Wednesday, 21. November 2018
Route: Whitianga – Coastal route to Okere Falls – Rotorua
Distance driven: 257 km
After a chilly and damp but otherwise well-slept campervan night in the Coromandel Peninsula we woke up to a sunny and warm morning. The art of wearing (the correct) layers seems to be the key to success regarding campervan life in New Zealand; at night you might be shivering from cold, but as soon as the first sunbeams reach the back of the van, you’re guaranteed to sweat to death.
Our first day of driving taught us a valuable lesson about timing. If you’re dreaming of a free camping spot in New Zealand, you might need to be an early bird and get there in the afternoon. Again, the Campermate app is your best friend. Besides finding the camp spot, the pictures and comments will quickly reveal how likely you’re to get a free spot. In one place freedom camping might mean three designated spots at the edge of a public carpark, whereas the next campsite might be a vast and sheltered picnic area by a lake with snowy-topped mountain ranges decorating the horizon. Which one would you choose?
As we had already learned, the weather in New Zealand changes rapidly. Before the morning was over, the promising sunshine turned into a thick layer of dark clouds predicting heavy rain and thunder.
It’s time for our first short walk in New Zealand
And for that, we need to drive from our camp spot in Whitianga to a small town called Hahei. It’s the starting point for a walking track leading to one of the most famous attractions in the Coromandel Peninsula, the remote (but not tranquil) Cathedral Cove. Even if you didn’t recognise the name, you’d most likely recognise the massive stone archway decorating almost every single travel article and guidebook about New Zealand.
This travel diary is no exception.
There’s something you should know about parking for Cathedral Cove
As in the spring and summer season, between the start of October and end of April, you can’t park at the starting point of the walking track. In Hahei, you’ll find two public and free carparks, Town Entry (on maps also Hahei Visitor Carpark) and Hahei Beach. You can’t accidentally miss either of them as they both stand along the only road leading to Hahei. We left our van at Town Entry Carpark, the first one we came across with.
A shuttle bus takes visitors from the carparks to the starting point of the Cathedral Cove walk for 5 NZD per adult. If you visit Hahei in winter, you can drive up to the track and leave your car there. In case you choose to walk from the carpark as we did, allow yourself extra 20 minutes each way.
Through village or along the beach
If I only had known we had a choice. But as always, we hadn’t done much planning beforehand, so we started our little hike from the Town Entry Carpark and followed the road signs to the Cathedral Cove walk. While strolling up the paved hill in sweat, the shuttle bus full of tourists passed us at least twice. Maybe we should have paid for the ride after all?
But no, we came here to walk. We’re driving around New Zealand for a month; we’ll be sitting in a car more than enough during our trip.
Huffing and puffing seemed worthwhile once we arrived at the starting point of the Cathedral Cove trail. Suddenly, a breathtaking mixture of rainforests and rugged coastal views unfolded in front of our eyes. I tried to forget the dark clouds haunting in the horizon. At this point, the sunny morning seemed a dream-like blurry memory, but the air in the Coromandel Peninsula still felt sweet and warm.
We stepped on the paved walking trail that soon dove into the thick grove. Before that, we passed a fork with a sign pointing to Coastal Route to Hahei Beach. Damn. I bet it would have been a lot nicer walkway compared to the side of the road we chose.
Cathedral Cove walk
is suitable also for inexperienced hikers, thanks to the paved surface reaching all the way to the beach. The trail might be surfaced, but it doesn’t mean it’s flat. Quite the opposite; besides a few tiny hills, the trail ends with a long line of stairs. Going down to Cathedral Cove will be fine, it’s the return journey you should be worried about. Good walking shoes and a basic level of fitness make the trail somewhat effortless.
The Cathedral Cove track treats walkers with many options. You can stray from the trail to viewing points and secluded bays or choose a small path leading through green forests. The route also passes one of the eight memorial groves planted to honour the soldiers who lost their lives in World War I.
There aren’t too many open sections during the walk to Cathedral Cove. For us, it was lucky, as the dense treetops protected us from the drizzling rain. And as we’ll notice during the following days, the walking tracks in the New Zealand rainforests are pure gold; you can go hiking even in heavy rain and remain completely dry.
The renowned archway of the Coromandel Peninsula
and the beaches it combines are exactly as popular tourist attractions as I thought they’d be. Pack your patience to go and be prepared to double the time in case you aim to get uncrowded photos of Cathedral Cove.
If I did the same walk today, I’d probably start early in the morning to reach the bay before sunrise. Or I’d aim to get there just before sunset and spend the whole night at Cathedral Cove with nothing but a sleeping bag, a bottle of fine wine and millions of stars.
I can’t help wondering why it feels like New Zealand skies hold more stars than the sky at home? Is it just another thing different on the other side of the globe?
Walking is just one of the many ways to visit the Coromandel’s most famous natural attraction that will, one day, be eaten by erosion. Boat trips and kayaking excursions are popular activities around here. So is snorkelling, thanks to the crystal clear waters and the diversity of submarine life. Many visitors come here with swimsuits and picnic blankets and spend here the whole day.
We get bored with crowds quickly, so after exploring and photographing the cove for a while, we started climbing the steps back to Hahei. Only this time we choose the coastal trail to Hahei Beach, and so should you. The sandy path with coastal views differs a lot from the route we took earlier, the asphalt road through the neighbourhoods of Hahei.
Is Hot Water Beach really a Coromandel must-do?
So every single site and guidebook seem to think. And that’s another reason why we didn’t stay at Cathedral Cove for longer; the tide sets strict time limits for visiting Hot Water Beach.
If you haven’t heard of this magical beach, the “must-do” would be to dig a hole in the sand. The hole would then fill up with hot water that is bubbling underground. As you can only visit Hot Water Beach two hours before and after low tide, you should always check the time frame from the nearest i-SITE.
Do you still remember how I mentioned we’re not exactly fans of crowded places, especially beaches? For precisely that reason, our visit at Hot Water Beach was probably the shortest ever recorded; we parked the car, had lunch, walked to the beach, had a little look, turned back to the parking lot and started driving. As Hot Water Beach is one of the rare paid parking lots in New Zealand, this must have been the most pointless parking fee we’ve ever paid when travelling. Let’s hope it went for a good cause, at least.
Would digging a whole with a 5-dollar rental spade be an unforgettable experience? Probably. But luckily, we don’t tend to do stuff just because someone says it’s a must-do. Silly someone. I don’t have to do anything when I travel if I don’t feel like it.
And we didn’t. Instead, we felt like turning our car towards our next destination, Rotorua.
You never have to hike alone in the Coromandel Peninsula.
Of course, there is something I MUST do during this trip
but only because I really want to. On my recent trip to Germany, Sofia from Fantasiresor travel blog gave me a tip about a rafting adventure that sounded too crazy to be true. Okere Falls in Kaituna River is the biggest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. Sofia told how someone in their group had broken his ribs during rafting.
Yet, I MUST experience this waterfall on a rafting boat.
But today wasn’t the day I was planning to do that. I didn’t even know where this waterfall was located. We’d be in New Zealand for a full month, we have plenty of time to find it out and plan it, I thought.
It came as a massive surprise after spontaneously walking to a random waterfall we spotted on Campermate. We were photographing the falls once we heard a loud whistle. In a split second, a rafting boat full of screaming people appeared at the mouth of the waterfall.
I can’t believe it. THIS IS THE PLACE!
Even if today I had to satisfy with photographing the rafters from the shore, you should stick around. As we proceed with the New Zealand travel diary, you’ll find out how it felt to be on the front seat of a rafting boat exactly like this one – without broken bones.