Hot Water Beach

You’ve got to love the Kiwi’s knack for naming things.

Hot Water Beach was one of the first stops on my month exploring NZ. On the Kiwi Experience bus, fifty or so of my fellow backpackers, all fresh faced and eager at the start of the three-week tour, giddily watched the green hills of the North Island roll by. We stopped at a supermarket en route and grabbed the essential alcohol as well as reluctantly spending precious travelling money on food.

We arrived at the hostel, which was a collection of wooden, modern eco-pod things. After hurling our bags onto beds, we piled back onto the coach to head to the Hahei Beach – not the ‘hot water beach’ that the area is named after. Arriving under overcast, threatening skies, we were told that the cove we were heading for was some distance away, and we could either hike there or kayak. About 20 optimistic morons actually decided to kayak, even as the skies were scowling down at us.

I hiked through woods and around cliffs for maybe half an hour, with intermittent showers making sure I never quite managed to get dry. I made friends with a few backpackers while we walked, and with damp socks, we arrived at Cathedral Cove.

As you can see, it’s rather pretty. The area’s recent claim to fame is that several music videos have been filmed there, including Macklemore’s ‘Can’t Hold Us’.


Unfortunately, however, it was winter and raining when I left my footprints on Cathedral Cove‘s sands. We wandered around and watched from the beach as the hapless kayakers were busy being hurled around by the thrashing sea, and we applauded when they were eventually tossed, red faced and panting, onto the shore by pounding waves. After a round of biscuits and drinks, it was time to set off back, and the kayakers trudged back to the sea for another hour of exhausting aquatic battering.

The other side of the cove, on a much nicer day.

That night, it was time to visit the famed Hot Water Beach. Our Kiwi Experience guide stayed behind, and warned us not to bring anything that we didn’t mind having sandy and soaked, so we took nothing, not even shoes. Because of the season, low tide was late at night and meant that we had to visit after sundown.Walking barefoot across the fields was all well and good, until the street lights ran out and we were plunged into darkness.  With such a low population and the rural location, light pollution was non existent, and the darkness was impenetrable; it’s no exaggeration to say that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Which was just as well, because then the paved path ended and we had to walk in bare feet through a fucking wood.

Imagine half an hour of this. Into the woods we go.

Following a dirt track, it wasn’t long before we all freaked and agreed to hold hands in solidarity. Edging along in single file, we had no idea whether we were inches from a cliff edge or some lurking, slavering animal. With no stimuli for your eyes, the mind wanders pretty quickly. The only sounds were nervous laughter and the occasional swear word (in Danish, or English, or German) as someone trod on a branch.

We found something amazing though, as we inched forward. There was one at first, then two, then three, then a galaxy of them: little blue dots of light lining the verges of the path. Glow worms. None of us had ever seen them before. For a long while we stood still, with mud squelching between our bare toes, and watched the buckshot starscape of glowing blue bugs. With their guidance, we were able to follow the verge, and therefore the path, all the way to the beach, where the moon emerged gave us our sight back.

The beach has a slightly sulphuric smell, and steam rises from the damp sands in certain places. We picked a spot, and began to dig with a kids spade one of us had had the foresight to bring. After a while, and a lot of digging, we’d battled the sliding sands to create a little waterlogged ditch to wallow in. More of us arrived later, allowing us to expand our digging project.

hot water beach

The water under the sands is heated by geothermal activity far below the ground (I don’t know how far…), so you can bathe in the slightly worrying knowledge that somewhere below you is a raging torrent of lava. The lava must be flowing in an irregular pattern, because, depending where you dig, the temperature of the water varies between practically freezing and literally boiling. After an hour or so, with everyone chipping in, we had engineered our own little collection of bathing pools at different temperatures, with interconnecting alleys. We lay in the sand in the fresh night air, passing around bottles of wine until suitably smashed. When the tide began to come in, it was time for the pitch black forest crawl once more, but after a delightful steam, the second time wasn’t too bad.

And the glow worms were still there, pulsating quietly, doing whatever it is that glow worms do.


If you fancy looking into doing the Kiwi Experience, you can check it out here.

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