New Zealand’s iconic Hot Water Beach was the first stop on my month of exploring this amazing country. I travelled on the Kiwi Experience bus, together with a few dozen other backpackers, all eagerly anticipating the start of a three-week tour. Everyone on board watched in awe as the impossibly green hills of the North Island rolled past.
Our knowledgeable driver arrived at a hostel, which was a group of small but modern huts spread out across a campsite. Once accommodations had been sorted, we all swarmed back onto the Kiwi Experience bus and made our way to Hahei Beach - not the ‘Hot Water Beach’ that the area is known as. It was an overcast day on arrival, with ominous looking skies on the horizon, however our guide, Andrea, informed us that the cove we were heading for was some distance away, and we could either hike or kayak there. Squinting unconvincingly at the conditions, I watched about 10 enthusiastic backpackers jump in a kayak and brave the elements.
Trekking through woodlands, performing balancing acts over streams, and peering over the edges of the looming cliffs, the intermittent showers ensured I experienced the great outdoors in all its splendour. Establishing new friendships with other like-minded backpackers, from all walks of life, along the way was certainly one of the highlights being on board the Kiwi Experience bus. We arrived at Cathedral Cove. I don’t think anyone would disagree when I say the area is rather pretty. The Cove’s most recent claim-to-fame is having several music videos shot there, including Macklemore’s ‘Can’t Hold Us’.
We spent the afternoon exploring the wider area chatting and snapping up photos. An addition to the afternoon entertainment was watching those brave souls who decided to kayak the conditions. We shouted words of encourage from the comforts of the shore graciously helped them ashore, red faced and exhausted. After a well-earned serving of biscuits and beverages, it was time to head back.
Later that evening, the time had finally come to visit the much-anticipated Hot Water Beach. Every day at low-tide the geothermic activity from beneath the sand begins to rise to the surface, creating natural hot pools you can bath in. Depending on where on the beach you are, temperatures can reach high enough to cook an egg!
Because it was winter in New Zealand, low tide occurs late at night, which meant that was the only time we could experience the natural thermal pools. Walking bare-footed across the fields seemed perfectly fine at the time, until the street lights switched off that is, and from then on, we were plunged into darkness. Being such a rural location, there is little to no light pollution at all, and the darkness of night was saturating.
Following along a soggy, muddy track, it wasn’t long before we all started to freak out a little and eventually agreed to band together and hold hands. Creeping along in a single file, we were completely clueless as to whether we were inches from a towering cliff edge or some hideous, salivating wild animal. With no visibility, the human mind tends to wander quickly. The only audio was heavy breathing, and the odd curse (either in Danish, English or German).
Lesson: Visit Hot Water Beach when low-tide occurs during daylight hours!
As we ventured forward, we stumbled across something truly incredible, tiny blue dots of light were lining the verges of the path. We noticed only a handful at first then a galaxy of them: glowworms. This was a first-time experience for all of us. We all stood in silence with mud oozing between our bare toes, not at all concerned with how hopelessly lost we were. Instead we just watched in awe at the twinkling constellations of glowing blue bugs. Following this pathway of light, we could follow the verge all the way to the beach, where the moon emerged from behind a cloud and gave us our sight back.
Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed the beach had a subtle volcanic smell. I noticed the steam rising from certain patches across the damp sands and chose a spot to dig. After five short minutes of digging, we had created a big enough hole to sit in.
After an hour or so, with others chipping in, we had sculptured a network of bathing pools at varying temperatures, with alley ways between pools to manoeuvre avoiding having to step out of the warm water.
When the tide eventually began to come in, it was time for the black forest horror extravaganza to begin again. However, after a delightful steam bath and a glass of wine, the second time wasn’t too bad at all!
- Dan Hackett, Kiwi Experience Traveller
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