On top of the Coromandel
Lisa Jansen had to steel herself (just a bit) to drive the narrow twisting route to Port Jackson. But she’s grateful she did.
After more than 18 months’ living and travelling in my campervan, there aren’t many places left in the North Island I haven’t seen. This September, I set out to visit one of the few remaining - the very top of the Coromandel.
Having finally made the trip, I can’t help but wonder why it took me so long to visit this beautiful, remote piece of paradise. I started from Coromandel Town, making my way north along the west coast towards Colville.
There, I stopped for a coffee and to have a browse around a little shop which was surprisingly well-stocked and even had some unique local products. If you don’t have everything you need for your trip, this is your last chance to buy anything.
After Colville, nature and remoteness take over and you won’t find any shops or cafés. After my little break, I continued north. I had been warned about the road, so I wasn’t surprised when, shortly after passing through Colville, it turned to gravel and became narrow and windy. But the views are to die for.
This is New Zealand coastal scenery at its best; unspoiled green hills, rocky beaches, impressive cliffs and the blue ocean always to your left. I had to pull over several times just to take in the views. But be warned, the road is a challenge.
I spent most of the drive hoping there wouldn’t be any oncoming traffic in the wrong place, and I admit, I held my breath while driving through the two fords (there are five in total, but only two had water when I was there). If you take it slow and stay focussed, it’s totally doable.
But if you have a large motorhome or caravan and are not the most confident driver, I would probably think twice about making the trip in the busy summer months. In September, it was very quiet, and I only had to pass other cars about a handful of times.
It is definitely worth the drive. After an hour of slowly making my way along the west coast, the road took a turn east up the hill and, from the top, I had a view over my first stop, Port Jackson. Not surprisingly, the DOC campsite was almost empty at this time of the year.
I parked only centimetres from the beach and made a coffee to recover from the drive and to enjoy the views. The next morning, I set out to explore. I highly recommend the Muriwai Walkway that starts at the eastern end of the beach and takes you up to the hilltop car park (you can also start the walk from there).
The views are simply breathtaking. It’s steep in some places and requires a moderate level of fitness. If you want an easy option, I recommend starting from the hilltop car park and walking for about 15 to 20 minutes. This stroll still offers excellent views.
After enjoying the beauty and tranquillity at Port Jackson for a little longer, I made my way further north to Fletcher Bay, where I found another beautiful DOC campsite with beachfront parking options. I was surprised to find a few more people here, compared with Port Jackson.
It turns out most of them were here for the Coromandel Walkway, which starts at the campground and takes you to Stony Bay (about three hours one way). I didn’t feel like a long solo hike so only walked the track for about an hour and then turned around.
That was enough to give me a good workout; there is a steep climb about 15 minutes into the track. So I felt I had my exercise for the day. Both of the DOC campsites at Port Jackson and Fletcher Bay are basic but well-maintained, with the usual DOC long-drop toilets and cold showers.
p>If I had had more time, I would have probably chosen to spend it at Port Jackson, simply because the beach is bigger and less rocky and offers more opportunities for walking and exploring. The campground in Port Jackson also has more beachfront spots so if you arrive at a busy time, your chances of getting the best views straight from your RV are much better. (At Fletcher Bay, there are about five beachfront sites, the rest are slightly further back.)
After a few days in the very north, I decided to make my way back with a stopover on the east coast. I followed the windy road back almost to Colville but then kept going straight instead of turning right into Colville and made my way over the hill.
I considered heading to Stony Bay, but a sign on the road informed me that the campground was closed, and I didn’t want to make the drive just to take a look and then turn around. So I headed to Waikawau instead.
Waikawau is a large, unspoiled white sandy beach with some stunning dunes at the northern end. Since the DOC campsite at Waikawau was closed for renovations, I headed to the freedom camping spot at nearby Little Bay.
After having spent the previous few days parked up in the most scenic locations with amazing views through my rear doors, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed with the set-up at Little Bay.
While it is right by the beach, the designated freedom-camping spots are uneven and make it difficult to take in the views - instead you’re looking at green bush and the public toilet (though a beautifully painted one).
I climbed up the hills on either end of Little Bay to take in the views from the top, and the next morning, I got out my stand-up paddleboard and paddled around the rocks to Waikawau Beach to take in the scenery from the water.
After that, it was time to return to civilisation. I would have loved to spend more time exploring the top of the Coromandel, but work required me to return to the land of phone and internet coverage - both of which are mostly patchy up there.
From Waikawau, you can return to Coromandel Town either via Colville or by heading south along the east coast. I opted for the later even though it would mean more gravel roads. But I wanted to see something new.
I planned plenty of time for the drive back thinking there might be a few things to explore and see, but it turns out there wasn’t all that much. The road is less scenic than the west coast as most of it goes through bush. You get stunning views at Tuateawa, but I couldn’t find a spot to safely park and go for a wander, so I kept going.
Next, you get to Kennedy Bay, which is a beautiful sandy beach but, again, I struggled to find the right spot to park. The only public road to the beach I could find takes you straight onto the beach with no parking options. (I just managed to turn my van around at a farm gate.)
In hindsight, I should have parked on the main road and gone for a walk on the beach, but I chose to keep driving. Just as I thought the drive back along the east coast didn’t quite compare with the stunning west coast road, I discovered Tokatea Lookout at the top of the hill before coming back into Coromandel Town.
There is a little car park here and a 15-minute walk further up the hill presents you with some of the most stunning views of the Coromandel I’ve seen. From here, the road to Coromandel Town is mostly sealed so even if you don’t want to make the full round-trip north, I would recommend visiting this lookout the next time you’re in the area.
I think the only time I’ve ever had a better view over the Coromandel was from the top of the Pinnacles and that was a three-hour hike up, not a 15-minute walk. Standing atop the mountain looking over the peninsula felt like a fitting end to my trip to one of the most remote and unspoiled destinations in the North Island.
I’m pretty sure this wasn’t my last trip to this place where the roads are as much of a highlight as they are a reason not to go for many. I, for one, loved them as they keep the crowds away and leave nature unspoiled - exactly my kind of place.
For more on camping in the coromandel
Port Jackson DOC Campground
From Coromandel, head north on Colville Road. Turn left at Whangaahei Junction and follow Port Jackson Road for about 26km. The campground is well sign-posted when you come
down the hill.
Fletcher Bay DOC Campground
From Port Jackson, head east on Fletcher Bay Road for about 6km. The campsite is at the end of the road so you can’t miss it.
Little Bay Freedom Campsite
You will find the freedom camping spot at 59 Little Bay Road. If it’s already full, check out the DOC campsite at Waikawau Bay, just a few kilometres further northwest on Waikawau Beach Road.