Armed with road trip music and a deep reserve of patience, I slide into the traffic heading south from Auckland. I’m aware that parents usually look for the most direct route when they have children on board, but here I am with my five-year-old in the back and only a vague idea that we’ll follow the road around the Firth of Thames.
Our first stop is Clevedon for a mid-morning coffee for me and glass of milk for Gus at the Woolshed cafe. The village is still stretching and yawning on a weekday morning. We pass an athletic-looking group of sliver-haired walkers who cluck and smile at my chirpy boy as he gambols excitedly up the street.
We turn off towards Kawakawa Bay and Gus is stoked when I tell him that he should keep an eye out for anything interesting; we can stop and investigate when he wants to. He glues himself, wide-eyed, to the view, little hands clutching the window sill.
The Clevedon Coast, much like the mirroring Coromandel coast line, is a productive source of seafood, with oyster farms bobbing in regimented rows on the water. We stop to buy a decadent dozen at the Clevedon Coast Oysters factory shop.
Just outside Kaiaua, Gus spots the giant Wrybill sculpture indicating the start of the shorebird coast, a temporary home to thousands of migratory birds in the height of summer, but not much more than expansive estuary today. We stop for a closer look, and he chooses that spot by the road side, under a chorus of trilling skylarks, to sit and share the pot of oysters.
Nearby Miranda is home of ‘The Largest Hot Water Mineral Pool in the Southern Hemisphere'. Luckily, we’ve packed our togs. The steaming outdoor pool is the epitome of sedate. A small handful of swimmers cast lazy ripples in the glassy water; hushed conversation is interrupted only by the bellow of cows in the neighbouring paddock.
After a couple of hours on the road, I discover the sweet spot where my music volume masks the perpetual driving noise coming from the back seat: “vvvrrrrrrrrrrrmmmm.”
The afternoon takes us through to the cheese barn at Matatoki: a working cheese factory, and informal petting farm, with friendly sheep, alpaca, rabbits and guinea pigs. After we have shared a delicious cheese board, Kelvin, the cheese maker, invites Gus and I to meet the latest additions to the Cheese Barn family: two tiny, week-old goats. As friendly and playful as puppies, they clamber over one another bleating happily, and suck at Gus’s fingers between the fence palings.
In Thames, we explore sunny Pollen Street, where Gus runs along the wide footpath past craft shops, cafés, second-hand shops, takeaway bars and school kids strumming a guitar and singing songs in Maori. We breakfast the next morning at Cafe Melbourne, part of The Depot complex in Thames, a warehouse restyled in industrial chic with exposed brickwork and hanging lights. The coffee is excellent.
A few minutes’ drive north to Tararu, we visit the Butterfly and Orchid Garden, driving through a caravan park thick with puriri and laden avocado trees to the butterfly house, a dome-roofed building set in the bush. We’re early and the butterflies are still having their breakfast: colourful vials of nectar in bright fabric flowers, and pungent over-ripe bananas. The air is humid and thick with fluttering insects – so many, it seems strange there is no noise.
At the far end of the jungly room, a flight of butterflies just released from the hatchery sit perilously still on the paved floor. I warn Gus to watch where he puts his stompy feet. A large brown butterfly with extraordinarily realistic animal eyes on its wings lands on my sleeve, delighting Gus and he comes in for a closer look, until it flutters into his face and he shrieks with laughter.
The road north is lined with weather-beaten caravans and brightly painted baches, sitting impatiently by the roadside as if waiting to cross over and get to the beach. Fluorescent orange signs advertise bait for sale and fishing charters; pohutukawa trees are festooned with roosting shags.
Coromandel township is serene. We pass by a collection of shops and cafés, locals chatting through ute windows, roadside flowerbeds with fragrant sweet peas and bright poppies.
Turning inland, we follow the signs to the Driving Creek Railway; the pictures of trains irresistible to a mechanically-minded boy. The railway was established by potter Barry Brickell in the 1970s on 60 hectares of land he bought for a mere $8,000.
Barry originally built the narrow gauge railway, mostly by hand over 15 years, to extract the clay he needed for his work. A keen conservationist, he also re-generated native bush from the scrub and installed a predator fence around the property.
Gus is entranced by the small, colourful trains and jiggles impatiently until we are allowed to board. Even on this quiet mid-week afternoon the carriages are nearly all full and Paul, our driver and host, tells me that in peak summer the trains carry up to 500 people every day.
I tell him that he should keep an eye out for anything interesting
The slow journey chugging through dense native bush is surprisingly tranquil, even with the puttering engine and whine of metal as the train negotiates corners. Gus insists on sitting as close to the front as possible, so we scrunch in behind the driver’s seat, my knees tucked under my chin.
As ‘official co-driver’, Gus is tasked with changing the train’s direction as we zig-zag up the hill. He takes on his assignment with gravity: furrowed brow and full body-weight lunges to heave the metal levers.
On our last morning we drive a short way further north to where the road turns inland at Waitete Bay. Along the coast, the road is a swooping, swooning cascade of curves; a tarsealed seam stitches together the brooding expanse of forestry and bush on one side, and shimmering sea with rocky beaches on the other.
The Waterworks theme park is our final distraction. Gus runs off in a frenzy as soon as we arrive, flitting from one watery attraction to the next in case there is something even more fun around the corner.
Interactive displays involve levers and pipes, re-purposed buckets and rusty saucepans, pumps rigged up to bicycles, hoses and sneaky shower heads attached to trees.
The latter sends Gus into hysterics when he realises I’m standing directly in the line of fire, or rather, water. We’re both too chicken to go on the flying fox, but soar around the playground area on the ‘flying bicycles’, and send wooden boats down a flume in a hotly contested race.
We head back to the car, grinning and slightly soggy. Gus settles in sleepily for the drive home. “Mum,” he sighs happily, “this was the best holiday, ever.”
Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue