Hot Water Beach NZ to Whitianga,  NZ

14.8 mi / 9.5 mph / 932 ft. climbing
Home: Mercury Bay Holiday Park

Clear skies above us overnight combined with well-hydrated grass below us to make the tent and every surface on our bicycles super-wet. Compounding the water-water-everywhere was the fact that we arrived back from the beach last evening after sunset, with wet clothes and shoes that had zero chance to dry. Now nearly four months past the summer solstice, the days are much shorter and the sun angle is much lower that we had become accustomed to, so we need to start being less-casual about getting stuff wet, since we can no longer count on it drying out in the midday sun in 3 minutes.

The wet may have made for an uncomfortable morning, but the unpowered free-for-all area was pretty at least!

Today’s short ride (continuing our strategic pattern around the Coromandel) first took us just five miles to the other major attraction of the east coast: Cathedral Cove. The dramatic seaside arch there is frequently mistaken as the location of one of the default Windows 10 lock screen images; that’s actually another New Zealand beach on the South Island, but the confusion is understandable.

Oh, shit, except the trail to it is closed? I only learned this a couple days ago, but then soon after that disappointment learned (from Google reviews) that it might be possible to navigate the path anyway. The trail was damaged by Cyclone Gabrielle more than a year ago, and most of the reviewers gripe about DOC’s foot-dragging on the repairs (some even conspiracy-theorizing that DOC is in cahoots with the boat operators who now provide the only “official” way to visit the cove). They report that the barriers put in place to prevent access are actually the most-treacherous parts of the walk, and otherwise it’s totally doable.

We had held open the idea of doing a kayak tour rather than violating DOC’s closure, but figured we could ride a bit longer on our last adrenaline-filled kayak adventure before taking on a new one. So that left figuring out how to do the walk. It appeared that one option was to pay to “park” at a lot a farmer had built on his own land, and hike a trail he had cut across his farm until it Ts into the midpoint of the Cathedral Cove trail. We decided instead to first try accessing the path directly from the small settlement of Hahei. The pink-sand beach there was pretty incredible on its own, so even if we couldn’t find our way up to the trail, it would have been worth the offshoot.

The weather pattern has not yet changed, so that means the swells are still exploding into rocks!
Walking Hahei Beach.
Rett doing more advertising for us on Hahei Beach.
The “sand” here has a pinkish hue, apparently because much of it isn’t even sand!

Again using Strava’s heat maps (plus another couple of rule-breakers who we saw walk on ahead of us), we easily found the steps at the back of the beach leading up into the trees. There was a sign saying the trail was closed, and remnants of plastic tape that had long-since been torn through. Up we lawlessly went, along a trail that paralleled the coast, and surely was far better than the farmer’s inland route.

Looking back to the headland at the south end of Hahei Beach.
Rocks in the water everywhere made the walk worth it even if we didn’t make it down to Cathedral Cove.
This is why you can’t just walk along a beach all the way to Cathedral Cove.
It’s difficult to see in the photo, but the many islands at the horizon created a maze-like arrangement in which at least one pirate ship was surely hiding.

One of the Google reviews referred to the ~6 barriers along the trail as “puzzles to solve”, and that’s totally what it felt like. For half of them, the solution was simply “walk off-trail until you get to the end of the fence-barrier, and then return on the other side”. But for one, we passed our gear, and then ourselves under the fence where a low spot had been dug out. And for the final one, a wooden “door”, we had to climb partly up the rock wall beside it and squeeze through the gap. The barriers had been in place so long that previous law-breakers have had plenty of time to trample/cut/remove the dense vegetation that presumably had made the barriers more challenging to bypass in the past. So we owe a debt of gratitude to these trailblazers.

In fact, DOC installing the barriers and then going AWOL (clearly not escalating the cat-and-mouse game) felt like a tacit approval: “if you’re fit and capable enough to find your way around our obstacles, that means you’re capable of navigating the natural obstacles too; we just wanted to filter out the inexperienced out-of-shape bus-tourists”.

This washed-out stairway was literally the only non-DOC-created obstacle before the end, and no, Rett didn’t just cross it in a flying leap, she took a well-established detour that loops to the left.

The final wooden stairway down to the beach ended abruptly at a vertical drop about 8 feet above the sand, but there were some foot-holds dug out of the sandstone cliff, so even that was pretty easy to navigate. And then we were at Cathedral Cove! There were three bikini-girls doing an Instagram shoot, an older couple just sitting back amongst the trees, a guy on his own, and us.

The trail “closure”, which had been a big disappointment when I initially read about it, turned out to be a huge boon. Back when the trail was open, the main clifftop parking lot that we passed halfway through our walk would have only been allowing drop-offs at this time of year; in the off-season (starting May 1), you could have parked there for 4 hours, if you had $15. But during peak season, your only option was to park at a lot well outside of Hahei, and pay $5 to take a shuttle bus to the clifftop lot. In other words, the (now-dormant) crowd-management infrastructure that had been created here indicated that a terribly oppressive mob of tourists must have shuffled down to this beach every day.

Some fraction of that mob had now shifted to taking boat tours here (and a smaller fraction powering their own kayaks), as those are now the only official options. But the 3-foot swells that turned our Donut Island paddle into a real adventure, had increased to 6 feet in order to half-wreck Hot Water Beach for us last night, and continued rolling in at that height today, thus preventing any of those water-based tourists from landing here as well! That combination of factors meant that, looking back over the last 10 years, we were likely in the 99th percentile of beach-emptiness!

Obviously having this place entirely to ourselves would have been the best, but having a selfie-taking bikini girl in the shot for scale isn’t too bad either, and surely beats having 40 checklisters down here filling the frame!
The lighting is better for photos from the beach on the other side of the tunnel through the headland, but clearly the tide and the waves were not interested in letting any of us over on that side.
The tunnel through the rock isn’t the only attraction of this hidden beach.
#FindRett at the end of the cove opposite the tunnel, discovering an awesome waterfall/shower coming off the cliff.
Dancing under the natural fresh-water shower.
A close comparison to the Windows wallpaper. One of the reviews I saw recommended getting here between tidal extremes, to see the mix of wet and dry inside the Cathedral. Well, we didn’t really have an option to time it, and were here basically right at high tide, but it definitely made the scene more dynamic!
Rett practicing dodging falling rocks (the signs tell you not to enter the tunnel, due to the risk of rockfalls, but I dunno, it looked pretty solid).
Here come some of those waves!
Rett showing off her solution if a big wave floods the whole tunnel.
A wave comes to chase Rett as she exits back to the “safe” side of the tunnel.
A fallen-tree mass artfully fills the backside of Cathedral Cove. I wonder if these came down with the cyclone?
The entirety of intimate Cathedral Cove, a wondrous place that understandably draws huge crowds in normal times, and we were so lucky to have nearly to ourselves today.

As we began our climb back up off the beach, I actually had to wait for a couple of parties navigating their way down, and then a few more groups passed as we continued out. Still not enough to make the Cove “crowded”, but apparently our timing made this empty day even emptier. And gray clouds filled the sky (including a bit of rain), so we were lucky to have had our beach-time in colorful sunlight. One woman expressed happiness when she saw us now knowing that she wasn’t the only violater on this trail, and at the end a girl sitting on a bench next to the stairs asked if it was doable and worth it (yes to both!) Back at the town’s small shop (where we got pies for lunch), the clerk asked what we’d been up to today, and when I said “illegal hiking”, he was glad to hear that at least some people are still getting the opportunity to see his town’s main attraction (“how did you know that you could do it? Are you on the WhatsApp group?”)

An enormous sprawling ancient Pohutukawa tree back on a “legal” trail in Hahei.

We had a 12% hill to ride over on our backtrack out of Hahei, and then continued roughly west around this peninsula-on-a-peninsula that has granted us roads free of SH25 for the last day and a half.

A winery, with fall-color grape vines. This is the only winery in the area, which tells me it’s more of a “something for tourists with money to do” winery than a “this is an excellent grape-growing region” winery.

After Cooks Beach, we came to the mouth of a harbor with Whitianga on the other side, similar to the Tairua/Pauanui harbor-divided towns we had left two days ago. But at this one, there is a ferry (humans and bikes only) that runs all year. And not only does it run all year, it runs constantly, so we had to wait about two minutes for it to arrive, the friendly operator slid the back door open to let us easily roll our bikes right on, and rolled them straight off the other side into Whitianga less than three minutes latter! It cost US$8.63 for us and the bikes, but saved us 13 miles of more-stressful riding, so was totally worth it.

Our bikes on the back of the Whitianga ferry.
The view from the short ferry ride made the small cost extra worth it!
Hmm, are we arriving to Whitianga, or Santa Barbara?

Tonight’s holiday park was thankfully far quieter than last night’s mob scene, bringing us right back to that quiet-offseason that we thought we had reached. The host assigned a spot to us, but said “feel free to take the one next to it too, no one is in that one either”. Nor was anyone in the one on the other side, or was there a single other tent anywhere. This was another independent holiday park, with a fair number of “permanent” residents in their caravan setups, which seems to be the exact type of place we should target. Because throughout the whole evening I didn’t encounter a single other person in the kitchen or the bathroom. Just how we like it!


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