Remember how I said Marg and Rob were some of the most generous people I’ve ever met? Well, they proved it about a month ago when Marg treated Corey, DJ and I to an all-expenses-paid trip around the East Cape (her reasoning was that people usually miss that area of the country). She booked our hotel rooms, packed a cooler full of food and wine, and sent us out for a long weekend around State Highway 35!
Leaving from Gisborne on a Friday afternoon, we travelled up State Highway 2 through Waioeka Gorge, the same one I found so beautiful and terrifying on my first day in the country. I sat in the back of Corey and DJ’s station wagon as we listened to The Grateful Dead, and watched the forest go by. We stopped in the Gorge to make ourselves sandwiches for lunch, and climbed our way down the embankment to sit next to the river that runs its way through the valley. The water was cold but the sky was blue, and the flowers were blooming. It was a good day to be a road trip!
In Opotiki we met up with Daniel and Violetta (the German couple we’d been working with for the past week), and they followed us in their van as we headed further up the coast towards Te Kaha via SH35. On the way I got to re-live my childhood when we got stuck on a mountain road because of construction, and I managed to rip my knee open slipping on the gravel; Vio whipped out her huge plastic bin full of first aid supplies though, and I felt lucky to be with friends. A few miles later we stopped along the road to peek inside Christ Church Raukokore, a beautiful little church from 1894 set out on a lonely promontory. A sign outside the door instructed us to remove our shoes, and also alerted us to the family of penguins nesting under the steps! Inside it was all clean white paint and rich wood, while outdoors the sun was starting to shaft through dark clouds onto the sea. We walked out and found two horses grazing freely in the grass, and I got to play Horse Whisperer as I was the only one brave enough to walk up to them. They didn’t seem to mind me (much).
We ended our first day just a few more minutes up the beach at Oceanview Apartments in Waihau Bay. At first we couldn’t understand where we were staying, because the beach house we arrived at – a two-story condo whose ocean-facing walls were made up entirely of windows – couldn’t possibly be ours. As it turned out it was – the bottom floor, at least – and we explored it in a slight daze while we tried to take it all in. It was full of appropriately tacky beach-themed decor (including a rather disturbing large-scale wooden sea insect in the bathroom), a fully-stocked kitchen, and a dvd selection that included lots of tacky 80s movies and episodes of “Extreme Bass Fishing.” It was perfect. We sat ourselves down, made some pizzas, broke out the alcohol, and were even treated to one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen. We ran straight out the front door onto the beach (yeah, we could do that!) and didn’t look back.
In the morning we woke up a little worse for wear from our celebrations the night before, but we battled on nonetheless and hit the road towards Hicks Bay. We took a detour on Lottin Pt. Road, since we’d been told that it had a lovely beach and a hotel where we could grab a drink overlooking the water. The road was barely marked and the metal (gravel) road snaked down through the trees and ended at a beach straight out of a postcard (or a movie, or any other totally improbably beautiful situation). Huge gnarled trees sat on top of massive igneous boulders that must have been thrown onto the beach in some ancient eruption, and behind them green hills stretched straight up in the blue sky. It had an ancient, spiritual quality to it that was haunting – it wasn’t hard to guess why Peter Jackson chose New Zealand’s trees to portray the Ents from the Lord of the Rings. We walked out onto the rocky sand and found pink jellyfish stranded along the water’s edge, and while Daniel promptly took out his fishing rod (he’s fished almost every day he’s been in the country!) the rest of us spread out along the shore to explore. I climbed one of the tallest boulders to sit at the base of its tree, and then found my way back down to climb out along the rocks into the water. I felt like the Little Mermaid, with the water crashing on the stone around me! I also found a family of purple crabs and some cool tidepools, so it was a pretty successful endeavor. (Most of the photos that follow are Vio’s since my camera died as soon as we got there!)
After we whiled away the afternoon picnicking, reading, and napping along the shore, we eventually packed up and made our way to the Hicks Bay Motel Lodge, where we were spending the night. Even though the motel looked kind of sketchy and was almost totally abandoned (it was still low season), our room looked out over immaculately-kept lawns onto Onepoto Bay. We all took another nap (the sun takes it out of you, ok?!), but when we woke up we still had enough daylight to walk into the nearby woods and see the “giant puriri tree” advertised in our room. It was a pretty big tree, but the more exciting part was actually getting to it – the path was completely overgrown and you had to push your way through thick undergrowth to find it. It felt like we were chopping our way through the jungle (which we basically were!). We also got to see two moreporks (teeny tiny owls!), which I personally found more exciting than the tree. Once it got dark we also found our way to the motel’s very own private glowworm grotto, where I got my first glimpse of the highly-touted incandescent grub! (Glow worms hang from silk threads in caves and damp, dark places, and lure their prey to them with their light. They might be ingenious little predators, but at least they’re pretty!)
After a low-key night compared to the one before (which consisted mainly of card games and watching The Whale Rider), we woke up Sunday morning and started the final leg of our journey south. We stopped along the highway at the East Cape Manuka Company, which sells soaps, oils, creams, honey, and even ice cream made from the sap of the potent East Cape manuka tree. We sampled some pohutukawa- and manuka-flavored ice cream (delicious!) and marked our country of origin on their big world map before we kept on towards the little town of Te Araroa, where there are maybe six buildings (at most) on the main drag but they’re serious about their playgrounds:
Te Araroa’s claim to fame is the 600-year-old pohutukawa tree Te-Waha-O-Rerekohu, which sits in the schoolyard of the local wharekura (school). The tree is sacred to the Maoris and climbing it is forbidden, but even standing under it is impressive and strangely calming – standing inside of it is like being in a giant nest. I can only imagine how it must look when the entire tree turns red (as all pohutukawa trees do when they’re flowering) in December!
From Te Araroa we went just a few more miles to visit the East Cape Lighthouse, the most easterly lighthouse in the world! To get there we had to follow another metal road which wound its way between the beautiful but treacherous beach on one side and the huge grass- and sheep-covered dunes on the other. The road ends abruptly in the middle of a farmer’s field, and you have to follow a steep, winding trail up to the top of the hill to the lighthouse. (A sign at the bottom says the climb takes half an hour, but we set a quick pace and made it in 10 minutes!) The view from the top was well-worth the exertion, though – the hill overlooks the tiny island where the lighthouse once stood (and where a graveyard for the keepers still resides), and you could see so far out into the ocean that the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea started to blend together. (The lighthouse also marks the area for “Geodetic Survey Mark Code A3VN” – I’m not sure what it means, but there you go, Uncle John! Explanation?)
We hung out at the top for a while, then made our way back down to eat nutella-and-banana sandwiches before we ended our trip in Tolaga Bay, walking down their 660m wharf. The wharf was built in 1929 and is apparently the longest in the southern hemisphere, but it hasn’t been in use since the 1960s and is slowly crumbling into the sea. Most of the railings are gone and walking its length is a little dangerous (as DJ found out when he stepped on glass with his bare feet!), but it’s a favorite with fishermen and is lovely in its own way. Just like with old barns and houses, the age of the wharf has a history and character I found appealing – it was definitely worth seeing, if only to say hello.