As we drove north from Rotorua, it might have been assumed that we were leaving the thermal landscape behind...but we knew better. We detoured through Tauranga and drove out to Mount Maunganui thinking that there might be fine views over the Bay of Plenty from the volcanic plug that sits at the end of a spit there. Instead, we found the place packed with crowds enjoying the beaches on each side of the headland. With nowhere to park nearby and realizing that the 232-m tall hill (760 feet) would take longer to walk up than I had realized, I satisfied myself with a look at the Bay of Plenty from the top of the beach, and we resumed our drive north onto the Coromandel Peninsula.
Forming the eastern boundary of the Hauraki Gulf, there is evidence of Polynesian artefacts and moa hunting that suggest that the Coromandel Peninsula has been occupied for about 1000 years. The Hauraki iwi on the peninsula were some of the first Maori tribes to be exposed to European traders and a booming economy developed there based on the safe anchorages, proximity to Auckland, and the extensive forest of highly valued kauri trees.
Gold was discovered in New Zealand in 1852 near Coromandel Town and after the short-lived initial gold-rush, more was found 15 years later near Thames and a few other places. The sudden influx of 10,000 European settlers during this secondary gold-rush overwhelmed the Maori iwi, along with chilling debts created when the boom turned to bust. The Kauri forests were logged-out by the 1930s so the region was left with few native communities and little industrial productivity. Livestock farming certainly expanded on the hilly peninsula but as the native forests recovered and leisure-time activities increased, the beach-studded coast of the peninsula has become a very popular destination for tourists and the interior, forested mountains attracts many campers and hikers.
Since we were visiting during the peak of the holiday season, we were lucky to get rooms in the Seabreeze Holiday Park lodge. Despite the name, this campground was several miles inland but it had the advantage of an adjoining micro-brewery with a nice bistro on site. The other advantage was that it was not far from our intended destination to which we set-off just after 5 am on Monday (January 8th).
Hot Water Beach with the people and hot springs to the left of the central, isolated rock
Hot Water Beach is a quite attractive, gracefully curved, yellow-sand beach overlooked in the middle by a steep, tree-covered rocky bluff. At the bottom of this is an outcrop of rock that spills a little way down the beach towards another lump of rock usually surrounded by seawater. If you arrive when the tide is out (from 2 hours before, to 2 hours after, low tide) you can see water seeping out across the sand between these rocks. Early in the cool morning, it was obvious that this water was steaming but even without that clue, the antics of the people who had arrived even earlier gave the game away.
Randall (in red) digs our hot-tub in the sand at Hot Water Beach before sunrise
We had come armed with a short shovel borrowed from the campground (or they can be rented at the beach) and, following the lead of others, we dug a shallow pit in the sand which rapidly filled with hot water. The first spot we picked was right in the middle of the seep near the top and was too hot, so we tried again a little further seaward. We soon had our own little hot-tub in which to wallow and watch the sunrise. It was absolutely idyllic.
Alison (center) relaxes in our hollow in the hot-water seep
Deep under the beach there is a 5-9 million-year old volcanic intrusion of magma that moved closer than usual to the surface when the Coromandel was volcanically active. Even though the volcanoes are extinct and the magma is cooling, the deep rocks are still hot enough 170°C (300°F) to heat overlying reservoirs of water. When groundwater seeps down through fractures to these reservoirs, the build-up in pressure pushes hot water back up through other fractures to form the hot water springs on the beach at 60 - 65°C (140°F).
Digging hot-tubs in the seeps on Hot Water Beach at sunrise
The beauty of this site is that regardless of how many and how big the holes are that people dig in the sand, high tide washes everything away so that at each low tide people arrive to a clean slate of sand. We decided that it was more fun sharing the experience with other people than it would be our own. However, having a low tide early in the morning was ideal because the area was not as overcrowded as it can become if the low tide is in the late morning or afternoon. Andrew and Judith had talked about this phenomenon after their North Island excursion in 2015 and I had not been sure that it sounded particularly exciting. But after our dawn experience, I was really impressed and could understand why it had become such a popular tourist-draw.
The other place nearby that is very popular is Cathedral Cove which is supposed to be very beautiful with a huge, natural, stone archway. It is best seen early or late when the crowds are reduced but they were not allowing parking at the nearest car park (only drop-offs) and the shuttle buses from the more distant parking sites did not start until 10 am. If Randall had been up for a couple of hours of walking we would have enjoyed seeing the famous cove but he wanted to rest his sore knee a bit more so we will save that sight for another time.
Agave plants along the unsealed road north of Coromandel Town
So instead of healthy walking, we burned more fossil-fuel by driving up to the very north end of the Coromandel Peninsula. I had assumed that we would drive along Highway 25 around the Peninsula and through Coromandel Town the following day on our way to Thames and points west, but the road just north of Thames was closed due to storm-damage. Thus, after returning to the campground to wash-off the saltwater and sand, we drove to Coromandel Town (not much to report) then continued north for 58 km (36 miles) of which 28 km (17 miles) were unsealed. We passed the beautiful cove of Port Jackson and continued to the end of the road at Fletcher Bay. From the north end of the peninsula it is only 20 km (12 miles) across the Colville Channel to Great Barrier Island and it was not difficult to imagine what it must have been like when the two hilly landmasses were still connected.
Baxter at the overlook for Port Jackson
We were exceptionally lucky that it was a clear, sunny day with relatively calm seas so the blue and turquois colors of the water contrasted beautifully against the sandy beaches, bright-green pastures, and dark-green bush. Most of the Pohutakawa (NZ Christmas trees) were past their full bloom of red flowers but they still made an attractive tunnel over some of the waterside parts of the road.
The northeastern tip of the Coromandel Peninsula beyond Fletcher Bay
Rather than returning exactly the way we had come on Highway 25, just south of Coromandel Town we turned onto Road 309 which cuts across the Coromandel Range for 21km (13 miles) and which is mostly unsealed but well maintained. This was another hilly, twisty road but very attractive and we stopped to look at the modest but unnaturally symmetrical Waiau Falls. I then scampered around a short loop path that led to a grove of 600-year-old giant kauri trees that had somehow escaped the forest-felling frenzy of the 19th century. The grove was on land owned by a mining company who had banned logging until after the most profitable logging period was over.
Kids ready to splash in Waiau Falls
Although Highway 25 was reopened on Tuesday, it was reduced to a single lane in some long stretches so vehicles were only being allowed through in organized convoys. It did not seem worth the delays and it seemed prudent to leave the route to more essential traffic, so we missed seeing the west side of the peninsula between Coromandel Town and Thames.
Looking up the tall straight trunks of old kauri trees
Alison beside the large truck of an old kauri tree
Instead, we backtracked along part of Highway 25, stopping briefly at the attractive beach in Te Karo Bay which included the "Sailor's Grave Historic Reserve". Although this sounded a bit morbid, the story on the interpretive signs was of historic interest to us. In 1841, HMS Tortoise sailed from Plymouth to deliver 400 convicts and 158 convict guards to Hobart, Tasmania. Six months later, on the return voyage, the ship stopped at this bay to harvest kauri logs which were ideal for constructing top-masts for naval ships. While landing provisions and equipment for the camp, the longboat overturned in the surf and a sailor was drowned. His grave was near the shore and has been preserved since then with somewhat surprising care. The rest of the crew remained at the site (found by a previous naval expedition) for a year, felling, hewing, and dragging then floating to the ship, the timber from more than 100 kauri trees. They employed Maori men to help with the difficult and dangerous work but, almost inevitably, the pre-agreed payment was insufficient for the extra effort that had been needed.
Our rest of our route over the south end of the Coromandel Range on Highway 25A was attractive and allowed us to identify the peak of the Pinnacles (759 m or 2,490 feet) which (I think) Andrew and Judith scaled during their visit in 2015. Somewhat reluctantly, I accepted that the many trails through the Coromandel Forest Park would have to wait for us to return with more time and four fully functional knees!