With four days to spare between the end of my trip in Auckland/Waiheke and Christmas (when I had to be back in Gizzy), I decided to take myself on a quick trip through my own pohutukawa paradise. The Coromandel region – or simply ‘the Coromandel’, as everyone calls it – sits at the top of the North Island forming the eastern edge of the Hauraki Gulf. The Gulf-facing edge of the peninsula is famous for its white sand beaches, while the western side is full of historic gold-mining towns that are still milking their history for all its worth. The bird-rich Hauraki Plains form the base of the peninsula, and a mountain range stretches up through the middle towards Port Jackson, where remote gravel roads lined with ancient crimson pohutukawa trees wind through the rugged countryside.
When I left Waiheke Island on December 19th, I was in a bad weather funk; I spent the full day in Auckland to recuperate (ie: more internet cafes and movie theaters), then said a good weather prayer and set off the next morning towards the east. I followed the East Coast Road towards Miranda and Thames, two cities that are probably best known for their seasonal influx of shore birds. The Coast Road (which eventually turns into the Thames Coast Road and SH25) winds alongside the waters of the Firth of Thames, and (for once) the weather cooperated with me – what an incredible drive! I actually turned around twice and retraced my route along the way, just to see it all again:
Right outside of Thames I stopped to peek inside the Butterfly and Orchid Garden at the Dickson Holiday Park. (Apparently about 15 years ago the Swiss owners decided to build a huge greenhouse on their property and put lots of exotic flowers and insects inside it, and this was the result). It’s New Zealand’s first and only tropical butterfly and orchid house (who knew?), and houses upwards of 400 butterflies, more than 100 different plant species, 300 exotic orchids, and even birds like zebra finches and doves which (amazingly)zoom around the greenhouse without feeling the need scoop up a butterfly in the process.
You have to hold your camera under a hot fan when you enter the greenhouse (so your lens doesn’t steam up!), then you have all the time in the world to sit down in the steamy air and watch the fragile colors fly around you. The thing I was most struck by was the silence – you should at least be able to hear the flapping of so many hundreds of wings in such a small space. It’s unnerving, and lovely, to be surrounded by so much silent, vibrant, fragile life. I spent a good half hour trying to get one to land on me but only succeeded once, to my great disappointment :(
Eventually I stopped my tour in the confusingly-named town of Coromandel, and parked myself at the lovely Tui Lodge, which had free laundry! Washing my clothes brought such light-hearted joy I could have died of happiness right then and there.
The next day (December 21st) I drove further up the coast towards Port Jackson, at the very northernmost tip of the peninsula. The stretch of road between the two areas is called the Pohutukawa Coast, and you can tell why – a lonely gravel road winds along with the sea on one side and rugged green hills on the other, and the entire way the road is canopied by ancient pohutukawa trees. Pohutukawas bloom red every December, and even though their flowering has been a little delayed this year due to the unseasonable cold weather and rain, they are still strikingly beautiful. If reincarnation is real I want nothing more than to be one of those ancient, rugged trees, blooming crimson on the coast.
The roads are so few and far between in the Far North Coromandel that my trip ended rather abruptly right outside of Port Jackson, where the gravel road crossed a stream that was just a little to treacherous for my little car to ford. (I would have had to turn back anyway, since the road ends just a few kilometers later with the Coromandel Coastal Walkway, which connects with the road on the other side.) So instead, with just a few hours left to spare in the day, I took myself back down the road to Coromandel Town and visited the Driving Creek Railway and Pottery Centre.
Driving Creek is the brainchild of Barry Brickell, a Coromandel-based artist and potter who spent more than 15 years constructing a narrow-gauge railway on his land “to give all weather access to clay and pine wood kiln fuel.” (Yeah, potting is serious business, y’all.) Eventually he poured enough money and effort into to it that it was licensed to carry the public in 1990, and it’s been carrying tourists through 22 hectares (54.3 acres) of Coromandel bush ever since! I didn’t actually pay to ride the train, but the grounds and sculpture garden displaying Barry’s work are pretty cool! Plus, it’s NZ’s only narrow-gauge railway, and it even has an Eyefull Tower (the 165m Terminal Building)! Did I mention Kiwis were quirky?
As if this weren’t enough for one day, I took one final detour and drove back up the tip of the peninsula (on the opposite, east-facing end) to visit the semi-secret New Chums Beach. To get to the beach you have to follow SH25 to Whangapoua, where you must park your car and walk along the beach and tramp over some boulders and through some bush to reach the other side of the foreshore. I was given directions by a cranky woman in the local store who cut me off mid-sentence and pointed to a detailed map on the door (apparently too many people come through asking how to get to the beach – thanks Lonely Planet!), but once I got past the animosity it was an absolutely beautiful walk. The sky was (mostly) blue, the crowds were (mostly) gone, and I got to feel like a badass as I chopped my way through the bush. Good times!
The waves at New Chums were a little too massive to swim safely at the time, but I sat on the shore for a couple of hours and dozed, read my Kindle, and generally enjoyed being isolated in such a beautiful place. Eventually I was forced to leave as the temperature slowly dropped, but I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the sun setting over the harbor from the top of the highway as I headed home. I still had two more days in Coromandel – what a gift.