My Coromandel Summer
By Emma Darragh
“We didn’t bring shoes,” say the two barefoot boys I have brought along to Puketui Valley as we pile out of the hot dusty car. We are leaving behind the crash and hustle of Tairua’s surf beach and the long stream of holiday traffic lining its main road. Puketui Valley is a 20-minute drive from Tairua, yet seems a world away. It feels remote but is just 6km off the state highway along a dead-end gravel road. It is an easy day trip, camping trip, or quick cool-off from the nearby beach towns. The valley even has its own microclimate. In Tairua, I left behind an angry southerly whipping the sand on-shore. At Puketui, there isn’t a breath of wind.
Puketui Valley and Broken Hills have been my Coromandel summertime sanctuary for many years. The contrast to the beach is what I love most - the icy freshness of the river water, the pure forest air. The peace and quiet and slower pace. At Puketui Valley, all I hear is birdsong and the ripple of the river as it courses around the rocks.
The Broken Hills DOC campground is vast and meandering, offering an abundance of riches in tent-site real estate. You can pitch a pup tent on the banks of the river, or peg out a family-sized set up atop a gentle mound with majestic cliff views. Grassy cul-de-sacs make the perfect communal spot for clusters of campers, with your own path to the river and plenty of trees for rigging up the solar shower. If you’re after privacy and solitude, nestle your tent under the tall Tea Tree canopy and listen to the lovely silence.
I have camped in every spot, every way, every summer for over a decade. It is always a relaxing and rejuvenating experience. Children form an ever-expanding tribe at this mellow campground, becoming nut-brown bmx bandits and existing for days on sausages, sauce and swims.
A couple of minutes' stroll from the Broken Hills campground is the waterfall waterhole. It is a crystalline pool with rock ledges creating graduated depths at its edge; perfect for sitting and soaking. The waterfall hurtles into a pool about the size of three spa pools. It is deep enough for an adult to leap into...if they dare. The pool is virtually an ice bath. I have made a ritual of plunging straight in until my breath catches and my skin tingles. Today the boys clamber up to a moss-covered cliff and leap off, challenging each other to make the biggest splash. Breathtakingly beautiful and private, there is rarely anyone at this waterhole. Sunlight makes honeycomb patterns on the underwater ledges and shimmering ribbons on the surface. The waterhole is encircled with native fauna, rocks, ferns and trees adding to its otherworldly enchantment. The smell of wet feet on dry dusty earth reminds me I am deep in the New Zealand bush. The waterhole is the place where a smile automatically spreads across my face and stays there all day.
A five-minute drive from Broken Hills campground is one of Puketui Valley’s most popular local swimming spots. As the name suggests, it’s a big, flat froggy looking rock in the middle of a deep, wide part of the river. Cars park at the edge of the narrow gravel road and people must walk across nobbly rocks and river currents to get to the ‘beach’; a sloping rocky embankment. Like Hot Water Beach at low tide, I am always astounded by the number of people who know to seek out this spot. Grandparents, children, teenagers, tourists...it is a little village on a summery day. Kids make friends on Frog Rock while taking turns watching each other leap, flip or bomb into the water. Adults loll about on the hot rocks like seals, sliding into the cool depths every now and then.
Puketui Valley is, without exception, my favourite place to trail run and hike. It offers immense variety in landscape and terrain. Once a bustling gold mining settlement, the labyrinth of trails passes through old mine workings, water race trenches, remnants of stamper batteries and tunnels. There are trails for all ages and abilities, long and short tracks, suitable for walking or running. The boys walk gingerly, even on their summer-tough bare feet, as most of the tracks include roots, rocks and stones. So if you are going walking, I’d recommend you remember your shoes. The fierce challenge of a steep ascent handsomely rewards with 360-degree views of the ocean, mountain, pasture and river. Walking through the Collins Drive tunnel is a thrilling and courageous rite of passage for children and adults alike. Do bring your torch. Walking through a 200-metre-long tunnel without one is quite scary (believe me, I know).
The Tairua river is the lifeblood of Puketui Valley and invites people to find their own ‘secret spot’ at every bend. Today the boys pick up stones and skim them onto the surface of the river. They bounce - one, two, three times - their flick of the wrist a long learnt muscle memory. Watching them rock hop further upstream, I notice how confident and sure-footed they are, though I shouldn’t be surprised. It is and has always been, their playground. I am slower, in my clumsy adult way, lugging the bag with the chips, nectarines and sunscreen. Towels like so many scarves hang around my neck as I navigate a rocky path and find a flat rock to sit upon.
Puketui Valley stills me. The birds silence my internal chatter. The air is thick with the scent of honey and the cool water flows. This is my Coromandel summer.
For more on Puketui Valley and Broken Hills.
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