Coromandel Peninsula: Peak fitness

By Helen van Berkel

Walking the Pinnacles offers magnificent views and a fascinating New Zealand history lesson. Photo / Coromandel Tourism
Walking the Pinnacles offers magnificent views and a fascinating New Zealand history lesson. Photo / Coromandel Tourism

Heights, enclosed spaces, thrill rides: none of these frighten me. I'm prepared to give most things a go, as long as there's no creatures with an abnormal number of legs or eyes involved. But, halfway up the Pinnacles on the Coromandel Peninsula near Thames, I was so knobbled by a vertigo attack I was sure I was about to topple off the mountain. I could quite clearly see my body bouncing to the valley floor, smashing into the vertical rock walls every foot of the way.

One of my climbing companions, a local who actually runs these tracks for fun, told me to maintain "three points of contact", that is, to hold on with various combinations of hands and feet. That wasn't enough for me - for the rest of the ascent and most of the descent I wriggled along like an enormous worm in a bright pink North Face jacket.

The Pinnacles are not even that high - a mere 200m or so. They're the plugs of old volcanoes, lava solidified into rock and eroded into rugged towering cliffs. Very, very steep cliffs.

But even from the depths of terror the rational part of my brain was pointing out that it was hardly scaling an ice-face of Everest - there were wooden staircases and metal steps. Even when there wasn't, the path over mud and rock was wide and stable. Oh and that's right, there were three completely unfazed children climbing with me.

So ignore my phobic attack, the Pinnacles walk starts out moderately. There's a pleasant drive along a dusty, metal road following a picturesque boulder-scattered stream through scrubby bush. From the carpark we set out, three adults and three children, along a gravel path to a swing bridge over the shallow, stony stream. From here the ascent gets quickly steeper, winding up through the thick green forest, footsteps accompanied by the constant patter of water dripping through the trees. Those steep cliffs drop away beside the path and rocky outcrops along the way make it seem as though you're climbing a dangerous mountain. In reality, the track, maintained by the Department of Conservation, is well-formed and easily walkable. Swing bridges add minor thrills along the way, especially for the kids who are unable to resist swinging and jumping as they cross.

Not so many years ago these forests rang with the sounds of axes, of men felling trees and of logs banging against kauri dams before they were sent crashing down the rocky streams.

As a result, the Kauaeranga Valley forests are largely gone. The magnificent kauri that blanketed these hills have been looted, only hollowed out remnants remain. The ruins of some of the dams are still there, even some of the old forestry huts. But the most lasting echo of the days when men were men and the mighty kauri were valued only for their commercial use in building boats and furniture, are the paths the rugged pioneers cut to supply the logging camps.

Steps hacked into the rock gave pack ponies footholds to carry their burdens into the bush. Now it's adventure-minded tourists who tread in the hoof-steps of those horses.

The Pinnacles walk takes about two hours - with rests along the way - to get to the impressive DoC hut just before the Pinnacles. The hut is a luxurious getaway compared to the tin-roofed DoC huts of yore. Dormitories provide sleeping space for 80 and a large kitchen and dining area - empty on our visit - looks like a great place for communal conversation of an evening.

Forget about hairy black spiders and multi-legged, long-antennaed bugs in long drops - these are chemical toilets, clean and odour-free. From the hut, the Pinnacles are another half-hour walk or so, the steep terrain making the rock steps of earlier look like a gentle incline. DoC has built steps to the Pinnacles but they are almost vertical, at least through my filter of vertigo.

I finally got a grip, in all senses of the word, at the small but reassuringly sturdy viewing platform that sits at the summit, with wood floor beneath me and a comforting rock wall at my back. My heart slowed from a stuttering gallop to a slow trot and I was able to focus on the incredible 360-degree view of the Coromandel, from Tairua and Pauanui back to Thames and across the Hauraki Plains. Close by are the craggy remnants of volcanoes, lifeless for some 100 million years. It feels good to bask for a moment in the satisfaction of having made it to the top - however inelegantly.

But, of course, what goes up must come down and, with ominous black clouds roiling on the horizon, it was time to retrace our steps. I continued my embarrassing undignified slither, too fearful to even look at the children as they blithely skipped over the rocks.

Up here most of the slopes have been reduced to tussock by repeated burn-offs in the logging era, and flat-stopped stumps dot the side of the track, the sad remains of a once mighty forest.

A visitor information centre at the end of the trail explains the area's logging history and the efforts to preserve it. There is also a scale replica bush dam. It's a fascinating slice of New Zealand history, but for me the most important thing was having my feet back nice and safely on level ground.

- NZ Herald

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