If the pandemic has had any silver linings for me, one has undoubtedly been ticking off a handful of domestic travel omissions, Chatham Island and Milford Sound being two of the more exotic destinations.
The 2021 Delta phase nipped a planned spring getaway to the Coromandel Peninsula in the bud, but it remained on my radar - aside from a single night in Whangamata in my early 20s, and slipping along one extreme between the Bay of Islands and Wellington in late 2020 (which could be described as scraping the bottom of the Coromandel barrel), I'd never been.
My driving tolerance has never been particularly high, and nor am I ever not time-poor - the two days' in the car to get there and back has always been a bridge too far. However, this year's proximity of Easter to ANZAC Day opened the ideal opportunity - an 11-day break for the sake of three days' annual leave (bless the university system and its "Easter Tuesday" holiday...).
Sarah and I delayed our departure from Wellington until the morning of Easter Sunday, serving multiple purposes: we had house-guests, Geoff (my father) and Jo from Canberra; we'd give Wellingtonians a chance to flee and clear the roads out of town; and we'd give Aucklanders a chance to head back home from Coromandel at the tail end of the Easter break.
After packing and saying farewells to one set of parents, we enjoyed driving the full length of Transmission Gully for the first time, and then stopped into another set of parents at my brother's place in Waikanae. We found them in the early throes of a fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzle which lengthened our stay by almost an hour, but with the side benefit of more of their company.
The roads were indeed pretty empty, and the driving was relaxed through to Taihape, where we decided to stop for the day. Unfortunately, I was thinking too much of a ride in the countryside, and not enough about the 2022 edition of Paris-Roubaix which would have been available to watch in at least one of the other motels in town. Live and learn, I suppose...
I'd strategically packed an AA map of the region, and scoped out an interesting loop to the east of town that appeared to be the right sort of length. It proved to be so, though throughout I wished I'd paid a bit more attention to the likely temperature range, and had dressed accordingly.
The area was fascinating, and we enjoyed a couple of gravel sections that took us even further off the beaten track than the sealed back-country roads we used. Sarah didn't seem to be enjoying herself that much, and so spectacular natural features were very welcome indeed.
|Exhibit 1: the Moawhango River gorge
I'd randomly chosen an anti-clockwise loop, but it turned out to be a stroke of luck. Part way through a long climb, we passed a walnut tree which had all but filled the gutter with ready-to-eat walnuts. Not only were they there in abundance, but they were also very easy to get into, and Sarah's roadside feast did wonders for her appreciation of the ride, and my eagle-eye bought me a helpful bit of credit too!
Before leaving Taihape, we'd booked a night's stay in Waihi, and I planned to ride the Karangahake Gorge section of the Hauraki Rail Trail as a nice leg-loosener. When we arrived, the conditions were not ideal: wet, chilly, and windy. Fortunately, our B&B hosts were happy for us to check in early, which meant at least we set off knowing we could leap straight into a hot shower at the end of the ride.
After a quick coffee stop, we found the trail head, and got stuck in. Initially the trail design was bizarre - short, steep sections, and sharp turns, presumably necessary to navigate land access constraints. Those were soon a perplexing memory, and once we reached the old rail bench near Waikino, we were treated to some fascinating ruins from back in the gold-rush days.
|Victoria Battery remnants
The weather was slowly deteriorating, and as such, the usual ride highlight - a 1.1km decommissioned railway tunnel - took on extra significance as a 1.1.km-long umbrella.
We decided to ride all the way into Paeroa, and hope that we could find somewhere to have a coffee that would accept us in our wet and somewhat muddy state.
|Fascinating flood-gates on the side-road into town
We got lucky with the "Big Cafe and Bakery" - not only with the seating arrangements, but the quality of the custard squares. That they toppled Waipukurau's Angkor Wat off the top step required going back for seconds...
On the way home, we had a stiff headwind to deal with, plus we were travelling up river. I rode the highway back as far as the bridge at Waitawheta Road, while Sarah preferred the muck coming up off her tyres over the traffic and rejoined the rail trail just in time to ride through the tunnel again.
|Sarah, having just emerged from the tunnel - which passes under the highway and straight onto a bridge
Once we regrouped, we briefly checked out a sign-posted waterfall, and then took a back road into Waihi, where true to form, a hot shower awaited.
We woke to rain, and rather than have our second wet ride in as many days, decided to go to see my sister in Auckland. Her two younguns were home, and we were treated to their great company (for the first time in over a year), scones, and access to a washing machine. It made a mighty fine alternative to whatever the Coromandel might have served up for the day.
At a service station in the Bombay Hills we booked a room for two nights in Thames - riding holiday back on!
Stats: 0km ridden, many driven.
The following morning we had breakfast in our room before suiting up and rolling out. Not far south out of Thames, we picked up another peripheral section of the Hauraki Rail Trail, and enjoyed the off-road route it provided into Kopu.
|A heron chilling on the handrail
After a quick coffee, we started on the Kopu-Hikuai Road (SH25A) that would take us across to the other side of the peninsula.
A few kilometres in, and just as the main climb was starting, Sarah pulled over and asked me to take a look at one of her eyes - she could feel her contact lens was somewhere it didn't belong. After a minute or so, she successfully retrieved half the lens and seemed comfortably convinced that the other half was gone as well.
By this stage we'd been riding just over 11 kilometres, with another 110 or so to ride. While Sarah was capable of proceeding, a long day with just the one lens seemed far from ideal, and unfortunately she only (traditionally) packs spares on MTB rides. I made a call that spared us a day of second-guessing ourselves, and improved the likelihood that Sarah would enjoy the day. We agreed to meet up in Tairua, but not before a quick kiss, and a check that I had our motel key - which I'd need 11km later!
It took me about 50 minutes to return to the same spot, a couple of spare pairs of lenses tucked in the baggie with my KN95 mask - essential cycling kit these days! A couple of hours after that, I arrived at the bakery on the outskirts of Tairua and got stuck into lunch while Sarah gratefully sorted out her vision.
A few minutes after leaving the bakery, I was surprised to discover Tairua was a much bigger town than I'd first assumed. As we cruised along the main drag, I noticed a wee bike shop down an alley, and thought we might as well pop in to see if they had the requisite pads in stock. With luck, they did, and all but forced me to use their shop stand and tools to effect the replacement! It was a lovely interaction, and was the day's second major inconvenience averted.
After the best part of 30 kilometres more on sealed roads, we reached Coroglen, to discover both our turnoff, and a pub. The latter seemed worth a short visit, and after a cold drink each, we began the day's second crossing of the peninsula's mountainous spine - this time on gravel, and in the westward direction. It didn't take long for us to realise we'd struck gold!
While the forest was freaking awesome, the road surface was less so. Fortunately, it never quite got as bad as it seemed poised to, and while wet and at times a bit churned up, our bikes never became inundated with mud.
On the upper reaches of the climb, which peaked out at just over 400 metres above sea level, we started passing mature kauri - some quite literally on the roadside.
Thursday - Pigs
The following morning we drove further up the peninsula to Coromandel Township. After a mid-morning coffee, we drove to our booked bed-and-breakfast accommodation, where our hostess Lou kindly permitted us to leave the car for the day.
We unloaded the bikes and suited up, and not a minutes' riding from Lou's gate, began the sternest climb of the trip, up Whangapoua Rd to Maungataururu Lookout. Due to the double-digit gradients, even factoring in our cold legs, it didn't take long to get views back over Coromandel Township.
|I'm likin' this sign!
Between the morning's drive and the monster hill, time had marched on. Whangapoua itself was a significant detour, but not far down the road was the turnoff to Matarangi, which we took. There we found a fascinating seaside village which seems to be in a state of rapid expansion. It seems a world away from Auckland, but at less than three hours' driving, I guess that's the point!
It wasn't before the closure justification became evident - we didn't linger, and enjoyed the rest of the car-free road. A few dozen more holiday homes and a small hill later, we rejoined the main route, bound for Whitianga.
A short highway bash took us through to the start of "309 Road". It took almost an hour for my hunch to be confirmed - that the road was named after its maximum elevation. While waiting for Sarah, I probably should have lifted my bike over my head to get my GPS to the requisite height - it was reading 308m above sea level wheels down.
While the weather was a slight improvement on the previous day's, the road and scenery were definitely a solid step down. The bush was nice enough, but didn't reach the lofty bar the Coroglen-Tapu Road had set. And, despite being drier, the road surface was rougher, and all in all, it just wasn't quite as enjoyable.
There was a short walk to see some kauri which we didn't do as we neither wanted to leave our bikes, nor did we feel comfortable taking them through the dieback disinfection station. On the upside, we did take a short track to see a little waterfall...
The day's forecast was not at all good, and the area was under a couple of Severe Weather Watches on the Metservice website, at least one of those for heavy rain.
I'd planned to do a loop around the top of the peninsula, with a few variants possible. While we hadn't woken to rain, the forecast was hard to ignore, and the best option seemed to be to drive together to Colville, and then set off north up the western coastline - pan-flat compared to the second half of the ride, but easier to bail on if the weather got as foul as predicted.
My rear shifting had been playing up the previous afternoon, somewhat out of the blue. I was delighted to discover that the bolt attaching my derailleur to the bike was loose - always best to have a clear explanation for a mystery problem. Once tightened, everything seemed in order, and for good measure, I gave both drive trains a nice wipe down and fresh lube for the day ahead.
We drove to Colville, and parked up across the road from a burger joint that we hoped would be open when we returned. After a few minutes on sealed road, we reached a T-intersection and the start of a long unsealed loop.
Our direction of travel was predominantly northwest, and the road was invariably right on the coastline. Up ahead, we could see rain over the Hauraki Gulf and ominous black clouds, but aside from a bit of light drizzle every now and then, it seemed to be holding off. In the meantime, the riding was delightful.
The run into Port Jackson signalled we'd begun the second, hilly phase of the ride. Remarkably, we were wetter from sweat than we were from rain, and it seemed almost a shame to have to walk our bikes through a ford before the next major climb began.
Once elevated, we could clearly make out Little Barrier Island to the northwest, and the sprawling Great Barrier Island to the north. (One day...) The road and its views made for great riding through to the road's terminus at Fletcher Bay.
Without much of a pause, we picked up the walking/MTB track which would take us through to the next dead-end road at Stony Bay. It was a rough climb to start with, which we made no attempt to ride. After a short descent, we were going uphill again, and while it may have been possible to nurse our slick rear tyres up the steep slope, a tactical walk seemed wise.
It was a blessed relief when we reached a stile, beyond which the track conditions improved sufficiently to do some actual riding.
Before long we were confronted by what the Kennett Bros describe as "quite the conundrum" (Bikepacking Aotearoa, Coromandel Peninsula route). Signage had warned us that the MTB route was slippery when wet, and not recommended in those conditions, so naturally we went with the alternative - not a conundrum at all...!
After the traverse of the farmland, pretty much anything would have seemed pretty nice, but even in absolute terms, most of the trail was very sweet indeed. There was one section which we didn't ride much of - a steep descent into a wee cove, followed by a steep grovel up and out of it. But the bush was stunning (plenty of nīkau again), and the state of the trail was awesome as well. It was almost as if it had been built with our fat-tyred road bikes in mind.
We didn't rush, and took various opportunities to stop and admire our surroundings. Sitting on a particularly high-off-the-ground seat, I amused Sarah by swinging my legs in mid-air like a little boy.
After a long period of riding high above the ocean, we dropped down to Stony Bay, to find a decent number of groups camping, and more arriving just as we were leaving. After another climb and a bit of undulation, we descended again, this time into Port Charles. There we saw four guys on motorbikes which looked more suited to urban commuting than remote gravel roads - they also had consecutive number plates which added to the intrigue.
From Port Charles, we turned inland, and soon after were pleasantly surprised to see signage for a cafe at the Tangiaro Kiwi Retreat Lodge. While the ice-creams we chose from the freezer were instantly gratifying, our coffees took an eternity to arrive - the poor barista was also trying to hold the fort at reception, and I guess the clients there were worth a few more bob than the two grubby cyclists...
With a pick-me-up on board, the next three hills were dispatched with no trouble at all (also helped by each being successively smaller than the last), and we returned to Colville to find our car unmolested. Unfortunately both the burger joint and the convenience store were closed, but it was only a short drive back to Coromandel, showers and dinner.
On the drive we wondered how the weather forecasters could have got it so wrong, but as it turned out, they hadn't - the rain had passed south of us. Lou, our hostess, had tried to get to Whitianga on the road we'd ridden the previous day, but hadn't made it past Simpson's Beach due to a very swollen river, and a closed bridge.
It was time for us to leave the peninsula. I had planned a walk the following day, and to set us up for that, I wanted to spend the night in Whakatane. En route, we'd planned to do a glass-bottomed boat ride out of Whitianga, but alas, that had been cancelled the previous evening due to forecasted swells.
The sea conditions when we reached Whitianga weren't much to speak of, so we checked whether indeed the cancellation was still in effect - it was (visibility would be lousy, we were told) - so we rang the competition and signed on for a shorter sightseeing hoon. We had to hustle to get to the departure point at Cooks Beach, and I was somewhat relieved to find a coffee cart there, and just enough time to enjoy it before our hour-long ride began.
The shorter, earlier boat tour gave us an unexpected couple of hours back, so we enjoyed a bit of a walk on the beach at Whangamata before stopping next in Waihi. I'd never seen Martha Mine, but knew it was worth looking for. Even so, it was shocking to see this humungous hole in the ground, barely a few minutes walk from the main drag! We went back to the car to get the bikes, and did a 5km lap of the perimeter track in civvies.
The ride was most enjoyable, both in terms of the remarkable mining infrastructure, but also that for the first time in the trip, it was neither cold nor wet!
|Approaching the old pump station
Once back in the car, I was transfixed on a single question, framed in terms of tummy buttons - would Mt Maunganui's outie fit into Martha Mine's innie?! Rather than resort to answering the question by a bit of internet research (which I'm about to do), it seemed like we'd get a decent sense of the answer by simply riding around the Mount. The Martha Mine pit rim track had been just under 5km, and so I'm guessing the pit edge itself might be more like 3.5-4km long.
Before long we were rolling again, and somewhat overcome by curiosity, I was less attentive to signage at Mauao (aka The Mount) than I should have been. About halfway around the mountain, having seen not a single cyclist, in began to dawn on me that we were riding the trail elicitly (albeit sensibly and courteously to walkers and runners). Soon after that alarm bell started to go off, we were advised by a couple of individuals that we shouldn't be riding, and duly walked the rest, feeling a bit sheepish. It had been a costly discovery, but the perimeter was just under 3.5km... It looks like a big hill, but so too did the mine look like a huge hole in the ground. The jury was still out.
Maybe I should have stuck to online research. According to Wikipedia, Mauao is 232m high, and while it isn't easy to find the depth of the open pit at Martha Mine, Strava's base map has contours suggesting it is only about 120m deep. How demotivating, and rather than getting stuck into some maths-geekery, I'm going to guess and answer my original question with "probably not".
Armed with the "maybe" that the perimeter track lengths were suggesting, I was able to suitably focus the night-time, pre-dinner drive to Whakatane. After check-in, we walked into town and eventually found a nice Turkish restaurant that would take us (and that was before he knew Sarah was his first ever Mongolian customer...)!
While Sarah's pretty damn hopeless at keeping surprises an actual surprise, I'm good at it. So, she had no clue where we were headed, at least not until a few minutes beyond the i-SITE in Kawerau. Three consecutive turns in complete agreement with prominent "Tarawera Falls" signage later, the gig was up... Still, these falls have a unique aspect to them, so the suspense remained.
When I first read about this waterfall - in an article on The Guardian of all places - I had to ask myself "how is this not more well-known?!" Despite that only being a few months ago, I've been looking for an opportunity to see the falls since, and the day had promptly arrived.
As I'd bought a permit online, a visit to the i-SITE was only necessary to test the waters regarding the "40 minute drive ... on unsealed road" mentioned in the article. The permit application process had seemed to rule out accessing the trail head by bicycle, but there had also been a mention of recreational access to the forest. The clerk at the info desk made it quite clear we were expected to go in by car (yes sir, even on a Sunday), and after the previous evening's stuff up, I had no inclination to disrespect yet another landowner's wishes.
The signage continued to be awesome all the way to the parking area (much less so on the way out of the forest, FYI). The falls itself was a short walk, along which were impressive natural features, including the crystal-clear river we'd soon see cascading down a cliff.
When we reached the waterfall, it really was a stunning sight, not to mention unusual.
After admiring the falls for a few minutes, we proceeded further along the track, which took us above the waterfall. It was incredible to hear gurgling coming from dry gullies, and to see flowing water simply vanish into the ground.
|There one moment, gone the next
Given the nice conditions, and no pressing need to get back to the car, we decided to go all the way to the river's source, Lake Tarawera, to make an 11km round trip. We saw other people occasionally, but mostly the walk was all about the natural wonders.
|Lake Tarawera Outlet ahoy
Compared to the forests we'd been riding through on the peninsula, the trees here seemed less ancient, but the way they interacted with the landforms blew our minds from time to time.
Once back at the car, we drove out of the forest, and found a local bakery for a late lunch. Next stop was an obscure swimming hole south of Rotorua which Jenifer Silva kindly introduced me to many years ago. It is always very nice to drop back in every couple of years, and particularly to find that it hasn't yet become a commercial venture!
We bypassed Taupō, and paused at Turangi to assess our overnight options. I didn't much feel like driving all the way back to Wellington, and knew that it would be dark by the time we got to the other end of the Desert Road. After much deliberation, we decided to pull the pin, and had a lovely restful evening as a result.
After the Paris-Roubaix screw up, I'd wised up with the motel selections, so in theory, had the opportunity to watch La Doyenne, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, on Sunday night. In practice, the men's race started way past my bedtime, and so the morning replay seemed the better option. Unfortunately, it too had stiff competition, and in the end, rather than watch folk cycling on TV between 8 and 10am, these folk decided we'd be better to ride bikes ourselves.
After a few wrong turns, we found our way onto a lovely bit of single track alongside the Tongariro River. It seemed feasible that we could do the full 15km loop and make it back to our accommodation by the published check-out time, but just in case, I decided to leave the SH1 side of the river until last, lest we have to make a dash home.
|Turangi's autumn leaves
The grade 2 trail was lovely, and our bikes were perfect for it. We didn't come across too many other users, so could travel fairly quickly, but nonetheless, I was conscious of plying on a bit of pressure to ride fast.
Any concerns I might have had about Sarah's enjoyment of the morning ride were dispelled when we finally crossed the river. I pointed out we were going to be struggling to get back by the check-out time, and wondered out-loud about heading back on the road. "You're welcome to - I'll stay on the track" was the response! Given how content our motelier seemed when we returned a few minutes before 10am, we surely could have got away with riding the whole thing, but in the end we skipped the last couple of kilometres - a great excuse to stop in Turangi again!
The ride was just the thing to set us up for a relaxed drive back to Wellington, and we even hit Ōtaki early enough that we didn't spend too much time stationary.
Stats: 19km ridden
* * *
I haven't done many cycling holidays in this format, and so it was a novelty. I know these things are blindingly obvious, but from the point of view of someone who's done a lot of point-to-point cycle tours recently, there's a lot to be said for the car as a means to haul extra gear (on the trip, the workstand and cleaning facilities were particularly useful), to lock stuff inside and/or to, and to travel further and in less time than you might achieve with a traditional cycle tour. Will trade again, almost surely.
We were both really happy with the routes we rode, including the distances, surface, and scenery. 450km over 9 days (only 7 of which we rode on) was plenty, and not too much. It gave us the chance to mix in more non-bike time than usual, including the visit to my sister, the walk, boat ride, and soak. Despite both of us being a little less in shape than in years past, we're gelling more than ever on and off the bike.
|Bottom to top: Karangahake Gorge, loop with Coroglen-Tapu crossing in the north, loop with 309 Rd in the south-west, Colville loop (and the "2020 grazing" also evident)
Having properly popped my Coromandel cherry, I'm keen to get back there. I highly suspect the next trip will involve multi-modal transport - flying to Auckland, shuttle to down-town, then ferry to Coromandel township (with bike bags left at an overnight hotel in Auckland perhaps). With an after-work flight to Auckland, the ferry timetable looks like you could do shorter rides post- and pre-ferry trip, with full-day rides in between, and Coromandel Township has plenty of nice loop options - combining both 309 Road and Coroglen-Tapu Rd in a single loop would be an absolute cracker, and there's the Colville-Kennedy Bay loop to do as well. The trick will be getting there when it is not slammed with Aucklanders (and foreign tourists soon enough, I suppose).
From time to time Sarah and I daydream about a retirement location. Based on what we experienced during our short visit, somewhere on the peninsula wouldn't be a terrible choice, particularly given that Auckland Airport isn't actually that far away... For now, it sits high on the domestic getaway list.