East Cape Part 5 – Te Araroa to Tolaga Bay

November 2021

You have to be pretty dedicated to see sunrise in New Zealand in the summer and I am!

When you search the internet for things to see and do on an East Cape Road trip, one thing that always comes up is a visit to the East Cape lighthouse at sunrise.   It is one of the first places in the world to see the sun each day (did you know people flew by Concorde to see the sunrise on Jan 1, 2000!) and the sunrise is supposed to be amazing. 

So as dedicated as I am, I was up at 4.30am to a beautiful clear sky full of stars for the 35 minute drive along some less than ideal narrow gravel roads in the dark. Thankfully I only passed a couple of other people going the other way, one being a huge logging truck I had to pull off the road for! 

The forecast was looking good the night before, but during the last 10 minutes of the drive, the drizzly mist set in … and it was here to stay 🥲. I climbed the 800 steps to the top of the hill, and the base of the lighthouse and I could not even see the sea right in front of me 🤦🏻‍♀️. To top it off, I had forgotten to bring the coffee I had made up in my travel mug to bring for the top! 

Thankfully I did have my raincoat so I could sit on the wet bench and enjoy the serenity of the moment – the bird dawn chorus and the sea crashing on rocks somewhere below.

Built in 1922, the East Cape lighthouse is situated on the eastern most point of New Zealand.  It was originally lit with a paraffin oil burning lamp which was replaced to diesel generated electricity in 1954.  In 1971 the lighthouse was connected to the mains power before being fully automated in 1985.  It is hard to image that at one time, this was originally a three keeper station as there is little left to indicate there was once housing on the site. 

I was so engrossed in the serenity of the moment, I didn’t realise I was getting bitten until it was too late 🤦🏻‍♀️ why on earth was I wearing shorts? I NEVER wear shorts 🥴😂 Despite the biting insects and cloud I stayed for around 30 minutes hoping for a break in the cloud, but it was not to be. Thankfully I have a couple more sunrise opportunities (none at a lighthouse on the eastern most point though) so fingers crossed I will get one worth the early morning for.

It was nice to be able to see the road and surrounding scenery on the way back though I still had to drive fairly slowly.  Firstly, due to animals on the road (horses and hares lol).  Secondly due to some damaged parts of the road due to storms the previous week (it was good to see that the repairs were already underway).  Lastly due to the stunning scenery – towering cliffs, waterfalls and a beautiful, rugged coastline.

Back in Te Araroa, it was still very early but thankfully the Four Square was opening (for anyone reading not familiar with New Zealand, Four Square’s are a small town supermarket chain) so I managed to pick up a breakfast fit for a Queen – a can of cold coffee and a Ruatoria steak and cheese pie!  I had certainly earnt it.  I also took the opportunity to top up the car with fuel – seemed to be small town prices at $2.48 a litre, significantly higher than in larger towns!  I was grateful that my rental car was a hybrid so was not using too much petrol. 

While planning this trip I discovered Te Araroa’s claim to fame it that it is the birthplace of Sir Āpirana Ngata.  Born in 1874, he was the first Māori to complete a degree at a New Zealand university, graduating with a MA and a law degree. 

Upon completion of his education, he returned to the East Cape and made a great contribution to Māori cultural and economic revival in the area and around the country for which he received a knighthood in 1927.  To honour Sir Āpirana’s legacy his face is now proudly printed on New Zealand’s $50 note. 

After a quick stop back at my hotel to shower and finish packing, I started on the day’s leg of my journey – from Hicks Bay to Tolaga Bay.  Approximately 125km or 2 hours.  Again, I had a list of sights and stops on the way and again, not all were 100% successful lol.

My first stop was in the small town of Tikitiki to see “Tikitiki’s jewel” – St Mary’s church.  It was built between 1924 and 1926 under the guidance of Sir Āpirana (from Te Araroa).  It is a non-denominational church and thanks to Sir Āpirana, it integrates Māori architecture into its design and windows. Today it’s considered a Category 1 Historic Place.   Unfortunately, the church was closed and there was no one around so had a look around the outside (which was still nice) before moving on

Some observations about this part of rural New Zealand – horses are a common form of transport for school children (I am all for this – in fact I would happily ride a horse if that was an acceptable form of transport … and if I had a horse).  I was also puzzled by the number of derelict houses in these small towns.  Perhaps a sign of times with people having to move to the cities for work.

Next up was a stop at Tokomarau Bay, where I had planned to have lunch at the tavern.  It was an amazing spot, reminding me of Hawaii with towering cliffs in background.  Unfortunately, the tavern, although open, was not serving food.  Maybe because it is too quiet or maybe because it is for sale?  Either way the only other option was the fish and chip shop!

It’s not surprising there is an obesity problem in some of our rural communities – fried food and pies appear to be the most accessible food!!  (Full disclosure, there was a small supermarket, but I didn’t go there 🥴).  Fried food in hand, I headed down to the shore to have lunch with a view.  It was a beautiful bay and beautiful day, now I had escaped the cloud of the morning.  And of course, I am still a week or two early for the pohutakawa to be in flower😂.

Tolaga bay was my destination for the day and upon arrival I went straight to the main attraction – the wharf.  Not just any wharf, a 660m long wharf that is believed to be one of the longest concrete wharfs in the Southern Hemisphere.  It was built in 1929 to allow large coastal trading ships to off and onload goods to the area before the more modern sealed roads were built.  (Apparently there was also one at Hicks Bay and Tokomaru Bay but there is little left of these ones.)  Ironically, much of the cargo that was offloaded on the wharf was road building equipment that helped construct the road through to Gisborne, leaving the wharf redundant.

As in Te Araroa, I had struggled to get accommodation in Tolaga Bay. Who knows why – perhaps a combination of there not being much and some places being closed? I ended up at an Airbnb just out of the town on a horse training farm (Uawa Equine on AirBnB)- it was simple but beautiful and peaceful.

Had a relaxing afternoon/evening at my accommodation making friends with the locals – 3 dogs who seemed to take turns at coming over to hang out (although there were probably around 6-7 dogs in total), but my favourites were a little black cat (who was very needy) and a pet lamb.

I attempted to find something for dinner in town but gave up.  There was a place calling itself a supermarket, but it was barely a dairy 🤦🏻‍♀️ and the only other option was fried food again!  Instead, I fell back on some good old pot noodles I had stocked up on for just this kind of occasion.

I truly had a great night’s sleep in the peace.

East Cape Escape – Part 4:  Ōpōtiki to Te Araroa

November 2021

Despite not having an early start planned, true to form I was up early so decided to go for a walk to explore Ōpōtiki and stretch my legs before I got back in the car for the day’s driving.

Ōpōtiki is the gateway to State Highway 35, which takes you around the East Cape of the North Island and had a large Māori population before Europeans arrived – it is thought to be the location of some of the earliest Māori arrivals.  It was also home to a number of bloody battles in the Māori tribal wars.  So much so, when European missionaries made an initial attempt to reach the town in 1821 they went straight back to Tauranga when they walked in to the “carnage of a just-concluded battle”. 

The missionaries  returned in 1839 and from 1840 to the 1860’s they struggled to continue to “spread the word” as the hostiles continued.   European whalers and traders also became active along this part of the coast around the same time, but it was not until after the fighting (of the New Zealand Land Wars) ceased in the 1860’s that European settlement truly started in Ōpōtiki, initially as a military settlement.

As part of their discharge, the European soldiers were given 50+ acres of land (which was not really their land to give away) depending on their rank.  The land proved fertile and the town became the Government centre in the Bay of Plenty.  Today Ōpōtiki is a relatively quiet town with a population of approximately 5,000.

My early morning walk really just consisted of a ‘wander’ – I completely lost my sense of direction as I strolled down quiet beautiful tree lined street (not sure what they were but they were bursting with fragrant flowers).  From here I found the Otara River and followed the pathway along it.  Past slides and rope swings (it must be fun in the summer) with beautiful views back to the Urewera ranges in the distance.  There are also a number of bike trails in the area as part of the Motu Trails.

As always I got a little distracted with the little things.  Flax flowers just coming into bloom and already surrounded by busy bees with full pollen sacs.  And let’s not forget the cool bollards.

Back on the main road, there were lots of bordered up shops 🥲sadly it is a normal sign in small town New Zealand these days.  On the flip side, many of the historic buildings have been well maintained giving you an insight in to the history of what was a busy town – hard to imagine it given the quiet streets I was walking around (ok – it was still 7.30am on a Monday morning).  Definitely no other ‘tourists’ around and people must have thought I was mad taking all my photos. 😂  I loved the street art by local school children which brightened up the town.

I happened across the Ōpōtiki Museum just as they opened so decided to take a look around.  Like most small town museums it was packed full of ‘stuff’ – match boxes, saddlery, tractors, stuffed animals, machinery, dolls …..  Not an exhibit but I was intrigued by a sign requesting patrons to ‘please remove stiletto shoes to protect varnished floor’ – just how many people turn up in stiletto heels around here??

Despite all the ‘stuff’ on the ground floor, the other 2 floors (yes there were 2 whole floors and a mezzanine) has some really interesting information about the history of the town – both Māori and European, as well as information about the journey of the Treaty of Waitangi in the region in May 1840.  (For more on the Treaty of Waitangi, check out my blog from July 2021 Now to the North(land).  They also have a great collection of old photos depicting historical town life.

After some breakfast I was ready to hit the road and I set off down the Pacific Coast Highway towards my next stop – approximately 150km or just over 2 hours away.  I had a list of places to stop and sites to see and some were more successful with than others lol.  My first stop was supposed to be at Torere Beach to see a carved Māori gateway at the entrance to school.  Unfortunately there were road works right outside the school, and it was clearly playtime and the children were all outside – I did not want to appear to be some kind of stalker so I drove straight past.

The road was beautiful and lined with large pohutakawa (yep – I was still 1-2 weeks early for them to all be in flower).  I would definitely have a lot more photos if I was not driving or if there were more places to pull over and stop (one of the problems of solo road trips).

My first proper stop was at the small town of Raukokore at its beautiful white stone church – Christ Church.  The church was designed by Scottish man, Duncan Stirling in 1894 and went on to marry a local chief in the church on 1896 and build other churches and buildings around the East Cape.

A Macadamia farm I had hoped to visit was not open so I headed straight to my planned lunch stop at Waihua Bay – ‘world famous in New Zealand’ for being the location for the filming of the 2010 movie Boy, and the home town of its director and actor Taika Waititi (who is actually world famous for his work on Thor movies amongst others).  Interestingly he was actually born in Raukokore – my previous stop.

Just like in the movie, the ‘boys’ were out hanging in front of the General Store which had been featured in the movie, so I didn’t want to take a photo 🥴 .  Instead I had some lunch and a short walk along the water front, which was beautiful before driving the last stretch of driving for the day. Thankfully the ‘boys’ left before I did so I got my shot lol.

As a child, we had had a family holiday travelling along this coast and I had fond memories of staying at the Holiday Park in Te Araroa, so had decided to stay there on this trip – talk about a nostalgia failure!  The place was run down, they were completely unprepared for me and I didn’t feel particularly comfortable.

As they were not ready for me, I said I would go down to ‘town’ to get some supplies and then I would come back.  What I was actually doing was going to ‘town’ to consider my options which were actually very limited!  I took a quick break from worrying about where I would spend the night to see what is supposedly the oldest pohutakawa tree in the country – Te Waha-o-Rerekohu which is approximately 600 years old.   

Te Araroa has a population of approximately 600 people, so it was not surprising there was no other accommodation to be found.  I needed to stay in the area and the only place anywhere near was a motel, back towards Hicks Bay so I backtracked and got a room there.  It ended up being a much more expensive night than planned but worth it to be comfortable.  When I called the other place to say I wasn’t staying, they apologised for not being ready and offered to refund me – I said not to bother as it was only fair for them to keep it as I ‘cancelled’ very late – and it was pretty cheap and everyone in tourism is doing it tough these days.

My new room was on the hill overlooking Hicks Bay which was lovely but the room was hot with the sun streaming in so I sat on the deck by the reception with a cold cider enjoying the breeze and relaxed for the rest of the late afternoon.  It was not quite the evening beach vibes I had been anticipating but there was a beautiful sunset nevertheless and I had a good sleep in a comfy room 👍🏻

My lesson for the day was learnt – don’t set your expectations too high when trying to relive a past memory!!