The drive from Auckland to Coromandel
or, Car commercials got nothing on this
or, The first time I drove on the left side of the road was the first time I bought a house and nearly drove off a cliff
After a few days in Auckland, I started to suspect a government conspiracy with the hostels.
Grim, dreadful things, they are. Entirely practical without the slightest attempt to make guests feel cozy. The rooms are barren white with little ventilation, no curtains and the smell of feet baked into the carpets. The guests look like they’re serving time: no one makes eye contact or says hello, as though doing so would make them someone’s bitch.
It’s like the hostels were purposefully built to keep people the shortest time possible in Auckland and go spend their tourism dollars in New Zealand’s isolated regions.
Not that Auckland needs much help in repelling travellers. A hackneyed sky needle tower thing beckons, “Dumb rich tourists welcome.” The little charm it has – mostly among its parks, the university campus, and the gritty K Rd. – quickly wears away.
Example: We learned that the city’s artists and lefties gather monthly at St. Kevin’s Arcade, a tiny shopping gallery with eccentric shops and cafés, at an event called First Thursdays. We went, hoping to soak in the alternative vibe. Yes, there was a DJ. Yes, there was a kiosk with local artists’ work on display. Some half-baked hipsters milled around it. But it was entirely unremarkable. If this is the height of the city’s grassroots artsy scene, where the weirdos and creative sufferers gather, there’s little hope.
Part 2: the highway
Getting out of Auckland was like trying to leave a bad concert early, but the venue is packed and you’re in the first row. Traffic out of the city was dreadfully slow. The highway looked like any other.
Then traffic cleared. The business clusters ran out. More trees emerged in the landscape. And then you see them, dotting the olive hills, one of the trademarks of this country, of which there are three for every person, a symbol of softness and tenderness and timidity and an unavoidable point of metaphor for the nation’s citizens.
You guessed it. Sheep.
Part 3: the peninsula
Coromandel is a strip of land, probably 10 km in width, that sticks out from the North Island just east of Auckland. Lonely Planet compares it to a middle finger pointed at the metropolis nearby. We were told it’s just as lovely as the Bay of Islands, on the northern tip of the country, but much closer.
Nothing could have prepared us for the drive up its west coast. It’s what car commercials use to sell on emotional impulse when the vehicle is like any other. The kind of road drivers dream of but seldom navigate. It’s the kind of landscape that inspires countless clichés like “rolling hills” and “languid waves.”
The canopy of trees clear to expose a breathtaking coastline where the milky sapphire sea meets deep brown rocks. A twist around a mountain obscures the ocean only to reveal it again from far above, a deep emerald against the pastoral mountains. You want to stop every 200 metres but can’t, as the rattly gravel road is barely wide enough for two.
We finally hit Coromandel Town, a pioneer mining settlement that became tourist trap with its quaint wooden shops. It was getting dark. We found a campsite but the office was closed. We took an empty lot anyway, dined on corn soup and bread and watched one of the most brilliant starry skies we ever saw. Then we spent a lousy first night in the van as the plywood panels holding up the mattress shifted and fell, taking my ass down with it.
Part 4: the tip
Coromandel has incredible smoked mussels but little else. One might enjoy the seafood fritters or the local bar. But out mission was the end of the world, the very northern tip of the peninsula.
The road got progressively rougher and I wondered if our Edgar would come back in one piece. The pots, mugs, and cutlery seemed to rattle in unison at each coarse patch of gravel. But the landscape never disappointed. We were driving a mere foot way from the edge, which was often the start of a 100-metre drop into treacherous rocks and the pounding sea. I would get lost in thought and panic when I saw an oncoming car on the right side of the road, but tame the impulse to swerve left when I realized that all was in order. We drive on the left side here.
We finally arrived at Fletcher Bay, where the road ends. The only way to reach the road on the east side of the peninsula was 3.5-hour hike over the Coastal Walkway, which hugs the mountain, cuts though sheep pastures and meets a bay or two.
We only did one third of the hike and walked back, chasing sheep along the way. We’d meet a person once an hour. The campsite was equally desolate. We dined on a rustic puttanesca and slept much, much better.