing off the Coromandel coast

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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Information billboard

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 countercultural look. Many people have signs up opposed to mining.

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‘Mining is the Pits’

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‘Coromandel Mine-Free Zone’

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, one of the three largest towns in the southern part of the peninsula along with Thames and the east coast beach resort of Whangamatā. The gold mine in Waihi is the Martha pit, around which the town is organised like a ring.

Though there had been some earlier fossicking, the mining era began in earnest with a gold rush in 1867. To this day Thames, which was founded amid the gold rush as the two separate communities of Grahamstown and Shortland, 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 that you can buy everything you need to make moonshine in the local shops, which is perfectly legal in Aotearoa New Zealand (and just about nowhere else). You’re in Luminaries country here, basically.

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The Gold Discovery Centre, in Waihi

The owners of the Golden Cross Hotel in Waihi 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. Like many such small-town hotels, the Golden Cross probably does most of its business as the local pub. In Ao/NZ nearly every pub is called the such-and-such hotel, a stratagem employed at one time to get around the local prohibitionists and still with us today as a custom, though as you can tell from the last paragraph, the laws are far more liberal now.

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The Golden Cross Hotel

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 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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The old mining track on the southern side of the Karangahake Gorge joins 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. Paeroa is a bit further south and not actually in the Coromandel, but still worth a detour.

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The Paeroa Centennial Memorial Museum (the Centennial is of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi)

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The old Paeroa Post Office, now the i-Site

I mentioned the pillaging of the forests. A lot of the really big trees on the Coromandel were lopped down in the 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, as the volcanic activity brings minerals out of the Earth’s interior.

The volcanoes of the Coromandel are millions of years old and are considered to be well-extinct, but there’s still some residual heat. On the east coast near Whitianga, where the northern part of the peninsula also begins, 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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Sign pointing the way to Hot Water Beach

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Hot Water Beach information panel

Another major attraction between Whitianga and Hot Water Beach 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.

Cathedral Cove is just north of Hahei, itself just north of Hot Water Beach. 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.

The name Hahei has the same origin as the Māori name for the large bay in which Whitianga is located, Te Whanganui-a-Hei, which means the great bay of Hei. Both names honour Hei, who in Māori oral tradition was one of the leaders of one of the great voyages that contributed to the peopling of Aotearoa New Zealand, some 200 years after Kupe.

Te Whanganui-a-Hei is also known as Mercury Bay. This name refers to an observation of the transit of Mercury across the sun, carried out by Captain Cook in the same area on 9 November 1769; whence also the name of nearby Cooks Beach.

(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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Road signs pointing to Cathedral Cove and other attractions

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Cathedral Cove Walk and Hahei Beach Walk

And Cathedral Cove. Well, almost to Cathedral Cove. I nearly got there and suddenly realised I had to be somewhere else. Here are four pictures of Cathedral Cove that I got off Facebook, which will have to do for the time being till I take some of my own.

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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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Cathedral Cove water taxi and other tours

Just north of Whitianga, there’s a lonesome beach with no signs of development nearby. You have to hike to this beach, which is called New Chums.

In fact, if you mainly want to do beach and coastal stuff, the area around Whitianga is hard to beat.

On at least a couple of occasions, I’ve started out from Thames, where my dad lives, and travelled more or less clockwise around the peninsula. I like to start out by exploring the funky Thames markets.

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The Thames Markets

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Māori carvings at the Thames markets

Then I go 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, so do check this first before making plans!)

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The Waiomu Beach Café

There is a beach cafe but no petrol station at Waiomu; the nearest petrol station is at Tapu. You’re likely to see people fishing, and cormorants diving for fish as well.

After Colville, which I mentioned in Part One as the town where the tarseal ends, I sometimes like to head east to go to Matarangi and Kuaotunu Beach (in the video below) and then down through Whitianga to Coroglen and from there to Hot Water Beach.

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Hot Water Beach

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Another view of Hot Water Beach, looking in the other direction

A selfie at Hot Water Beach

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

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Spade Hire at Hot Water Beach

A good place to stay on the Coromandel, if you are going to be based in 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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Broken Hills Gold Mining Settlement Sign

And then on to Opoutere, where a friend of mine lives. I always visit the nearby beach there as well.

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

From the east coast, I often return to Thames by way of State Highway 25A. There are some lovely walks off SH 25A 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 various rare plants that grow on its plateau.

Such a prominent feature also has a Māori name, naturally. This name 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, and also Hei, who was the tauira or sailing master of Te Arawa. 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 sort of thing to make Cape Town dwellers homesick.

Whakairi is a bit hard to get to even on foot, as the Department of Conservation is in no hurry to improve access, thus endangering 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.

If you like this account of my adventures on the Coromandel, you might also be interested in my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half.

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