First day of travel with Stray Bus Tours today! I was picked up from the hostel at 8am and travelled on the bright orange bus up to the top of Mt. Eden, a dormant volcano in the middle of Auckland that provided a breathtaking view of the city bathed in early morning light. Mt. Eden is known in Māori as Maungawhau, “the maiden with a hundred lovers”, referring to the other small dormant volcanic hills located in the surrounding area, and and visible from the mountain. Aside from the view, the most spectacular aspect of Mt. Eden is its volcanic crater, called Te Ipu Kai a Mataaho (The Food Bowl of Mataaho), now filled with bright green grass, and designated a scared site, so one cannot enter, but can instead walk around the rim.
After a short stop at Stray headquarters, where we, the twenty-three passengers, where shown how to make changes to our travel itinerary online, we hopped back on the bus and headed for the town of Thames (which in our driver’s Kiwi accent sounds like he’s saying “Tims”). There we stopped at the local Pak n Save for a grocery run; we all bought something to eat for lunch, while the driver took $10 from each of us and bought food to make a communal Kiwi BBQ tonight for dinner. Thames is considered the gateway town to the Coromandel coast, but it’s quite a narrow gate: the bridge leading across the Waihou river is only one-lane, and as a result can have 10km backups during the busy summer months! A new two-lane bridge is under construction, but won’t be open for another two years.
After driving over the Coromandel Ranges (and narrowly missing several cyclists in the middle of a race on the same road), we arrived here in Hahei, a beach town whose name literally translates as “Breath of Hei’”, after the leader of the first Maori tribe to settle the area, who decided a rocky island in the bay resembled the shape of his nose. While some of the group had planned to do kayaking over to Cathedral Cove, those plans failed to materialise due to adverse weather conditions; it was cloudy and the water choppy. Instead, we checked into our backpacker quarters at Hahei Holiday Park, and then in groups of three or four walked the 45-minute trek to Cathedral Cove, a marine protected site that is justifiably famous for its natural beauty: a gigantic stone arch (roped off because apparently rocks are prone to falling down inside it), and a delicate waterfall at the other end of the cove, plunging over a steep cliff. Although cloudy when we arrived, within half an hour the skies were clear and sunny and the water turned an inviting bright blue (it was still quite cool, however). The sand at the beach has a high iron content due to the area’s volcanic history, and when running the sand over my fingers they became coated in a black iron powder, which thankfully readily washed off.
Heading back to the campsite, we helped our driver prepare our shared BBQ dinner of corn-on-the-cob, mashed potatoes, salad, lamb, chicken, and sausages, then sat at the picnic tables together to eat. It is strange for me to be surrounded by so many younger people after my three-week train adventure with a more mature crowd, to say the least. So far I have met people from Germany, England, Austria, France, and one girl from Rimouski, QC!
After dinner we drove out to Hot Water Beach, a geological marvel: past volcanic activity in the region has left a chamber of magma slowly cooling closer to the earth’s surface than normal, which heats up the water table underneath the sand. Two hours at either side of low tide, one can go to the beach with a small spade, dig a hole in the sand, and create one’s very own spa pool! And make no mistake, this water is HOT. The magma underneath is a toasty 170ºC, resulting in water likely around 60ºC or so! It’s quite surreal, to see the wet sand and pools steaming, with the cold water from the ocean only a few feet away. The trick was to build a pool close enough to the water’s edge that cold water from the beach could intrude every so often, while also leaving a “drain” of sorts (a hole in the wall of the pool to let out excess cold and hot water). Despite my lingering cold/cough/sore throat, I jumped right in to the spa pool at the end: when else am I going to get a chance to dig my own hot tub on the beach?
We came back to the Hahei Holiday Park around 8:20pm and had dessert, a yummy concoction of a banana with melted chocolate wrapped in aluminum foil and heated on the BBQ. Now most of the travelers and the driver have taken off in the bus and gone to watch the All Blacks rugby game against Australia (being televised from Hong Kong) at the local volunteer fire department, and three or four of us opted to stay behind, including myself, as I am trying to get well, not exhaust my voice by staying up late and yelling at a television. Bedtime for sick girls... night!