Travel Article – New Zealand Coromandel Peninsula Visit

Last November, I revved the engine on my ageing camper van and tore down the highway heading out from Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, to visit the often overlooked Coromandel Peninsula. A picturesque stretch of coastline dotted with some of the countries’ best beaches, it also offers great walking, marine activities and some unique and unusual attractions. Considered by many Kiwis to be a highlight of the North Island and a popular local holiday destination, tourists often skip it – but I wanted to explore and see what the fuss was about. You can drive around the peninsula in a long day, indeed some tour buses do. But to do it justice you really need to take at least three or four days to enjoy the highlights – especially if you have to deal with New Zealand’s notoriously fast-changing weather! I’ve also created a Google Maps route with pins in case you’re interested in visiting yourself, you can trace my route and see where some of the photos were taken – click here.

Coromandel Peninsula Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula

Arriving late afternoon after a nice straight drive through the flat farmlands of Waikato, the windows open in the hot spring weather and some classic tunes on the stereo, my first stop was the attractive campsite Tapu Camp in the tiny village of Tapu. After passing through the small town of Thames to pick up supplies, the road here winds along a narrow and twisting road just meters above the sea, passing rocky beaches and through hamlets with hilly forest and roadside cliffs on the right and great views across the Firth of Thames on the left– the landmass of the Whatakawai area just visible across the ocean. I’d found the campsite through the useful WikiCamps mobile app (CamperMate is the other popular choice), and it didn’t disappoint. The main camping field sat right on the edge of a deserted beach with lovely views and seabirds out in full force. Strolling along the beach I even found a protected nesting area for some waders where a mother sat on her eggs, the Department of Conservation in fine form as usual. Some dramatic clouds made for a great sunset and the sea breeze kept the mosquitos at bay as I tucked into fish and chips bought from the very local pub across the road.

Coromandel peninsula

Sunset at Tapu

The next day was a stunner and I continued north, following the winding coastal road admiring the views and dodging trucks and huge boat trailers before climbing steeply inland, the summit opening out to a great viewpoint overlooking the north of the peninsula. The usual mix of New Zealand tourists were present – older couples in massive campervans, backpackers with ageing cars and campervan hybrids (like me), wealthier groups in shiny rental cars and Kiwis out for the day. Winding down the hill I soon arrived at the nice little town of Coromandel.

Coromandel peninsula

Coromandel Town

I popped into one of the trendy cafés for a much needed caffeine fix and pottered around looking at the old buildings on the main street. The helpful man at the Tourist Information recommended the nearby Driving Creek Railway to me. It’s a popular attraction so I called to reserve a place and a five-minute drive later I arrived at the visitor centre at the base of a densely forested hill.

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Driving Creek Railway

In the grounds, I explored the rather eccentric station populated with sculptures and watched a video about this mini narrow gauge railway’s inception. A labour of love for over thirty years, the creator Barry Brickell (who sadly died earlier this year) had constructed much of this railway by hand (with a little help) as a personal project and eventually opened it to the public. He’s now bequeathed it to the community so they can continue to enjoy the steep trip up the mountain through the forest. One of the cute little trains trundled into the station and I took a seat.

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The other train crosses on a double bridge of the Driving Creek Railway.

As we chugged up through the forest for about half an hour, the entertaining driver alerted us to the many sculptures hidden along the route, and a number of times we glimpsed the other train as the narrow one track system only passing at certain points. We were dropped off at a viewing tower at the hilltop boasting an impressive vista reaching out to the sea, with the peaceful sounds of the forest drifting up from below. Although I wouldn’t normally go in for this kind of attraction, I actually really enjoyed it and what an achievement from one man!

Coromandel peninsula

The view from the Eyefull Tower, the railway’s destination.

Hopping back in the van, I drove to the other side of the Coromandel peninsula, which involved some grumbling engine sounds whilst ascending a long and steep climb to a viewpoint followed by a plummeting descent. I wasn’t the only one struggling, but thanks to the wise Kiwi passing places I wasn’t held up by the poor huge trucks straining up the hill. A lovely rocky coastal drive followed with white sand beaches lined with green Pohutukawa trees, entering flowering season with their distinctive red bristles adding colour to the scene. I stopped briefly at the harbour town of Whitianga.

Coromandel peninsulaIt seemed too touristy and developed for my liking, but I enjoyed the peaceful views from the flower-lined shore of Whitianga Harbour, a large inlet where kayakers battled the strong wind on the flat water and shags perched on rowing boats. Continuing southward inland, I crossed rolling hills and green farmland as the shadows drew longer, arriving at the small touristy coastal town of Hahei and checking into the pleasant Tatahi Lodge Resort, a lodge/hostel with luxurious facilities for a backpacker like me. After a tasty pizza and lager at the busy brewery restaurant Pour House Bar, I drove up the steep road behind to see Hahei’s famous sight – Cathedral Cove, where a large cave in the white rockface links two beaches. The striking bright cliffs and rock formations in the sea were immediately visible from the car park and I arrived just in time for an amazing orange New Zealand sunset as the large sun dipped beyond Hahei.

Coromandel peninsula

Sunset at Cathedral Cove, Hahei.

By this point in my trip I was quite tired from days of driving and non-stop action, so I wasn’t planning to do sunrise at Cathedral Cove the next day and treat myself to a lie-in. However, I roused when I heard some of the hostel head out around 5:30am and thought, hell, you only live once, let’s have a look. The weather was clear and I arrived at the clifftop car park just as the sun crested the horizon, the cliffs bathed in golden light. Hoisting my camera gear and some water, I set off on the path down from the cliff top to the Cathedral Cove beach. It was a nice walk and a steady descent through forest, brushland with windswept trees and some final steep steps down to the white sand of the cove, if a bit tiring at 6am with no breakfast or coffee inside me!

Coromandel Peninsula Cathedral Cove

The arch of Cathedral Cove as seen from the car park viewpoint.

My early bird behaviour was rewarded though, as the beach, usually swarming with tourists, was practically deserted. Aside from another friendly photographer and a couple, I had the serene place to myself. After photographing the huge arch and taking in the peace and quiet as the sea lapped on the sand, I walked through the arch (it was low tide, it’s partially submerged at high tide) and came across a strangely shaped spire on the other side, and some snorkelers kayaked ashore from a motor boat which had arrived. The cove sits in the protected Te Whanganui-A-Hei marine reserve with plenty of sealife opportunities to spot for those with the budget. The photographer I’d met told me he was enjoying some time off to explore the hidden gem beaches of New Zealand and had already spent three weeks travelling the coast in search of them, giving me some insider tips on some well hidden spots.

Coromandel Peninsula Cathedral Cove

Coromandel Peninsula Cathedral Cove

The rock spire at Cathedral Cove.

Coromandel Peninsula Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove archway, you can just see a tiny person on the left giving it some scale.

A steep climb back to the carpark had me ravenous, solved by a hearty English fry-up at Hahei Beach Café. The next stop was the Coromandel’s other big attraction, the Hot Water Beach. Only a twenty minute drive from Hahei, this long beach boasts a particular spot where a thermal spring flows from inland into the sea. People dig holes in the sand here with shovels (which you can hire everywhere in Mercury Bay) to enjoy a personal hot pool – though finding the perfect place where the sea water mixes to make the temperature just right is difficult. As I expected, it was crazy there, with every inch covered in people digging, sitting in holes or playing in the sea. As the day was scorching, I failed to see the attraction in sitting in the boiling water, dipping my feet into a few was enough – the temperature ranged from scorching to tepid, but it was a cool thing to see – only in New Zealand!

Coromandel peninsula Hot Water Beach

Chaos at the Hot Water Beach.

On the way back to the other side of Coromandel peninsula I made one last stop – one of the top rated beaches in the world – New Chums. It was a half hour detour into the heart of the countryside to the settlement of Whangapoua and then a half hour walk along the coast and through the forest over a small headland to reveal a pretty, long white sand beach lined with forest and cliffs. The Department of Conservation wisely keeps the car park far from the beach so it’s unspoiled, and high tide prevents you from crossing the headland for hours at a time. The Pohutukawa trees’ red flowers at the beach edge were in full bloom here and it was a nice peaceful spot with lots of cubby holes for the visitors making it seem much quieter than it was.

Coromandel peninsula New Chum beach

New Chum beach

I concluded my trip on a leisurely drive retracing my route all the way back to Tapu, making frequent stops at lay-bys and viewpoints to soak in the coastal views and sunny weather. It’s a wonderful area to potter around with something nice to look at every few miles. Back at Tapu Camp I rejoined some French friends I’d randomly ran into at Hahei and we enjoyed some beers in front of another moody sunset as the clouds rolled in. Now that’s what New Zealand’s all about.

Coromandel peninsula

Another moody sunset at Tapu.

One day I hope to revisit Coromandel, it’s a beautiful place with lots of variety in coastline and there’s still much more to see, like the wild north which has some great walks and the plentiful east coast beaches. On a larger budget there’s also tons of activities like cruises, kayaking, snorkelling and some fine seafood restaurants. But you don’t need to spend much to enjoy Coromandel Penisula, there’s plenty of budget options and campsites, although it’s wise to book in advance in the busy summer. The trip was certainly one of my highlights of the North Island, so if you go to New Zealand, at least take a day or two roadtrip there and don’t miss out!

Coromandel peninsula

Pohutukawa tree with its red flowers

I’ve shared a Google Map with the route I took and pins showing where the points of interest and photo locations were, you can check it out by clicking here.

Here’s a gallery with some more photos from the trip – just click to enlarge.

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Bali Portrait Photography Workshop with Sebastian Belaustegui


During my visit to Bali in June I did a private photography workshop with excellent photographer Sebastian Belaustegui (no, I can’t pronounce his sirname either), who specialises in low light portraiture and has work published for major institutions like National Geographic, Time and UNICEF. I met Suki (his nickname) when he was filling in as instructor on an earlier workshop that week. It’s not every day that you run into such a talented and experienced photographer so I asked if I could do a private workshop with him, and luckily for me he agreed. The first day of the workshop he reviewed my portfolio and gave me some enlightening lectures, and on the second he took us into the field for some photography. I should note straight away that although I took these photos, they’re the really the work of Suki, who made the connections, set the scenes, found the light and directed me throughout.

Sebastian Belaustegui, or Suki, to anyone that knows him!

Sebastian Belaustegui, or Suki, to anyone that knows him!

After reviewing my portfolio, Suki rightly identified that my weakest area was portraits, so on day two he took me out to the very traditional settlement of Tenganan which is full of friendly locals who are happy to get their photographs taken. Tenganan is a heritage site and is made up of two small villages. Its one of the only surviving places in Bali which preserves the old architecture and traditions making it a popular cultural tourist attraction. Suki had visited before and had printed off a bunch of photos to give to the people he photographed last time, also giving us an easy way to break the ice and open the door for us to take more photographs.


When we arrived at the smaller of the villages, which is much less touristy, we walked around the back streets and Suki found the first house he wanted to visit, inhabited by a friendly lady who owns a craft shop and her mother. Many of the mid-generation in Tenganan speak English but the elders don’t, so we had translation help from the daughter and our handy driver. The grandmother was happy for us to take photos of her and Suki showed me how to search for good natural light inside their house – which here generally don’t have glass windows, instead using shuttered openings, allowing the sunlight to stream in and creating a nice ambience in the darker corners.


Watching Suki work first of all, I watched how he carefully directed grandma’s pose and angle to the light. She’d changed to a more traditional outfit for us. The faces in Tenganan are so expressive and have a lot of character, it’s a joy to photograph these people. Then it was my turn, and I followed Suki’s lead by directing grandma and practicing different angles. I was using fully manual settings, which is something I’m still getting to grips with, and was careful to underexpose in order to create the required moody effect and darken the background to isolate her face. The tricky part is getting focus right on the eye, as you’re using a very low aperture its easy to get the focus slightly off.


Bidding farewell to the friendly ladies and wandering the village on a scorching day, we visited another house that Suki had been to before. The elders of the family were again happy to help and we went inside their dark kitchen to get some dramatic light. Suki is a master at finding perfect lighting and in a minute can position his models in just the right spot. The friendly grandmother was well humoured as I experimented with different angles and positions and her blue top made for a striking contrast to the dark lighting.


The youngest generation watched us with interest and I managed to snap this shot in the doorway when they were distracted.

The youngest generation watched us with interest and I managed to snap this shot in the doorway when they were distracted.

One thing I was conscious of is that because I was playing with settings and worrying about getting good shots, I would pay less attention to the composition and small things I could do to improve the shot. Suki is very good at iterating on what he starts off with, making minor changes to the model, whether its clothing, accessories, position, pose and quickly reviewing and changing again until he gets a perfect shot, something I can learn from.



The grandfather then came in and I had quite a bit of time to pose him as I saw fit – taking inspiration from Suki’s style I tried to get him in darkness with highlights which I think worked well.



The villagers throughout the day were very patient and great to work with – it was hard to banter with the elders as they don’t speak English but I think through politeness and smiles you can still somewhat cross the communication barrier. Suki is a very friendly and likeable guy with a lot of energy and immediately connects with people. He’s completely unafraid to approach strangers and strike up a rapport and they’re usually happy for him to take photos, especially in such a friendly place as Bali. This is a guy who fearlessly went out in his early twenties alone into the middle of South America to live with tribespeople for months. He’s also respectful and not pushy which I think is an important quality with this type of photography. Placing an emphasis on education and cultural exchange rather than exploitation aligns with my own views. For me, his ease with people is an inspiration, I definitely struggle when approaching and interacting with strangers in this kind of scenario and whilst taking photographs it can be hard to engage with your models when you’re focused on the practicalities. However, I’m getting better and watching someone like Suki at work dealing with these issues with ease was a good experience for me.



After some lunch we then went to the main Tenganan village, which is usually very touristy. However we were quite lucky in that it was really quiet that day. This is a beautiful place centred around the main street full of red stone homes in the traditional Balinese style which also double as craft shops. Tenganan is famous for its double-weaving textiles with colourful patterns – but there’s plenty of other craftmanship here such as wood carvings, paintings and stonework. We began by visiting a friendly weaver who speaks good English and showed me how the weaving process works. Double weaving is very time-consuming with some pieces taking months to make, but they are popular among collectors as it’s unique to this place and fetches good prices. Suki picked the kitchen once again for some portraits and the weaver removed his top for us for some dramatic humanity shots.


By now I was grasping the low light techniques better and it was easier to have a model who could understand my directional pointers, whilst Suki as ever reviewed my shots and made suggestions for improvement.


As we continued onwards, Suki spotted another woman that he’d met, and she invited us to come to a birthday ceremony up the road. We followed her to a side street with a marquee and many locals dressed traditionally for a boy’s coming of age ceremony. The clothes were colourful and there were plenty of Balinese snacks on offer, including some sticky sugary concoction in a long bamboo wrapper which coiled off in a spiral, an ingenious idea (once the girl helpfully pointed out that I was doing it wrong!). We got chatting to a beautiful girl there, who was the birthday boy’s sister. She spoke good English too and had an amazing outfit so we asked if we could take a few photos. She works in a lab yet lives in this very traditional place, one of the many strange blends of ancient and modern you’ll find in this village. Inside her parent’s shaded compound next door, Suki found some good light and we got some good shots, and then I hunted for some other locations and found a spot where the strong sunlight was diffused a bit and the light was perfect (the last photo in the post). We thanked the girl and the hosts and headed off to our last stop.

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We dropped in on another weaver who Suki knew, a really nice fellow who’s considered one of the best weavers in the village and does pretty well for himself. Like many of the other craft shops, the walls were adorned with colourful material for sale, which made for a nice backdrop. I hunted down some good light and again Suki asked the man to remove his top for a more authentic look than the usual branded t-shirts that most villagers wear. I also took the opportunity to get a few shots of my teacher!

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It had been a long day and we headed back to Ubud to review the photos and Suki picked out the ones you see here today as his favourites. These haven’t been post-processed either which is testament to how good he is at getting the right light. Gentleman that he is, he even invited me to join him and his daughter for dinner out that evening which I happily accepted. It had been a great few days and looking at these photos, I now have a high benchmark to aim for with my portraits. I also learned a lot from seeing how Suki works, both with people and spotting good light – it really raised my awareness on what light creates dramatic portraits and how to use it well. I learned ways to improve my compositions and model posing too, if you look at my other portraits you’ll notice a tendency for front-on photographs of people – since the workshop I’m exploring more interesting angles to work from. Suki is a real inspiration for me with his passion, outlook and talent and it was a pleasure to study with him, maybe one day I will eventually be able to reach his level! I also felt a lot of gratitude to the wonderful people of Tenganan who are some of the most friendly and hospitable folk that you’ll ever meet, very welcoming to strangers and eager to please. Great experience, one I will grow from as a photographer and I won’t forget!


Suki runs photography workshops in exotic locations over the globe every few months, check out his Facebook page for details.  I can definitely say you will learn a lot both practically and from his great outlook with other cultures (and no, I’m not being paid or anything to plug him, he’s just a top bloke!). Also, be sure to check out the amazing photos on his website, what an inspiring photographer!

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National Museum of Flight

Last month we visited the National Museum of Flight in Lothian, Scotland. Its a surprisingly good experience located at an old WW2 airfield, with planes to explore, one of the original Concordes and a bunch of interesting info and interactive exhibits. There was also a kite festival that day with some skillful displays. Because photos of museum exhibits can be quite boring, I prefer to focus on mechanical details and interesting light, and managed to fit in a few people shots too. Enjoy!

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