East Cape Escape – Part 3: Flora, fauna and sauna

November 2021

This morning I was off on the road trip part of my road trip (lol) around the Tairāwhiti region – first stop was Whakatane via a lovely road around lakes and through small towns.  But my one and only reason for coming to Whakatane was to do a day trip to Moutohorā or Whale Island. 

Moutohorā is one of the most restricted pest free sanctuaries in New Zealand.  It is situated just 9km of the coast of Whakatane, not far from Whakaari/White Island which is now world famous for its eruption in December 2019 which killed 22 people.  It is just over 1.4km2 and is the remnant of an eroded volcano.  There are still geothermal areas on the island today (which is one of the highlights of the visit).

There is evidence of early Māori and European settlements, including an unsuccessful whaling station (catching only one whale 🥴), mining of sulphur (which was too poor quality) and then rock for construction of the Whakatane Harbour wall (in 1915). 

In 1965 the island was declared a wildlife refuge and once goats were cleared, a planting programme planted 12,000 native trees and grasses.  Today the island is free of not only goats, but rats, cats and rabbits (there were apparently up to ½ million and were used by Cray fisherman for bait) and is a safe haven for 190 native species. 

Because of its pest free status, bio security checks are an important part of the boating process for all passengers.  In the “Biosecurity Caravan” we had to empty our bags to ensure there were no pests, followed by checks of our shoes for soil and seeds and finally we walked through a tray of disinfectant before boarding the boat. 

It was a beautiful warm day, already 18c and sunny before we set off out through the heads at the mouth of the Whakatane River and passed The Lady on the Rock statue on top of Turuturu Rock.  The statue commemorates the bravery of Wairaka, the daughter of Toroa, the captain of the first waka to arrive in Whakatāne after a long and dangerous journey from Hawaiki (their ancestral homeland).  As the men went ashore, the canoe started to draft back out to sea and Wairaka grabbed the paddle to bring the waka back to shore (it was forbidden for women to handle a canoe!)  She cried our “Kia Whakatāne au I ahau” – I will act the part of a man – hence the name of the city.

I was travelling with White Island Tours – the only way you can visit the island (unless you work for the Department of Conservation).  Not surprisingly, they are the main company that used to run the tours to Whakaari White Island prior to the eruption and were on the island at the time, losing staff members.  One of our guides had been on the island earlier in the morning – as the volcano quietly smoking away in the distance, I can’t imagine what is must have been like to have been on the water the day it erupted … or to continue to see it every day!

After a quick 15 minute boat ride, we landed on Moutohorā.  There is no wharf or jetty so need to be prepared to get wet feed as you wade ashore.  Unfortunately we were about 1-2 weeks too early for the full bloom of the Pohutukawa tress which covered the islands.  Luckily there were a handful that bloomed early and where already surrounded by beautiful tuis👍🏻.

The island is a wonderful haven for New Zealand’s wildlife and it was not long before our guide pointed out a juvenile common gecko (in a purpose built ‘gecko hotel’ – really just a small, covered area, which is easy to lift to spy on the current guests).  Did you know that New Zealand geckos, unlike other reptiles around the world, give birth to live young rather than eggs.  It is believed to be an adaption to adjust to the colder climates.  They are not only slow breeding, but they are also long lived – living up to 50 years.

The air was full of bird song, but even louder was the hum of bees around the flowering kanuka.  I am not sure I have ever heard so many bees. 

As we walked through the island (the guides in bare feet lol 🥴) we passed (or were passed by) North Island Saddlebacks – remember I met their South Island cousins on Stewart Island back in 2020.  Here the juveniles are born with their ‘saddle’ markings as opposed to the South Islands one who do not develop it until they are older.

The highlight of the day for me (although the whole day was a highlight) was seeing my first Tuatara in the wild 🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻.  Tuatara are endemic to New Zealand and are the only survivors of an ancient lineage of reptiles whose ancestors lived along side dinosaurs, over 220 million years ago.

They used to live throughout the country, but populations were decimated by rats etc. and today are now only found in predator proof fenced sanctuaries and offshore islands.   They are active mainly at night but also come out during the day to bask in the sun.  To avoid being eaten by adults, juveniles tend to feed during the day!! 

Females can lay 6-8 eggs per year and are buried to keep warm and as with some other reptiles, the egg temperature can determine the sex of the young.  Once hatched they have to fend for themselves and if they survive ‘childhood’ they can live between 80-100 years.  

Did I mention just how excited I was to see them??  I had seen them before in wildlife parks (in fact I used to work at a park where we breed them), but never in their natural habitat.  It was really a thrill for me.

Kiwis have been introduced to the island, but they have not breed well, no one really knows why but it is possible they are competing for burrows with grey faced petrels that also nest in burrows on the ground.   We actually passed the bodies of a couple of petrels along the way – apparently, they are terrible at landing, often using trees/bushes to break their fall, sometimes this does not work for them!

After a walk around some of the tracks we stopped by the hut for some lunch (it used to be possible to stay the night but now it is only used for rangers).  I only had snacks rather than lunch so was finished quickly and took the opportunity to hang around by the flowering Pohutukawa’s (right by the toilet lol) watching the tuis attracted by the flowers.  I was also lucky enough to spot some of the resident Kakariki (a green parrot) but not close enough to get a photo.

From lunch we took one of the tracks around the side of the island and down to Sulphur Bay – not surprisingly the remaining geothermal area on the island.  There were once pools in the area, but they were buried by a landslide, but you can still see the steam vents and you can definitely smell the sulphur.

The geothermal activity makes this an incredible ‘hot water beach’, you can actually see the sand bubbling in some areas it is so hot – it actually felt like I scalded my feet at one point 🥴.   The idea is to dig a hole in the sand, the perfect depth so you get right temperature water in your self made hot pool – too shallow and it was way too hot, too deep and it was too cold!   There are hot water beaches in other parts of the country, but it is rare that you find one which you can have all to yourself.

It was beautiful sitting on the beach in the sun, soaking my feet in the hot water while watching isolatied rain showers across the mainland.  What a way to spend the day.

As we headed back towards the boat, which was waiting for us at another beach, there was word of a whale sighting so instead of heading back to town, we headed out to sea.  It was already 1.45pm and they had said we would be back by 1.30pm – no one was complaining though.   On our impromptu boat trip, we saw diving petrels and penguins in the water 👍🏻 but sadly no whales today.  It was great to see the island from the sea as well, with its interesting rock formations and NZ fur seals lazying around the shore line.

We finally arrived back back in Whakatane over an hour late – what an amazing trip which I highly recommend.

Back on the mainland it was time to hit the road as I still had some driving to do before my stop for the night.   I could not pass up the opportunity to stop at what is apparently New Zealand’s favourite beach, Ohope Beach.  It was pretty impressive with 11 kilometres of beautiful sand beach, despite being a little windswept today.  The Ohope spit itself is approximately 6 kilometres long and only 300m wide at its narrowest, making it very easy to walk from the beach on one side to the Ohiwa estuary on the other.

I was starving by this point, so stopped to have some lunch at the General Store, overlooking the estuary.  Unfortunately it really only had fried food (which becomes a theme for the trip) so fried food it was!

I’d been lucky to avoid the rain so far, but it finally came down as I was driving my last leg for the day.  Despite the rain it was a lovely 35 minute drive around the estuary and through small rural villages to my stop for the night at Opotiki. 

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