Road trips are not often leisurely or spontaneous when you have kids on board.
But here I am with my five-year-old in the back and no real plans – except for the vague idea that we’ll head to the less-sandy side of the Coromandel Peninsula.
After a fortifying coffee in Clevedon village, we turn off towards Kawakawa Bay. Gus is stoked when I tell him that he should keep an eye out for anything interesting – we can stop and investigate if he wants to. He glues himself, wide-eyed to the view, little hands clutching the window sill.
Just outside Kaiaua, Gus spots the giant oystercatcher sculpture marking the start of the Seabird Coast. It’s a temporary home to thousands of migratory birds in the height of summer, but not much more than expansive estuary on this grey spring day. We stop for a closer look under a chorus of trilling skylarks.
We continue along the Firth of Thames, playing a limited game of ‘I Spy’ with the muted coastal colour palette: grey, green, brown. “I spy with my little eye something coloured…” Gus sighs, “ah, your turn.”
Miranda is the proud home of ‘The Largest Hot Water Mineral Pool in the Southern Hemisphere.’ Luckily, we’ve packed our togs. A small handful of swimmers cast lazy ripples in the glassy water, and hushed conversation is interrupted only by the bellow of cows in the neighbouring paddock.
The afternoon takes us to The Cheese Barn at Matātoki – a working cheese factory and informal petting farm with friendly sheep, alpaca, rabbits and guinea pigs. We share a delicious cheese board, and stop to admire the latest additions to the Cheese Barn family: two tiny, week-old goats.
In Thames Gus stretches his legs, running along the wide footpath past shops with racks of bright knitting yarn and plastic flowers, a group of school kids strumming a guitar and singing songs in Māori, second-hand shops and takeaway bars.
The next morning, breakfast is at Café Melbourne, part of The Depot complex in Thames – a warehouse restyled in popular industrial chic with exposed brickwork and pendant lights. The coffee is excellent. I order another.
Just a few minutes drive north to Tararu is the Butterfly and Orchid garden. Turning off the main road, we drive through a leafy caravan park, thick with puriri and laden avocado trees, to the butterfly house, a dome-roofed building set discreetly into the bush.
We’re early, and the butterflies are still having their breakfast – colourful vials of nectar set in fabric flowers and pungent, over-ripe bananas. The air is steamy and thick with fluttering insects. At the far end of the jungly room, a flight of new butterflies just released from the hatchery sit perilously still on the paved floor. I warn Gus sternly to watch where he puts his stompy feet.
The road north is lined with weather-beaten caravans and brightly painted baches, sitting by the roadside as if waiting patiently to cross over and get to the beach. Fluorescent orange signs advertise bait for sale and fishing charters. Gnarly pōhutukawa, festooned with roosting shags, look like decorated Christmas trees.
Coromandel Town is small and serene. We pass by a quiet collection of shops and cafes, locals chatting through ute windows, roadside flowerbeds fragrant with sweet peas and bright poppies.
Turning inland we follow the signs to Driving Creek Railway – the pictures of trains irresistible to a mechanically-minded boy. The railway was established by pioneering Coromandel potter, the late Barry Brickell, in the 1970s on 60 hectares of land he bought for a mere $8,000. Brickell originally built the narrow gauge railway, mostly by hand, over 15 years to extract the clay he needed for his work.
The slow journey chugging through dense native bush is quaint and 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.
The Waterworks is our final stop on the way back home. A hotly-anticipated, water-fuelled theme park. It is an attraction that completely embodies the Kiwi ‘No. 8 wire’ ethos. Interactive displays involve levers and pipes, re-purposed buckets and rusty saucepans. Pumps are rigged up to bicycles; hoses and sneaky shower heads are attached to trees. The latter sends Gus into cackling hysterics when he realises I’m standing directly in the line of fire – or rather, water.
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.”