Pilgrimage to Sleeping God Canyon

They say that time slows down once you hit The Coromandel, a phenomenon locally referred to as ‘Coromandel time’. After five days we can certainly vouch for the laid back vibe that the place is renowned for, however we’d come seeking a little action too.

My partner and I flew from Christchurch to Auckland and made a quick detour to the midlands of Waikato before heading to the North Island’s outdoor playground. Hobbiton was something we had planned to see given it was only two hours away. The place was amazing, with most of the film set left intact. The only thing missing were the Hobbits, perhaps it’s time they started employing short people to make it even more authentic. Even if your not into The Lord of the Rings it’s still an incredible place to visit. Seeing what was rolling farmland turned into a working village complete with The Green Dragon Inn where they serve their own traditional ales and food sourced from Hobbiton’s own gardens.

However, it was in Thames where our real adventure was about to begin. Arriving late in the day we checked into Sunkist Backpackers where we were told about the freshest fish and chips in town, situated right on the wharf. Sunkist rang ahead which allowed us to pick up dinner and follow their second recommendation, heading up the coast to enjoy dinner while watching the sunset over the Firth of Thames. A few of the locals popped by to see if they could scrounge a feed but they soon flew off when we waved them away. The Firth is known for its bird watching and they certainly made for good props as silhouettes against a reddening horizon. We washed down dinner with a drop of Lemon and Paeroa, once made in The Coromandel town of Paeroa but since bought out by Coca-Cola. After the sunset we headed back to Sunkist Backpackers to get a good nights sleep for our big, and slightly scary, day ahead.

After a light breakfast (too many butterflies to eat too much) we headed to the Thames Information Centre where we met Russ and Wayne – our guides to the Sleeping God Canyon near The Pinnacles. We came across Sleeping God Canyon images on The Coromandel Facebook page. A bunch of enthusiastic reviews on Trip Advisor complemented the fantastic images and we decided that The Coromandel had to be our next destination.

We headed up the Kauaeranga Valley out the back of Thames and then began our long journey up. This trip is not for the faint hearted or unfit, the walk up certainly gets you warm and ready for the plunge into deep rock pools and abseils down massive waterfalls. To say it was a little nerve racking is an understatement; the last time I did anything like this was a good 15 years ago at high school, so my experience and confidence levels were a little shaky. Fortunately our guides were extremely professional and encouraging. It seems they also had a knack for taking my mind off the steep vertical descents with the odd bad joke and quiet words of encouragement. I’m not sure I was ever completely comfortable, however my confidence certainly grew after every challenge and by the end of the trip I felt like I had just conquered Mt Everest.

The adrenalin-fueled day involved a descent of over 300 metres. The biggest abseil was over 80 metres and a series of nerve-racking jumps, slides and zip lines kept me on my toes from start to finish. Fortunately we also got some down time to take in the views of the epic Coromandel Ranges and find out a little bit of the history of the area. Thames was once New Zealand’s biggest city due to the lucrative gold mining and kauri timber in the area. After our action packed day we were all relieved to return to the now small heritage town of Thames. That night we returned to Sunkist Backpackers for a beer on the deck and a BBQ meal before drifting off reliving the adventure in our dreams.

The next day we headed up the coast towards Coromandel Town, stopping about 20 minutes out of Thames at the brightly painted Waiomu Café. Delicious homegrown mussel sausages and good coffee (with chocolate fish!) all served overlooking the picturesque Pohutukawa Park bordering Waiomu Bay. With our stomachs full, we continued on our way up one of the most spectacular coastal drives this country has to offer. All along the coast Pohutukawa trees (native New Zealand Christmas tree) line the roadside, which hugs tightly to the Firth of Thames.

Before we hit Coromandel Town, we decide to take a detour down the ‘309 Rd’ to chill out at the Waiau Waterfalls. It seemed a few others had the same idea, so after a refreshing dip we moved on from the popular waterhole. Coromandel Town was just up the road, complete with awesome cafés, bars, seafood delis and art galleries. We spend the rest of the afternoon cruising the main street of Coromandel Town taking photos and checking out the creative wares that seemed largely inspired by the natural surroundings of the region. Not too long ago, this town and surrounding area was famous for its hippy culture and some of this vibe is still evident today in the organic produce, art scene and its overall laid back feel to the place.

That evening we backtrack south to the Mussel Kitchen for more fresh seafood harvested that day. The mussel chowder was matched with a refreshing Pinot Gris, perfect for a warm summer's evening. If you’re keen on fresh produce and seafood then The Coromandel is definitely worth a visit. With only a two-hour ferry ride or drive separating this spot from the metropolis of Auckland, it is a lot more accessible than it feels. That night we checked into Te Kouma Harbour Cottages south of Coromandel Town. Another great sunset across the Firth accompanied by a chorus of bird song tweeting their last praises of the day. Tomorrow we fish.

We’ve been consuming our fair share of seafood, so it’s only fair that we go to the source to investigate where this plentiful supply is coming from. Again, we join the birds, this time soon after sunrise as they bring in the day with another melody. As we pull up to Te Kouma Harbour we are greeted with glassy conditions and some hardy old mussel barges ready to take us snapper fishing. We’re joined by a fair swag of people, as this is another popular activity that doesn’t cost the earth. Mussel Barge Snapper Safaris are taking us out to the mussel farms in search of the plentiful snapper. They supply all the rods and bait so all we have to do is fish.

As we make our way out to the mussel farms a flotilla of boats explains the glistening reflections we saw on the approach. Surely this is a good sign for lots of fishing action. No sooner have we dropped our line than the bites start and the hoots erupt as stoked fishermen start reeling in catch after catch. I’d say there were around 30 people on board and it appeared everyone caught something. All good things must come to an end and a few hours into the trip the fish have wisened to our game and aren’t taking the bait. Still, we got a good haul and with a few keepers we head back to land to journey further up the peninsula.

The minute we head north of Coromandel Town it seems we have gone back a few decades into real ‘grassroots’ country where weathered mailboxes lean from battling the elements and stock graze the roadside here and there. This is real New Zealand where farmers wave with a short raise of the arm and locals give a friendly toot when we pull over to let traffic get ahead of us. We swing on by through Colville, stopping at the General Store for a few supplies and a photo. About 30 minutes away is our final destination, Tangiaro Kiwi Retreat in Port Charles. After days of beautiful weather, it starts to pack it in, dark clouds roll off the ranges and bucket down sending the window wipers in our trusty rusty into overdrive. Thankfully the worst of it is over by the time we make it to Tangiaro and it now settles into a constant drizzle. It’s as if this was written into the itinerary as we can think of nothing better than soaking in the hot spa surrounded by native bush.

The Coromandel’s greatest hits spark up once again as the bird life breaks into song at the end of another day. What a way to end the trip, surrounded by lush native bush, drinking down a cool beer in a hot spa while the rain dances on the surface. The thought of the windy three-hour drive from the top of the peninsula back to Auckland Airport is put aside…for now, we enjoy the moment celebrating the fact that we ticked off Hobbiton, conquered the mighty Sleeping God Canyon, got fed up on fresh seafood and more than anything rejuvenated the soul…