A highlight of my time in New Zealand was definitely Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach with Kiwi Experience.
One of the first stops on my month exploring New Zealand was Hot Water Beach. I was travelling on the Kiwi Experience bus, along with a few dozen other backpackers, all fresh faced and eager at the start of the three-week tour, excitedly watching the impossibly green hills of the North Island roll past. We stopped at a supermarket on the way and grabbed plenty of booze to supply the evening’s antics.
Our coach wound its way to the hostel, which was a collection of little modern hut things spread out across a campsite. After chucking our bags onto beds, we swarmed back onto the coach to head to Hahei Beach – not the ‘hot water beach’ that the area is named for. As we arrived under overcast, stormy looking skies, our guide, Andrea, told us that the cove we were heading for was some distance away, and we could either hike there or kayak. I squinted at the wild sea, unconvinced. About 10 optimistic backpackers actually decided to kayak, even as the skies were scowling down at us.
Kayakers at Cathedral Cove on a mucher nicer day!
I trekked through woodland, hopped over streams, and peered over the edge of the looming cliffs, with intermittent showers on the way making sure I never quite managed to get dry. I made friends with a handful of backpackers while we hiked, and with squelching socks, we arrived at Cathedral Cove. I don’t think you’ll disagree with me when I say the area is rather pretty. The Cove’s most recent claim to fame is that several music videos have been shot there, including Macklemore’s ‘Can’t Hold Us’.
We wandered around the area chatting and taking ridiculous photos, and watched from the beach as the poor brave kayakers were busy being hurled around by the furious sea, and we cheered and helped them ashore when they eventually ran aground, red faced and panting. After a delightful round of biscuits and beverages, it was time to set off back, and the kayakers dragged themselves back to the sea for another hour of battling the elements.
That evening, it was finally time to visit the famous Hot Water Beach. Every day at low-tide the geothermic water from beneath the sand starts to rise to the surafec, creating natural hot pools you can bath in. Andrea stayed behind at the hostel, but warned us not to bring anything that we didn’t mind getting soaking wet and/or covered in sand, so we took nothing. We didn’t even wear shoes. Because it was winter, low tide was late at night, meaning that was the only time we could bathe in the pools. Walking in bare feet across the fields seemed perfectly fine, until the street lights stopped, and from then on we were plunged into darkness. With such a rural location, there is no light pollution at all, and the darkness was solid; it’s no exaggeration to say that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Which was just as well, because then the paved path ended and we had to walk in bare feet through a the woods.
Following a damp, muddy track, it wasn’t long before we all freaked out and agreed to hold hands, all bravado gone out of the window. I’ve definitely had manlier moments. Creeping along in single file, we had no idea whether we were inches from a towering cliff edge or some hideous, salivating animal. With no stimuli for your eyes, the mind tends to wander quickly. The only sounds were petrified breathing, and the odd swear word (in Danish, or English, or German) as someone stood on a twig.
Hot Water Becah when low-tide occurs during daylight hours!
We stumbled across something incredible though, as we edged forward. Tiny blue dots of light were lining the verges of the path. There was one at first, then two, then three, then a galaxy of them: glow worms. None of us had ever seen them before. For a long time we all stood still, with mud squelching between our bare toes, suddenly not caring about how hopelessly lost we were, instead just watching the twinkling constellations of glowing blue bugs. They only seemed to live in the mossy verges that lined the path, where the rock had been carved away. Following the starscape of bugs we were able to follow the verge (and therefore the path) all the way to the beach, where the moon emerged from behind a cloud and gave us our eyes back.
Maybe I was imagining it, but it seemed the beach has a slightly strangely volcanic smell. I watched steam in the moonlight, rising from patches of the damp sands. We chose a spot and started to dig with a mini spade one of us had had the foresight to bring (not me). After five minutes, and a lot of digging, we were starting to win the battle with the sliding sands, and had created a little waterlogged ditch to wallow in. More backpackers arrived later, allowing us to expand our sand-bath.
The earth beneath the beach is heated by geothermal activity far below the ground (I don’t know how far…), so you can lie back and bathe in the slightly worrying knowledge that somewhere below you is a furious river of magma. The magma must be flowing in an odd pattern, because, depending whereabouts you dig, the temperature of the water varies between almost freezing and literally boiling. After an hour or so, with everyone chipping in (and plenty of wine-swigging during), we had crafted a network of bathing pools at varying temperatures, with alleys between pools which you could heave yourself down like a beached walrus, to avoid climbing out of the warm water. When the tide began to come in, it was time for the black forest horror extravaganza once more, but after a delightful steam and some wine-generated courage, the second time wasn’t too bad at all.
You can bet that the glow worms are still there now, glowing quietly, doing whatever it is that glow worms do.
- Dan Hackett, Kiwi Experience Traveller