IN 1820, HMS Coromandel, a British Admiralty supply ship moored off a remote peninsular in New Zealand. Its crew had the job of cutting down kauri trees, whose thick trunks and lack of branches made them perfect for ship’s masts and spars. After a year, the ship sailed for England, leaving her name behind for this remote corner of the British Empire.
Kauri trees covered the hillsides in 1800 but, by 1900, the forest had become farmland. Mind-boggling numbers were felled to feed the steam-powered mills to help build Sydney and even San Francisco. For the lumberjacks, hand-cutting trees up to seven metres in diameter, some more than 3,000 years old, it was hard, dangerous work.
Sitting overlooking the golden beach of Kuaotunu Bay in The Coromandel, cold drink in hand, I’m exhausted myself, so have every sympathy for those iron men of yesteryear. Of course, rather than tackling a massive tree with just an axe, I’ve been doing, well, not very much really, but you know how tiring that can be.
Its natural assets stripped – after the trees, there was gold mining then digging for the fossilised gum of the kauri (used for linoleum) – the areal went into a decline until it became a weekend destination of choice for Aucklanders. From the city, you can see the green islands off the coast dancing temptingly in the distance. Here’s where we have to introduce the Kiwi concept of a ‘batch’ or bachelor’s hut, what we would call a beach hut, if you can imagine one that changes hands for up to million NZ dollars. The ramshackle weekend huts of yore are going, replaced by architect-designed homes increasingly lived in year-round by those who have retired here from all parts of the world..
Coromandel Town in Trifecta, an 11m multihull skippered by Tony Burton (www.trisailcharters.co.nz). Tony is a former diary farmer who spend four years building Trifecta out of concrete in a shed before retiring from farming for a new life. As you do. Out on the shining blue waters, running hard before the wind, then exploring a lovely remote cove, I don’t bother asking him why he gave up the grind of early morning milking. Some questions answer themselves.
Someone else who has found a quiet niche here is Barry Brickell, a local character who started a pottery and railway line. As you do. The narrow-gauge Driving Creek Railway climbs giddily up the hills, taking an hour for the return trip and passing through three tunnels and over a dizzying viaduct – to the ‘Eyefull’ Tower. From here, you can see the conservation work of Brickell, who has planted some 10,000 kauri seedlings in the past three decades.
He started building the line so he could get clay for his pottery and wood for his kiln and it is now the Number 1 tourist attraction in The Coromandel. That meant, on the day of my visit, there were literally several people waiting, although bookings are recommended as it’s a tad remote (www.drivingcreek.co.nz).
The next day, I spend another hectic morning, wandering the pretty beaches and coves, swinging on trees and generally sort of lying around in the sun, before heading off to meet Damian Johansen for a bush walk. He and his mother run Remote Journeys (www.remotenzjourneys.co.nz), and he is a fount of knowledge about the wonders of the local environment. It’s a hands-on lesson in the use of leaves and roots for traditional Maori food or medicine which ends by a clear-flowing stream where he calls a pair of eels to feed. As you do. I am soon, bizarrely, feeding cooked ham to a docile eel, feeling its rows of tiny teeth nibbling my finger and stroking its back – mucus-free, as Damian explains, unless it is frightened.
He has another treat for me as the light fades. The gold-miners left many shafts cut into the mountains and we go into a short one. At the back, I can see a myriad of beaded silk threads, spun by a gnat, Arachnocampa, to trap its prey. The larvae use a reaction between oxygen and waste products to produce a light in their excretory tubes, he explains. When we turn off our lights, this dry science turns into a magical display of tiny blue-green lights.
Outside again – after a short interlude where Damian leaves me in a chamber full of massive red spiders and a skeleton (how I laughed!) – we lie down in the forest in the gathering dark to see an overhang full of glow-worms, shining like the Milky Way. The question of why anyone might spend their life in an office in London is one he very politely doesn’t ask.