16.02.2015: Coromandel, New Zealand
It was our last full day in New Zealand and we sure did end it with a blast — Coromandel style. We had booked a tour to bring us all the way to Coromandel to see some of the natural wonders and quirks from that part of the country, namely the famous Cathedral Cove, the really interesting (and slightly confusing) hot sand beaches, the endangered Kauri trees and even the really cute/ cheeky/ interesting Barry Brickell Driving Creek Railway! Niki and I were out the door by 6.20am because we had to catch the 6.50am pick-up a couple blocks down.
i. Cathedral Cove
I was insanely excited for this because this was the very place that a scene in Narnia was filmed!
At the end of Grange Road at Hahei on the Coromandel Peninsula, we turned left just past the Hahei shops, soon parked the bus and set off on a scenic track adjacent to the Cathedral Cove Marine Reserve, aka. Te Whanganui- A-Hei. The reserve covers 9km² and is New Zealand’s sixth marine reserve.
Te Whanganui-A-Hei is part of a special area first claimed by Hei, a Tauira (teacher/ skilled person) from the Waka Te Arawa, some time around 1350 AD. On a northbound voyage from the Bay of Plenty to Hauraki, Hei chose the area around Mercury Bay to settle with his people. He proclaimed ownership by referring to Motueka Island as “Te kuraetangao-taku-Ihu” (the outward curve of my nose). Hei’s descendants still retain a strong ancestral and spiritual attachment to the area and continue their role of kaitiaki (guardians) of the bountiful resources within it.
The trek we were on was a continuous descent and the length of it provided us with many opportunities to converse with our fellow tour mates — Niki was talking with Heather from Canada while I was talking to John (who reminded me so much of my Grandpa) and his wife from the UK, who told me that not eating papaya with squeezes of lime would be a sin.
One last flight of stairs and we made it down to the beach. The sand was bright and soft under our feet (we took off our shoes), and we spent the next 45 minutes along the spectacular coastal walk. There were others going around in kayaks, and I just wondered how much more of a magical experience that would’ve been. I must come back.
ii. Hot Sand Beach
A 10-minute drive from the Cathedral Cove, we arrive at the public car park of Hot Sand Beach, often rated as one of the world’s most renowned beaches. We learned that within two hours either side of low tide, visitors flock to the usually deserted Hot Water Beach to find hot water bubbling through the sand. Our tour guide had done his research and made sure that we arrived in good time to catch this hot water phenomenon.
There were heaps of people already using shovels to dig their own spa pools along the beach (digging into the sand allows hot water to escape to the surface forming a hot water pool), and some others were so early that they were already relaxing in the natural springs. The water, with a temperature as hot as 64°C, filters up from two underground fissures located close to each other to the surface where the beach meets the Pacific Ocean. These natural springs can be found on the beach in front of the projecting rocks (the whole beach is not hot). With the ebb and flow of the tide, the dug up spa pools are washed away, clearing the way for the next influx of visitors.
I was wearing shorts but that didn’t spare me from the shame of looking as though I had peed my pants because some of the waves, which originally looked so tame, ended up crashing incredibly aggressively!
iii. Waiau Kauri Grove
Kauri trees are among the world’s mightiest and most magnificent trees, growing to over 50 m tall, with trunk girths up to 16 m, and living for over 2,000 years. Kauri forests once covered 1.2 million hectares from the Far North of Northland to Te Kauri, near Kawhia and were common when the first people arrived around 1,000 years ago. However, with the Kauri dieback disease (and the various other uses of Kauri trees — mentioned below), these Kauri trees have since been reduced to being considered an endangered species, and thus have been protected since before the turn of the century. There are calls for a national park comprising all the substantial scattered remnants of kauri forest. In 1952 the 9,105-hectare Waipoua Sanctuary was finally declared, with all remaining kauri forests in Crown lands coming under the protection of the Department of Conservation by 1987.
‘Maori used kauri timber for boat building, carving and building houses. The gum was used as a fire starter and for chewing (after it had been soaked in water and mixed with the milk of the puha plant). The arrival of European settlers in the 1700s to 1800s saw the decimation of these magnificent forests. Sailors quickly realised the trunks of young kauri were ideal for ships’ masts and spars, and the settlers who followed felled the mature trees to yield huge quantities of sawn timber of unsurpassed quality for building. The gum too, became essential in the manufacture of varnishes and other resin-based products. The gum was obtained through digging, fossicking in treetops, or more drastically, by bleeding live trees. More forest was cleared as demand for farmland and timber increased in the early and mid 20th century.’
Currently, Kauri trees are facing a new threat. Kauri dieback is a fungus-type disease which is having a devastating effect on New Zealand’s Kauri forests in Northland, Great Barrier Island and, potentially, the Coromandel Peninsula. There is no known cure for Kauri dieback, but we were told that we can help reduce its spread by cleaning boots and equipment and avoiding kauri tree roots. Any movement of soil around the roots of trees could spread the disease.
We were told that we were going to visit the famous ‘Siamese Kauri’ which were conjoined at the bottom of their trunks. Woohoo! The track was very well formed with footbridges and boardwalks which took us close to the trees without risking inflicting any harm upon them. It was a spectacular grove of gigantic trees.
iv. Barry Brickell Driving Creek Railway
The Driving Creek Railway is a narrow gauge bush and mountain railway that travels through regenerating and replanted native Kauri forest with beautiful, unique pottery pieces lining the track. The 1-hour ride leads up the mountain to a viewing platform building 165m high above the surrounding Coromandel west coast country and the island-studded Hauraki Gulf.
The track included 2 spirals, 3 short tunnels, 5 reversing points (yes we reversed at several points because the ascent was done in a zig zag route!) and several large viaducts as it climbs up the hill to the terminus, which was a wooden building called the ‘Eyefull Tower’. Although this is a pun on the name Eiffel Tower (and on the wide land and sea views from the tower), its octagonal design is based on a much nearer landmark, the Bean Rock Lighthouse in Auckland Harbour.
The original line was built by the potter Barry Brickell on his 22-hectare property, which he had acquired in 1961, aiming to start a pottery collective. He started construction of the 15-inch gauge rail line in 1975, originally mainly using it to transport clay and pine wood fuel to his kiln. In 1975, Brickell purchased a larger 60-hectare block of land, and began working on what would become the Driving Creek Railway and Potteries. Funny story: Brickell realised he had some bank loans to pay off because of all the purchases, and so he officially opened the railyway system as a tourist attraction.
The Driving Creek Railway (DCR) was slowly expanded over the next 25 years to become one of the very few completely new railway lines in New Zealand in recent years. The project required significant civil engineering works due to the steep and complex terrain that the line traverses. It was simply incredible.
While doing a little reading up about this attraction, I found out that Mr. Brickell had passed away on the 23rd of January at the age of 80 earlier this year, i.e. about a year since we met him last year. I felt a sting in my heart as I read this. Rest in Peace, Mr. Brickell.
v. Making Our Way To Our Final Destination
We got back from the tour at 7.20pm, a little later than expected because of an accident that took place along the State Highway so we had to do a detour. Regardless of the delay, Niki and I still managed to go to New World Shopping Centre to get ourselves some packed meals for dinner — I had Tabbouleh while Niki had Cous Cous. We rushed to catch the 8.30pm airport shuttle which would pass by the bus stop in front of our accommodation, caught it, and, upon reaching the airport, took yet another shuttle to get to our airport accommodation 1.2km away. (We decided to move to an accommodation nearer to the airport because we had to be at the airport by 5am the next day and a) airport shuttles don’t run that airly; b) taxis are pricey!)
It was such a pleasant surprise when we checked into our room which was the cleanest and most spacious out of all the places we stayed at throughout the trip. Funny how this budget hotel was also the cheapest of all… It was such a pleasant way to end our final day in New Zealand. 🙂