The old ‘309’ road dissects the Coromandel Peninsula just below Coromandel Township to a little way south of Whitianga and winds through some of the most spectacular scenery and native bush that the North Island has to offer. There is something quite special about the Coromandel – on those hot, dry summer days when you really feel like you’re in the tropics –that has long made it the summer retreat for many a New Zealander. The 309 is another unique reminder of New Zealand’s youthful geography; as you cut through the volcanic ridges of the Coromandel Ranges you find yourself wending your way through ancient rain forest, like something out of Jurassic Park. Anyone who remembers The Land that Time Forgot can easily imagine dinosaurs crashing through the dense undergrowth.
Not far out of Coromandel Town you there are a couple of manmade sights that demand attention; Harmony Gardens are beautifully maintained and packed full of rhododendrons, azaleas, and other native and exotic trees. A few kilometers further on are the Waiau Waterworks full of weird and wonderful, water-powered machines; this Heath Robinson-esque park provides an unusual counterpoint to the lush, native bush setting.
If nature’s spectacle is more your thing then carry on past the Waiau Waterworks and look out for signs to Castle Rock; a long-dormant volcano. You have to leave the 309 and drive about two kilometers before parking up and scaling the last section on foot. It’s not a long walk and can be pretty slippery after rain, but it’s worth it for the spectacular panoramic views. Perhaps the most extraordinary sight is the Kauri Grove; not least because of its bizarre ‘Siamese’ Kauri but also because of its historical significance as one of New Zealand’s earliest conservation sites. Most of the Kauris were logged but local residents stepped in to protect this stunning grove and the Waiau Falls when the government moved to cut down the trees for the Second World War effort. In recent years a wooden walkway has been built to make navigating the glade a bit easier; it can be pretty damp and slippery, even in summer, so it’s a good idea to stick to the track. The trees are amazing and absolutely vast; it would take several people linking arms to surround just one of the mighty trees.
All along the 309 are dotted lookouts with incredible views and picturesque reserves where you can stop for a picnic or a swim; Egan Park is less than eight kilometers away from Whitianga and has plenty of grassland where you can stretch your legs as well as a good swimming stream. At the opposite end of the road, about six kilometers from Coromandel Town is the Chiltern Reserve; a National Park with a delightful walk that follows the course of one of the Waiau River’s smaller tributaries as it meanders and falls over the local bedrock.
You could spend the best part of a long weekend to take everything in on the 309 but it has other uses if you’re in a hurry; it’s by far the shortest route coast to coast and, despite the metal seal, it only takes around forty-five minutes to drive end to end.
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Editorial by Jooles Clements