Back to New Zealand. It’s like time travel, or at very least like one of those novels that writes chapters from all different perspectives or storylines. You can see my trail through the north island here, starting in Auckland and then looping around Northland before swinging wide to the East and Coromandel Peninsula. Also, I’m afraid that the night-time stories don’t have accompanying pictures as I have not yet acquired a camera that actually shoots well in the dark. Think of it as imagination exercise.
Hot Water Beach by Night
I got to my campsite on Hot Water Beach about 10:30 at night. Low tide was set for 12:01 and the ideal bathing time for the hot pools is 2 hours either side of low tide. I was a little late, but it’s a 4 hour window and I felt fairly sanguine about my outlook. As checked into my cabin, I saw a group of tourists marching out of the campsite toward the beach with shovels in hand.
I didn’t want to waste any time, so I dropped my stuff off in the room and changed into my suit to zip down to the beach. I didn’t have a shovel, but I figured I could improvise, and I stuffed a recently acquired bottle of Riesling into my bag along with my towel. The trail from the campsite to the beach is a bit long, but very nice. The moon was nearly full and almost straight overhead. There were no clouds in the sky; everything was bright and slightly blue. I walked down a forest path where the campsite security had said I might find glow worms, but I didn’t see anything aside from the glimmer of moonlight on the leaves. Finally, I reached the beach and saw that several people had already dug holes filled with hot water steaming into the cold night air.
In case I didn’t say before, Hot Water Beach is this rather amazing geothermal wonder wherein hot springs lie under the sand of the beach and are accessible at low tide. This means you can just scoop away some sand and have your own private hot tub right on the beach. How cool is nature?
I was watching the tourists who went before me froliking around in their pool which is quite large. I think the guys who dug it intened the girls to join them, but the girls were simply unwilling to be cold for the few moments between warm clothes and warm water and wouldn’t go in. Sometimes tourists weird me out, I mean, why come all the way out here, there’s nothing much else around, and you’re awake at 11pm to what… walk to the beach and refuse to participate in the majesty of nature because it’s a little cold? sigh
I took a picture for them anyway. I do that a lot, take pictures for other travellers when the selfie stick just won’t cut it. It was a decent way of breaking the ice so I could see if they’d share their pool, since they’d dug out space for more people than were going in. They were more than happy to let me, but it turned out that after the photo op, most of the group was ready to leave the beach. One guy from Swizerland complained bitterly that his companions were leaving him, that he wanted to stay and enjoy the water, so we chatted for a bit in the pool they left behind.
If you’ve ever built a sandcastle or a moat on the beach, you know the dangers of uneven waves and how it can ruin a whole edifice. The pool was no different. The guys who had dug it had shoved most of the sand in the direction of the treeline, not the ocean, so the barrier protecting the pool from incoming waves was weak. Initially, they had done it on purpose, so as to attract some cooler sea water because the hot water under that beach is HOT, but it became evident soon that it was a hindrance. My short-term Swiss companion was already having trouble balancing his temperature due to the sudden bursts of hot and cold water from beneath, but when the retaining wall broke and half the pool drained into the sea, he gave up and left as well.
I was able to rebuild, and once the wall was restored the pool refilled from the springs below. With all the tourists gone, the beach was nearly bare. There was a quiet couple in their own pool next to the one I’d taken over, and one man wandering up and down farther along looking for his ideal spot. With the full moon overhead, the beach was a mixture of blue shadows and white highlights and the sea was black glass and silver foam. I lay back in my newly personal pool and discovered that the beach contained both hot and cold springs just below the surface and that they would emerge at random so it was somewhat necessary to keep the water moving so as to not become too hot or too cold. While this did mean I couldn’t simply lay back and stop moving, it didn’t mean I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself.
So there I was, midnight on the beach, with no human sounds for we were all being quiet and enjoying the sea once the tour group had gone. I soon fell into a rhythm of gentle movement of arms and legs to keep my pool pleasantly warm and I watched with all my memory to capture the silver night and the sound of the waves crashing on the rock that marked the center of the hot spring area. The hot water soothing my skin, the steam rising off the beach where the heat bubbled up, the glint of moonlight on ocean, the silvery whiteness of seafoam and the sound of waves, the moon overhead so bright it hurt to look directly at it after watching the earth below, and another clue that my travels in NZ were preternaturally blessed that I should wind up just here and just now to experience these things as they came together, full moon, clear sky and midnight low tide.
As the tide began to turn, I had to rebuild my walls more frequently, but I was unwilling to abandon the pool. The couple had decided to pack it in for the night, so now it was just me and the older gentlman down the beach. He wandered over with his shovel looking for another likely spot and seemed kind so I invited him to join me in my overlarge pool. He was a local man who lived just about 45 minutes up the road and often came down to the beach to enjoy the springs. We chatted a little about where I’d been and where I was going and he reassured me that the hot springs I was planning to seek in Rotorua did indeed exist and gave me some extra pointers on how to find them. The wall broke again, but as we worked to repair it, one giant wave came in with the tide and filled the whole pool with chilly sea water, letting us know the ocean thought it was time to get out.
Mostly dry and dressed, I headed back up the path. Some of the tour group girls had assured me they had seen honest to goodness glowworms on the path on their way in, not just gleams of moonlight, so I decided to look extra close on my way back to the cabin just in case. The first little fairy lights I saw were above me, but at this time I didn’t even know glow worms lived outside of caves at all, and only knew that in caves they were often on the ceilings, so why not? But when I moved the leaves around, it became obvious the lights were only reflections. Beautiful reflections that created a fantastical illusion of fairylights, but not glowworms.
This happened a few more times and just as I was ready to give up and put her sightings down to mistaken moonlight, I glimpsed a pale blue glow much lower to the ground, in a shadow where no moonlight should be falling. I moved in closer and shifted the leaves above it around to change the pattern of light and shadow but the glow remained in place. More than that, I saw a few more glows around it, winking out from the underbrush like stars.
The glowworms were hiding alond the wet rock banks beside the path, sheltered by the ferns and other low growing plants giving them an environment not unlike a cave. Now that I knew what I was looking for, it became easier and easier to spot them along my walk. Pictures of these creatures are only possible with long exposure, so I have none, but more than that, pictures I look at online are not accurate to my memory. Often the pictures that make the headlines are very beautiful and very artistic, making the worms seem like tiny lanterns, as bright as fireflies, as though you could put a few in a jar and see your way. It’s just not so. The glow worms are bright but so tiny that each one gives off only a speck that doesn’t even light up the rock it’s resting on. Most of the online photos are in caves, which is probably why I didn’t realize they even existed outside the cave environment, but even the few I found in the bush are set so that you can see the glow and the plants clearly. Watching with your own eyes, you peer into the darkest shadows and specks of phosphorescence peer back from the blackness. That may not make a stunning photograph, but it’s one heck of a personal experience.
Hot Water Beach by Day
The details of my campsite and breakfast will be in the forthcoming “Sleeps & Eats” post, but for now, suffice it to say that sleep and food were achieved before the onset of the next day’s low tide.
My breakfast spot was nearby a public restroom and shower as well as a totally different path down to the water. When the hours lengthened enough to head to the beach, I wandered over to the changing rooms and got kitted out with my suit, sunscreen and shade hat. The clear sky of the night before had carried over into the morning and I didn’t want to get sunburnt while soaking up my hot spring. The beach was also quite full of people. I was even more glad in that moment that I’d had the chance to spend a few hours the night before in silence and solitude. I love people and I had a great time chatting with the other bathers that morning, but I am grateful it was not my only experience of the beach.
I still didn’t have a shovel, but the other beach-goers were happy to share theirs so it was no problem. It’s not a solution I’d recommend, but if you’re absentminded, it’s not the end of the world. I picked a likely looking spot and dug out a spadeful of sand. The hole quickly filled with water, which I was glad to see because it meant I did not need to dig much to get a bath going. The water was incredibly hot. I stopped digging when I had enough for a footbath, thinking I could warm my toes and move more sand by hand slowly as I soaked my feet. Alas, the water was too hot! I borrowed a bucket from another nearby family to add seawater to cool it down, but this only lasted a few minutes before the heat returned. Soon enough, I had to abandon my small pool because I couldn’t dip my toes to soak nor my hands to dig more.
I wandered around, trying to triangulate the area we’d been in the night before, thinking if I could be nearer the sea, I could get a channel of cool water with each incoming wave as I had done on the beaches as a child. I dug my hand into the sand in another spot only to find it icy cold beneath the surface. As I tested more and more, I remembered the alternating cold and hot waves in the pool from the night before and surmised they must have accidentally included at least one of each, a hot and a cold source, so I set about trying to find a spot that had two such close together. Before I could, however, a young couple nearby decided to leave the beach and I simply poached their pool which was large and well balanced in temperature.
This set me up sharing pool walls with several other groups, as diggers tended to simply expand until they ran into another pool. No one minded and everyone shared, which was refreshing. No one invaded an occupied pool without invitation, but neither did anyone get grumpy or territorial and everyone was generally having a great time. Gradually, the pools around me emptied of their original inhabitants and were claimed by new arrivals. Two ladies were having trouble finding a good spot so I invited them to join me as I had more than enough space, and then we got a young couple as well, so my own stolen pool held 5 of us by the end. We just dug out deeper spaces or farther walls as we needed to.There was one pool between mine and the sea, which provided a worthy barrier when the tide began to turn. At one point I had an unobstructed view of the ocean, so I could watch the same large rock breaking waves as I had seen in the moonlight. The young couple left early, and the two ladies tried to hold out against the oncoming tide, but had seen nearer pools get washed away in the surf and were loathe to be doused in cold seawater. I had learned from my previous experience and had built the seaward wall up as much as I could to forestall the inevitable, but eventually the waves took it down for the last time. It was nearing 2pm and I still wanted to visit the famous Cathedral Cove before bidding farewell to the Coromandel Peninsula.
Although Cathedral Cove car park is a mere 10 minutes up the road from Hot Water Beach, there is a further 45 minute hike (according to the sign) to the cove itself. The cove is not accessible except by taking this walk or by kayaking in from another point. It is famous more for it’s breathtaking beauty than for any particular historical importance, although it was used in the filming of Prince Caspian.
The timed signposts for trails in NZ were a bit frustrating to me because there was absolutely no way to know how fast one should walk to achieve this time. I’m perfectly capable of walking quickly, but I like taking my time on a forest walk and I can better judge my time if I know the length of the walk instead of the average hiker’s time. Average flat ground speed might be 5kmph, but of course rough terrain can change that too. Waipoua said about 40 minutes for the walk out to Te Mata Ngahere and back (very smooth trail), but I took about 2 hours because of all my stopping and looking. Waipu said 1.5 hrs for a 2km trail (very steep), and I took a little over 3 hours exploring things and watching the wildlife. So when Cathedral Cove said 45 minutes one way, I was skeptical. However, even with my frequent stops I still did manage to make it in about 50 minutes, so well done on those sign makers.
The trail is a good mix of up and downs, most of which are very gentle and easy to traverse. Like many of the trails in NZ, I got to see a wide variety of landscapes in a very short time but especially the rain-forest and pastoral farmlands. I even got treated to a splash of pink by a surprise stand of (probably) cherry trees. The very end of the trail that leads down to the cove is quite steep and equipped with stairs, but I promise, it’s worth it.
Once you step out of the recessed wooden stairway onto the pale,
almost white sand of Mare’s Cove, you are treated to a sight so often reserved for magazine advertisements of expensive brands of jewelry or perfume: a pristine coastline. As if this were not enough, when you set foot on the beach and look left, you are greeted by the cathedral that gives this cove it’s name: a natural tunnel in a large cliff-like rock that protrudes out into the sea. Unlike the hole in the rock in Bay of Islands, this is a fairly long tunnel that visitors to the cove can freely walk into and explore. Out the other side of the hole is the actual cove named Cathedral, but since I had left Hot Water Beach as the tide was coming in, I was loath to wade through the waves to reach the other cove, not knowing how fiercely the water level would be rising or how wet I would get trying to come back. Remember, it’s winter in August and I already knew just how cold that ocean was.
The sun was also low in the afternoon sky when I arrived, casting the coves into shadow. There is no doubt that this beautiful area is well worth a visit, but next time I’ll be sure to come down in the early morning when sunlight fills the beaches. As a result of my slightly off timing, I’m afraid my photographs are mostly in silhouette, but they do capture a bit of the majestic quality of this coastline. In addition to the star of the show, the cove also has some beautiful rock formations and a small waterfall.
I think when I go back, I’ll definitely spend more time in Coromandel, not just to go back to the Hot Water Beach (which I will never get tired of) but to spend more time at Cathedral Cove to enjoy the effects of changing sunlight and get in some snorkeling in the Marine Reserve.These long shadows and deep silhouettes told me it was time to hit the trail back unless I wanted to be hiking in the dark. In summer, I might have lingered anyway to play in the warmer water and to dry off in the summer night air on the walk back, but the temperatures dropped rapidly after dark on my visit and I’d already had one moonlight walk through the bush the night before.I met up with another traveler on the path back and we pointed out great spots to pause and take pictures of the sunset to each other, arriving back at the car park just in time to see the last rays dip below the mountain ranges to the West. As we were about to part ways and get back into our cars to warm up, she pointed to a tiny white sliver on the ocean in the Eastern sky. “What is that? Is that the moon?”, she asked. I was entirely incredulous. There was no way. It reminded me a bit of a snow-capped mountain far in the distance and the blue and pink ribboned sky was hazy, distorting the details. As we watched, however, the shape grew and it became obvious that she had been right.
We quickly grabbed jackets from our cars and returned to the lookout spot to stare in awe at this atmospheric lunar phenomenon. The sunset and moonrise only happen at the same time on the evening of a full moon, so this was literally the only day in the entire month that I could have even potentially seen this happen. As happy as I was to be on Hot Water Beach with a (nearly) full moon, I didn’t plan my holiday around the moon phases, so it was sheer luck (or more of that cosmic intervention?) that I happened to be on the East coast to watch the sun set in the mountains behind me and then turn to watch the moon rise over the sea in front of me.
Cameras are nearly incapable of capturing the glory of a rising full moon. Low in the sky, the atmospheric distortion makes the moon appear enormous, a golden coin you could reach out and pluck from the sky. On top of that, watching the full moon rise in the lingering twilight of sunset meant that we watched it rise like a champagne bubble through the layers of color still staining the sky. The familiar seas of the moon were oriented differently, upside down from what I was used to seeing in the Northern Hemisphere and it made the appearance of the rabbit in the moon quite clear and dramatic. I watched in pure awe and gratitude for the fact that such a sight could exist and that I could exist to see it. I watched long after the moon rose high and the sky turned to dark blue and I felt again that my journey was especially blessed and that perhaps the gods of New Zealand were gifting me with these truly wondrous and awe inspiring experiences.
From Coromandel, I traveled to Rotorua to explore more geothermal wonders. Stay tuned for hot spring waterfalls on the next installment of Tales from the Land of the Long White Cloud. Plus, Rotorua is where I met the Maori family and learned about the culture and traditions of the not-quite-first people of Aotearoa. In the mean time, please enjoy the photo albums on my Facebook page and follow along for snippets and snapshots of my ongoing adventures in Korea. Thanks for reading!