Hot Water Beaches, Family Reunions and Taming the Mighty Mohaka

Published: January 20th 2017
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On top of the world... or at least Mount MaunganuiOn top of the world... or at least Mount MaunganuiOn top of the world... or at least Mount Maunganui

View of the coastline from the summit of Mauao / Mount Maunganui
Leaving Northland behind, it took us seven hours to drive the 400km from Lake Taharoa to Thames (on the Coromandel Peninsula), during which we stopped off in Auckland for lunch and a necessary food stock-up. After following the Pacific Coast Highway as far as Thames, we then bid civilization farewell and followed an unsealed road up through the Kauaeranga Valley – which apart from a swanky visitor centre showed absolutely no signs of development whatsoever, apart from the numerous Department of Conservation campgrounds scattered along either side of the road.

It was here that we really started to get value for money from the DOC campervan passes I had bought the week before from the Rankers website – at a cost of just $40 ($20 per adult) for one week – for having already spent two nights at the DOC campground in Tapotupotu Bay (which cost $16 per night for two adults) we then spent two nights at the Trestle View campground at the far end of the Kauaeranga Valley - which would usually cost $26 per night for the two of us – without having to pay anything extra at all!

Our reason for venturing into the Kauaeranga
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Start of the final climb towards the Pinnacles
Valley – apart from simply wanting to get away from humanity for a couple of days – was to hike the Kauaeranga Kauri & Pinnacles trail, which we did the next day (Monday 9th January). Crossing the Kauaeranga River just a few hundred metres downstream from our campsite, we set off up the Billy Goat Track which climbed steeply at first – passing some old stretches of tramline that were once used to transport logs from felled kauri trees, that are thankfully now protected within Coromandel Forest Park – before levelling out and arriving at the Hydro Campground after 2 ¾ hours. From there we set off on the 45 minute side-trip to the 80-bunk (and impressively appointed) Pinnacles Hut, which in turn marked the start of the climb to the summit of the Pinnacles themselves.

In no way resembling the Pinnacles of Western Australia, in this case the name refers to the rocky outcrops at the top of a twin-peaked mountain (at a height of 759 metres) located amidst some otherwise inaccesible terrain in the interior of the Coromandel Peninsula. Reaching these Pinnacles does however come at a cost – in the form of over 500 steps which
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Heading back down towards the Pinnacles Hut
have to be climbed to reach the summit! But though the skies overhead were of the grey and threatening variety, the views from the top offered ample reward for effort... though if anything it was the climb itself – aided somewhat by the presence of various steel rungs and ladders bolted to the steepest sections of rock – that provided the day's greatest highlight!

Beating a hasty retreat in order to avoid any potential nasty weather on the climb back down, we returned to the hut for lunch and a quick visit to the nearby Dancing Creek kauri dam, before re-tracing our footsteps back to the Hydro Campground; at which point we continued along the loop trail that we had started earlier by following the Webb Creek Track down through the forest (following stretches of trail paved with beautifully-laid stones - resembling some sort of kiwi Inca Trail!) before finally making it back to our campsite just over seven hours (and almost 20km) after we had left. Needless to say our first port of call upon our return to the campervan was the cooler box to fetch out a couple of frosty local craft beers! Oh, the serenity...!
Beautiful BeachBeautiful BeachBeautiful Beach

Hahei Beach, from above

Returning to Thames the next day for another stock-up, we then followed the incredibly scenic Pacific Coast Highway - as we had done on the other side of the Firth of Thames (which separates the Coromandel Peninsula from the rest of the North Island) two days earlier – north to Coromandel Town. Rarely venturing more than a few metres from the shoreline, the road may have been windy but it was worth every application of the brakes – even if the weather seemed to grow a darker shade of grey with each passing kilometre!

After stopping off for coffee and cake at the delightfully hippy Driving Creek Cafe just outside Coromandel Town, we crossed through the mountains to the opposite side of the peninsula and made our way to the tiny town of Whenuakite – lured by the twin attractions of the Seabreeze Holiday Park and it's on-site Hot Water Brewing Company brewpub! Given that the weather was still 'changeable' at best – and with all of the local attractions being nearby beaches – we made the wise decision to delay any beach-combing until the following morning, and instead headed straight for the brewery bar to while away the
Limestone Cliffs, Turquoise SeaLimestone Cliffs, Turquoise SeaLimestone Cliffs, Turquoise Sea

Stingray Bay, from above
afternoon... though to be perfectly honest the weather actually cleared up quite nicely as the afternoon wore on – we were just too bloody lazy to do anything other than drink beer...!

After a few games of cards, a game of snakes & ladders, a tasting paddle for Linda and a few pints for me, we had established a few indisputable facts – that craft beer and road-trips are awesome; that I suck horribly at the card game which we call 'mau mau' (I have absolutely no idea whether that is even the correct spelling, let alone the correct name – I just know that I am SHIT at it) and that further investigation of the native beers was needed! Thankfully the brewery also sold most of their beers in cans, as I had a travel blog to write up (the one previous to this) and would otherwise never have discovered the magic elixir of their 9.5% 2014 Barley Wine... if anything has ever tasted better after being sealed in an aluminium can for two years, I certainly haven't tasted it! Thankfully I picked up a second can on our way back through Whenuakite the following day, which is
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Looking out from the cave at Stingray Bay
currently continuing to age somewhere in the back of the campervan...

True to our word, we set off to see some of the famous coastal attractions nearby (Whenuakite itself sitting inland amongst grassy fields) the following morning - armed with swimmers, boardshorts and shovel... but more on that later. Heading first to the small village of Hahei, we ditched the van and headed off on foot to the top of a nearby hill, from where the walking trail to the famous Cathedral Cove begins. Winding our way in and out of the coastal forest, we first stopped off at the rocky Gemstone Bay (complete with snorkel trail) before taking the short side-trip to Stingray Bay, which would ultimately prove to be the highlight of our walk!

With a pretty white sand beach curling around a sheltered cove and backed by limestone cliffs, the scenery was first class; but throw in an impressive sea cave at the far end of the beach and the fact that there were probably only about a dozen other people around, and Stingray Bay would, for us, end up leaving it's more famous counterpart in the dust! Nevertheless we eventually returned to the main
Postcard from the CoromandelPostcard from the CoromandelPostcard from the Coromandel

The beach at Cathedral Cove, seen from the famous archway at the end of Mare's Leg Cove
trail to complete the walk to Mare's Leg Cove, from where a ridiculously over-crowded beach is joined by an admittedly pretty awesome rock arch to the slightly-less crowded beach at Cathedral Cove, complete with it's famous sea stack (an eroded limestone pillar) sticking out of the water at the far end of the beach.

After taking in the scenery and indulging in a quick swim – which involved dodging the resident water taxi's regular comings and goings - we re-traced our footsteps back to the viewpoint / car park from which we had set out, before following a different (and altogether more peaceful) trail down to the elongated expanse of Hahei Beach. But with low tide having already come and gone, we were soon locked in a race against time to make it to the nearby Hot Water Beach in time to check out it's namesake attraction.

Pulling up at one end of the beach, we weren't immediately sure that we had come to the right place, given the scarcity of other beach-goers. That was until we noticed the scrum of people all crowded into a tiny patch of sand far off in the centre of the beach,
Pigs in MudPigs in MudPigs in Mud

Low tide at Hot Water Beach
right behind a small rocky outcrop in the water. It is precisely here that for two hours either side of low tide volcanically-heated water bubbles to the surface, much to the delight of the hordes of tourists who then dig jacuzzi-sized holes in the sand in which to soak in these thermal waters – a quintessential Kiwi attraction if ever there was one!

Armed with our trusty shovel (provided for free by our holiday park) we set off into the maelstrom of people with the intention of digging ourselves a perfect little spa pool – only to fail miserably and end up squatting forlornly in butt-numbingly cold New Zealand sea water instead! Further reconnaissance thanfully revealed a signpost placed by the local lifeguard service warning of scalding hot water, and so we abandoned our sad little puddle and instead claimed ownership of some other recently-departed bather's plunge pool, into which flowed a slow but steady stream of soothing hot water – courtesy of the North Island (Te Ika a Maui)'s underground network of volcanic plumbing! The sight of hundreds of people lying together in such close proximity in their makeshift bathtubs was certainly quite comical, but in the end
Tunnel through a MountainTunnel through a MountainTunnel through a Mountain

Inside the rail tunnel at Karangahake Gorge
it only added to the already-surreal experience of bathing in hot (and at times uncomfortably so) water only inches from the sea! Yet another 'only in New Zealand' moment!

After returning our shovel to the holiday park in Whenuakite, we resumed our southward migration down the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, before heading inland to spend the night at the DOC campground at Dickey Flat – where a lovely little swimming hole in the Waitaweka River lured me into the water for one final swim; and from where Linda and I were able to go on a short walk alongside the river at night to see our first ever glowworms!

The next morning we stopped off at the nearby Karangahake Gorge to follow a couple of short loop hikes - the first of which (the Windows Walk) followed an old mining tramline through narrow tunnels hewn from the rock in a neighbouring gorge; while the second (the Rail Tunnel Loop) consisted of a scenic stretch of riverside trail that led to a kilometre-long former railway tunnel, through which we passed before re-joining the riverside track in the deepest and most impressive part of the Karangahake Gorge.
Family Reunion #1Family Reunion #1Family Reunion #1

With Jacq, Indi, Jo, Isla, Tilly and Linda in Te Puna

Hitting the road again soon afterwards, we headed straight to a lovely cafe in Te Puna (just outside Tauranga) to meet up with two of my Kiwi cousins, Jacq and Jo, and three of their four kids - for a family reunion that, to the best of our knowledge, was over twenty years in the making! On my cousins' advice (and with the sun shining brightly overhead) we then headed through Tauranga to the imposing bulk of Mauao / Mount Maunganui, to tackle the short but steep hike to the top - from where the views on one side of the Bay of Plenty coastline stretching off into the distance and on the other side of Matakana Island doing likewise were absolutely stunning!

And after working up a decent sweat on the hike, no sooner had we made it back to the bottom of the mountain than we were making a beeline for the neighbouring beach – though having cooled off with a refreshing swim any thoughts of an extended sunbathing session were soon abandoned due to the ferocious gusts of wind that pelted us with coarse sand and small fragments of shell! Seriously, what is it with the
Family reunion #2Family reunion #2Family reunion #2

With Linda, Margie, Wayne & Chris in Whakatane
incessant bloody wind gusts in this country?!?

With another family reunion planned for the following morning in Whakatane, we followed the coastline south-east for just under an hour before arriving at the perfectly-located DOC campground at Matata – where a tidal lagoon (protected as a wildlife sanctuary) separates the small town from the campground, which in turn backs onto a long straight stretch of sandy beach; and with the ever-present profile of Whale Island looming offshore and a full moon rising up over the sea. Needless to say, contentment wasn't hard to find!

Friday started with a short drive into Whakatane to visit the other half of my kiwi extended family, as not only does my Auntie Margie (Jacq and Jo's mum) live there with her partner Wayne; but the youngest of her kids, Chris, just happened to be visiting on holiday from England with his Cypriot wife Lorraine and their two young kids! A relaxing walk along the riverfront was followed by brunch at a local cafe, after which Wayne and Margie took Linda and I on a scenic tour to the mouth of the Whakatane River, where two magnificently-carved ceremonial waka (maori canoes) lie on display
Bay of PlentyBay of PlentyBay of Plenty

Waikanae Beach in Gisborne
not far from the water.

From Whakatane we then left the Bay of Plenty behind and took the shortcut across to Gisborne – as opposed to the longer route that follows the coast all the way around East Cape – which took us up and up through the beautiful, densely forested Waioeka Gorge; before eventually (after at least half-an-hour of climbing) cresting the pass and beginning the long haul downhill to Gisborne, which sits on Hawke's Bay.

Checking into a holiday park right beside Waikanae Beach, we immediately took advantage of our location by going for a dip in the ocean (which without the incessant wind gusts from the day before was considerably more enjoyable!) before heading into town for dinner at an Indian restaurant, so that Linda could a) have a night off from cooking, and b) satisfy the craving she'd had for Indian food ever since we set out on the road-trip! Unfortunately my plan to stop in for a couple of beers at the Sunshine brewpub on the way home were scuttled by their early closing hours, though admittedly I did make up for this by stocking up with no less than seven of their
Hawke's BayHawke's BayHawke's Bay

Linda in one of Napier's string of waterfront parks
beers at a local bottle shop the following morning...

With Linda having likewise stocked up on fresh fruit and vegetables from the weekly farmers market in Gisborne, we continued on down the coast of Hawke's Bay to Napier, where we enjoyed a leisurely walk along the waterfront after lunch; before heading inland to claim a spot at the Glenfalls DOC campground beside the Mohaka River – which it just so happened we would be rafting down the following day. Just when we thought we couldn't get much better value than spending five nights at DOC campgrounds the previous week for only the cost of a $40 campsite pass, here we managed to find ourselves a peaceful riverside campsite only a ten-minute drive from the pick-up point for our rafting trip the next day – which happens to be totally free! Once again I had the Rankers website to thank, as there were no signs whatsoever from the highway and without having already known about the campground's location there is simply no way we would ever have found it!

But find it we did, and after enjoying a leisurely evening during which the only sounds that could be heard
Rock Walls and WaterfallsRock Walls and WaterfallsRock Walls and Waterfalls

Heading into the Mohaka Gorge on our rafting trip
were the wind in the trees, rushing water from a nearby stream and birdsong, we were up early on Sunday morning full of anticipation for the day ahead... at least until we saw the low blanket of dark grey clouds passing overhead and heard the roar of near gale-force winds tearing through the valley! 'What a brilliant day to go white water rafting' we thought to ourselves...

Thankfully after having arrived at the Mohaka Rafting base – where the weather was even more threatening thanks to their exposed location on top of a hill – we then found the wind to be much more subdued once we had actually arrived at our put-on point on the river itself, though we were certainly glad for the full wetsuit, vest and splash jacket that we had been kitted out with at the base!

Some brief safety instructions later and we were setting off down the river, with just four guests and a guide in each of the two rafts, plus a safety kayaker who followed us downstream and would park himself at the base of any particularly challenging rapids – which given that we were to spend the next five
The Journey AheadThe Journey AheadThe Journey Ahead

View of the Mohaka River from 'House Rock'
hours taking on grade 4 - 5 rapids (the highest commercially-raftable rapids on the scale) was just about every major rapid that we came to!

Thankfully our guides, Nick and Greg, turned out to be true experts, as our route for the day would take us through 18km of virtually-inaccessible terrain through the Mohaka Gorge. And if we were hoping for some sort of gentle initiation we were to be sorely disappointed, as the very first rapid of the trip (the aptly-named Long Rapid) happened to be the longest and perhaps trickiest of the whole journey! With various rapids to contend with one after another, we entered the steep-sided gorge in fine style, with the fitting backdrop of a high waterfall pouring down the cliffs to spur us on!

Lacking the lush tropical rainforest of the Tully River (which had been mine and Linda's only previous rafting trip together) the Mohaka River nonetheless made up for this by it's intriguing rock formations, with rocks laid down layer upon layer in some places – courtesy of two conflicting fault lines running through the gorge – and bizarre conglomerate rock formations (looking like some sort of weird modern art installation)
Team PhotoTeam PhotoTeam Photo

Taking a break atop 'House Rock'
taking centre stage in other places.

Thankfully though not only were our guides excellent at rafting, they also turned out to be pretty decent photographers as well – so that as each raft leap-frogged the other downstream, the guide in the 'resting' boat would take up a position beside the rapid in question and simultaneously act as both a safety spotter and adventure photographer... the results of which we were then all provided with on a usb stick free-of-charge at the end of the day. And since any words that I dare to write would probably fall short of doing the trip justice, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves... but suffice it to say, rafting the mighty Mohaka River was a fitting end to another amazing week on the road in Aotearoa / New Zealand!

Additional photos below
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Every journey starts with a single step...Every journey starts with a single step...
Every journey starts with a single step...

The first of over 500 steps on the climb to the Pinnacles
Twin PeaksTwin Peaks
Twin Peaks

Traversing the ridge below the summit of the Pinnacles
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Mountain-top Luxury

Pinnacles Hut
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Wooden Wonder

Dancing Creek kauri dam
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Swing Bridge

The final bridge of our 7-hour hike in the Kauaeranga Valley

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