After two months of living and working in steamy Rotorua, we finally bid farewell to our friends at Cosy Cottage and made our way north to the Coromandel Peninsula.
Here, a column of broken peaks devoured by thick forest rise steeply from the white beaches and spectacular coves of the South Pacific coastline on one side, and from the bountiful Firth of Thames and Hauraki Gulf on the other. We had seen the Coromandel before, or at least its silent silhouette in sunset from across the Firth of Thames a few weeks after arriving in New Zealand, and had been itching to explore it properly ever since.
Across the Kopu Bridge, the colourful town of Thames acts as the gateway to the peninsula. The discovery of gold amongst the forested gullies here led to a series of rushes during the latter half of the nineteenth century and saw the town flourish, increasing still as the Kauri logging industry boomed until the nineteen-thirties. Thames still carries that old-time prospectors’ feel in its architecture, while its hills still bear scars, pock-marks and tunnels within the forest. But gone are the days of panning and crushing. Instead, the community is now built on fishing and tourism, as an entrance to an easy escapism for Aucklanders, and the natural wonders that lie on the roads beyond.
Before we came out here, I envisaged the idyll of spending a little while each day sat on a rock beside the sea and catching our tea. So, having no idea about how to go about this, it was something I was keen to learn. when Helen offered us the chance to join her and her friend Nigel on a little excursion, Amy and I leapt at it, though we both shuddered slightly when they told us that we were leaving at five in the morning. Sure enough, we were up early and headed out to Kaiaua, a little village by the Hunua hills whose shore is dotted with the buoys of mussel farms. Okay, so fishing off a mussel farm might be cheating a little bit, but this was our first time, so I think we should be let off the hook (sorry all).
The sunrise over the peninsula revealed as calm waters as one could ever hope for, and Helen's little tin boat chugged us out into the glassy sea, coming to a stop a few hundred metres from the mussel-clad ropes and buoys of the farms. Within moments of casting, I felt a tug on my line, and I reeled in our first catch, a young Snapper. As per Maori tradition, we let the first catch go as thanks and respect for the ocean. But, soon enough Amy had hauled in her first keeper, as had Helen and Nigel. Each of us were bringing in Snapper , Kahawai (sea trout), and Yellowtail. At one moment, Nigel saw his line snapped by a stubborn ray that refused to leave the seabed!
I was amazed by the strength of some of the little guys; there were a few moments when I thought I was reeling in a prize-winning kingfish before watching a little tiddler no bigger than my palm flutter up to the surface, and some of the bigger ones really have to be fought for. By nine o’clock, we’d caught enough to feed us all for the next couple of nights, and we made our way back to land. It was a perfect introduction to a major part of New Zealand’s culture, and it’s safe to say that both Amy and I have caught the bug. It’s hard to convey just how much better fish tastes when you’ve caught it yourself, as well as knowing that it was as sourced as humanely as possible with no by-catch. We were, and are, incredibly grateful for having Helen’s tuition, and our fishing escapades since have been happily successful!
If the western coast of the Coromandel is for those who enjoy eating fish, then its eastern shoreline is for those who prefer to watch them. The clear seas are a diver's heaven. Nigel had very kindly lent us his kayak, meaning we could venture out on the sea together. With the promise of perfect weather, we took the opportunity to paddle our way around some of New Zealand’s most awe-inspiring scenery – Mercury Bay. We trundled over the seemingly endless incline of state highway twenty-five between the mountains and over to the other side of the peninsula. We spent the night at Broken Hills DoC campsite – its name a legacy of the gold mining company that once scoured this area – nestled in the shadow of the peaks and turrets of the Pinnacles. Dawn preceded a flawless morning of empty blue skies and no wind, so we quickly made our way to the beachside town of Hahei.
As I pulled up at the beachfront, I’m pretty certain I felt the thunk of my jaw hitting the steering wheel, dropping hard enough to sound the horn. The scene was unreal: the azure blue of the sea was embroidered with emerald green, flecked with the glisten of the sun, and interrupted only by the march of an ancient volcanic archipelago of islets, sea stacks, and arches. The only sound was the gentle rhythmic thrum of the Pacific ocean against the bright white sand.
We were soon out on the water, and spent the next few hours paddling around the tiny rocky islands and their weathered buttresses, before landing on one of the country’s most celebrated beaches: Cathedral Cove. Here, the beach is split in two by a great sea arch carved into white cliffs. The place is a paradise. We sunned ourselves, splashing in blissfully clear waves, before heading back to Hahei and driving a few miles south to another remarkable place: Hot Water Beach.
New Zealand’s volcanic wonderments are integral to the country's character, and few districts are without their own claim to geothermal fame. The Coromandel Peninsula’s geothermal jewel in its crown is surely this place. As the tide lowers and the surf recedes, hot springs emerge through the sand. We arrived at high tide, but already people were starting to try and pinpoint the whereabouts of the hot sands. Amy and I were some of the first to find a spot – all we had to do was shuffle our feet an inch or so beneath the surface and the sand was scorching - the heat there is unbelievable! As soon as one person had identified a spring, crowds of people appeared, spade in hand, to dig themselves a spa of their own. After an hour of dredging and building little sand walls, there were countless pools spread out across the hot beach. It was incredible to think that the boiler responsible is a hundred and seventy million years old.
We drove past the town of Whitianga and pulled up in a layby in the hills for the night. As dusk fell on another unforgettable day, the forest’s nocturnal insects and birds began their evening chorus. We fell asleep happy that one call rang out above them all: the shrill cry of the Kiwi.