It may be mildly obsessional but I’ve always been one to connect the dots, complete things, so it’s naggingly irritating that it’s not possible to drive the full circle around the top of Coromandel Peninsula. To the west the road heads north from Colville, along the Hauraki Gulf, and stops just past Port Jackson and to the east it curls its way up the Pacific coast and stops at Stony Bay. And there are eight kilometres of red dots on the AA map not quite connecting these roads as they make a near perfect oval loop around Mt Moehau.
Cape Colville Farm Park, owned by DOC, is the land that links the roads and the dots are a walking path, Coromandel Walkway, that includes magnificent scenery as steep ridges razor from the sea and zigzag up the flanks of the mountain, perfect secret beaches, lush native bush and special not-seen-from-other-places views such as those of the Pinnacles.
I had considered doing the walk, wanted to, but was put off by the logistical challenges. How to get one car at each end without spending all day driving back and forth? Do we pull straws for a sacrificial driver to forgo the walk, drop off the walkers and drive two hours to the other end of the loop to pick them up?
It seemed too hard to organise so became a postponed project but when I heard Coromandel’s Strongman Coachlines have a regular service dropping people off at one end and picking them up at the other the problem was solved. So on a summer Saturday, at nine, at Coromandel town centre, five of us join seven others in the bus - two German tourists and a group of five Aucklanders on a corporate bonding weekend.
Jocelyn Strongman, the feisty sixty-something driver and co-owner of the bus company, with a big smile, bigger wrap-around sunglasses and a handheld loud speaker introduces herself, “What you see is what you get and we have a great day coming up,” and, before the bus gets into third gear, “Someone’s right up my bottom so I’m going to pull over.”
This sets the ambience, though heavens knows what the Germans, with literal English, make of it but everyone is happily chuckling figuring that, with Jocelyn at the wheel, this won’t be a dull journey.
We trundle north through valleys of green pasture with manuka flowering white on steeper hills. Jocelyn points out things of interest along the way; Woman’s Land, a woman-only rural community; the oldest house on the peninsula sitting rather forlornly in Kikowhakarere Bay; Bare Bum Bay were it is accepted that no-clothes goes and near Colville the beautiful, ornately decorated, and weirdly far from Tibet, chorten of the Mahamudra Buddhist Centre.
We stop at Colville Café, where Hadi, ex London, and team make the best coffee on the Cape, the filled-rolls we buy for lunch later are made from bread baked on the premises, the scones are fluffy and cakes take sweet-toothers to heaven. Next door the general store, ‘last stop for supplies,’ is old-world fabulous selling everything; hardware, homeopathics, health food, wine, petrol, fishing tackle, stationary and the usual grocery items. It’s the type of place where one can buy two nails rather than a compulsory pre-packed 50.
Soon after Colville the sealed road stops but Jocelyn, who loves driving and is used to metal roads, is not bothered. And there is no rush. Bush covered Mt Moehau is to the right of us, Ward family’ farms carve wedges of emerald into its flanks and the dusty little road edges Hauraki Gulf, teal green and puckered by a brisk westerly. Pohutukawa trees are the wow-feature; hanging torturously onto cliffs, shading pebble beaches, stretching into an arch above the road and artistically twisting gnarly branches to frame photo opportunities.
Three or four gannets glide on the wind, heading in the same direction as the bus, keeping us company as we toddle past a necklace of little bay’s whose boring names belie their beauty; Little Bay, Sandy Bay, and Shingly Beach. We chug up the Port Jackson hill in low gear and, sitting on the sea side of the bus, I scare myself peering over sheer drops of hundreds of meters to ocean pounded rocks far below but the view at the top is worth the anxt. Jackson Bay, horseshoe-shaped, is filled with blue, brisk white waves tickle its sandy beach and Great Barrier Island caterpillars along the horizon. And the grey blanket of clouds hanging over Hauraki Gulf miraculously dissipates. Look behind and it’s grey and windy; look forward all is blue and sun-sparkles. Magic.
At Fletcher Bay, beyond Jackson’s, the road stops and the walk begins. We put on boots, fill water bottles and fiddle with daypacks and picnics before saying see-ya-later to Jocelyn and striding off up the path. We should have lingered longer at Fletcher Bay, a stunning spot, but we are keen to get on with the walking part of the day. There is no preamble, no gentle incline, but a steep zigzag climb up the hill and before long I’m puffing like an old sheep and can feel my fast heartbeat in my temples.
The first four kilometres are steeply up and down, and not for the faint hearted, but I get into the swing it and we stop often to catch our breath and take in the details of the beauty around us; wide expanses of sea and sky, Great Barrier Island to the north, Cuvier Island to the east, the razor-edged promontory of the Pinnacles, with the spectacularly sky-pointing rocks they are named after at its tip and often, in the foreground, the hills are covered in flowering flax looking surreal in its prolificacy. In some areas the flower spears are tall, tight and not yet unfurled, in others their red flowers are busy with bees and tuis are fat and feeding.
Less than half way into the walk we leave the flax, grass and windswept heights and sidle into a bush-filled valley. Intensive DOC trapping of possums, stoats and weasels - and there are colour-coded signs along the path indicating where trapping lines are - means the bush and bird life is in better shape than it has been for decades. It’s cool, still, shaded and multi-toned green as we walk slowly and quietly down the track. There are cathedral-like glades of nikau, perfectly round ponga crowns make patterned sun umbrellas between us and sky, great puriri trees are sporting little claret blooms and clusters of clematis with cascading bright white flowers look flamboyant in this muted green world.
We hear a waterfall and stream below us as it, too, makes its way to the sea. The path and stream meet the sea in a neat little cove and we stop for lunch selecting a sandy nest between rocks, well beyond the corporate bonders who are deep into food and conversation. While four of us munch our Colville Café rolls our youngest and most restless person strips off his clothes, dives into the sea and swims about as sleekly as a seal. He returns, hair dripping, previously not seen lavish back tattoo glistening, eyes shining, and says it was wonderful but cold.
Those who go down must inevitably go up and when full tummies feel like an afternoon nap, the tinkle of the stream is gently coddling and the sand is soft and warm it’s a rude jolt to be puffing up another massive hill. What we see as we tramp along is more wildly beautiful Coromandel coast and eons of Pacific blue. Mt Moehau, whose sides we climb, is still doing its magic and turning solid grey western cloud into fluffy white that the wind whisks over her peaks.
As predicted by Jocelyn the last three kilometres of the walk are a doddle on a wide track, probably once a road, gently curving around hills rather than going up and down them. Fearless wood pigeons, tuis and fantails do acrobatic tricks at regular intervals just a metre or two away in regrowing bush and when we’re not watching them we walk at quite a pace.
We leave the bush and walk into the north end of Stony Bay and see Jocelyn and the bus waiting.
There are six surfcasting rods standing tall at regular intervals near the middle of the beach and six men drinking beer, keeping a vague eye on their rods and, no doubt, telling tall stories under a huge pohutukawa tree. It’s pretty, peaceful and ironically Kiwi.
It’s almost disappointing, that this stunning walk is ending, but the sun is low and the cup of tea Jocelyn gives us as we greet her is welcome. I stroll along the beach, while waiting for the corporate-bonders to walk out of the bush, and feel a sense of completion having finally, fully, looped the loop.
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