New Zealand: The Coromandel Coastal Walkway

I’d spent the morning in Whitihanga’s library, using the free wifi, hiding from rain that still hadn’t arrived. Annoyed I’d wasted dry hours, restless, I went for a run around town. The toilet block on the beachfront had a cold shower inside. This was a good day to start testing the theory; I need fewer nights on paid campgrounds. The rain started while I ran but I was still feeling hot when I got back to the van. I grabbed my towel, soap, clean pants and jogged down the toilet block. The water comes out so cold I don’t bother taking out my soap. One blast from the shower would have to be clean enough. Once I was warm, dry, and a comfortable distance from the shower I thought I could have gone for a second push on the button. Maybe I could have even gone for a swim in the sea. I didn’t though, did I. I got myself comfortable in the back of the van, watching the rain fall on the windscreen, grateful to be in line with the wind. I had a few cups of tea, enjoyed some snacks. Did you know there are 8 servings in a tube of Pringles? You don’t have to eat them all in one sitting, you can have a treat every night for over a week. A bar of chocolate will comfortably go five nights. The more pieces you break it into, the longer you get to enjoy it for. Will these be valuable lessons I hold on to the next time I have a disposable income? I doubt it. 

The storm peaked in the evening. White capped waves smash over the breakwater. The rain comes down on the roof like an avalanche. The wind grabs hold of both sides of the van and shakes, up, down, left, right. I’m not sure if the weather wants to come in or if it wants me to go out. I woke up in the morning feeling like I’d never gone to sleep. I reluctantly get up. The sign says be gone by 9am. I don’t know where I’m headed yet but I know I’ll be gone. Not that I’m sure how anyone will catch up with me to give me a fine, I’m not looking to be in the position to find out. There’s no point heading to a proper campsite. I’d just as likely be hiding in the van there as I am out in a carpark. I decide to drive over the range to Coromandel Town. The roads are black rivers. I imagine the drive is spectacular when you can see beyond the next corner. I have the heater on full blast, the windscreen is clear. Both the driver and passenger windows are foggy. I can’t believe my luck that I only need to look out of them once. I lean over and rub a window out of the window to make the turn into town. I pull into another car park, in another town, in the unrelenting, still falling rain. The surface of the car park is covered in fast flowing water. The stream in the park beyond the tarmac is running high and brown. I have to move from front to back, so I may as well make a run for the toilet block. The path on the other side of the stream is in a worse state. My feet are soaked. By the time I get back to the van. I am soaked. I climb into the back, carrying a lake in my trainers which I deposit mostly in the footwell. Wind slams in to the side of the van. I’m relieved when a motorhome pulls up on the wrong (for them) side of me. The rain blasts craters in puddles, water moves across the road in waves, it beats down on the roof. Let me in, let me in, let me in.

The assumption is I’ve woken up so I must have fallen asleep. Rain still trickles down the windscreen. The wind has at least given up attempting to get the van to fly. I don’t really know what to do, where to go. I sit in the local supermarket car park for a while, watching other people brave the rain. In the end, I go in too. I buy only essentials, a bag of oats, a box of cheese flavoured Shapes, another bar of chocolate. I visit the information centre. “I came here for the hiking”’ I said, “but with all of this, what else can I do?” I gestured to the sky. The woman would not let me be deterred by the weather. She crossed some of the local walks off a list. These would be no good in the current conditions. There are two kauri groves I could walk through, the trails are good quality so the weather won’t matter. Feeling confident I do as she says. The 1200 year old tree in Long Bay is a behemoth. You’d need at least four, maybe five people to encircle the trunk. I don’t see the trees on the Kauri Block walk until I’m near the end. Having gone from being dwarfed, I was now looking into the tops of the saplings. Will these trees still be here 1200 years from now? Will someone else stand beneath one, looking up, unable to grasp how much time it takes to grow so tall? In the afternoon I commit to a hot shower and doing some laundry. Tomorrow I have decided I will drive beyond the sealed road. Weather permitting or not, I am going to walk the Coromandel Coastal Walkway. I am going to pack my backpack, I am going to sleep in my tent at one end and come back the next day. No matter what.

The last time I loaded up my backpack, with the exception of packing to come to New Zealand, was September last year. I have gone a long time without an overnight hike. I could blame the pandemic. I have had other opportunities, I chose not to take them. I moved from the side to the back of the van, trying to make sure I had everything I needed. I was wildly unprepared for the day. I was too used to having a living room to spread out in, weeks if not months to prepare. My dry bags are filled with clothes. I don’t need to take all of them and end up taking none of them. In the end I reach the point of no return. Too much thinking, not enough action. I complete the important checks. Keys, wallet, phone. The secondary checks, tent, sleeping bag, food, water. Anything else I’ve forgotten I can live without for a night. Driving out I’m faced with the towering, forest covered hills. Waterfalls stream down, carrying the rain back to the sea so it can begin again the journey to becoming a wild weather warning. As has been the way along the Coromandel so far, the scenery is incredible. The sealed road ends, the gravel begins. I’m a little more used to the bumpy, slippery, narrow conditions. Keep left, put your lights on, you’ll be alright. A couple of cars pass the other way. Someone even stops to let me pass. I might be going too fast. I pull in to a lookout. The view always seems to be better from the road. I open the side door to assess the damage the road has done to my possessions. There’s water all over the floor, one of my trainers is saturated. All of my bottles are in the footwell, each one has leaked. They seem to be ok when I stand them up right again. I try to strap things in a little better and carry on. I arrive in Stony Bay in time for lunch and a last minute faff. I go to put my flip-flops in the side pocket for later but for some reason I only have one. How have I managed to lose one? I’ll just have to cope without. 

The very beginning of the walk involves a ford crossing. It doesn’t have to, you can drive through it but I wasn’t comfortable doing my first river crossing in the van with nobody around. Embrace the suffering. The water might not even be that deep. It poured over my ankles, in through the tops of my boots. Now I had three saturated shoes. Look on the bright side, they’re not going to get any wetter. I find the trail rising steadily along the hillside. The going was easy. Considering I was 10 kilos heavier than the last time I went for a walk, my confidence was starting to rise. This might be the most disorganised overnight trip I’ve been on, but I’m out here doing a disorganised overnight trip. To begin with there’s nothing to see, nothing to worry about but the walking. One step, two step. Check in with the feet, wet but otherwise comfortable. Knees? So far so good. My hips are a little annoyed with this sudden, quite unnecessary addition of weight. I hope they’ll get used to it. I march through the smoky black trunks, the low canopy clattering above. Between the trees I get occasional views of the carpeted hills that make up the coastline. In the quiet, I get to thinking. When I opened the side door at the view point, my flip-flop must have fallen out. I’ll have to stop on the way back and see if it’s still there.

I’m not blown away by the beauty of the coastal walkway, I suspect things might be different if I’d been able to come in glorious weather. Instead the conditions are perfect for hiking, dry without being hot. I meet a few people coming the other way, they tell me I’m approaching a steep bit. Nothing has challenged me so far so I’m looking forward to it. The path drops down into Poley Bay. For every step I take down, I have to take one back up. This is a little harder but the climb doesn’t last for long. I cross a fence into farmland. The grass covered hills glow emerald in the flickering sun. Ominous grey clouds huddle in the peaks. I descend to Fletcher Bay. I fill out my form, pay my fee and put up my tent. And relax. I’d made it, 10km with my pack. I was feeling good, tired but good. Hopeful for a quiet night without my earplugs which I knew were tucked under a pillow in the back of the van, I settled in early. Scouting parties of rain would come and check on me from time to time. A little drizzle on the tent. I might have got it up dry but it wouldn’t be coming down like that. 

I don’t really sleep so much as get some rest. I can hear the wind running down the hill. I hear the gusts rattle the trees, by the time it reaches the tent it’s nothing more than a tickle. I pitched behind a row of trees for shelter. This is much more valuable than being able to wake up with a view. The rain continues to announce its presence. Short bursts, followed by longer, heavier showers. Beyond both, keeping time, I can hear waves breaking on the beach. I get packed up early, there’s no chance of getting the tent dry. Rainbows appear, disappear, reappear behind the veils of rain. Sometimes I’m getting wet, sometimes I can see it falling only meters away. I’m back to putting one foot in front of the other. Walking is harder this morning. My body struggling with the weight, with the lack of a decent night’s sleep. Get over this hill, get to the next trail market, get down to Poley Bay, get back up the other side. After a long enough time, things start to settle down. My legs find their rhythm. My body accepts the challenge. The beat goes on.

I can hear shouting behind me. I’d seen a bright orange jacket on one of the lookouts, assuming this person or people were going the other way. The noise gets closer. There’s no way they’re shouting at me. They can’t have seen me. It doesn’t take long for Vincent to catch up with, he continues shouting. “It’s so crazy!” he says. I have no idea what he’s talking about, he doesn’t notice and shouts some more. I realise he’s wearing earphones so maybe the shouting isn’t normal. “Do you have a nice picture?” he asks me. “No,” I reply. “You don’t take any pictures? Not even on your phone?” Oh I have some pictures, none of them are particularly good. He wants me to send them to him anyway, his are no good. They look the same as mine. “Are you just here for a picture?” I ask. “You know how it is, if you go for a walk and no view. What’s the point?” I decide not to follow this up. Vincent stays with me for the remainder of the trail, constantly talking about how crazy it all is. I really don’t know what he’s talking about. We get back to Stony Bay and he asks if he can follow me out. it’s safer in numbers, In case something goes wrong. I lose him around several corners, I pull in anywhere the road widens and wait, and wait, and wait. His car appears, I drive on until I lose him again. It doesn’t take long for me to realise he’s stopping in the middle of the road around a corner to take more photos. I turn another corner, up ahead is the view point. From here I can see the black, foot sized piece of rubber that is my  flip-flop. Yes! Vincent pulls up, I wave my flip-flop at him. He takes the opportunity to leave his car in the road and takes more photos. The sealed road outside Colville relives me of my responsibilities. The next time I stop being able to see Vincent’s car in my rear view mirror is the last time. 

6 responses to “New Zealand: The Coromandel Coastal Walkway

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