For your next short break or long weekend getaway, how about rocking out in Raglan, writes Joanna Wane
"Don't pee in the wetsuit," I keep telling myself. "Don't pee in the wetsuit." That's harder than it sounds when you're two hours into a canyoning trip down an ancient lava flow and stop for a hot cup of kawakawa tea at the foot of a gushing waterfall. No wonder my legs are crossed.
Guide Harry Series had told us the cautionary tale of a French traveller who didn't believe the warnings about how "watertight" the wetsuits are; she spent the 20-minute drive back to the company's Raglan HQ in disgrace as a distinctive aroma permeated the van.
It's true, all that gear (wetsuit, jacket, booties, helmet) means you're well-insulated. Despite my almost pathological fear of the cold, I'm already seriously considering a return visit over winter to do the night tour, when the bush comes alive with a constellation of glow-worms reflected in the water.
An Essex boy, Series washed up in New Zealand by way of the Lake District almost four years ago and joined Raglan Rock as a guide. Now manager of the company, he still can't quite believe his luck to be living in this part of the world and calling it work. "It's like Fiji in New Zealand," he says. And it's only a two-hour drive from Auckland.
To me, Raglan is more like Waiheke Island, with its own mini-ecosystem that sits spiritually off the main grid. The beachside community has more than its fair share of environmentalists, artists and alternative lifestylers — modern hippies, if you like — attracted by its stunning natural beauty and chill village vibe. Raglan recycles more of its waste than anywhere else in New Zealand; you can buy raw milk in reusable glass bottles and much of the fresh local produce is organically grown.
Locals might complain about "outsiders" moving in and driving up property prices, but it's city folk like me who've kept many small-town tour operators afloat since New Zealand closed its borders to international tourists. The canyoning trip with Raglan Rock was a post-lockdown birthday present from my brother.
"If you're not a surfer, Raglan's not quite on the international radar," says Series, referring to the string of famous surf breaks off the coast. "But the best thing over the past year has been taking out Kiwis, who often don't travel in their own country, and showing them what's really magical about this place."
A decade ago, Raglan Rock founder and outdoor adventurer Gareth Jones was weed-whacking on a farm near the foothills of Mt Karioi when he saw what looked like a waterfall across the valley and asked the landowner for permission to investigate. Beneath a cloak of native bush, he discovered a volcanic lava flow formed when Karioi erupted, some 2.5 million years ago. Gradually, the channel had filled with water and Jones was able to follow it right through to the sea.
Today, the company operates a range of guided rock climbing, canyoning and caving adventures across the Waikato. While some of the trips can be psychologically challenging — stepping off the edge to abseil down a 15-metre-high waterfall definitely gets the adrenaline pumping — most are family-friendly and require minimal experience or expertise.
Our half-day tour begins with a short drive inland and a history lesson on both the geology and the mythology of how this landscape took shape. Checking we're safely buckled into our climbing harnesses, Series takes us through some abseiling drills on the grass. Then we shimmy through a concrete pipe to the lava flow, where the stream is ankle deep.
Stones polished smooth by millennia of running water shift treacherously beneath our feet as we make our way to the first waterfall. Cautiously, I lower myself down the cliff face, step by step, searching for footholds in the rock face and feeling how securely the ropes hold my weight.
That successful descent breaks the tension, even though the second waterfall is twice as high. Series sends me over first, and I pick out a route with growing confidence before coming to a halt a few feet above the water. On his count, I take a deep breath and let go of the rope, falling backwards in a kind of reverse starfish to splash-land safely in the pool below.
Cutting across to a second lava flow, we start to loop back. Two native fish species, banded and giant kōkopu, swim in these streams, and sometimes you'll see a fishing spider sitting on the rocks, waiting to pounce on its prey.
The trip ends with one final challenge: climbing up, this time, through the heart of the last waterfall. I won't spoil the surprise but let's just say it's a blast. Literally. We emerge from the canyon into what seems like an entirely different world, with open farmland stretching as far as the eye can see.
The next day, I hang out at the Sunday arts market downtown and then paddle across the harbour to explore Pancake Rocks, nudging my kayak into the nooks and crannies of extraordinary limestone formations that stretch for miles along the coastline.
The sea is blue-green and crystal clear, the black sand warm on my back as I dry off in the sun. Later, I get fresh fish and chips at The Wharf before driving home and realise I could imagine myself living here one day.
I just won't tell anyone I'm from Auckland.
Longitude Apartments has self-contained, two-bedroom apartments with fully stocked kitchen and funky retro-modern furnishings, a short walk from the village. booking.com