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Julie Haines discovers you don’t need to visit Punakaiki for pancake rocks, the Coromandel for a hot water beach or Taranaki’s Surf Highway 45 for surfing when you can find all these things and more in the Waikato . . .

It was one of those “pinch me” moments.

Bathing in a warm pool of salt water, hot black sand warming my legs, and the waves of the Tasman Sea gently breaking just metres away, I was finally, after years of anticipation, sitting on a hot water beach. But instead of chillaxing in the Coromandel I was at its lesser-known cousin —Kāwhia in the Waikato.

My daughter India and I had driven to a large sand dune bejewelled with toetoe at the end of Kāwhia’s Te Puia Road, then started the tiring climb. If you are terribly unfit like me, I liken sand dune climbing to walking on a treadmill — a lot of leg movement, but very little actual progress. Eventually though we reached the top, and the interminably long stretch of Ocean Beach revealed itself, with Raglan’s Mount Karioi looming in the distance. Immediately below, a few dozen people clustered around holes in the sand like worker bees, some shovelling as if their lives depended upon it, others reclining without a care in the world like they were in a spa, while children jumped from one hole to the next.

The prize in sight, we raced down the dune (downhill is definitely more fun than up) and started the squiggle dance — twisting around with our toes in the sand, testing for the highly sought-after hot spots.

“No, that’s cold; that’s cold too; ugh, freezing; yes! It’s hot!”

I reached for my gardening trowel, the only “spade” that would fit in my boot with our luggage, then glanced at the pools people had dug around us and realised a trowel just wouldn’t cut it. Luckily the hot water experience puts people in jovial moods and most are happy to share their spades – in fact you can also let someone else do the work and claim their hole when they vacate it. Quickly I tossed sand aside and soon we too were sitting in the warm water, the slight scent of sulphur in the air around us.

Kāwhia was the final stop during our long weekend on the western coast of the Waikato. For lovers of water-based activities, the area offers endless opportunities.

Spectacular Wairēinga Bridal Veil Falls do not disappoint

The scenic road between Kāwhia and Raglan is only partially sealed, which adds to the feeling that you are travelling somewhere remote and special. Closer to the Raglan end of the road lies the turn-off for the spectacular Wairēinga Bridal Veil Falls. Visiting these falls was one of the main reasons behind our trip, and the 55m cascade did not disappoint.

Wairēinga means leaping water, or water of the underworld, and the falls were so named in reference to Wairua (spirits) leaping the waterfall. Surrounded by mossy rocks and ferns, the falls have an ethereal quality, and I was not surprised to read they are believed to be occupied by patupaiarehe (Māori fairies) who are kaitiaki of the area.

There are four lookout points at Wairēinga Bridal Veil Falls, two at the top, one midway and one at the bottom, 261 steps down (which really means there are 261 steps going back up and you are going to find out just how out of shape you are). We sat at the bottom of the natural amphitheatre created by the falls, gazing up at the majestic sight, then returned to Raglan to further satiate our need to be near the water.

Raglan is world renowned for its left-hand surf breaks, so much so it featured in the classic surfing film “The Endless Summer”. We drove along the coast to watch surfers display their skill at Ngarunui Beach and Manu Bay. At Whale Bay I warmed my derriere on a black volcanic rock that was pleasantly heated by the sun while I watched surfers ride the swell alarmingly close to the rocks.

We were too nervous to try catching waves ourselves, although there are multiple surf schools in Raglan. Instead, we decided to give paddleboarding a try on the Opotoru Inlet in the town centre.

After a quick instruction from helpful staff at Raglan Kayak and Paddleboard we tentatively kneeled on our boards to get our confidence up, then stood (amazingly without falling) and really got into our stride.

It was surprisingly relaxing floating on the paddleboards, despite the concentration required by newbies like us to stay upright in the wake of passing boats, and even when India fell off she leapt back up with a smile on her face. Occasionally fish broke the surface of the water, and I gasped in surprise when one nudged the board.

The best times to paddle the inlet are low and high tides, as between tides the current is much stronger.

As we paddled backwards and forwards under the pedestrian bridge that crosses the inlet, children dropped like rocks from the bridge, bombing into the water. The terrifying leap of faith appealed to India’s daredevil streak, and the next day we found ourselves back at the bridge so she could join in with the locals. I watched her, heart in my mouth, as she cautiously climbed over the guard rail, clung on in fear while a couple more kids jumped, then finally let go and fell to the water with a huge splash and a beaming smile of success.

One of the best ways to enjoy the harbour in Raglan is with a cruise on Raglan Boat Charters’ Wahinemoe catamaran. We joined the 90-minute sunset cruise, which journeys into the upper reaches of Whaingaroa Harbour then heads back toward the harbour mouth on time to watch the sun dip below the Tasman Sea in a brilliant burst of orange.

Skipper Barlow Rawiri’s commentary had a light-hearted twist, particularly when we reached the giant rock stacks of limestone, volcanic basalts, clays and pumice emerging from the harbour. Tourist brochures refer to them as Raglan’s pancake rocks, but our skipper had other ideas.

“At Punakaiki you can have your pancakes. We roll with fried bread here,” he joked.

Soon afterwards Barlow told us to look out for George and Mildred, two supposedly tame seagulls with a tendency to follow the boat. We were encouraged to call them by name and immediately they flew towards us, suspiciously along with a dozen other seagulls, so I suspect they were lured more by the appeal of hot chips than the dulcet tones of our voices.

One of the highlights of the trip is the opportunity to don a captain’s hat and steer the catamaran yourself, aiming towards the sun. Even the toddler across from us, enjoying his first ever boat trip, had the opportunity to take a break from untying passengers’ shoe laces and steer the vessel from his mother’s lap. Barlow took photos of me steering so I could cherish the memory, and when I scrolled through my photos afterwards, I found a selfie taken by the irrepressibly cheeky skipper.

As the sun set over the water we felt happy and contented, and determined to return to the Waikato to feel at one with the water again.

© Copyright Julie Haines 2022

Leaping fish: Paddle boarding on the Opotoru Inlet at Raglan is a fun way to pass an hour, with the added surprise of fish and locals jumping. In the latter case, it’s youngsters launching themselves off the pedestrian bridge into the water below. Pictures all by Julie Haines
SPECTACULAR: The majestic Wairēinga Bridal Veil Falls plunge 55m over ancient volcanic rock.
GEOLOGY: Some of the pancake rocks in Whaingaroa Harbour in Raglan.
CATCHING A BREAK: Surfers tackle the waves at Raglan’s famous Whale Bay.
LEADING THE WAY: Toetoe line the path on the sand dunes to the hot water beach at Kāwhia, with Raglan’s Mount Karioi looming in the distance.
END OF DAY: Visitors spend a relaxing dusk soaking in hot water at Ocean Beach in Kāwhia.