Ellie Hutchinson encounters adrenalin, exhaustion and good food near Thames.
Don't look down. Keep moving. Let your weight drop into your harness and lean riiiiiiiiight back. It takes absolute concentration and focus to make my body do these things, the total opposite of what my mind is telling me.
We know we are in the safest of hands with Russ, the owner of Canyonz, and Teri, our guide for the day, as these two have been working together for years. After a quick run through on the equipment, Teri says a traditional karakia (prayer), I assume for our safety, before we take it in turns to perch on the edge of the 30m waterfall. All we know is that this will be the first of 10 multiple pitches that we will be belaying, zip-lining, leaping off and sliding down. The majestic Kauaeranga Valley in the Coromandel Forest Park is just 13km to the east behind the town of Thames. From the car park, we apprehensively face our first challenge, navigating our way across the Kauaeranga River, once named Waiwhakauaeranga, which means "waters of the stacked-up jaw bones".
The equipment on our backs sends us slightly off balance as we tentatively hop from boulder to rock — "The canyoning shoes are incredibly grippy" Russ assures us. We embark on the Billygoat Track, which passes through native bush, past fine specimens of kauri, kowhai and rimu as well as a wide range of ferns and the only sound is birdsong.
Teri points out the remains of the tramway and tells us a bit about the extensive kauri logging that took place from the 1870s to the 1920s. As we near the top, we pause to take in spectacular views across the rugged hills to Table Mountain, finally arriving at the summit, the Sleeping God Canyon — Atuatumoe.
My friend Lizzie is the first to descend slowly down the steep wall, my heart is pounding like a sledgehammer as her blue helmet disappears. She makes it safely to the bottom and now it is my turn. Adrenalin is at an all-time high but Teri's encouraging words replay in my head and the resistance on the rope through the carabiner locks me in place, it takes significant effort to slowly feed the rope through the safety ring in order to actually move. Deep breathes and lots of positive thinking and we are soon celebrating the completion of our first obstacle with high fives and shaky legs.
Next is the zip line, which somehow seems less scary, again we are in control of the speed and movement. Just as we begin to relax a little, Russ suggests a "practice jump" about 6m above the first pool. We clamber up the volcanic rocks and look down into the dark cola-coloured water below, we get a few tips on how to jump and it takes all my willpower to throw myself off the cliff face and into the freezing water. We brace and after the first jump inhibitions are well and truly gone and we jump again just for fun. A lot of trust is placed in Russ "the Muss" as he launches us one by one down the most exhilarating natural waterslide, thankfully not as bumpy as it looks. We finish the day having scaled a vertical descent of a total of more than 300m, involving rappels of up to 80m and optional jumps as high as 14m. As we scramble back over the rocks and along the river, recalling our mind-blowing experience, we now understand why Russ and his team are addicted to the thrills this natural environment has to offer.
Cycling 45km the next day on the new leg of the Hauraki Rail Trail seems mild in comparison. We set off after a delicious breakfast at Waiomu Beach cafe, overlooking the Thames Coast, which is lined with beautiful pohutukawa, popular with locals and resident ducklings. The cafe takes pride in displaying local art, has plenty of vegan options, tasty gluten-free treats and makes arguably the best turmeric latte. The flat, wide gravel trail takes us over the bridge from Thames and through open, sunny plains and farmland. We cycle most of the way side by side, which makes for a really pleasant day. At Bugga Cafe in Pipiroa for a quick smoothie on the veranda. We are about halfway to our destination, Miranda Holiday park, next to the renowned hot pools.
A short drive up the seabird coast and overlooking the Firth of Thames is an awesome lunch spotthe Stray Dog cafe and farm shop, set in a peaceful organic orchard. Chef Natalie whips us up an incredible mezze platter filled with tasty local seasonal produce, complete with smoked eel, whitebait fritter and homemade lime and soda, really thirst-quenching after four hours of peddling. We recognise the large red statue standing next door at Miranda Art gallery, carved by local artist Fatu Feu'u. We had passed the three others that sit on the lawn of his home in Thornton Bay several times over the past couple of days when coming and going from our accommodation in Te Puru.
La Casa Te Puru Lodge is a 70s property nestled into the hillside, just 15 minutes' drive from Thames. Its gorgeous rooms overlook the Hauraki Gulf and on both evenings we watch spectacular sunsets. Owners Drew and Christine cook us breakfast complete with home-made fig and ginger jam and a generous fish platter for dinner, we make ourselves at home drinking our red wine in the conversation pit by the fire.
Had we not been so exhausted by all the activity, we would have definitely revisited Melbourne Cafe. The fully licensed quirky industrial-style venue had made the perfect start to our action-packed weekend in beautiful Thames.