Thirty five years ago I hitchhiked my way to Whitianga with a pack on my back and guitar in my hand. I ended up at the Anglican Vicarage where we formed a community of sorts – as Christian hippies – I lived there for four years. I worked with the Vicar, Bill Smith and his family in the parish, which included everything from Manaia to Port Jackson on one coast and Pauanui to Port Charles on the other. I grew to know it like the back of my hand and every now and again I do a road trip to see this amazing country again and relive the memories. This time the excuse was to show a friend around, and to go the 50th Jubilee of the little church of St Francis in Tairua.
It’s a great trip – up one coast, over the Coromandel ranges and down the other coast.
Stay overnight and explore longer – Women Travel Places to stay listed at the bottom of post.
HINT: Drop into an Information Centre and get the Jason’s Coromandel Route Planner to help your planning
The Thames Coast
Thames to Coromandel is about an hour and 55 kms. For thirty kms it is a memorable flat drive hugging the rocky coast. The Pohutukawa lined road looks spectacular in December with the red flowers out for Christmas. At times the trees form an arch above us, power lines go over water where there is no spare land. Occasionally the country opens up to a small bay of holiday homes and a beach, shags spread their wings to dry on the rocks, it looks like good fishing country.
Then we climb, and climb, below us farms stretch with their own private waterside settlements, on the right the ranges rise above us. Then its down to another valley – this one is the small maori settlement of Manaia. We stop at the tiny Anglican Church – one of the many we used to hold services in. The door is open – it is one of those simple old white churches with red roofs dotted around New Zealand that so struck me when I first came to NZ. We enter the graveyard beyond the church, washing our hands in the traditional way. So many stories, I am looking for the grave of Rev. Ned Leaf – a member of the Maori battalion and the first person to teach me maori. He taught this young Australian to greet him – Tena Koe.
Coffee beckons – we drive on to the township of Coromandel and find Umu, and excellent café at the crossroads. More connections – I meet an old friend Betty who I knew 35 years ago, there with some of her mokopuna. We sit and talk and share stories of those times, when the Coromandel was more isolated, with roads that challenged the toughest of cars, and everyone on the road was a friend. I stayed on Betty’s family land one summer and she taught me to weave a maori kite.
Coromandel has some great shops – I am tempted into an artwork for my house from The Source Collective, my friend is tempted by the Op shops, and we finish up with a mussel fritter – Coromandel is after all a fishing town.
If you drive north towards Kennedy Bay, you drive past the famous Driving Creek Railway and Potteries (I wish I had made time to stop here – we decide to do it in another day trip next week – and go to the café too) and wind your way to the top of the hill you find one of the most spectacular views of the day.
This is the Tokatea, the site of a thriving town when gold was discovered here in the 1860s. On one side the islands of the Coromandel Harbour stretch out before us. On the other side is the Maori settlement of Kennedy Bay. Today is a day trip, so we don’t have time – but you can do a fantastic round trip from here up the East Coast and down the west.
The roads are challenging – but worth it. Once I drove someone to Kennedy Bay and she nervously asked me “what happens if a car comes the other way”. I replied, “we just hope it doesn’t” as we navigated the hairpin bends down to the Bay.
The 309 Road and the Kauri Trees
We head back through Coromandel town and head south to the turn off to Whitianga via the 309 Road. The main road to Whitianga goes via Kuaotunu and most of it is now sealed. The 309 Road is quintessential back country New Zealand – my favourite road in the country. I was told it follows the old Maori trail – winding up the river then straight up over the ranges with some fantastic hairpin bends, then down the other side and along the river.
Here you find one of the most accessible stands of mature Kauri on the Coromandel and you can get a small taste of what the Coromandel looked like before it was logged. No one quite knows why this grove of trees were left – they are over 600 years old and awesome, as only an old tree can be reaching up beyond the forest floor, towering towards the sky.
Next stop Hot Water Beach
Just 8kms off the main road, Hot Water Beach and nearby Hahei and Ferry Landing are iconic beaches. We only have time for one – so we choose Hot Water Beach. My memories of 35 years ago were that we were the only ones here at the beach, and I was planning a serious soak. We have packed a spade, but I discover on arrival that this is tourist heaven, spades can be hired and busloads of people are walking over the beach towards the low tide hot water springs. I give up on the idea of a soak, but we enjoy talking to people and trying out the different hand dug ponds – some were even too hot to stand in.
We stop for the obligatory day trip ice ream before venturing across the road to Moko Artspace. Even without the hot dip, this art gallery is worth diverting for a visit – some stunning outside garden pieces and a beautiful shop, though I manage to resist another purchase.
We pick up two French hitchhikers and quickly become friends as we travel – despite the fact that the All Blacks are to face France in the final of the Rugby World Cup next week.
The Twin Peaks of Paku, Tairua
Over the hills again, we are heading home – unfortunately we did not have time to stop at Colenso, one of my favourite country cafes just up the road in Whenuakite – we should have made the time – we were very hungry by the time we made it home!
Tairua literally means two (rua) tides (tai), the local website says that a drive up Paku is a definite must if you are driving through, and I agree. This twin volcanic cone was once a Maori “pa” (fortification). The view from the top is quite dramatic and offers a 360 degree view out to the Alderman Islands and around to the mountain ranges.
We drive through rich dairy country – to the right the Pinnacles at the top of the Coromandel range tower above the flats. We drop our French friends off on the road to Opoutere with our address and phone number and the offer of a bed if they make it to Waipu.
Once more it is into the hills and up and over the ranges for the last time. This Kopu-Hikuae road once built became like lifeblood to the Coromandel Peninsula, make it more easily accessible to Aucklanders who flock here in the Summer. The new Kopu Bridge near Thames is nearly finished and will make this trip even easier.
There is much much more to see and explore on the Coromandel, I lived there for four years, and never explored it all. But if you only have a day, the round trip is worth doing – 3 hours driving and 160 kms – totally memorable changing landscape.