It's commonly believed that travel writers have one of the best jobs on Earth — being sent to exquisite locations on somebody else's money. But, here's a little secret, sometimes we're asked to write about things we've never done.
I had a gig a while back, to write up a bunch of New Zealand's best walks for an overseas publication but, the budget and timeframe meant I would not do anything more vigorous than Google. However, in the course of writing those walks — talking the walks, but not walking the walks — I was inspired to do about half of them, possibly because I'd made them sound so awesome.
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But there was one especially delightful ramble that caught my eye, The Coromandel Coastal Walkway, from Stony Bay to Fletcher Bay, a 20km round trip.
I was drawn to the walk for many reasons, one of them being that the road to the trailhead was off-limits to rental cars — this hinted at an untamed element. It was also attractive because it was near Te Puru, the small coastal settlement where I spent my earliest holidays and, having described the walk with such enthusiasm, I was inspired to see if what I'd written matched reality.
Leaving Auckland on a soggy Friday afternoon, we set a course for The Colville Bay Motel, 199km away, an estimated three hours' driving. As soon as we joined State Highway 25, long-dormant memories flooded back.
I thought of the spaceship house at the turn-off to Thames, of Mr Franklin's shop where we spent our precious pennies, back when one cent went a long way. The impressive old Kōpū Bridge was still standing, just, with its sentry house where the harbourmaster operated the swing span for boats to pass. I was reminded of carsickness on twisty coastal roads, and catching sprats for our cats in the bait catcher. It was comforting to find my pre-school memories so intact.
As rain fell and lengthening shadows turned to darkness, the drive was slow going, but eventually we found our rural digs and, once dinner was served and tidied away, we became aware of the enveloping nature of the countryside. When the skies cleared and the canopy of stars twinkled, I insisted we sight the sea before bed. I was determined, certain my instinct would guide me to the ocean.
I led us across a paddock, we sploshed through wet grass down to where I was sure we'd find the shore, but no such luck. Eventually, sensibly, we gave up. It transpired, in the light of day, I had no clue where the beach was and, if we'd carried on the way I'd wanted, we'd have walked inland through a field of cows.
The day we'd earmarked for walking, the forecast rain never fell. Along Port Charles Rd we drove, to Stony Bay, the roads increasingly remote, rough and narrow. Rental car companies are wise to declare this route off-limits. And the good news — the walk was just as delightful as I'd written it. Birds and mature trees, views of the sea all the way to Aotea/Great Barrier and Cuvier Island; combining forest and farm, bush and beach, any worries I'd had about over-gilding the lily were put to rest.
Handily, we'd also packed bicycles and the following day we explored the other side of the peninsula, stopping off in Te Puru to see my grandfather's elegant old home. It looked so much smaller to my adult eyes. We drove roads where pōhutukawa crowded down like spectators at a sporting match, and then we parked at Fantail Bay. We cycled along the undulating coast and followed our noses towards the tip of the cape as incredibly beautiful vistas unfolded before us. Not a cycle trail per se, but Port Jackson Rd is still ideal for two wheels and, being the beginning of winter, we only saw three other cars all afternoon.
Above Port Jackson, at the brow of a hill, we gazed down upon a windswept beach and in an uncharacteristic burst of indolence, I baulked — if we cycled all the way down, we'd have to pedal back up. But my companion convinced me it would be worth the effort, and all it took was the promise of a peanut slab.
On we rolled through picturesque pastures, down, down, down, until we reached the seaside campground, deserted except for a welcome party of ducks. A pause for refreshments — including the promised peanut slab — and to our astonishment, we found picnic tables painted with snakes and ladders, noughts and crosses, chequers and, best of all, backgammon with a complete set of playing pieces strung on a wire with driftwood stoppers — there were even dice.
In the interests of fair and accurate reporting, I won the backgammon, although we were both winners that weekend, because our expedition was so utterly charming.