MARAMARATOTARA BAY, NEW ZEALAND — We’ve read it before on TripAdvisor, that driving in New Zealand is slow going, even if the distances don’t seem to be too far. Today, we got a taste of it ourselves, as we drove the 350km from Waitengi to Ferry’s landing on Maramaratotara Bay.

We got an early start, for us, at 9:30, but found ourselves just south of Auckland around 1pm, even though the official travel estimator for New Zealand estimated a total travel time of just over 4 hours for the entire journey. Oops.

Given that we had another 2 hours or so ahead of us, we just had a quick out-of-the-trunk lunch of crackers with cheese, apples and chocolate cake (gotta have cake) at a roadside stop, even though an establishment called Autobahn Café was an enticing option.

We stopped briefly in Thames to get a fresh bag of ice for our cooler and items for an emergency backup dinner, in case our plan to dine in Whitianga fell through. At the local information centre, we also cleared up some confusion about how to pronounce the name of the Coromandel peninsula. A slightly baffled woman told us that the emphasis is on the ‘man’, so now we know.

There were two options to get to our campground tonight: Beth had seen a shortcut through the mountains on the paper maps we brought or we could backtrack and drive around the mountains. So we asked about the road at the information centre and were told that the road is unsealed (i.e. gravel), very windy and goes through the mountains. In other words: Just my kind of road!

My thinking was that we can always take the highway on our way back, and we should try and see something different. And I’m glad we did, because the road to the start of that gravel road and the road itself have been the most spectacular stretch of road I have driven in a long time.

Heading north on highway 25 from Thames, we soon were on a narrow two-line highway (just barely two-lane) that was chiseled out of the mountain side, with the bay and the mountains on the other site to the left, and a cliff on the right. The road also was windy with plenty of greenery and tight turns, so every curve was a new surprise with new views of the bay and the winding road ahead.

In Tapu, we turned off the highway onto our shortcut. The first few kilometers heading into the mountains along a valley with a stream were paved, but only to a tourist attraction called Watergarden. Along the way, Beth took pictures of flowers who we had noticed for a few days now. After that, the road climbed up, and we were treated to some very cool mountain scenery — rock formations, valleys and mountains covered in palm trees!

At one point, we heard a loud noise overhead and saw two military transport planes flying low over the mountains. Some time later, we ran into cattle on the road and stopped. While Beth was taking pictures, the very friendly farmer came over to chat. He mentioned that he and his brother made a lot of money shearing sheep for 19 years and about the crazy weather. He also mentioned the planes, which apparently was a new experience for him as well and that the storm that caused us trouble on Waitengi had a major effect in Auckland as well. He also mentioned the new US president, a conversation Beth and I nipped in the bud.

On the other side of the mountain, the road straightened out and I was able to increase speed. Nevertheless, our “shortcut” probably took us a good 30-40 minutes longer than simply driving around, and we finally pulled into our campground around 6pm — an hour after the office closed. Seems like we always show up late for something. The hosts were on the premises, though, and checked us in after we rang a doorbell a few times. They 

For dinner we decided to treat ourselves and took the passenger ferry across to Whitianga, after our host told us that the ferry is operating until 11pm. While we walked to the ferry, we overheard an angry conversations between two Germans who apparently expected to see a car ferry. They drove off, probably on the long drive around the bay.

On the ferry, we noticed the rate board: adults: $6, bikes: $1.50, sheep $1, Trump supporters: $5,000. I asked the captain if he had ever assessed the fare, but he was evasive. On our return trip, I noticed that the $5,000 fare had been removed.

Most of the restaurants in town are along the waterfront, and every one of them has stunning views of the bay. We decided on a restaurant that served a Scottish fillet with smashed potatoes and vegetables and Beth had fresh Hapuka with veggies, potato salad in béchamel sauce. Supposedly, the Hapuka was caught in the bay. We strolled through town a little and then returned to our tent for the night.

The campground itself was a lot greener and looked more upscale than the previous night’s: There was landscaping, trees, microwaves in the kitchen. On the flip side, they charge for showers ($2) and there is no waterfront. We also noticed that there were more Kiwis in this campground, but that realization was quickly overshadowed by our neighbors, who had set up a humongous camp: A five-person tent with separate rooms, which opened via a corridor into a large vestibule suitable for 8 people. And that’s what we got: Eight people chatting late into the night, past quiet time, with music playing. We were transported back to all the miserable nights in the US, where camping is synonymous with drinking and partying.