Kennedy Bay Rd Summit to Waikawau Bay

We arrived in the valley on a hot clear evening. As the sun slowly sunk below the scrubby, manuka covered hills the buzz of flies filled the air.

The communal area we arrived at was made up of a few ramshackle buildings, old buses and house trucks. None of the vehicles looked like they would ever move again.

We set our tent on the bare ochre and red earth before our evening meal of musky tasting goat and cabbage. The flavour of the wild and freshly killed meat disturbed my urban tastebuds as did the realisation that this and a few scraggly vegetables was almost all the food that there was to be had during our stay.

Billy goat

As the day drew to an end and the heavy rain hit, we hurriedly dug a trench around our tent as yellow water rushed down the hill and into our shelter.

I went to bed wet, uncomfortable and unnerved.

There’s usually something hopeful about morning and the rawness of our arrival the night before was soon forgotten as family groups gathered in the kitchen area to start their day with breakfast.

Amongst the happy chaos of naked, unkempt toddlers and bleary-eyed adults, I remember finding a pile of R. Crumb and Furry Freak Brother comics. It was a life-changing moment – up until then I’d only ever read Whizzer and Chips or British war comics. I was impressed.

These are ancient memories that are probably as unreliable as the rusting hippy trucks that sat in that valley all those years ago.

It was December 1980 at a commune called Mahana near the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula. I was 15 and it was the first time that I’d travelled away from home with friends not family. I had been a long-haired barefoot child like the kids that happily played in the dirt around the community but Palmerston North was a long way, in all senses, from isolated and wild Mahana.

Palmerston North had limitless electricity, schools, shops, footpaths, gutters, fridges, Twisties, televisions and flushing toilets. Mahana had bright-eyed idealism, wild goats, lots of children and not much else.

I came back to the Coromandel with the same friends the next summer after school ended. Our hosts, Alan, Ngaire and their four kids had moved on to another commune called Karuna Falls. It was quite a different experience. I was a year older, I knew what to expect and the “new” commune/community itself seemed more developed.

These visits were a bit of an inspiration and could have become a life choice for a young person looking for a path to take…but I didn’t take it and I never returned to the Coromandel.

Nearly forty years later

Fiona and I took a taxi up to the start of the trail over to Waikawau Bay. Yep that’s right…a taxi.

Excuses: It’s a really steep hill alright! We would’ve had to walk eight kilometres up a big hill that we’d walked on the day before! We were tired!

Once we were alone on the hill I sent out a quick text to Karl, the old school friend who’d brought me to the communes all those years ago. As I walk I research and plan the blog posts I’ll be writing and I had some questions.
“Howdy! We’ll be walking right past the old Mahana Commune in a couple of days and will wander in to see what’s left. What year did we go there?”

I won’t bore you with the rest of the conversation but it ended with a suggestion.

“Why don’t you drop in on Ngaire and Alan at Karuna Falls and say hello. I’ll ring them for you.”

Firstly, I didn’t know where Karuna Falls was, so while Fiona stood around looking agitated, I did a quick Google.

“Are we going anywhere near Waikawau Bay?” I asked.

If you’ve been following this blog from the start you may have realised that Fiona has done all the logistics and route finding. I like to say that I contribute to the team by turning up and being impressed.

Fiona wasn’t impressed by my question.

“Yes. We’ll be camping there tonight,” she replied.

I could sense that she also wanted to ask me what planet I’d been living on while she had been organising things in town over the past few days but I was about to come up trumps with an impromptu alternative.

I was soon talking to Alan at Karuna Falls – we had a bed for the night.

The track down to Waikawau Bay started out on a wide clay 4WD road that cut through regenerating forest. Manuka dominated throughout but Kauri and a wide variety of other natives reached skywards through its canopy. Rata and manuka were both flowering out of season making the day’s crisp blue autumn skies seem summary.

Out of season rata flowering

Waikawau Bay

Cairn above Waikawau Bay

Perhaps they were getting in one last display before the newly arrived Myrtle Rust kills them off.

Another item for our environmental Fuck It List.

The thick clay we walked on was covered in pig and goat prints. After coming across a recently culled billy, nanny and kid we disturbed an angry sounding boar.

As the bush was about to break into farmland the strong smell of rancid feta wafted through the air. The hills were alive. We soon found ourselves herding a large extended family of noisy goats down the track. One got separated from the flock and it worriedly followed us, calling out to its whanau as we walked on down the track.

A hunter would have had a field day. It would have been a bloodbath.

Once we came out on farmland our route was easy to follow. Kauri Run signs lead us all the way to the DoC track down to the Waikawau Bay campsite and a beautiful and nearly deserted beach.

Kauri Run track

Clay trail

Farmland on the Kauri Run

As we exited the forest we were met by a huge supermarket turnstile-like gate. It was a sci fi inspired Kauri Dieback cleaning station and we set about hosing down our boots. Its spray guns were fully loaded and had plenty of pressure but as we scrubbed away on the crazy curved brushes and stomped our soles into the muddy detergent mats, dust rose around us.

Kauri Dieback cleaning station Waikawau Bay.

The locals are taking Kauri Dieback seriously, but it still left me wondering: had we sterilized our boots at the microscopic level that prevention of this disease requires?

We had a quick swim at the beach before I gave our hosts an intermittent country-style phone call. As coverage cut in and out we managed to get a fix on where we needed to walk.

Luckily Ngaire and Alan came and picked us up – Karuna Falls sits up a very long drive. As we drove up it a few distant memories started creaking their way into my consciousness.
We were soon sitting in their beautiful kitchen catching up on a few decades of Karuna news and getting some of my teenage preconceptions clarified.

The house we sat in was a recycled, commune classic. Alan had scored much of the timber while working on Auckland demolition sites and could name the old buildings that the kauri floor, ceiling and windows came from. While he talked, a leg of wild pig that he’d caught, roasted in the oven he’d helped build from old bricks and reimagined Orion wood stoves.

The large brick firebox radiated a steady wave of heat into the house while also funnelling plenty more up through a flue at the back. Half way up the flue, between the firebox and the ceiling, sat the bespoke oven – a black iron box with an Orion door and traditional internal racks. The heat from the flue circulated in a chamber around the oven, heating it enough to cook a big roast meal that included potatoes, pumpkin and kumara.

As the pork slowly roasted to perfection, other members of the family and a friend arrived for tea. We got some good insights into Coromandel life and history as we all sat around the dining room table.

While Doctor Kate and her daughter Isla made a giant feijoa and apple crumble, as well as a couple of huge hiker friendly salads, the wine and beer flowed. After a quick phone call to a local farmer we had a new route sorted for the next day’s walk and beyond.

Maps were examined and we were impressed to find that some of the dashed lines that we would be walking on had been constructed by Richard and his digger. We sat with the artist himself as he described our route and we started to understand how the community worked.

Until that evening we’d taken our trail for granted and as we’d found it – but this was a new experience. We’d connected with a group of locals and were rewarded with knowledge and insights that would give us a unique experience over the next couple of days.

Favourite titbits from the evening:
Alan: “Karuna had a ‘no dogs’ policy when we arrived. I had seven or eight pig dogs tied up out back. The complaints stopped once they tasted the meat.”

It was the first time Fiona and I had tasted wild pork. It didn’t taste like normal pork but had a real beefy flavour about it. It was delicious. !

Although they liked Mahana’s back-to-basics ethos, one of the reasons Alan and Ngaire left to go to Karuna was because Alan ‘couldn’t be bothered cutting firewood with a bowsaw.’

If Alan and Ngaire’s intention was to live a good life in Karuna, they seem to have managed to do so in the house they built themselves. They did it without a mortgage, insurance and many of the things most of us deem essential to life.

The land Karuna Falls sits on was largely scorched earth when it became a community. Like much of the land we’ve walked over on this journey, it’s regenerating bush has grown from the ashes of the old farming practice – the burnoff.

When Alan and Ngaire arrived at Karuna Falls, much of the land was covered in knee high scrub and the farmer next door was still burning his land. That scrub is now mature manuka forest that is nursing great trees like Kauri and Puriri.

It’s been great to come back and see how the land has healed itself several decades later.

We’d entered the Coromandel feeling a little lost. Sneaking through the Pinnacles made us feel like trespassers in our own land. It wasn’t until we came to the end of our journey through this section that we felt a connection to the place we walked through. Ironically that connection came from people who possibly started their Coromandel lives as outsiders.

A Sermon Follows:

The Art of Slow Travel

Tourism shouldn’t just be about places, tickets and money. Our favourite walks have involved the people who’ve been part of the communities we’ve passed through.

As New Zealand grapples with the chaos an exploding and very valuable tourism industry is leaving in its wake, we’ve come to a realisation: Good tourism should be about the people as much as the land they inhabit.

You can see scenery on television. If you’re not going to go out and be part of the place you visit, consider staying at home and going for a wander. You might be surprised by what you find.