New Zealand Walk: Cathedral Cove - one of our classic walks
It’s one of New Zealand’s classic walks – the coastal walk to Cathedral Cove in the Coromandel. Sheer cliffs, dramatic rock formations, islands in curious shapes and Cathedral Cove itself -- named for the arch through soaring natural rocks.
It may not last forever, though, says the official visitor guide. In time, this arch will collapse due to natural forces.
So we decide we mustn’t delay! The Cathedral Cove Walk is our first day’s activity after we arrive at our Christmas holiday house at Hahei, on the Coromandel’s eastern coast. This whole area is an early New Zealand history lesson. Hahei is derived from the Maori name for Mercury Bay, Te-Whanganui-A-Hei or The Great Bay of Hei. According to tradition, Hei was one of three brothers who arrived in New Zealand with Kupe around 1350 AD – one theory says that the hei-tiki was made originally to commemorate him.
With his family Hei settled in the area now known as Hahei. They became the ancestors of the Ngāti Hei who were reputed to be peaceable seafaring people. Unfortunately, Ngāti Hei suffered throughout history at the hands of raiding parties who repeatedly stripped them of their assets and slaughtered many with muskets.
In November 1769, Captain James
Opposite page left:: Another view of Cathedral Cove, from a boat trip. Above right: Cathedral Cove frames Te Hoho, like a prow of a large ship. Below left: Sometimes the track takes us through arching fronds of ponga. Below right: A resting-lion island, viewed from the track. . Cook sailed into the area. Cook’s ship
Endeavour was met by Ngāti Hei canoes on arrival. Seven days later he observed the transit of Mercury across the sun. This determined the longitude and thereby established the exact position of New Zealand on the world map. So he named the area Mercury Bay.
No muskets, but plenty of cameras, are obvious the morning we walk the track. It starts at the top of Grange Road where our holiday house is situated, so it is a short walk up to the track’s starting point. The vehicles cramming the car park warn us of high numbers at this well-known attraction. (You can park at the visitor car park on Pa Road and walk round the beach to the start of the track
(allow an extra 20 minutes) or take one of the shuttles ($5 return per adult) which, in summer, run from Hahei shops to the track’s start).
The walk is an easy paved clifftop walk – 40 minutes each way officially, but an hour at my leisurely pace. From the track you can look out to sea where a variety of islands have been carved by the ocean into extraordinary shapes. There’s one shaped like a volcano, another is a classic resting lion, there’s a top-hat shaped island and several tiny pimple rocks. Sometimes the walk is open. Sometimes through bush with ponga fronds arching over the track. There are steep stairs down to the beach at Cathedral Cove.
This is the dramatic finale to the walk. The majestic arched cavern passes through a white rock headland topped by pohutukawa. Rising to a sharp point, the archway links two sweeping cres- cents of sand, though at our visit it is high tide and we can’t walk through. A little way off the beach is a large pinnacle of pumice breccia rock known as Te Hoho. Sculpted over centuries by wind and water, it looks like the prow of a large ship steaming into the beach.
Lifesavers are present keeping an eye on the crowded beach and especially the swimmers.
My two grandsons leap into the water and we join them for a refreshing swim. (Later we take a glass-bottomed boat trip round the Te Whanganui-A-Hei marine reserve near here and see Cathedral Cove from a different angle. The reserve was opened in 1992 and was New Zealand’s sixth marine reserve, the first for the Coromandel).
Cathedral Cove and its surroundings were used in the film The Chronicles of
Narnia where the siblings discover the ruins of Cair Paravel. Other areas of the Coromandel served as settings for scenes in which the children took their first steps back into Narnia.
The return walk is over the same track but we decide on the way back to deviate and take a track down to the shoreline. This track is a more traditional bush track with ferns and vines arching above your head, then a pleasant walk along the beach back to Hahei where we enjoy a coffee and a bite of lunch.
My son and two grandsons explore Stingray Bay with its lovely curve of white sand and rocky Gemstone Bay where, later in the week, they follow the snorkel trail which has buoys anchored at various points for snorkellers to hang on to for a breather.
In hindsight, I would have planned to walk the track very early in the day or in the early evening, to escape the crowds. For the same reason, perhaps I’ll return one day in Winter or Spring.
Right: We deviate from the main track onto one that leads to the beach.