Photo: Bare Kiwi
By Justine Tyerman
Contributor Justine Tyerman shares the top things to do and amazing sightseeing opportunities on a Wairoa road trip to Opotiki via Gisborne
The East Coast of the North Island is quieter and more laid-back than the tourism hot spots of New Zealand. It’s a bit of a mission to get here, but it’s well worth the effort. While you can fly direct to Gisborne from Auckland or Wellington in about 60 minutes, there’s nothing like a road trip to really feel the pulse of the region and get to know the people.
Start your East Coast road trip in Wairoa and follow the Pacific Coast Highway, via Gisborne all the way to Opotiki, with a few deviations on the way. This is a comparatively remote part of New Zealand where you will find exquisite, deserted beaches, rustic little towns, pristine lakes, and colourful characters who seldom go near a city.
Lake Waikaremoana, the ‘Sea of rippling waters’ in Te Urewera National Park, is just one hour inland on your Wairoa road trip along State Highway 38 (and two hours from Gisborne) but it feels like an enchanted world. Te Urewera, the ancestral home of Ngai Tuhoe – the ‘Children of the Mist’ – is a land of legends and mystique. It’s the site of one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, a 46km track that links a series of stunning beaches and meanders up and down through forests of giant podocarp trees. It’s a soothing, tranquil place, gentle on the eyes and spirit. The only sounds are those of nature’s repertoire... gurgling streams, thunderous waterfalls, and the native bird song.
The 1,180m Panekiri Bluff has jaw-dropping views of the ink-blue lake encircled on all sides by the dark green rainforest. Make sure you do the 30-minute side track to Korokoro Falls where you can inch your way along a rock ledge and stand behind the waterfall. You can climb up a track to the top of the waterfall, too.
Lake Waikareiti is Lake Waikaremoana’s smaller cousin, ‘iti’ meaning ‘little’ in Maori. It’s accessible only on foot, an easy two-hour return hike through a forest of tall red and silver beech and rimu trees.
Wairoa Road Trip Includes Idyllic Mahia Beach
Mahia Beach, 45 minutes from Wairoa and 1 hour 15 minutes from Gisborne on State Highway 2, is an idyllic Kiwi holiday destination known for its superb fishing, diving, and surfing. It hit the headlines in 2007 when Moko, the bottlenose dolphin, took up residence in the bay for a couple of years.
A tiny settlement of around 850 people which swells to thousands in the summer holidays, it’s near the site of Rocket Lab, the first privately-owned launch pad in the world to put commercial satellites into space. Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck says Mahia Peninsula has some of the clearest, least-crowded airspace on the planet and its extreme easterly location provides the greatest number of launch angles in the world. Beck calls it ‘the most beautiful launch site on earth’.
Climb to the top of Rahuimokairoa, the 397m hill at the end of Mahia Beach, to watch the sunrise over the Pacific. You might even see a rocket thundering into space.
Bushwalks and Arboretums
Morere Springs Scenic Reserve, a 30-minute drive from Wairoa and 50 minutes from Gisborne on State Highway 2, has lovely hot and cold mineral pools surrounded by native forest. If you want some exercise before soaking in the hot pools, do the Mangakawa Walkway to the top of the ridge above the reserve. Described by the Department of Conservation as ‘among the most diverse and beautiful of New Zealand’s short bushwalks’, the track goes through virgin rain forest, a haven for native bird-life. It’s fascinating to see the source of the springs where the hot water bubbles up and is piped to the pools below.
Eastwoodhill Arboretum, 30 minutes’ drive inland from Gisborne on the Wharekopae Road, is a must-stop on your Wairoa road trip as it's the National Arboretum of New Zealand. The 135-hectare site is planted in over 25,000 exotic and native trees, shrubs, climbers, and flowers, the largest collection of Northern Hemisphere trees south of the equator. It was founded in 1910 by William Douglas Cook who used to wander around the property stark naked… apart from gumboots and a sunhat.
If you’re after a real heart-thumping adrenalin rush, head for the Rere Rock Slide, 50 kilometres from Gisborne on the Wharekopae Road. Rated New Zealand’s most thrilling natural rockslide, the 60-metre slippery face is fast and furious… and one of the top free things to do in Gisborne’s vicinity. Ride the slide on a boogie board, lilo, inner tube, or yoga mat (and wear a wet suit for protection). Afterwards, relax, nurse your bruises, and have a picnic at nearby pretty Rere Falls.
Haurata Walks at Matawai, a good hour’s drive inland from Gisborne on State Highway 2, has a variety of hikes of varying degrees of difficulty. It’s an area rich in history with spectacular landscapes - steep escarpments and bluffs, bizarre sandstone formations, native birds and bushland, waterfalls, swimming holes, rock slides, sheep, cattle, wild goats, deer, and glow worms.
Te Kooti’s Retreat, a three to five-hour walk, ends at a historic site on top of Ngatapa Mountain where, in 1869, the famous Maori Ringatu church leader Te Kooti was surrounded by the English constabulary and Ropata from the Ngati-Porou tribe before escaping over the cliffs into the Urewera ranges.
Stay the night in the Haurata Farm House, a four-bedroom holiday home with all the luxuries, including an outside tub. Meals can be arranged.
Whaleriders and Wharfs
Half an hour from Gisborne, up the East Coast road on State Highway 35, you come to Whangara where the hit movie Whalerider was filmed. This is private land so contact local historian Anne McGuire at Tipuna Tours and sign up for one of her excellent experiences.
Fifty minutes north of Gisborne on State Highway 35, stop at Tolaga Bay and walk right to the end of the historic Tolaga Bay Wharf. Said to be the longest of its type in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s still standing thanks to the efforts of fundraisers who stopped it crumbling into the sea. The 660m-long wharf is a stunning sight stretching far into the blue-green sea against a backdrop of sheer white cliffs. And if you’re lucky, Verity’s food caravan, the Curbside Café, will be parked near the wharf selling gourmet street food.
Hike the two and a half hour (return) Cook’s Cove Walkway at Tolaga Bay, and learn more about Captain James Cook. The crew of HMS Endeavour came ashore at the sheltered cove, named after the captain of course, and dug a well there to collect fresh water. They had friendly contact with the local Maori who took fish and kumara to the crew by canoe. The Hole-in-the-Wall (Te Kotere o te Whenua) rock formation, an archway carved by the sea, is a stunning spot for photos.
Tolaga Bay Cashmere is a family-owned business on the outskirts of the town where cashmere knitwear of exceptional quality is designed and made using fibre from their own cashmere goats. Give them a call on (0064) 6 862 6746, or send an email to TolagaBayCashmere@xtra.co.nz.
And if you’re in the area over Christmas and New Year, don’t miss the Tolaga Bay Beach Races. They are legendary.
Beautiful Anaura Bay
There’s no better way to get to know a place than on foot. The Oneroa Cycle and Walkway linking Waikanae Beach to Midway Beach is a must. Wheelchair and pushchair-friendly, it’s 100 percent flat and accessible to all. The views of the bay, the sunsets and cliffs of Young Nick’s Head, stark white against the blue-green sea, are stunning.
Okitu Bush Scenic Reserve walk is an easy 20-30 minute loop track near Wainui Beach through beautiful bush that’s rich in native birdlife. The track climbs to a lookout with fabulous views over Wainui Beach to Tuahine Point.
The Makorori Headland walk between the surfing beaches of Wainui and Makorori is just across the road from the Okitu walk. At the top, look out over the vast blue Pacific Ocean as far south as Mahia Peninsula and Portland Island and north to the Tatapouri Headlands.
Te Kuri Farm Walkway is a challenging 2-3 hour, 5.6km loop track with multiple ups and downs and some steep climbs. However, the awesome panorama of Poverty Bay from a lookout point at Town Hill (290m) makes the considerable effort all worthwhile. On a clear day, hikers can see as far south as Mahia Peninsula and as far west as Maungapohatu on the eastern fringes of Te Urewera National Park. Remnants of native bush along the way provide a home for native birds.
‘Maoritanga’ and ‘Manaakitanga’
We are privileged to live in an area rich in ‘Maoritanga’ – Maori culture, traditions, and way of life – and ‘manaakitanga’, Maori hospitality. With nearly 50 percent of the population of Maori descent, the highest proportion in New Zealand, there is no better place than Tairawhiti to immerse yourself in the language, history, music, dance, and legends of the ‘tangata whenua’, the people of the land.
Two hours’ drive north of Gisborne on State Highway 35, stands Mt Hikurangi, the sacred mountain or ‘maunga’ of the Ngati Porou iwi (tribe). At 1,754 metres, Hikurangi is the highest non-volcanic peak in the North Island and the first peak in the world to be touched by the rays of the rising sun each new dawn.
The maunga is deeply revered by Maori. It’s the resting place of Maui-Tikitiki-a-Taranga, the famous Maori and Polynesian demi-god, who lifted Hikurangi out of the ocean when he fished up Te Ika-a-Maui, the North Island. To celebrate the dawning of the new millennium ‘Te Takapau a Maui’, a series of nine huge whakairo (carved art works), were commissioned. The carvings are among Aotearoa-New Zealand’s most significant works of art. (Please note: Mt Hikurangi is a sacred place so please contact Tourism Ngati Porou for more information.)
St Mary's Church in Tikitiki, just over two hours north of Gisborne on on State Highway 35, is one of the most ornate Maori churches in New Zealand. The wooden carvings and woven tukutuku panels are a tribute to local craftsmen and the cultural initiatives of a beloved Maori leader, Sir Apirana Ngata, who died in 1950.
In the tiny coastal settlement of Te Araroa, 2 hours 30 minutes from Gisborne on State Highway 35, you'll find Te Waha-o-Rerekohu, New Zealand's oldest and largest pohutukawa tree. It’s about 600 years old.
The Top of New Zealand
Climb the 700 steps to the historic East Cape Lighthouse on Otiki Hill at East Cape, the most easterly point on mainland New Zealand and the world’s most easterly lighthouse. It’s worth the effort for the stunning view, especially at sunrise. To get there you follow a 22-kilometre, mostly unsealed no-exit road along the coastline from Te Araroa. The lighthouse itself is not open to the public.
Lottin Point is at the very top of the East Coast, 202kms or 3 hours’ drive from Gisborne on State Highway 35. Rocky, remote, and utterly gorgeous, it’s a fishing and diving paradise. Fifty minutes further on State Highway 35 lies Whanarua Bay, one of the prettiest spots on the East Coast. The little beach is perfect for picnics, swimming, and snorkelling. Stop at Pacific Coast Macadamias for espresso coffee and macadamia products. Continue on State Highway 35 to Opotiki, stopping en route at gorgeous bays like Waihau and Te Kaha.
If you are into cycling, you’ll love the Motu Trails, part of Nga Haerenga, the New Zealand Cycle Trail. The trails can be accessed from Opotiki and Matawai. They range from the easy 10km Dunes Trail over sand dunes east of Opotiki; the intermediate backcountry Motu Road Trail on a spectacular historic road that climbs to over 750m altitude; to the seriously-challenging Pakihi Track, a 21km historic wilderness ride on a narrow track with steep drop-offs. There are a host of other trails including the Motu Trails Explorer rides. Accommodation, shuttle transport and bike hire are available.
Contributing Editor Justine Tyerman is an award-winning travel writer, journalist, and sub-editor from Gisborne, New Zealand, with 20 years’ experience in newspaper and freelance work. Check out her work at www.just-write.co.nz and Tyerman’s Travels Facebook.