THE COROMANDEL PENINSULA - robmellors

COROMANDEL

The Coromandel Peninsula sticks out from the mainland like a crooked first finger pointing off into the distance. Pointing where, I'm not quite sure but it makes for an interesting landscape. It starts at the Firth of Thames, an area of wetland and marshes. A central spine of high hills divides the west coast, which faces the protective waters of the Huraki Gulf, from the East which is washed by the pounding Pacific Ocean.

Because it has some great beaches the east coast is much more developed than the west which is far more rugged with mostly stony beaches and marshes. No surprise, then, that we chose to base ourselves at Cormandel Town which is on the less developed side. Although only 54 Klms from Thames it took over an hour to drive to Coromandel Town. The road twisted and turned and went up and down like - well, you know what like!

Coromandel Town is a very charming place with plenty of turn of the century buildings and a very relaxed atmosphere. We loved it straight away. The town was named after the peninsula, which was named after HMS Coromandel, which sailed into the harbour in 1820. At one time the harbour was a major port serving the peninsula's kauri industry. These trees are extremely strong and grow very straight so they were in high demand to meet the requirements of the expanding British Navy. At one time Kauri trees covered the whole peninsula but relentless exploitation saw their numbers decimated. This was later followed by even more destruction when huge tracts of land were cleared for farming. Today there are only a few remnant stands of Kauri left although efforts are being made to replant both these trees and other native bush, particularly at Driving Creek.

In 1852 a saw miller named Charles Ring discovered gold in the Driving Creek district. This was New Zealand's first offiical gold discovery and a a big gold rush took place. An old gold stamper battery is still in fully operational working order. This machine crushes rocks dug out of the ground by hydraulic power so that the small fragments of gold can be extracted. Even today there is gold to be found and you can sometimes make a discovery in the streams around Driving Creek. I'm afraid that we failed to make our fortune when we went prospecting one afternoon.

All about the hills surrounding Coromandel are the remains of old mine workings, making it a dangerous place to go walking unless you stick to the marked trails. Which, of course, we did, having no wish to take a one way descent into the bowels of the Earth. Keen to get an overview of the West side of the peninsula we tramped for several hours along narrow paths, through dense forest to eventually get to a point where we had a view. We should have gone right up to the trig point on the highest hill but Jane decided to let me climb up the final 100ft. She was right to do so because when I got there the vegetation was so high I couldn't see anything but trees. Still it was a great walk. Mind you, we had just as good views the following day when we went up on the Driving Creek Railway (see my earlier blog) so we could have saved ourselves all the climbing!

Although based on the wilder west coast, we wanted to see what the other side of the mountains had to offer so we drove off on the '309' road. This is 21 kilometer unsealed road which connects Coromandel to Whitianga. It twists and turns continuously and being gravel is not for the faint hearted. In fact the ABS cut in at one point when I took a bend just a bit too fast so it really is a road to slow down and take your time over. It's worth it because the scenery is so good.

James Cook arrived in the area in 1769. He observed the transit of the planet Mercury in order to plot his exact position and the name Mercury Bay survives today where Whitianga is located. There is also Cook's Beach across the narrow mouth of the inlet to Whitianga Harbour.

As I said earlier, this east coast has the better beaches. At Hot Water beach hot water springs well up through the sand. The idea is that you dig a hole in the sand (you can hire a spade to do this) and let it fill with the apparently very hot water (heated by thermal activity way below the surface). You then let the incoming tide slip into your 'bath' to cool it down to a reasonable temperature and have a wallow. However, the springs are only uncovered at about low tide and at the moment this occurs around 7 am or 7 pm. So, we couldn't avail ourselves of a hot bath and had to be content with sitting on the burning sand watching surfers out in the bay.

There are other small, sandy coves dotted about and one of the best of these is at Cathedral Cove. It's a decent trek to get to the cove from the nearest village but well worth the effort. Cathedral Cove is so named because a vast cavern has been created in the rockface between two parts of the beach. It really is like a vast cathedral space and this time the tide was far enough out for us to walk through. It was very crowded on the beach but one of the great things about New Zealand is that, for the most part, beaches like this just aren't commercialised. There were no burger or ice cream vans, no cafes, not even a beach vendor. Whatever you wanted for your day on the beach you walked in and walked back out again. So despite the number of people there it was a great place to relax for an hour or so.

The surf was quite big and the water was reasonably warm so I had an invigorating swim before it was time to hike out, drive over some glorious scenery to return to our lovely little bach in Coromandel Town. It's certainly a great peninsula, full of variety and well worth staying in.

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