East Cape crusade

16:00, Sep 27 2011

It was madness even to try.

The hire-car man, amused enough at the mention of a GPS – "We've only got the one road, you know" – would have laughed his socks off if I'd admitted that I was planning to drive the complete East Cape circuit in one go.

That, or been mortally offended that I was allocating only a short winter's day for all the scenic and cultural splendour along the almost 500-kilometre route.

Ideally, it would have been summer and I'd have had the leisure to spend a week poking around the coast into pretty little no-exit bays where time is measured only by the height of the tide and the length of the shadows.

However, I had little time: there was weather on its way, the Great Polar Blast of 2011 that had already paralysed half the country.

There was plenty of white on the hills as I left Gisborne on State Highway 2 towards Opotiki: frost dusting the manuka, sparkling on the wooden posts of the vineyards and coating the close-nibbled paddocks.


On this crisp morning the colours were bright in the sunshine; but as the sides of the Waioeka Gorge closed in I thought about the returned servicemen who had tried to make a go of farming these steep and chilly hills after World War I.

Cleared of bush, the soil soon lost its nutrition, but they persevered, driving their stock along the valley bottom and building bridges across the river that still undercuts the road and washes it away.

At the entrance to the rugged Tauranga Valley stands the only harp suspension bridge left in the country. It's a sturdy affair, the wooden platform strung from a series of criss-crossing cables threaded through towers at each end; a sign warns "Maximum load 10 persons". The soldier farmers would have mocked such a namby-pamby attitude.

Opotiki, at the base of the Bay of Plenty, is where the Pacific Coast Highway begins its wriggle around the edge of East Cape.

Fine carvings scattered about the town are the first sign of a strong Maori presence in this remote area where Europeans were late arriving. Bloodstains on the floor of little St Stephen's Church show that settlement got off to a shaky start; it's hard now to imagine anything that violent happening in such a peaceful place.

I followed SH35 along the coast past fields of rough maize stubble and neat farmland edged by black basalt rocks and a gleaming turquoise sea. Out on the horizon volcanic White Island simmered, its plume of steam disappearing into a clear blue sky. Skylarks sang above the empty road; in tiny settlements the odd lawn-mower buzzed while loose horses took care of the grass along the verges.

Signs warning of wandering stock weren't alarmist: sharing the road with me that day were a dozen each of horses and cattle, a lone bull, several handfuls of sheep, six turkeys, five peacocks, four pigs, a scattering of chickens and ducks, a rooster, a cat, a couple of dogs and a goat in a coat.

Perhaps also galvanised by the weather report, groups of people were hauling away silvered driftwood. A man in a bush-shirt and gumboots, trotting along the road on his shaggy horse, looked busy too, when I stopped to look at Raukokore church.

Isolated beside its pohutukawa tree on a rocky promontory, propped up against gales by timber buttresses, the coloured light from the altar window has fallen on the pale kauri floors and pews for over 100 years.

It was bright and welcoming, to man and selected beasts – a fishy smell was explained by penguins nesting underneath the baptismal font, but the door was to be kept shut against marauding possums. Also a magnet for every passer-by with a camera was the tekoteko on top of the meeting house at Te Kaha, in his eye-catching checked shorts.

There have been bigger cameras here: Taika Waititi's Boy was filmed at Waihau Bay, Niki Caro's Whale Rider further on at Whangara.

At Te Araroa, where the world's biggest pohutukawa sprawls beside the beach, the road forks off to the actual East Cape, the easternmost point of New Zealand, and its lighthouse. The focal point of a bare and windswept landscape, the high headland where the lighthouse pokes up out of the bush is at the end of the mostly unsealed road.

Whether there are 600 or 700 steps leading up to it, sadly I can't say: the icy southerly rocking the car told me it was time to make my run for Gisborne.

More corners, more hills, more enticing little bays left unexplored; a brief stop at Tikitiki to look at the amazing St Mary's Church, a riot of Maori carving from candlestick to rafters; and then on to Tolaga Bay where the far end of the 660 metre jetty was blurred by a squall.

The honey glaze laid by the low sun over the green hills was washed away by the storm, logging trucks thundered towards me in clouds of spray and at Tatapouri Beach the breakers roared in like express trains. It was a dark end to a long day that had started white; next time I'll try the blue and green and gold version. In slow-motion.


Getting there: Air New Zealand has frequent daily flights to Gisborne


Getting around: Hire a car at the airport


Fill the tank when you can, petrol stations can't be relied on outside bigger towns.

Accommodation: Lots of options in Gisborne; and there are campsites, motels and some lodges all along the route. Some are closed through the winter so ring ahead.

Freedom camping is still permitted in the area.

Remember: To allow plenty of time to explore the route; and don't wander onto marae without permission.

More info: gisbornenz.com and opotikinz.com

The Dominion Post