Everyone was clearing out from the rented bach the next morning, so a yummy fry up breakfast was followed by a flurry of tidying, dish washing, replacing furniture in dedicated positions, car packing, and collecting up an enormous post-holiday load of bottles and cans for recycling. Despite the lure of a Celtic festival in town (as far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to beat an event involving both beer and sheepdog trials) Coromandel remained a madhouse jam of vacationers, and there was much debate and muttering among the bach inhabitants about what a battle parking would be, and whether a festival investigation should be chanced. Gar and I reviewed my travel guides and iSite brochures and settled instead on a rough itinerary that would take us on a circuitous route incorporating a number of tourist stops and roads praised for their scenery, ultimately ending up for the night at the [nearly-impossible-for-non-Kiwis to-correctly-pronounce… or me, at least] port city of Tauranga and neighboring Mt. Maunganui, a cute resort town whose long, sandy gold beach is punctuated at one end by the looming green mountain.
We started along the gravel-topped 309 road that snakes over the Coromandel mountain range. Gar, who loves driving and races his own personal car in track competitions, took the wheel, giving me an unusual chance to goggle freely out of the window without worrying that my gawking would prompt a collision or sudden cliffside plunge. I was at first apprehensive that having a presumed speed demon piloting the decidedly not high-performance minivan would result in some white knuckle moments that I’d have to try to politely hide, but he had an instant grasp of the vehicle’s capabilities and whipped us neatly and smoothly along (well, as smoothly as could be expected from a gravelly road with washed out muddy potholes). We bypassed the whimsical Waterworks, which displays moving fountain sculptures assembled from a hodge-podge of assorted scraps, discarded flatware, and bicycles, and made our first stop at a small grove of 600-year old kauri trees, an indigenous pine tree that attains breathtaking heights and age, but had been severely logged during the prior century. The small surrounding wooden walkway was too close to be able to capture a decent picture of these gargantuan trees, as solid as iron, with intriguingly mottled bark. Their awe-inspiring size and presence seemed to demand a hushed solemnity, fueled by the surrounding clouds of mist and intermittently spitting rain.
On the trail and back in the car, sneaking glances at the cute boy next to me, I realized how shy and awkward I felt, though in a pleasant sort of way, since liking Gar was the source of my nervousness… I wanted to draw him out, get to know him better, but I wasn’t sure what to say to him. I felt like a gawky middle-schooler thrown together unexpectedly with the boy she’s been crushing on (albeit for about a 24 hour period) and finding her heart racing, her mouth dry, and her tongue tied. Those who’ve seen me nervous know that, in an emergency social situation, I fall back on chattering animatedly about random topics to cover my anxiety, and chatter I did. Gar bore it with good-natured patience, drawing my attention to points of interest we passed, describing motocross rides he’d done along the route, on trails that sliced through woods and over mountaintops graced with spectacular views.
We made a short stop in the town of Paeroa, from whence hails (well, hailed, before being purchased by Coca-Cola and production moved to Auckland) the delicious Kiwi L&P soda, a citrusy, clear, brown-bottled beverage named after its lemon flavoring and hometown. We drank mochas and watched tourists queue up for a chance to take a pic with the ten-odd foot high L&P soda bottle monument constructed of concrete piping.
From there we took Highway 2 into the –once more– famed scenery of the Karangahake Gorge. We parked and trekked through a muddy former railway tunnel leading to some riverside hiking paths, slightly alarmingly long for a claustrophobe like myself, but Gar held my hand reassuringly much of the way as we winced at the ear-splitting shouts of children entertaining themselves with the echoes rebounding from the walls. In the course of conversation Gar made a casual passing reference that would have been lost on someone unfamiliar with the witty British work of my favorite author, and I swooned anew at how amazing he was.
Next up was the little town of Waihi, where Gar’s great uncle had been a resident and, as he put it, “a bit of a local personality.” An enormous open pit marked the Martha Mine, dug so deep it was only possible to get a hint of a glimpse of the bottom by standing on tippy toes from the highest point of the adjacent hill. Snacks were procured from the town’s BP station – Indian-inspired butter chicken pies – and we drove about ten minutes to nosh on them while overlooking Waihi Beach, battling coastal breezes strong enough to blow the plates and silverware off our commandeered picnic table.
After stopping for provisions at a New World supermarket, we checked in at our Tauranga hotel, unloaded our groceries and bags, and sat out on the spacious balcony swigging Stoke craft beers (both amber and dark) and watching the sun set. Gar fried up lamb steaks for dinner in the room’s little kitchenette accompanied by salad, and after taking long showers, we crashed out in the luxuriously huge bed, which happily had, for a change, no pushed together mattresses (like the van or our bach accommodation) for anyone to find themselves falling between.