If all the hikes were like this one, what great hikes they would be, writes Juliette Sivertsen from a Waihī trail in the Coromandel
Don't tell the Aussies, but in the middle of the bush in the Coromandel, there's fresh toilet paper everywhere. Five-ply. Nature's toilet paper. Known colloquially as "Bushman's Friend" the soft fuzzy leaves of the rangiora plant have been used for various purposes throughout history, from wound healing, to an emergency accessory for hikers in the middle of the bush.
I would have walked straight past these big leafy trees were it not for my guide, Kylie, who conveniently had been on an educational trip the day before, learning about native plants and which ones you can eat, which are antiseptic, which are poisonous - and which ones can be used as back-up loo paper without resulting in a rash.
We're a group of seven trampers, including Kylie, the owner of foodie hiking company Nature and Nosh. It's the first time I've been on a guided hike within New Zealand, usually preferring to go my own way, but the concept of this one appealed to all my senses. It's more than just flaunting beautiful hiking tracks in Aotearoa, but also about showcasing local gourmet food and drink. We're promised locally roasted Pinnacles coffee on the beach, a gourmet picnic lunch, a mini kombucha fermenting class at Falls Retreat, concluding with a gin-tasting tour of Thames micro-distillery Coromandel Distilling Co.
It's pretty much my perfect hike. Dazzling coastal scenery, coffee, good food and drink - and gin.
We're picked up in Waihī and driven to the start of the hiking track, zipping up our jackets as we brace the brisk springtime air. I ask what the terrain is like for the 9km trail.
"Kiwi flat," says Kylie with a chuckle. "Undulating." The hike from Homunga Bay to Waihī Beach is only about 9km, and broken into three very manageable sections, but there's a reasonable number of ups and downs and it's enough to break out into a sweat and get the heart thumping, but without it feeling tedious.
Previously the company had a 100 per cent international client base, the majority from Australia. But like every other tourism agency, since Covid they've had to change focus to appeal to a New Zealand market, which is what prompted their new Guide Series.
"I wanted to include more off-the-beaten-path type hikes, more exclusive foodie experiences and be more flexible with our itineraries to allow Kiwis to drive to destinations," Kylie says.
"I knew that our guides are our x-factor, just really good, down-to-earth hunters, farmers and people-people. They are super supportive of me and the business, and I spoke to each of them to get their input into a series of short escapes built around their own backyards, favourite walks and foodie inclusions. I wanted them to be a reflection of their personalities."
And it's that friendly, Kiwi nature and sense of humour that makes this trip stand out. I've been on guided hiking tours overseas and they are wonderful in their own unique way, but there's a connection I feel to Kylie's guiding style. It's familiar and friendly, it makes me laugh, and makes me proud to be a New Zealander.
The first part of the trek to Homunga Bay is entirely downhill, with views stretching out from rolling farmland down to the beach and across an expansive ocean; Mayor Island visible in the background. The next part of the track is the longest section of the hike, in part because of the number of photo stops required. Pale yellow and orange cliffs jut out from the native bush and into the aqua ocean, one cliff face looking like a troll face with boulders for eyes and tussocks for its beard.
Along the hike, Kylie points out different plants from her newfound flora knowledge and invites us to chew on a kawakawa leaf, which is known for being a natural analgesic and antibacterial. It leaves my tongue a little numb and tingly as if I've been drinking kava.
We stop at Orokawa Bay for lunch - an expansive white sandy beach lined with pōhutukawa trees and scattered with pale driftwood, providing the perfect seating for our picnic lunch. We open cardboard takeaway boxes of rice and quinoa, thai chicken skewers, a roast pumpkin and beetroot salad and one of the most decadent chocolate brownies I've indulged in for some time. There's plenty of food to go around and is a delectable alternative to my usual beach picnic fare of soggy squished sandwiches and a bruised apple.
I can't help thinking about how lucky we are in New Zealand to have this landscape. We can't travel overseas, but how much of a loss is that when you can see spectacular places such as the Coromandel without needing to travel far? What's close to home seems almost more rewarding than being overseas.
The final part of the hike takes us to the top of Waihī Beach, where our van has been relocated for the next leg of the journey. We drive through the Karangahake Gorge to Falls Retreat for a mini kombucha fermenting class, tasting a refreshing sample and learning how the process works. We're each given a small jar of Scoby ("symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast") so we can try making it at home.
Our final stop is in Thames - a special little add-on for a gin-loving group - to micro distillery Coromandel Distilling Co. Distiller Paul Schneider has "a passion for everything that is yummy" and experiments with different gin flavours.
There's the flagship Coromandel gin infused with local botanicals, a mānuka wood-aged gin called Old Tom, a blue gin made with butterfly pea flowers, which turns pink when you add tonic, and an experimental gin from damson plums that he can't recreate because he never wrote down the recipe.
After a day's hiking, the generous gin tastings go down smoothly, especially alongside a palate cleanser of locally crafted cheeses, fruit and crackers. If every hike concluded like this, I think I'd be spending a lot more time on the trails.
CHECKLIST: THE COROMANDEL
Nature and Nosh offer one- to seven-day walking tour itineraries, or can offer customised tours for private groups. natureandnosh.co.nz
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com