Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the Coromandel Peninsula became well known as a haven for hippies and alternative-lifestylers. Bush-clad mountains, remote valleys, and secluded bays provided perfect places for those who wanted a simpler life.
Many of these people were artists and craftspeople and, as the decades have rolled by, the Coromandel has retained its reputation for being a bit of a quirky, arty, eco-friendly place. Although most of the old hippy communes have gone, folk on the Coromandel still care deeply about the environment.
It seems that everyone—from tourism operators, cafes, and businesses to retreats, lodges, and BnBs—uphold the principles of sustainability. Unconventional, creative people are still happily doing their thing on the Coromandel and visitors can reap the benefits.
When touring the Coromandel recently, we strolled around markets where we bought locally grown organic fruit, vegetables, and chutney; browsed art galleries and craft shops stuffed with good-quality objects of desire; and feasted in quirky cafes and good old Kiwi pubs featuring locally sourced ingredients.
The Coromandel even has its own coffee roasters, Coffee Lala, and, inspired by the brand’s award-winning blends, the Cormandel Brewing Company’s Pour House in Hahei has produced a coffee and vanilla cream ale. Coromandel creativity and ingenuity is going from strength to strength.
We knew of a couple of eco-friendly destinations near Coromandel township, so we parked our bus in the NZMCA’s park there and un-hooked the car. The first stop on our itinerary was Driving Creek Railway and Potteries, a couple of kilometres north of the town. The first time we visited Driving Creek, its owner, Barry Brickell, was still alive.
Barry, New Zealand’s first full-time potter, bought this block of land in 1961. Needing clay, he constructed a narrow-gauge railway to quarry it and, over time, built a track up through the mountainous bush, building bridges and tunnels as he went. In 1990, the Driving Creek Railway opened to the public and has become a tourist attraction.
On our previous visit, Barry drove the train and recounted how he and his helpers had built the railway, lining the earth banks with bottles from the wine and beer they drank after a hard day’s work. At the top of the ride, Barry explained how the once extensive kauri forests had been decimated by logging, leaving a denuded landscape.
A passionate conservationist, Barry planted thousands of native trees on his property to help regenerate the forests of old. Sadly, he passed away in 2016; he is buried beside the railway in the bush that he loved.
Since our earlier visit, there have been a few changes. The shop, station, and pottery area are little altered, there are still quirky clay and pottery figures around the kilns and a sense that much has been built from recycled materials and whatever came to hand. But because of the rise in tourist numbers, two trains at a time now make the three-kilometre ascent.
Along the route, we enjoyed spotting whimsical pottery figures beside the track and, of course, still had great views of the coastline from ridge-top platforms as the train wound around two spirals, through three tunnels, over viaducts, and into five reversing points. What was new was the final section of track to the Eyefull Tower—a large viewing platform. From here, we could see even more stunning views across the Hauraki Gulf.
Driving Creek Railway is unique; it is a ‘must-see’ for visitors to the Coromandel. But it is more than just a fun train ride; it is a testament to Barry Brickell’s commitment to making his land a better place. Prior to his death, Barry set up the Driving Creek Railway, Arts and Conservation Trust so that his vision and legacy could be continued.
Before heading down the road to the Driving Creek Cafe for lunch, we took the time to wander around Driving Creek’s 1.6-hectare, predator-free, fenced wildlife sanctuary. This is a step past mere sustainability; it is helping to redress the harm done to the area in the past.
The other eco-friendly attraction we visited was just a few minutes south of Coromandel township, along the 309 Road. Waiau Waterworks is not your average theme park. This DIY version is built from recycled materials and runs—typically eccentric, Coromandel-style—on water power.
The owners describe the Waterworks as the “wackiest, quirkiest, and funest eco-friendly theme park in New Zealand”, and they must be right.
A sign at the entrance lists some of the materials they have used. It includes 28 teaspoons, two pairs of broken sunglasses, a mangle, four tee shirts and an anorak, as well as the more expected bits and pieces.
The Waterworks is amazing fun for children and equally entertaining for adults, especially those with a scientific or engineering bent, who love to figure out how everything works. The rest of us just act like big kids!
We examined and listened to a musical box made from knives, a car axle, and an oil drum, and then scrutinised a water clock created when the power company left a pole behind. The Waterworks people added some rocks and an old dive-tank and produced a working, 10-metre-high timepiece.
Beside the ‘Croc’-infested pond, Mr Bones (created from recycled odds and ends) cycles his bike. Further on that isn’t just a pile of old junk by the path: it is Bugingham Palace, a home for insects.
After spending about an hour winding handles, pedalling, dodging, and generally messing around with water and all the ways it can be squirted, pumped, and poured, we headed for the Waterwork’s Wet Your Whistle Cafe for lunch.
The recycle vibe continues here: all the tables had glass tops covering collections of ‘stuff’—ours had a sewing and needlework theme. Waiau Waterworks is an NZMCA park over property.
The owners charge $5 per night, redeemable against entrance to the theme park. There are a couple of other attractions just along the 309 road: Waiau Waterfall and the Waiau Kauri Grove so this would be a good place to park up for those heading over to Whitianga (though the road, being unsealed, is more of an adventure than SH25).
Both the waterfall and kauri grove are just short walks and there are carparks at the roadside. The grove has an unusual kauri, called the Siamese Kauri, because it has been formed by two trees growing so closely together that their trunks have fused together at the bottom.
In an area that was once hugely deforested for timber, it is heartening that the kauri in this grove have been protected since before the Second World War. An attempt to fell them then (for the war effort) was fiercely contested and, luckily, the conservationists won. May the Coromandel long continue its eco-friendly stance.
- More information about Driving Creek Railway and Pottery and Waiau Waterworks can be found at: drivingcreekrailway.co.nz; dcrail.nz, and thewaterworks.co.nz
- Coromandel, Whitianga, and Whangamata are motorhome friendly towns with designated areas for self-contained vehicles. Full details regarding freedom camping around the Coromandel are outlined on the council’s website, where there is also a list of the area’s many commercial campsites. tcdc.govt.nz
- There are NZMCA parks at Whitianga and Coromandel Town. We can recommend both.
- Visitor Information Centres can be found at Coromandel Town, Whangamata, Pauanui and Tairua, with i-Sites at Thames and Whitianga.