We had only planned to stay an hour or so, visiting with a Facebook friend in Tairua, a small town on the southeast coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. But it was seven hours and six new friends later before we left.
Many of us have Facebook “friends” we never knew outside the virtual world, connections of connections that might have commented on some thread or shared an opinion, and appeared to be live human beings in the real world.
So, when we scheduled a visit to the Coromandel, we set up a get-together with our Facebook friend here.
As is often the case in travel, you learn to expect the unexpected, however much you prepare with a guidebook or quiz those who have been where you’re going. Without surprises and discoveries, travel becomes kind of pointless. All we really knew about our Facebook friend was that she painted artworks inspired by Maori designs and had two young daughters.
The unexpected is what we got.
We found her living in a small development that might have been a suburban neighborhood in America. In contrast to the bungalows around her though, she and her family occupied an empty lot, with a set of well-appointed trailers and tents for shelter.
As we looked about somewhat perplexed, she emerged through the gate in her iron fence to greet both us and another visitor arriving at the same time. Ushered in, we thought for a moment we had walked into a 60s style commune.
The other visitor was one of two long-time woman friends staying with her for a few days. One was an inquisitive, jumpy Aussie from Melbourne, who quizzed us avidly about our lifestyle and travels, but then spent most of the time with the daughters she clearly knew quite well. The other, who arrived when we did, turned out to be a Kiwi originally from the Netherlands by way of South Africa, a committed adherent to new age thinking and practices.
Mostly what we all had in common was an interest in consuming wine and cheese for hours under one of the tent canopies. And talking incessantly about travel, astrology, children and education, religion and spirituality, cultural differences in America…and, most oddly, conspiracy theories.
We were particularly intrigued by our FB friends’ own lifestyle. Though her partner rehabbed houses usually an hour away in Auckland, they had moved away from that “big city” to this beach town. There all of them could live a more relaxed small town life, so her daughters could roam free over the town, hit the beaches after school and on weekends, and develop an artistic ability they had inherited from her. It was a choice that clearly enhanced all of them.
We stayed through dinner, as the conversation grew more heated about our different perspectives on the world, more intimate about the delights and hardships of our lives, and more languid about our visions of spirituality. The frictions added interesting shadings to our generally sympathetic and open-hearted listening. When we left, we all felt we had explored each other’s characters as deeply as if we had been together years. We embraced each other warmly, in gratitude for the experience.
Independently of this fortuitous get-together, we truly enjoyed our week in the Coromandel, savoring natural wonders and more of the unexpected.
We did the tourist highlights. On Hot Water Beach, amid visitors old and young, in a melting pot of languages and nationalities, we shoveled a shallow wallowing place in the sand where hot water seeped to the surface.
Then we lounged in the heated waters of the natural hot tub we had created. Ours was ideal: we could use our spade to scoop more mud from one end to add cooler water, or add hot water by hollowing out the other end. It turned out to be much more fun – and social – than we anticipated.
Nearby, in a stream of visitors, we trekked along the shoreline to Cathedral Cove, a massive limestone cavern you can walk through to reach a compact, but lovely beach, dominated by a looming, pyramidal rock.
Unlike most, however, we plunged into the ocean which was surprisingly warm for this time of year. Then we followed the beach in the other direction to a couple of small caves exposed by the low tide and relished a natural shower from water spilling off the cliff edge.
We even joined another horde of tourists aboard a forty year old narrow gauge rail line twisting up the hills near Coromandel Town. An impressive and quaint project initiated by native pottery artist Barry Brickell to supply himself and other artists with clay, the diesel-powered trains now haul hundreds of thousands to an octagonal wood lookout called the “Eye-full Tower.”
But we also did more adventurous exploration on land and sea. The day after our swim at Cathedral Cove, we kayaked along the otherwise inaccessible coastline to its north, rolling up and over deep waves on the windy day and barreling into cavernous lagoons.
And we certainly had not expected them, or how well we could handle the swelling waves.
A few days before that we had enjoyed much calmer, sunlit kayaking in the vast bay of islands off Coromandel Town on the west coast. We slipped past hundreds and hundreds of lines breeding green-lipped mussels, which were harvested by mini-tankers chugging frequently by us.
The irregular coastline offered dozens of isolated beaches, one of which we settled into for our lunch.
Then, a short climb to a promontory on the adjacent headland opened up an eye-catching vista over the bay: to the right, many of the islands within the bay; ahead, the open ocean; to the left, an inviting estuary winding thru grassy hills. It was such a charming spot that we left grudgingly, though the kayaking gave us pleasure enough.
Farther south, we did a few steep hikes up the volcanic hills fronting the Firth of Thames to the west. One took us straight up 350 meters (1200 feet) for a half hour to a viewpoint over the Firth all the way to Auckland’s Rangitoto Island.
The trail then wound downward for several more hours thru pristine rainforest, a world apart. Our climb the next day added another 350 meters in a more gradual ascent through rainforest and kauri groves, plus a final demanding climb to an outcropping with a breath-taking view over the forest we had just passed and the Firth as well.
We finished our Coromandel trip with about three hours walking along the old rail trail within Karangahake Gorge. Bikers passed by on their way to Thames, taking advantage of part of the 80-kilometer extent of the trail.
With just slight elevation changes, we passed below the steep hills of the gorge and, surprisingly, through a kilometer-long tunnel. Then we returned alongside the remains of gold mining operations dating from the late 19th century and a boulder-strewn waterway.
Nor would any hike around here be complete without yet another delightful Kiwi waterfall. And yes there was quite a nice one along the way.
For all these impressive natural pleasures, however, amid the volcanic hills of the peninsula and on its bays, we will most remember the Coromandel for those virtual friends in Tairua that unexpectedly became very real to us.
(Also, for more pictures from New Zealand, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the New Zealand itinerary page.)