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Saturday 1 Feb 2014
Whitianga, New Zealand

Cathedral Cove

I left Coromandel and made my way slowly towards Whitianga, on the eastern side of the peninsula.  There were two possible routes, one of which was the 309 Road, a gravel road directly across the peninsula, which used to be the old coach road.  This 21-km road has become a tourist route now, with a number of trails, attractions and picnic stops on the way.  I was tempted to go this way, but I’d had a recommendation to visit Opito Bay from an old school friend who lived out here for a few years.

So instead, I followed State Highway 25 around the top of the peninsula.  It was much like the road up from Thames.  Meandering along the coast, it started low, then rose up through dense forests, before breaking out and offering magnificent views across the rolling green hills to the sparkling turquoise waters of the Hauraki Gulf, studded with green islands as far as I could see.  The Bay of Islands might be up in Northland, but this area could easily compete for the title.  The drive over took much longer than it should have done because of all the times I had to pull over and admire the view. 

Heading off the highway, I followed a gravel road until I came to the wide sweeping Otama Beach, then carried on across a rugged stretch of coastline that reminded me a little of Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway in California.  Finally, I dropped down into Opito Bay, a surprising patch of civilisation in this isolated place.  I parked up and went for a walk along the beach.  Had the sun been out, it would have been a beautiful place to spend the afternoon, but it was overcast and bitterly windy, so I didn’t stay more than 20 minutes.  Still, I’d enjoyed the discovery and headed back to rejoin the highway down to Whitianga.

I found the YHA in Whitianga and bought some food for the week.  The hostel was divided among five buildings, so we had a kitchen and bathroom between two rooms.  I was the first to check in and cooked up another batch of chili.  Two English girls arrived later on and we spent the evening chatting and playing cards. 

Abby and Emma were both 25 and spending a year in New Zealand on work and travel visas.  My life could have gone a very different route if I’d known about work and travel visas and done that at 25 instead of buying a house.  We decided to go down to Hahei and Hot Water Beach.  It was about half an hour’s drive up to the Cathedral Cove car park on the cliff edge above Hahei.  Unfortunately, it was a very small car park and we did several trips up and down trying to park.  In the end, we squeezed into the corner of the grass roundabout in the middle of the turning point (along with four other cars!)

We had a pleasant 45-minute walk down the trail to Cathedral Cove.  Last year I paddled around here in sea kayaks from Hahei beach, so it was fun to come in from a different route.  The beach was a beautiful as I remember, perfect golden sand tucked into two bays separated by a cliff.  The name comes from the huge angular archway eroded through the cliff, creating a cathedral-like tunnel between the two beaches.  At high tide, the water level comes right up to cover the sand completely.  The water was still high, so didn’t venture too far from the tunnel for fear of getting stuck on the wrong side.  Instead we had a quick swim, (getting a little battered by the strong waves) and dried off in the sun, before climbing back up the path to the car. 

We were on a tight schedule in order to get down to Hot Water Beach at the right time to dig our own hot pool.  There is a window of time a couple of hours either side of low tide when the beach is exposed and the water level is right.  Ground water is superheated by a fissure way below the sand, causing it to rise back up and seep out in this 10m stretch of beach.  We’d rented spades at our hostel but we struggled to find room to dig.  There were already a hundred people trying to claim a patch of territory, digging holes, leaping about with scalded feet, or just wandering around looking a bit confused by the whole thing as they failed to find any hot water at all.  We tried to find our own hot water spot without causing anyone else’s sand walls to collapse.  An Aussie family gave us their pool as they were leaving, so we jumped in eagerly before anyone else could claim it.  The pool was big enough for ten people, but the water was so hot in one corner, that we could only sit in the far side where it had mingled with enough cold to make it bearable. 

The Stray and Kiwi Experience buses were already on site and we were joined by various backpackers trying to stay in the hot side of the pool as long as they could.  A young lad walked through and gingerly tested the water with his toes.  We warned him it was hot, but he had to test it for himself.  He stuck his foot in, leapt backwards and said gravely, ‘Yep. That’s hot,’ before calling his little brothers over to show them, with great authority, what he had found. 

We stayed there for an hour or so, watching the tide slowly creep its way further up the beach.  Every so often a great cry went up as a particularly big wave breached the walls of the pools nearest the water, flooding them with cold water and sending people leaping out of the way.  We cringed as they got closer, expecting each wave to be the one that would get us, but when it finally came, we weren’t actually looking, so got caught out.  It was big enough to take out at least six pools at once and left a smooth expanse of flat sand in its wake. 

We headed back over to Whitianga and bought fish and chips from a shop on the corner of the beach.  It didn’t look like much, but it turned out to be the best fish I’d had in New Zealand.

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #4 New Zealand and Australia

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