In no particular order:
1. First time driving on the left
2. First time eating sushi (the real kind, with raw fish)
3. First time riding in a tuk-tuk
4. First time using crampons
5. First time drinking sake
6. First time riding a motorbike
7. First time eating kangaroo and camel
8. First time sailing
9. First time snorkeling
10. First time feeding an elephant
Sometimes, things go wrong on a trip and it’s just terrible. (Contracting shingles of the eye comes to mind.) Sometimes, things go wrong in a funny way. And sometimes, things go wrong but it all works out well in the end. I went on a road trip to the Coromandel in New Zealand with four other women in a tiny rental car, and we passed through each of those scenarios and, lucky us, landed on the last one.
I met Vasha (from Oregon) and Rachel (from southwestern China) at a Couchsurfing event in Auckland my first week there. We got along so well that we met up again for a night out later on, and when I decided to rent a car and explore the much-touted Coromandel Peninsula, I went straight to them to see if they wanted to be road trip buddies. Rachel brought Natalia and Xi Xi too, and on a sunny Sunday morning in December we picked up the car in Auckland and set off.
An hour and a half later, we had a flat tire. Cue the sad trombone music. Since it was a Sunday, all the mechanics were closed. We’d bought the insurance (phew), so I called the car company up while Vasha changed the tire to the donut from the trunk. The car company rep told me to drive 60 miles over the hilly terrain to Whitianga, and visit the Firestone store the next day to get a new tire. We got directions on the shortest route there, piled all five of us into the tiny car, and promptly took the wrong turn out of town.
I’m not suggesting the flat tire was a good thing, or that the time wasted on changing the tire and talking to the car company was fun, but nothing bonds a group traveling together like a minor disaster soon fixed, and the wrong turn took us to one of my favorite walks in New Zealand.
That walk was through Karangahake Gorge, which was once the site of a huge gold mining operation. After lunch at an adorable cafe across the road, we walked over the swing bridge spanning the river and took some silly photos with the obliging Olde Fashionede props.
There are several different trails to take, and we chose the one that takes you into the mining tunnels and along the ridge of the river. Disused machinery dots the trail, and the original train tracks still run through the woods and tunnels. We peeked through the windows cut into the tunnel–miners would chuck rock waste through them into the river below so that the carts on the tracks only had to carry gold.
Deeper in the tunnels, using only our handsome head torches, we explored the pumphouse, separated from us by a tall metal gate. Dusty machinery rusted slowly in the damp cave, and overhead we saw the tiny blue-green pinpricks of the glowworms made famous by the Waitomo Caves farther south on the island. Eventually we went back outside and strolled along the river and over another swing bridge to get back to the car.
Driving the car was an adventure. It was a tiny Nissan Sunny, a white four-door made in Japan, barely big enough to fit all five of us and our bags. (This is a very popular rental model in New Zealand.) We didn’t want to go too fast on the spare tire, and anyway the twisty two-lane roads of the peninsula were a challenge. The Kiwi drivers behind us were very frustrated with our slow pace, until Vasha drew up a little sign saying “Busted tyre, please pass” (she even spelled “tire” the Kiwi way). After she put that in the back window, people were all smiles and sympathetic waves as they passed.
Vasha didn’t want to drive anymore after the tire busted when she was at the wheel, so of course I took over, but this was my first time driving on the other side of the road, on the other side of the car, and it was a full car, and it had proven itself rickety as all get out. It was a slightly stressful drive up the inland road to Whitianga, but we made it before dark, with enough time for dinner in town before crashing at the hostel.
The next day, we were up and at the Firestone just after it opened. The grumpy proprietor (likely not excited about doing work the insurance company probably took ages to to pay for) told us to come back in an hour, so we went across the street for a pastry breakfast while he worked. Vasha’s boyfriend Dar had joined us on his motorcycle, and once the tire was fixed, the two of them roared off on the bike looking very cool, and the rest of us piled back into the car, now with slightly improved balance, and beetled along down the road after them.
We met at Hot Water Beach, a stretch of sand that sits atop a thermal patch. The idea is that you show up with a shovel and dig yourself a hole to sit in, then watch the ocean waves while enjoying the warm waters of a natural spa. Little did we know that it’s not just “dig somewhere and you’ll find a hotspot.” It’s more “dig at random along the beachfront, think you find a spot, discover the water’s just lukewarm, and move on to another spot, while surrounded by other tourists doing the same thing.”
Eventually, two girls (who had got there much more on schedule with the tides than we had) decided they were done and offered us their spot. The water was a nice warm temperature in most of the little pool, but we stayed away from one corner, which had boiling hot water bubbling up from underneath. I think if we’d come for the night tide it might’ve been more relaxing, but as it was it was just an amusing experience I don’t need to do again.
After buying scandalously overpriced food at the small general store the next town over, we parked high up on a cliff and began the walk down to Cathedral Cove. It’s a commitment–45 minutes to an hour down there, 30 to 45 minutes on the way back up. A steep walk down the cliff in the sun, then a wooded bit, up a hill, along a ridge, through a field, down steep stairs, a few more stairs, and there’s the beach. But the views along the way are stunning.
We were ravenous by the time we got there, and that picnic lunch was gone in no time. We spread out to variously nap in the shade, sunbathe on the sand, explore the arch that gives the beach its name, and swim in the Pacific. It was a lovely spot, but eventually we tore ourselves away so we’d have time to get back to Auckland.
Taking the gravel road through the mountain pass may not have been our best collective driving decision, but by going no more than 30 km/hr and keeping up a steady chant of “oh shit another blind turn oh shit oh shit,” I got us through to the other side. Vasha took over so I could steady my nerves, and it was smooth sailing back to Auckland.
I had such a great time road tripping with these women. Learning “I love you” in Mandarin and Russian, snacking on tiny Rachel’s neverending supply of goodies, bonding with Vasha over driving disasters and US-specific jokes, giving Xi Xi about five new nicknames… Anyone who’s ever driven long distances with other people knows that a successful road trip is 30% scenery, 10% car and weather conditions, and 60% camaraderie. Even with a flat tire, the weekend still came in at 95%, and that’s an A–for awesome.