After leaving the Bay of Islands we set off with the intention of driving to the Coromandel Peninsula, or at least the beginning of the area. Ken and the map agreed that this was a drive of around 500km's so despite our surprise at the winding roads we still figured that was doable in a day. Unfortunately this was about as wrong as you could get, and by the time we had travelled to about 30km's short of Auckland we were both ready to stop. It wasn't the distance that did us but the constant left and right turns and hills that appear to be the main road design of even the state highways. At about 4.30ish we stopped for a break in Orewa and, after helpful advice from a passing local, decided that the remaining 200km's and the prospect of Auckland rush hour was too much to bear. By investigating in our recently acquired camp site books, a 20 minute drive around random suburbia and a quick stop to ask in the local surf club we found a camp which had been approximately 30 seconds away from where we had started aimlessly driving round.
The next day, determined to actually make it to Coromandel we left early and hit the road once again. We missed the middle of Auckland but still drove over the bridge and got impressive views of the town and Skytower. After another few hours we reach Thames, the official start of the peninsula, and decide that the 19th century, ex gold rush, town is suitable for a lunch stop but there was not really enough for us to stop for the afternoon. So, once again back in the car but this time along long (still windy) coastal roads with lush forest on one side and beaches on the other. Another slow road but definitely a beautiful drive.
The only place we did stop off at on the way was the Waiau Waterworks, about 3km short of Coromandel Town. I have to admit we did find this in the Lonely Planet and not purely by ourselves but by the description of 'a bizarre park filled with whimsical water powered amusements' it seemed like our kind of place. It was, in fact, just as the book described with a truly strange concoction of water powered garden ornaments/gadgets including homemade water wheels with garden equipment as the paddles, Water powered clocks and (my favourite) a large self propelled hamster wheel. After spending an hour or so in the park and another hour or so bruising my knees trying to go loop the loop on the hamster wheel, we set off again and found a very basic DOC site in Waiakawau Bay. By basic I don't just mean basic showers and toilets. Basic in DOC terms means long drop toilets and the relative luxury of an outside cold shower. Still, it was cheap at $18 between us, which wasn't bad. The things the DOC campsites lack they seem to make up for in location and scenery. That evening we had a walk along the beach and watched the sunset reflect off the sea while horses rode past. In the morning, much as the prospect of a cold shower appealed we chose to join the ranks of the great unwashed and forgo the bracing jet of icy cold water. In theory the afternoon's planned destination, roads willing, should negate the requirement to shower...
To explain this a little more we were headed for a place called Ha Hei. The village of Ha Hei is not really that famous in its own right. The population of 270 do live in a great location though with two of the region's biggest attractions on the doorstep. That is possibly why it is said that the population during summer is nearer the 7000 mark; obviously most of these are not permanent residents. Anyway, the reason we were not worrying about the showers was the fact that we were heading to Hot water beach. This is where a geothermal area just by the beach heats up the sea water to almost scalding proportions. Every low tide (around 2 hours either side) the, normally deserted, beach fills with tourists and locals all wielding shovels, towels and a couple of bottles of beer. The next step is to dig your feet into the sand and find the warmest area (hopefully without burning your toes) and finally, start digging a spa sized hole. After a few issues with the waves being still slightly higher than the sand walls around our spa, we teamed up with a friendly German couple and after working out a suitable strategy, produced a very comfortable 4 person spa right there on the beach. It was a very strange feeling to be sitting in warm water on the beach in a hole we had just dug. Unfortunately I can't be sure whether the water was warming me up or the constant digging and wall strengthening that needed to be carried out, but there were a few minutes where we sat in natural spa heaven and discussed travel plans and Audi's with the Germans. 'Vorsprung Durch Teknique'
The other attraction is an area called Cathedral Cove. In the morning, after depositing our rented shovel back with the reception, we drove the few km's over to the car park. I accept that this is one of New Zealand's bigger attractions, especially if you are on a coach tour, but it is always disappointing to be somewhere where it is so busy you can't even get a photo without a random tourist in Speedos getting in the way. (Ok, it's rare to have someone in Speedos when you're on a mountain but in this case we were on a beach in summer so it's kind of understandable. Not forgivable, but yes, understandable). As a slight aside at this point the Speedo man's fashion choice was somewhat eclipsed by the lady wearing a Bikini, hiking boots and hiking socks along the 20 minute path from the car park. I am still not sure which part of the outfit was the least suitable.
Anyway Cathedral Cove itself was a natural limestone arch with pristine beaches and tall rock structures either side. It was still worth the visit but the shine was taken off by the numbers there. We do have to remind ourselves that we are also tourists and everyone has an equal right to be there but we have managed to avoid the crowds for a lot of the trip and it was a shame we didn't manage that here.
Once again after a brief skirmish with the stall holder over the possibility of me putting an empty milk carton in 'her bin' we were back on the road. This time heading for Matamata and apparently catching up the rain.