Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Coromandel: It's Always Nice in Paradise

The Coromandel juts out into the Pacific Ocean forming the eastern edge of the Hauraki Gulf. It has a string of mountains down its spine, some of NZ's North Island's best white sand beaches along it's eastern coast and cute gold mining towns along it's west. Although its only a few hours from Auckland, it feels like an isolated world away.

First thing first, we stop for ridiculously expensive gas (From $1.84-$1.99/litre here!! Think about that next time there is pandemonium when gas tops $1 at home) It's a gorgeous day. Jonathan says so to the cashier when he goes in to pay for the gas. 'Well, of course, It's always nice in paradise' the cashier replied. Good start. With a spring in our step we headed up the west coast. We stopped in the dramatic Coromandel Forest Park to take in the mountains and then headed straight for the top. Since there was 35km of windy, steep gravel road between the last town and the campsite at the tip of the peninsula, we decided to go stay at the 'closer' campsite, only 28km down the gravel road. Now 28km is not far, say, between Niagara and St. Catharines, but let me tell you, 28 km down a NZ gravel road takes at least an hour. We bump and swerve along as camper-vans twice our size try to squeeze between us (driving on the left, keep in mind) who are dangerously close to the edge of a guard-rail-less cliff and the steep mountain side which is hemming them into our lane. Or their lane. Who can tell really. There probably only is the one lane. Anyways. We arrived safely at the site to only to remember that it is a NZ long weekend. Labour Weekend. The site is packed to the gills with elaborte camp fortresses, beer drinking men and screaming children. Ahhh camping is so relaxing. We squeeze ourself into a little alcove wondering how this gem of a (almost) private area could still be available. What did we miss? In NZ at these Department of Conservation sites there is generally a grassy area, or serveral grassy areas that you simply drive on to, stopping to camp where-ever suits your fancy. We grabbed our chairs and headed to the rocky beach to watch the fisher-people, kayakers, scuba divers and the sunset.

The next day we decide that parents of screaming children would most likely not torture themselves by driving the extra 7km up (and down, and up again) the increasingly steep narrow gravel road to the most remote campsite, at the very tip of the peninsula, Port Jackson. With this as motivation, we were back on the road. Every hairpin turn had me closing my eyes and grabbing for my camera almost simutaneously. Port Jackson is a 2km beach with camping on the small dunes, just our of reach of those nasty high tides. It is perfect. We set up our little campervan (aka:parked it) in a little spot between two native Puka trees, right smack dab on the ocean. And what to our wandering eyes do appear? Killer whales breeching in the bay! At least 3! Maybe a pod! We watch them in wonderment when our camping neighbour comes over to make sure we see them. He says that they come almost everyday and sometimes they ever sweep in around close to shore! And do we want some fresh water to fill up our jug?

It is still pretty busy here, being the Sunday of the long weekend, but every Kiwi on the beach is so friendly and wants to talk. 'How are you liking your Holiday?' ' What do you think of NZ?' 'Where are you going next?' 'How long are you staying up here?' 'There's a nice hike at the end of the beach over there you should try...' Once Jonathan goes to brush his teeth and doesn't come back for an hour. But I'm not worried. Between the exuberant Kiwi friendliness and Jonathan's need to smile and say 'hi' to everyone, including passing livestock, (isn't it great how lovingly Kristen portrays me in these stories?) we have a recipe for hours and hours of distraction. Needless to say, he returns to our heavenly site with stories of lore from Terry, a Kiwi luger.

Terry was on the 1989 NZ Olympic luge team at the Calgary Olympics. It is amazing in itself to have made it to the Olympics. That celebrated accomplishment is one shared by every individual who competes in the games, winter or summer. The dedication to training and exercising needs likely to be borderline fanatical for an athlete to be in peak physical condition so as to respond as efficiently as possible to the twists and turns and all the challenges wrought with high speed, high adrenaline and high pressure sporting. The sheer determination that pushes every athlete into the Olympics can't be denied. Imagine the blood, sweat and tears that every Canadian Olympic slalom skier parted with to raise her or his game to the level they did. But without taking away any of that, Terry competed at the winter Olympics in luge and comes from a tropical island. Jamaican bob-sled team, anyone? He trained incredibly hard for two years by putting four shopping cart wheels on a sled and drove across the whole of New Zealand just to climb a new hill and sled (or luge) down it. After knowing and experiencing luge as solely a summer sport, Terry's soon-to-be coach approached him and asked if he knew some countries in the world only knew luge to be a winter sport...with snow and ice. Needless to say it didn't take Terry much convincing and he had flights booked all of Europe and even Canada to have a go with blades on his sled rather than shopping cart wheels (I don't know how his particular wheels were, but aren't those ones that spin around and do everything except roll pretty annoying?). He was such an enthusiastic story-teller. And he was very generous too: by the end of our chat he was asking if Kristen and I wanted to swing back around here at Christmas so that he and his family could have us as guests! Like Charlie describing the chocolate factory, Terry told me the yearly tradition at Port Jackson. Supper is brought in from the sea. Intensely rich pauas (pronounced "pow-ahs") (shell fish) are collected by the hundreds and cooked in butter. A pig is put on a spit. Fish, most often Red Snapper is brought in by the kilogram from the sea and filleted. Every family there would bring a banquet size table and all would be put together into one massive communal dinner table where everyone eats together and shares what they have. Apart from the fact that there didn't sound like a single vegetable made it to this feast, it sounded like an experience we would only have been too lucky to have been apart of. It was more than good enough for us that we were even invited.

Since we could't bare to leave our perfect spot, and it's Holiday Monday and no one wants to travel on a Holiday, we decide to stay another day. Not a hard decision. We go on the short hike to the lookout over the bay (and to Channel Island!) that everyone keeps telling us about. Then, remembering that I saw some open kayaks by the Ranger Station we decide to ask the friendly ranger couple if we could rent them. 'No, you can't rent them.' Awwwwwwww 'But you can borrow them, for free.' This is the best day of my life. We cross our fingers that the orcas are skipping the beach today. We are geeks and love nature shows. Unfortunately we have seen one too many shows where killer whales and sharks mistake kayakers for seals, a favourite snack, and it makes for what looks like a painful paddle. Hoping we didn't bite off more than we can chew, (haha!) we pulled the bright yellow and orange kayaks across the sand (and there is a lot of sand at low tide) and set off into the impossibly clear ocean in search of sea-life (the non-threatening kind). I was thinking of how jealous my mom would be and loving every second of it. (The kayaking, not the bragging, of course) We were out for 3 hours! I was giddy with excitement, and a healthy dose of fear, as we paddle through every nook and cranny, between every rock and into every seaweed patch. We saw loads of spiky sea urchins, pink jellyfish and, the highlight: a sting ray! We return `home`and, after a pancake dinner, had a campfire with wood that our neighbours had left behind. As soon as the sun goes down the kill becomes filled with stars. The kind that even twinkle. Its a truly spectacular sight.

It takes us 4 hours to drive the 100km from Port Jackson down the other side of the penninsula to 'Hot Water Beach.' For once, our snail pace is not a result of Jonathan's 90km/h policy. The roads are just all so narrow and windy that it just takes a lot longer to get to places, once you are off the main highway. The speed limit on those narrow, winding, gravel roads, you may ask. Oh 100km/hr. It's almost like a dare. 'Go 100 km/hr! Try it! I dare you!.'

Anyways, because NZ sits on a hot plate they have a variety of cool geo-thermal activities. Two hours on either side of low tide you head down to a certain part of the adequately named `Hot Water Beach`, with a shovel and you can dig your own hot tub! I dragged Jonathan down onto the sand, which already had a number of people enjoying the self-made hot tubs. Thankfully for us, since we forgot to pack our shovels (I knew there was something I forgot!) some nice people had dug a few holes, which had filled with water and since left. We picked a pool with an unobstructed view of the water. The water was HOT. Hotter than even A. Maryann would want the hot tub. My skin was red instantly and Jonathan barely ventured his little butt down into the pool. Not to be discouraged, since this was too fantastic to pass up, I moved from rejected pool to rejected pool until some Kiwi guys about our age, probably out of pity, yelled 'Second hand pool for sale!' looking right at me. And so, before they even collected their empty beer bottles from the sand, I jumped into their perfectly temperate, perfectly deep, perfectly perfect hot tub and refused to budge until the tide finally came in and booted me out. Stupid tide. Got me again. All good things come to an end though, or so they say. I don't know about that quite yet though. We still have a whole lot of NZ in front of us!

ps. Thanks again to Maureen and Maurice who gave us a 2 for 1 pass for Kelly Tarlton's aquarium in Auckland. We hit it up on our way back through the city and loved it! Kelly Tarlton is NZ's Jacques Cousteau and the aquarium has a really interesting penguin exhibit, sting rays, massive lobsters, and of course, sharks!

pps. The picture of the yellow kayak and my feet pointing out to the ocean with that little mountain like island out there: that's Channel Island! Imagine that weekend cottage commute?


Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right. I am soooooo envious I can hardly stand it. I want to go to New Zealand NOW ! Guess I'll just have to live vicarioulsy through your adventures.
Love MOM P

Margaret and Roy said...

WOW!!!! What a great read and wonderful photos. An adventure of a life time for most people but for you two, I think, only the beginning. Looking forward to more installments in the "Adventures of J & K".
Margaret and Roy.

Anonymous said...

I am SO envious....and it is NEVER TOO HOT !!!!
Miss you

Mom and Dad Mooney said...

Great to see another posting. Looks like we'll have to add New Zealand to our "bucket list". Picture are great and the story teller(s) are making us feel like we're there with them - if only in our hearts.
Mom and Dad Mooney

karly said...

i just keep reading your blogs ova n ova again.. i cant get enough!! miss you guys so much! i got your postcard the other day.. it defiantly brightened my day because anand just left a few days ago to india.. so it was nice to hear from you guys took my mind off him leaving for alittle!! love you lots .. xoxoxoxo