After the holidays (and my failed plans to hike the Tongariro Crossing), I was still holding out hope that the weather would agree with me sometime soon. I’d managed to miss a couple pretty big cities on my way to Gisborne from the Coromandel for Christmas, so I decided to head back down the center of the island via Whakatane (“Fah-kah-tah-knee”), and zoom into Tongariro at the first sight of blue skies.
Of course getting to Rotorua also depended on being able to, you know, drive. This turned out to be more complicated than it sounded, when on New Year’s day 20,000+ people were trying to leave Gisborne after Rhythm and Vines. Here’s the thing about New Zealand roads: you take the major highway, or none at all. There are no back roads, no little alternate routes you can construct out of seredipitously-connected streets between small towns. No – they have their main highways, and that’s pretty much it. So if a torrential downpour happens to blanket the country at the same time as thousands of people are trying to return home from the holidays, it gets a little crowded (and dangerous). It also gets a little worse if, say, highways are cut through huge gorges that are prone to mudslides. And if the other major highways are along the coast, at (or below!) sea level, and they’ve all been flooded.
…and that’s what happened to me.
Trying to get from Gisborne to Rotorua, the original plan was to follow SH2 north to Opotiki then take the scenic coastal route through Ohope and end the day in Whakatane. This route should have taken 3 hours (or 2.5 according to GoogleMaps, but everyone knows they lie). I managed to get through the Waioeka Gorge despite a massive mudslide that had reduced the winding mountain road to one lane, and my spirits were high as I got on the road to Opotiki. And then, in the middle of nowhere, kilometers away from any town or gas station, I got stuck in traffic. Not just any slow-moving, annoying-but-slowly-inching-forward traffic. No, this was a line of cars extending as far as the eye could see, completely static and unmoving. And it was only in my lane. Hooray! Apparently the roads between Whakatane and Opotiki – both the main highway, and the scenic coastal road – had experienced so much flooding they’d been closed. What perfect timing! So, not knowing how long it might take (and becoming increasingly more worried about my fuel level), I simply turned off my car and listened to some Fresh Air podcasts instead. I learned quite a bit about jazz and Jay-Z that day!
Two hours and lots of deep breaths later – being stuck in the middle of nowhere surrounded by hundreds of whiny hipster kids begins to wear on you after a while – I eventually made it to Opotiki, where I waited at a huge line at the gas station (apparently other people were worried too!). At exactly that moment they opened the coastal road to Whakatane and announced that in order to deal with the R&V traffic from Gizzy, only traffic headed west towards Whakatane would be allowed through. Lucky me! I eventually reached Whakatane around 6 in the evening, and thus what should have been a 2.5-hour trip turned into a 6-hour epic journey. Yay!
Despite the terrible traffic, one of the best things about my trip on New Year’s Day was taking a detour out into the Waioeka Flats to see Motu Falls in the Whinray Scenic Reserve. The drive was absolutely incredible – even more so than the Coromandel – as it wound through hills that dropped out into broad flats around me. A swollen river cut through the valley, and every so often a mountainous hill jutted straight out of the ground into the sky, always seeming to be artistically dotted with sheep and hit by shafts of sunlight in exactly the right places. I didn’t stop to take a picture, but I should have – it was absolutely stunning. I will never cease to be amazed at the way landscapes here can be so beautiful they move you to tears.
Eventually the gravel (“metal”) road started to wind along thicker areas of native bush, and then suddenly out of nowhere a sign pointed left into the trees towards my destination. There was only a small area along the road where you could park, and everything beyond was covered by thick trees – I could only assume I was going in the right direction based on the sound of the water. Then I stepped out into a little clearing an was confronted by a big swinging suspension bridge, a dripping rainforest, and a massive swollen waterfall crashing into the rapids below. Walking out onto that bridge swinging above the river was one of the coolest things I ever done. This is the type of thing that just happens to be out in the middle of nowhere in NZ!
When I got to Whakatane around 7pm that night, it was a ghost town: everything was closed for the holidays, and no one particularly wanted to be walking around downtown in the rain. So instead I treated myself to another terrible movie (no judgment!), and then slept in my car on the main road. Quite the glamorous liftestyle, eh?!
I explored the city a little more the next morning, and I actually have to say it’s a nice little seaside town! They’ve got a lot of native history (as do most places in New Zealand), but they’re most notable as the place where the Mataatua waka (one of the huge canoes that first brought Polynesians to NZ) landed in 200AD. There’s even a museum in town that chronicles the history of the area. I didn’t actually go to the museum (I slept in my back seat! I wasn’t very chipper.), but I did visit Pohaturoa and Muriwai’s Cave! Pohaturoa is a large sacred rock outcropping in the center of the city where Maoris have conducted baptism, death, war and moko (tattoo) rites for centuries. (It was also the place where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by the local chiefs.) Muriwai’s Cave was named for a famous seer (who was also the sister of the captain of the Mataatua canoe), and it is apparently the place where the sacred talisman from the canoe was placed. Quite a bit of history for such a little place!
On my way out of town I had to make one last stop at Ohope Beach to look at the eerily lovely Lady on the Rock (otherwise known as the Wairaka Statue). She stands poised at the top of a boulder looking out to sea, reminding locals of the story of the “Girl Who Acted Like A Man” and paddled the waka (canoe) to safety one day despite the fact that women were not supposed to touch the highly-sacred paddles. Not only did she save the lives of the others in the canoe, but her cry – “Kia Whakatane au i ahau!” (I will act like a man!) – also coined the name of the town. Whaka like a man, indeed!