Hopscotching between past & present
3 August 2022
From a good old-fashioned Kiwi town hosting New Zealand’s best-kept secret to one of the most famous tourist attractions. Alex and Chris take you on a mini road trip from a secluded hot water beach to the popular Waitomo glowworm caves.
We watch the sun sink into the ocean from our very own sandy hot pool, our bottom halves simmering in hot water while our top halves get a little chilly from the sea breeze. Only a handful of locals and day trippers from nearby towns share the strip of hot water beach with us. Taking a bite of my takeout burger from the town’s only pub, I can’t help but think how different and relaxing this hot water beach experience is compared to its busier sibling in the Coromandel.
Hiding away from the world in one of the western-most points of the Waikato, Kawhia and its hot water beach is possibly New Zealand’s best-kept secret. Located two harbours south of Raglan, Kawhia is just over 90 minutes away from Hamilton. They might as well be worlds apart.
Leaving Auckland on a Friday evening after work, we underestimate the drive on SH31 from Tihiroa to Kawhia and arrive at Kawhia Beachside S-Cape campsite well past reception opening hours. No one comes to check us in, so we just pick one of the empty waterfront spots and pitch our tent in the dark. With some luck, it would be the one we’d booked.
We whip up a quick dinner that we polish off under the canopy of twinkling stars. A glass of wine to toast to a weekend of adventures ahead is a mandatory part on the first evening of all of our getaways before we crawl into the tent and sink into our warm sleeping bags.
Waking up to a concert of chirping birds before sunrise is my favourite part of camping and gets me out of bed earlier than at any other time. As we sip our tea, the rising sun bathes the estuary in front of us in golden light.
After a coffee at the local café, we spend the day lazily exploring Kawhia. We watch a group of young lads teaching a fishing newbie how to throw the line off the jetty without ‘catching’ a spectator in the process. A group of Māori women sit in the park under the cooling shade of a pōhutukawa and weave baskets from harakeke. Talking to a local, we learn that we’ve only just missed a pod of orcas swimming in the harbour!
It feels great to slow down for once and catch a break from our busy city lives. After some time of relaxing bliss, we decide to learn something about local history and visit the Kawhia Museum. The tiny building houses a surprising amount of curiosities from yesteryear. One of the highlight pieces is an antique telephone exchange.
We learn that Kawhia is a significant place for the Māori as it’s the resting place of the ancestral waka. A few hundred years later, a passenger boat connected Auckland with Kawhia, and the first tourists visited (unfortunately, this service was discontinued after a road was built). And more recently, school children discovered the fossils of a giant penguin in Kawhia. Since the 1960s, not much has changed in the quaint little town. A picture in the museum shows the main road, Jervois Street, in the ‘60s. Apart from the old cars and the faded patina of age, the picture could be a duplicate of the one I took earlier from the same angle. Before we set off to the hot water beach in the evening, the main reason for our visit to Kawhia, we head to the local pub for a drink. We have to wait for low tide before going. It happens to coincide with sunset! Had we planned it, we couldn’t have done it any better.
Asking the staff about their opening hours, we realise they will be closed by the time we’d be back and ready for dinner (small-town opening hours are not easy to fathom living in the city), so we order burgers and fries to go.
Kawhia hot water beach ‘works’ pretty much in the same way its famous sibling in the Coromandel does. Wait for low tide and start digging where the sand feels warm. Geothermally heated water bubbles up from deep below the surface into the hole, turning it into a relaxing hot pool.
Reaching the beach is slightly more exhausting in Kawhia than it is in the Coromandel, as you have to conquer a big sand dune to reach it. The reward is a much quieter beach and, in our case, a burger dinner in the hot pool while watching the sun sink into the water.
The next day it’s time to return from our trip back to the ‘60s and move from the hidden gem to a very well-known destination: the Waitomo Caves. While these places are worlds apart, they’re not really that far from each other.
We choose to take the backroad. Instead of following SH31 all the way back, we turn off and follow Kawhia Harbour Road. We drive through farmland, along the waterfront on windy roads and, apart from the occasional settlements and baches, don’t see a soul.
Shortly before the road gets busier with traffic, we turn and pay a brief visit to Marokopa Beach. It’s the weekend and the whole town seems to be out on the beach. It looks like there’s a fishing competition happening as we arrive. We observe the buzz of activity for a while.
Now back on trodden paths towards Waitomo, we check out the Marokopa Falls, a short and easy walk from the road. The falls are often described as the most beautiful in New Zealand, with water tumbling down from 35 metres. They’re certainly in my top five of those I’ve seen so far and well-worth visiting en route to the Waitomo Caves. Another stunning place follows shortly down the road, the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. It’s really more an arch than a bridge as you can’t pass over but under it. A wooden boardwalk winds along the rocks over a stream, leading to the massive remainder of an ancient cave system that is Mangapohue Natural Bridge. As we’re told, glowworms can be seen at night in the moist, mossy walls.
The next day, we’re booked for a tour of the Waitomo Glow-worm Cave and Ruakuri Cave. We’ve been reluctant for years to visit the caves as we’re not fans of overcrowded tourism attractions. But we really wanted to see with our own eyes whether the hype is justified. Spoiler alert: It is.
We’ve never seen this many glowworms in one place as in the Waitomo Cave, anywhere! A small boat glides silently through the cave, steered by a tour guide. The millions of glowworms above look like galaxies of stars, seemingly close enough to touch if I just reached out. The water reflects the light; I think this is what floating through space must be like.
It truly is a magical moment that makes a visit worthwhile. The boat ride through the glow-worm cave only takes up about five minutes of a 45-minute tour, though. The majority of the time, you walk through other caves and learn about stalactites, stalagmites and glowworms.
Ruakuri Cave is a bit more relaxed, and the tour takes longer. We have the possibility to stop and take pictures of rock formations and petrified sea shells. While there are fewer glowworms to be seen on this tour, we learn a lot about the fascinating life of a glowworm, their likes and dislikes and get to observe them from up close.
This mini road trip from Kawhia hot water beach to the Waitomo Caves does not only feel like travelling through time and space but is a true Kiwiana adventure. And the best part is, even though we’ve uncovered a real secret spot in Kawhia, it’s right at Hamilton’s (and Auckland’s) doorstep!
Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine.
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