New Zealand

    The Coromandel – is west the best?

    July 20, 2020Carl Rapson

    5 min read

    This adventure to the Coromandel's west coast takes in rustic towns, historic sites, bay-side camping and a heap of quirks and treasures along the '309' Road.

    When you ask people about the Coromandel, most will conjure up images of the more glamorous east coast beaches like Hahei, New Chums or Whitianga. There’s another side to the Coromandel though – literally – and that’s the more rugged west coast which stretches from Thames in the south all the way to Port Jackson at the northern tip of the peninsula.

    Our trip this time would only take us as far as Colville though, just north of Coromandel Town. That’s pretty much where the tar seal ends and then its around 26kms of single lane, windy roads to Port Jackson, which aren’t for the faint hearted.

    Little Waikawau Reserve

    On our way up the coast from Thames we decided to spend a night at one of the many freedom camping spots kindly provided by the local council. Like freedom camping Goldilocks though, we just couldn’t find one that was quite right for us. One was too busy, another too far back from the beach – and then we pulled into Little Waikawau Reserve and it was just right ☺

    Campervanners watching the sunset over the Firth of Thames at Little Waikawau Reserve

    Watching the sunset over the Firth of Thames – Little Waikawau Reserve

    A beautiful beachfront reserve with space for plenty of vehicles and a great spot to relax and watch the sun set across the Firth of Thames.

    Coromandel Town

    From Little Waikawau Reserve it’s only a 30 minute, if somewhat windy, drive up to Coromandel Township, the largest town on this coast and the place that gave its name to the whole peninsula. Named after the HMS Coromandel which anchored in the area in 1820, the town was first a hub for the burgeoning Kauri trade of the late 1700s before gold was discovered in the area in the mid 1800s and the population of the small town increased dramatically.

    Coromandel Township is full of history and character

    Coromandel Township is full of history and character

    The history is still evident in the buildings and nearby gold mine ruins and it’s a fascinating place to wander around for a few hours. You can also pop over from Auckland on the ferry for a day trip too.

    Long Bay

    Just a five minute drive from the town is the stunning Long Bay. There’s a campground here which is in two parts. The powered sites are at Long Bay itself and then there are non-powered sites just over the hill at the more remote feeling Tucks Bay. Both looked really nice but we chose to stay at the NZMCA (New Zealand Motor Caravan Assoc.) park back in Coromandel town as it’s cheaper and we didn’t need the facilities. You can park up at Long Bay though for the day as there’s a public carpark there and the crystal clear waters are almost tropical.

    Recreational Vehicles at Long Bay Motor Camp

    Long Bay Motor Camp – The water is almost tropical

    Driving Creek Railway

    Coromandel Town is also home to New Zealand’s only narrow gauge mountain railway which also happens to be the steepest in NZ too. The railway is not a gold mining relic though, but instead was built by a local potter, Barry Brickell, who began constructing the track in 1975 at the site of his pottery business on Driving Creek Road. It’s great fun riding on the train and the views from the top are stunning.

    Driving Creek Railway

    Driving Creek Railway


    Thirty minutes north of Coromandel Township is the tiny settlement of Colville which, back in the pioneering days, was a busy milling town before becoming a magnet for hippies back in the 1970s who were drawn by its natural beauty and isolation. These days it’s a quiet rural farming town and it’s well worth the drive up just to see the iconic general store or the lovely Colville Bay.

    The Colville General Store

    The Colville General Store

    The ‘309’ Road

    World famous in New Zealand, the ‘309’ road stretches across the peninsula from just south Coromandel Town to Kaimarama, near Whitianga on the East Coast. It’s 22km of windy, unsealed dusty road but there are many treasures hidden around it’s many bends.

    One of these is Stuart and his 100 or so wild pigs, which roam around his property and all over the road outside. If you like pigs as much as I do then you’ll love it here as they are just so cute and Stuart is a really nice guy too.

    Justine making new friends on the ‘309’ Road

    Justine making new friends on the ‘309’ Road

    Another must see on the ‘309’ is the Waiau waterfall. Just a five minute walk from the road, the falls are beautiful, with the water cascading into a pristine pool before disappearing down the river that winds its way through the native bush. Nearby is the Waiau Kauri Grove, home to thirteen of these imposing giants of the forest.

    Waiau Falls

    Waiau Falls

    Next time you are planning a trip to the Coromandel, make sure that the western shores are part of your itinerary – you won’t be disappointed.

    Things to remember:

    • If you don’t want to drive all the way from Auckland to Coromandel Town then hop on the ferry for an awesome day trip.
    • Some of the roads (especially the ‘309’) are unsealed, narrow and windy so take your time and enjoy the magnificent views.
    • Plan to stop on the way up from Thames to Coromandel as the pull ins are on the seaward side and you’ll get the best views and photos.
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