Tall peaks and steep valleys covered in native plants and trees with huge rocky outcrops sticking up out of forested mounds stretched from either side of the winding highway 25. I could see the Bay of Plenty on the Pacific Ocean running along the horizon ahead.
We had made it from the West Coast Taranaki region to the Coromandel Peninsula. Famous for its beaches and ecotourism, the Coromandel is a popular vacation spot for kiwi locals and foreign tourists.
Today, we had driven all day to make it to Hot Water Beach where visitors dig holes in the sand which fill with thermal water from hot springs underneath. Tomorrow we would find an overnight hike to do in the steep inland tropical forest.
With nowhere to camp for free on the Coromandel itself, we ended up pitching tents just south of the Coromandel on district land with one of the most unique and hilarious public toilets I’ve ever encountered.
Swimming at Hot Water Beach
A mostly uninhabited natural barrier to the Hauraki Gulf on the North Island of New Zealand, the Coromandel is mostly made up of the eroded remains of a volcanic range once active around 20 million years ago.
The region’s volcanic origins are revealed through the hot springs found in various locations around the peninsula. Hot Water Beach is the most famous of these geothermal spots.
Hot Water Beach lies on the east coast of the Coromandel in Mercury Bay close to the town of Whitianga (pronounced “Fit-ee-ang-uh”). The best time to visit Hot Water Beach is low tide when the sandy beach is fully revealed.
Experienced visitors pack a shovel along with their beach towel to dig a hole deep enough for bathing. Hot springs just below the surface of the sand filter water up into the hole making the perfect personal spa.
We arrived just after low tide when the bay had already started flowing back up, filling in and cooling down the hot water holes dug by visitors. We found an abandoned hole and sunk our feet in, then swam in the cool salty sea water.
It was nice to break up all the hiking and inland views we had been seeing with a couple hours at the beach.
The talking toilet
A two hour drive back to the base of the Coromandel brought us to the small town of Ngatea for the night. The district council had set up a free camping spot behind the library with a campervan dump station and impeccably clean, modern public toilets.
These are not just any public toilets, however. Once we set up camp, I sauntered over to them. Entering a cubic chamber, a heavy metallic door closed behind me and I was startled by a man’s voice loudly bellowing from corner speakers, “Welcome to Exeloo.”
I waved my hand in front of a button next to the door to lock it and he announced “Door locked.” I burst out laughing as the sounds of classical piano music began bursting from the speakers. I sat down on the toilet and waved my hand in front of another sensor on the wall. Three thin sheets of toilet paper slowly unraveled from the wall with a light whirring sound. I chuckled and waved for more.
With only 10 minutes as my "maximum use time," I quickly stood up and turned to find the flush button. A message on the wall read the toilet would flush when activating the faucet or leaving the facility. I found a rectangular metallic hole cut into the wall with three symbols on it—water, soap, air—and waved my hands inside under the water symbol. Nothing. Next I tried the soap. It took a few seconds but suddenly soap came spewing out, not on my hands, but straight out of the hole onto my shoe! Damn!
Sweeping my hands back under the water symbol I finally got a response. Water poured out for half a second, the music stopped and the toilet suddenly flushed with such a loud force my heart jumped. Ahh! What the hell! I tried to get the soap off my hands to no avail when instead the air turned on randomly and not the water.
I found myself giggling uncontrollably at this point as I waved my hand in front of the locking system. The Exeloo man announced “Door unlocked,” and was out of there as he stated, “Thank you for using Exeloo.”
Talk about first world problems. I found of the Exeloo experience since the video I took of my encounter didn’t make it onto my hard drive properly. UPDATE! I found the video! It was there all along. Hooray One Drive storage!! And here it is:
Hiking to the Pinnacles Hut and back
After a night of holding my bladder because the Exeloo automatically locks after 10:30pm, we drove to the information site (or “i-site”) in the town of Thames. i-Site workers informed us about a track we could take up to the gorgeous Pinnacles on the Coromandel.
This was just 4 days after we had finished the Tongariro Northern Circuit. I was still recovering from my many blisters and tendonitis, but decided to join Harald and Marek regardless. Construction along the road leading to the track start meant our trek would be an hour longer than usual. To make the hike easier on all of us we decided to carry much less and stay overnight at the hut near the top
After walking the hour to the Kauaeranga Roadend, we started a trail leading through awesome native bush. The route was used in the 1920’s for travel to logging sites. Native Kauri tree timber was once purchased on the peninsula by the British Royal Navy—the HMS Coromandel was one of the buying ships and also from where the peninsula received its name.
We ate a small lunch and then picked our way on boulders across Webb Creek.
An old packhorse trail led up and up into the forest. Hundreds of steps carved into stone made the way easier for the horses back then and daunting for us today. The incline never seemed to end!
When the stairs finally did end and the ground leveled off, we could see over top of the forest across the huge peaks and into the valleys of the inland park. The views were misty from light rain earlier in the day.
At the hut, we met other travelers and local kiwis visiting on holiday. A local father and daughter told me a long list of New Zealand traditional foods I had to try, including the pavlova I ended up making at my house-sit just a few weeks later. A group of Australian’s from Melbourne—Tom, Ellen, and James—hung out with us after dinner for a while. I taught them Monkey and we had many laughs before the sun went down. The huts have very basic amenities. There’s no electricity to light the rooms after dark so most people go to bed with the sun.
In the morning, we were a bit disappointed to learn it had rained all night leaving the famous pinnacle rock formations near the hut covered in mist. The 40-minute morning hike there would have been pointless without the clear views. Instead, we took the Billy Goat track back down—a slightly different route just to change things up. This route had the remnants of an old rail system left along the trail. In addition to logging, the Coromandel used to be a mining site.
I enjoyed this hike especially for its historic intrigue, but for the views and for a shorter distance I would recommend going when the weather is better and the construction on the road is finished!
A hostel stay in Thames and a goodbye
We were all pretty done in after the long hike back down, so we got a hostel for a night back in Thames. The hostel included breakfast, had a cute puppy and kitty hanging around, and there was a wall full of videos to watch including some old school VHS tapes! A movie night sounded perfect.
The next day, my mission was to wander Thames looking to stock up on camping supplies I would have to leave with Harald soon. He would be dropping me off at the car rental place in Auckland and then I would pick up Erin, my best friend from childhood, and make a 10-day tour with her back south to Wellington.
I managed to gather most of the items Erin and I would need at The Warehouse store in Thames. Then the Harald, Marek and I headed back to Ngatea for one last night camping together. I wanted to give these two guys a proper goodbye before separating. We found Ngatea’s only bar down the road from the campsite in the lobby of a hotel. Clinking steins of beer and cider, we thanked each other for a great first trip around New Zealand’s North Island.