Saturday, March 19, 2016

Tour of Coromandel

It doesn't take long to walk around the town of Coromandel - cafes, souvenir shops, pub, bottle store, excellent general store, dairy... At one end there are some jetties sticking out through the mangrove swamps, on one side a hill that's pierced by a mysterious tunnel, unlabelled and open that goes much further in than I cared to. The opposite side of town has the school and sports ground, and then there's the northern end, leading to all the scenic glories that we just spent the last week lapping up on our Tour de Coromandel, all 110km of it.
But before you head up to the fabulous Pohutukawa Coast, it's worth branching off to Driving Creek, where the recently-late Barry Brickell established his pottery and narrow-gauge railway zig-zagging up the hill through the bush to his Eyefull Tower. The whole place is full of jokes and quirkiness, but it's the railway that everyone enjoys most, diving through tunnels and over viaducts, switchbacking up the hill past wine-bottle retaining walls, ferny lushness, waterwheels and BB's grave.
At the top is of course a wide view over the Hauraki Gulf, all sea and sky, clouds and islands, over bush where, at night, you can hear kiwi calling. It's all a pretty impressive gift to have left us.
It's a longish walk from town though, even when you stop at the cute and endearingly idiosyncratic Museum of Mining on the way, so what better reward than a local mussel pie in the sunshine, while you wait for the bus to the ferry back home?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Tour de Coromandel - home again, home again but no jiggety jig, hooray

There's nothing worse than packing up a wet tent [there are lots of things worse than packing up a wet tent] so in view of the predicted heavy rain overnight, the cannier amongst us took the chance to take ours down while they were dry yesterday evening, and spend the night in luxury in the woolshed. No exaggeration: a proper roof, room to move, a real mattress, even double beds if you wanted; plus pool and ping-pong tables, a big screen TV, kitchen and a shower - complete with a set of bathroom scales, even. Who knew shearers had body issues?
There was snoring, however - that's the downside of communal sleeping; and the early risers were hard to ignore. I was neither riding nor walking today, hanging out instead with the volunteers, so I could have had a lie-in, but since it would be under the basilisk stare of several wild boar heads opposite my bunk, I got up too. After all, the cook was up at 5.50am.
Off went the walkers, then the cyclists and runners, and finally the riders, all being checked out by the timer lady, who does nothing else - once the last person's away, she heads to the end point to count them all in again, with not much of a break in between. They were all on the road today, since the rain made the tracks too treacherous, so I was quite glad to be in various vehicles with the volunteers. 
First was Ken the toilet guy, who was also in charge of the fuel stop - coffee and snacks, that is. We had two goes at setting up since the first site, on the beach, was objected to by some locals - and since we were in the spot where there were three Armed Offenders Squad call-outs in the last three weeks, we thought we wouldn't argue. It's Coromandel, after all, at cannabis harvest time.
Back in town, on the back of Steve's quad bike ("That's illegal," said the medic, who's reassuringly particular about rules), we met the first riders home at the pub, where the obliging barmaid served them through the window ("This is actually illegal," she whispered). More and more horses clattered into town, the shovel man turned up, there were marshals in hi-viz vests, a few interested locals, and then, just like that, the Tour de Coromandel 2016 was over. 
That night there was a raffle, some sponsored beard and head-shaving (with a LadyShave! And horse clippers!), lots of thank yous, plans and enthusiasm for the next event, and music till the small hours. Steve had been disappointed that the numbers were smaller than he'd hoped - but the trekkers liked it better that way, and in the end it raised more money for multiple sclerosis research than bigger events. So everyone was happy. Especially Jay - but then, he always is.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Tour de Coromandel - R&R

Remember that beach from yesterday? This is how it looked today, our official rest day here at Waikawau. Well, we'd had such a wonderful run of perfect weather, and it is autumn after all - it had to end some time. And when better for it to rain, than on the one day when we have nothing to do but lie around, nap, and take it easy?
Some jobs always need to be done, of course, but once the horses were fed it was back to the tents and trucks (many of the horse people shuttled their vehicles along each day, and some of them were palaces. Well, compared with my little tent and old-fashioned stretcher, anyway).
The marquee was, as usual, the centre of social life, offering hot drinks and a bar (come 3pm), cards, chat and music, and a TV showing a slideshow of the photos that the marshals took of us every day, or a movie. What with all that, and some reading and snoozing tucked up in our sleeping bags, the day passed very pleasantly, and when dinner time rolled around, despite the lack of activity, no-one found their appetites diminished when Ivan brought out his piece de resistance for the week:
Afterwards, it was the grand charity raffle, when all sorts of goods donated by the trek participants were auctioned off by a proper auctioneer to raise even more money for the Tour de Coromandel's multiple sclerosis charity. There was everything from a week in Queenstown to a toy horse, by way of cowboy boots, bottles of booze, 4 hours with a handyman (waterblasting, pruning, cross-dressing, candlelit dinner just some of the services offered) and a t-shirt.
Not just any t-shirt - Steve's still-warm Hobbit movie animal team t-shirt (he was the animal wrangler on all those movies, plus lots of others), which aroused a lot of, er, competition. He was thrilled, having been a bit disappointed that the Tour had fewer participants than he'd originally envisaged, to find that in the end the overall total raised for the charity was $12,000 - not bad for around 100 people. No wonder the marquee was buzzing till late into the night.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tour de Coromandel - two feet ok

When your horse casts a shoe on an event like this, it's no big deal - Charlie the farrier is on hand for precisely this reason. So this rider was ok for today's journey all the way back down the Pohutukawa Coast. 
When your horse develops, mysteriously, a sore back, however, it's not so easy to fix. In fact, it's not possible at all. So poor old Shine was on the end of a lead rope today, and I'm on just two feet for the rest of the trek. These things happen, with horses. And it was fun while it lasted.
The cyclists have no such problems, machines of metal and rubber being so much more straightforward than living things. Not that the cyclists are not living things themselves, of course: Colin here, who's 74, would probably admit to a few niggles here and there. And then he'd shrug them off and pedal away - his only concession to turning 80, he's decided, will be to buy himself an e-bike.
These guys are the runners. Notice anything? No water! They can't be bothered with clutter like bottles or bladders, and just have a slurp wherever they come across water, like at a farm or campsite. And if they don't? They just go thirsty. Doesn't seem to bother them, even though they've got 40km ahead of them today - that's near as dammit a marathon, you know.
And here go the two walkers, both somewhat stricken in years but impressively lean and fit. "Oh, but I only go fast uphill," protests Patricia, the older one. She sure does. I got left behind very quickly, waving them on when they stopped politely for me to catch up.
Since we're not horses, we were allowed to do the bit that DoC wouldn't let them across, so here is the start of the Coromandel Walkway, which I remember doing about five years ago, and which is full of lovely things. Views like this, for example:
What with visual distraction like this, and the pleasant company of a man from Minnesota who caught up with me (Fargo accents? They were all wildly exaggerated, I was disappointed to hear - though Karl did let slip a few yahs, and oh nows) Stony Bay came up faster than I expected. So did the pick-up, though, so I didn't have time to appreciate that beautiful, though typically plainly-named bay.
This one had to do instead: Waikawau Bay, where the sand was soft and typically empty, apart from one girl under an umbrella waiting vainly for some surf, and the sea was the perfect temperature. I wasn't the only one to enjoy a refreshing bathe - when the horses came in after their long trail back down the coast and over the hills, this one really luxuriated in his hose-down.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Tour de Coromandel - circling

Sleeping right by the beach, hearing the waves breaking on the sand, is such a pleasure that, after waking to a pink sky in the morning that promised nothing but lovely weather ahead, no participant in this Tour de Coromandel was minded to whinge even a bit about today's ride being just a circuit of the farm. That was because the Department of Conservation had thrown a late spanner in the works, and ruled against the horses crossing some of their (their? isn't that really our?) land, so the route was changed. But at least that meant we didn't have to pack up our tents!
So off we clattered, to the wide-eyed wonder of a big flock of sheep, along a creek and then up into the hills, the farmers amongst us looking critically, and approvingly, at the state of the land, fences and stock. The rest of us just enjoyed the rural loveliness, even the bikers, who had no choice but to get off, refusing all offers of a tow.
It was worth it. From the top we had huge views, all dominated by Great Barrier Island in the centre, looking close and at the same time remote. It was a blue and green day today, and everyone was grinning at their luck in being here, doing this, in such perfect weather. Farm ride? Magic!
It was as steep going down as it was going up, which added some excitement to the ride and ramped up the chatter at the lunch stop in Fletcher's Bay. It was only 11.30am, it turned out, though it felt as though we'd done a full morning's riding. That's what happens when you get up at dawn...
So we got back to camp in plenty of time for some larking about in the sea, to sort out the horses, have a drink, a natter, a nap - and that's despite volunteer Jay, who must be the world's most cheerful person, spending the afternoon practising his karaoke for the evening's entertainment.
I could even hear him, distantly, from the top of the bluff at the far end of that long, empty beach, where mine were the only footprints. I climbed up to the old pa site there and had a 360-degree view of sea, islands, bush, beach and farmland. Glorious!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Tour de Coromandel - peaking early

My only complaint about the organisation of this trek - and, by crikey, it's amazing - is that we seem to have had the best day on only Day Two. We set off on a glorious morning, after waking to a misty dawn by the river, along the coast past farmland with good-looking Devon cows watching us curiously, and beside a series of stony beaches that dominated the day. The beaches, and the trees.
This is the Pohutukawa Coast, and even though the eponymous trees that sprawl and droop either side of the road aren't in flower (at Christmas, covered in scarlet, they must be truly spectacular), they are so artistically bent and gnarled, and huge and old, that they are still a spectacular sight. But there's more! When silhouetted against a shiny turquoise sea that's air-clear in the foreground, shading to silver-blue on the horizon - well, it's hard not to think they've been posed. Especially with silver driftwood contrasting with the dark shade of the trees.
We spent a lot of time today riding on the sea-side of the trees, crunching along the smooth stones, paddling in the shadows, spotting stingrays in the water, and stopping several times for swims. Well, not me - it was tempting, but too much work to strip off and then get dressed again; Lindsay, though, swore that the temperature couldn't have been more perfect.
The organisation ticked over smoothly today: the vet was handy to keep an eye on a fetlock scrape that Shine sustained yesterday, tripping while his nose was in the air; so was the medic with his fancy trailer, not that anyone needed him; there were hot and cold drinks at the lunch stop; and marshals again along the route cheering us on, taking photos and telling us how far there was to go.
Not far enough, really, even though the knees were complaining a bit today - after lunch we climbed up through farmland to headlands that gave us long views out over the Hauraki Gulf with all its islands, dominated today by Little Barrier looking not so little, close up. Fabulous scenery.
Then we dropped down again to where the camp was waiting for us at a farm in Port Jackson, a long wide empty beach where we hosed off the horses by a ford and went for a swim, finally, in the sea, easing off the muscles after today's 29km.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Tour de Coromandel, with eels

Note to self: a sleeping bag dished out by tourism people for a trip around Australia's Northern Territory in June is not thick enough for camping in the Coromandel in February. There's nothing like lying awake, shivering in the dark at around 3am, having put on all the extra layers within reach, for making you curse the classic Kiwi 'she'll be right' attitude. Sometimes, it backfires.

But Day One of the Tour de Coromandel dawned bright and clear - that's the literal, not cliched figurative, term, by the way. I was up at dawn. So was pretty nearly everyone else, as we will be for the rest of the week. It takes time, to get dressed while horizontal, have a cooked breakfast, make your lunch, pack up your dew-drenched tent, load your gear onto a truck, and get your horse groomed and tacked up for the day. Well, not groomed, as it happens - Lindsay, who kindly lent me a horse for the week, although he is fussy about some things, isn't one to brush and comb in the finicking way I was accustomed to as groom, long ago, for a Master of Foxhounds. In fact, a flick over the saddle patch with a hearth brush was it. Mane and tail dreadlocks? Trendy!

One of the things he was fussy about was not inflicting a metal bit on his horses, so eager little Shine wore a bitless bridle which works by putting pressure under his chin when you pull the reins. Seems to me that a running martingale would be a natural accompaniment to prevent him sticking his head in the air to avoid that pressure, but Lindsay had never used him for this sort of work before, on a trek with 60-odd other horses, so the issue had never arisen. There we were, then, clattering through Coromandel town with people watching from the footpaths, kids waving, much manure being donated free to local gardeners, and Shine jogging along with his nose skywards but still managing to glue himself to Bobbie, his paddock-mate. It was fun, though, and exciting to be setting out, and I was really glad to be there.
There was a long haul up the road out of the town that made me glad I wasn't one of the half-dozen bikers, or a walker or runner - though each time we passed any of them, they were smiling and cheerful, equally glad to be part of this trek. Next there was a track through bush, then across farmland where random granite boulders stuck out of the grass in a satisfyingly picturesque manner (or, would have done, had I been able to stop Shine long enough to take a picture) and clear streams lay across our path. It was quiet, and green, and so lovely to be riding through it all on a willing and well-behaved horse, in a saddle with a sheepskin on top of it. Luxury!
We clopped through tiny Colville, washed off the horses (who were horrified to find a friendly sow on the other side of the fence) and gave them a feed, and then went for a dip in the river, which was refreshing and cooling and cleansing right up to the moment someone saw the eels sharing the waterhole with us. And eels are, like sharks, always MASSIVE.
Dinner in the marquee was reassuringly good, with a choice of three main dishes, there was the presentation of the day's yellow t-shirts with the customary spray of bubbles, and then we went along to the little town hall, where we were genuinely captivated by quite the worst band any of us had ever listened to. They were so dreadful, it was truly entertaining, and we all thoroughly enjoyed their performance, even though we were distracted by equally strongly-held opinions about whether the lead vocalist was a man or a woman. The band they were warming up for was disappointingly good, but did get people onto the dance floor showing off their moves, fortified by complimentary banana cake.
And then it was out into the starry darkness, mist low over the river, to our tents and a quiet - and less freezing - night that was punctuated only by the plopping noises of our neighbours, the eels.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Kiwi and Coromandel

I came across a lot of animals today, but the most exciting were those I couldn't see at all. Travelling from Waiheke Island to the Coromandel Peninsula is easily done, far more so than if you live on the mainland: all you have to do it drive to the jetty at distant Orapiu, on the south-east corner of the island, and catch the ferry which will deliver you to Coromandel in about an hour. 

First, though, there's a stop at Rotoroa Island, where they are setting up a conservation park. That's where the contents of these five wooden crates came from: a partnership with Auckland Zoo to help increase kiwi numbers. Eggs had been taken from the wild at Te Mata, on Coromandel, hatched on Rotoroa, and the birds raised for over a year until they'd grown big enough to fight off a stoat. Today they were being returned to where they had come from, to the immense satisfaction and excitement of the zoo and conservancy staff, accompanying them, the two DoC dogs in their vests, the OneNews cameraman and reporter, and all the people on the ferry, up to and including the captain. It was a big deal. And then we got to Coromandel, they went their way and we went ours, wishing Barry Brown and his four lady friends the very best of luck.
Coromandel town, even on a sunny autumn Saturday is a laid-back sort of place with a Wild West feel to its main street and not much going on. Except on the rugby field, that is - and even there, with a reasonable audience around the sidelines, it wasn't what you would call electric. Maybe that's a fault of the standard of play (don't ask me, I wouldn't know) - certainly, there was a lot of chat and socialising going on, little kids playing, people sprawled on the grass looking elsewhere. Relaxed. 
Things were much buzzier where I was headed, a paddock just outside town where horse trucks and trailers were lining up, tents and a marquee being erected, bikes being fitted together, and a vet was conducting checks of all the horses entered in the Tour de Coromandel trek, which begins tomorrow. And I'm on it!

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