The Coromandel Peninsula is much bigger than we realized– it took over an hour to drive from Whitianga down to Thames, and all along winding, mountainous, headache-inducing roads. We had to stop for lunch — and a break — in the adorable town of Tairua, where we had some absolutely delicious (and reasonably priced!) sandwiches at Manaia Cafe.
The stressful drive was worth it, though, as Thames ended up being one of my favorite places in New Zealand. The town is situated along what is essentially an oversized harbour, the Firth of Thames, and driving along the highway provides consistently stunning views.
Incidentally, the Airbnb place where we stayed in Thames ended up being one of my favorites as well. Sleeping in a converted garden shed may not sound appealing, but the ivy-covered structure was nothing but cozy and comfortable. It was, in fact, a magical Hobbit-like experience!
After consulting our hosts and several guidebooks, I became fixated on completing the highly regarded, but also highly challenging, 12-kilometer hike to The Pinnacles. I’ve found that it’s helpful to do “warmup” hikes a couple of days in advance of the main event, though, and as a result, on our first full day in Thames we went on the Waiomu Kauri Grove Walk.
The ever-changing terrain, coupled with cheerful fantails chirping and fluttering along the path and, of course, the absolutely massive kauri trees, meant that it turned out to be a very satisfying hike indeed. There are also a lot of old mining relics scattered along the track, which are fun to try to spot.
The following day, we decided to take it a bit easier in anticipation of our Pinnacles hike. We ended up going to the Ngatea Water Gardens, which was an utterly bizarre experience. Despite the lush vegetation and royal white peacocks wandering the grounds, the Ngatea Water Gardens were marred by tacky lawn ornaments, an abundance of unnecessary signs featuring corny puns and outdated jokes, and even a billboard proclaiming some very frightening religious conspiracy theories.
Furthermore, the Gardens didn’t arise out of any sort of communal effort, which explains why the signage is in such poor taste and the design of the Gardens themselves is fractured and idiosyncratic, if occasionally pretty. Rather, the Gardens were the expensive playthings of a wealthy family, and only became publicly accessible (for a fee, of course) a few years ago. There is a massive beer and soda can “museum” plopped in the middle of the garden. While cool, it’s also inexplicably out-of-place, along with the lone sheep its pen, the miniature castle, and the collection of pretty, but expensive, fowl. Even worse, one of the owners of the Gardens is a proponent of a dubious solution called “Miracle Mineral Supplement,” and periodically holds seminars on the premises to promote the product.
Needless to say, I would not recommend visiting the Ngatea Water Gardens if you find yourself in the Coromandel!
After our slight freak-out at the Ngatea Water Gardens, we were able to calm down significantly by taking a dip in the Miranda Hot Springs. Though not constructed in the most aesthetically pleasing manner, the natural mineral pools are utterly relaxing. They smell mildly sulphuric, but I hardly minded the scent while basking in the ~36 degree water (~97 degrees Fahrenheit). In addition, there is an outrageously entertaining giant bouncy dome just past the kid’s pool. We patiently waited until the one kid there finally got called away by his parents, snuck out of the pool, and promptly started jumping and laughing hysterically. Good thing there was hardly anyone there that day.
Somehow we still felt like exploring after our dip in the hot pool, and so we drove to the Kauaeranga Valley and went on an absolutely random walk across a forded stream and into the hills.
We stumbled upon an abandoned wooden house, some rusting farm equipment, a territorial and outraged duck, and a flooded, muddy road. I’m not entirely sure that we were on a legitimate “hiking” trail, but what can you do… So many of the trails in New Zealand zig-zag across private property that sometimes it’s very difficult to sort out whether you’re in someone’s driveway, an old logging route, a proper trail, or just a long-abandoned tractor path.
We got back to the Garden Shed, filled our Camelback, packed our backpacks, and proceeded to get some sleep before the next day’s hike to — The Pinnacles!!
Photo credits: #9 by G., remainder by me.