Go east they say, it’s the wild side of New Zealand. The East Cape (the Eastland) of New Zealand’s North Island stretches 344kms by road along route 35 from the small town of Ōpōtiki to Gisborne – there’s a shorter route through the Waioeka Gorge on route 2 but you miss all the fun – though the Waioeka has its own attractions. I have driven from Gisborne around the East Cape and back again “doing the loop” and I once cycled it. The bike trip took a week with a rest day. It’s beautiful and remote; Gisborne is the country’s most geographically isolated city. There are forests, rich farmland, great beaches where the water is three shades of turquoise, isolated communities where you wonder what people do all day and they probably wonder why you’re in such a hurry.
East Cape is the first landfall in the world to see the light of the new day, every day, though this claim is open to debate. It’s one of the regions where the Māori population has its highest ratio. Some people go there to get away from it all; some have never left. People will tell you on the cape the locals have their own way of doing things. This roughly equates to the view British once had of Spain of “mañana” or what is referred to in places as “island time” or anywhere else time isn’t regarded as being as important as other things, like living.
The drive from Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city takes you across the Bay of Plenty, a land among volcanoes. In the west is Tauranga, affluent, gentrified; a container port with cruise ships and beachside apartments. As you move east the farmland dominates with wineries, horticulture and dairy cows. The population thins out, with less European and more Māori. The latter comprises 18 percent of Tauranga’s population, and just over 40 percent of people in Whakatāne. Half the people on the East Coast are Māori, but that includes Gisborne. On the East Cape, heartland of the Ngāti Porou, it’s 85 percent.
Coastal Bay of Plenty is flat. Nearby Whakatāne is Mount Edgecumbe (Māori name Pūtauaki) part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, still highly active after two million years. The distinctive volcanic cone rises 820m straight out of flat farmland. A pulp mill and housing sit close by, giving the impression of a having a volcano is your backyard. Offshore is White Island (Whakaari), 50kms away and clearly visible, like a whale riding by. The island is the peak of a much larger undersea volcano and is New Zealand’s most active volcano. It once erupted for 25 years continuously, a world record, and was mined for Sulphur; the miners living beside the crater. Ten were killed in an eruption in 1914 and operations were only abandoned in the 1930s. In 2019, 22 people were killed in a large eruption and 25 others seriously injured.
The eastern Bay of Plenty was left behind economically in the 1980s neoliberal reforms and is still recovering. In the years since Whakatāne has attracted migrants. I came across South Africans in the early 2000s, part of “white flight” from the republic. This trip I found a Cambodian-run bakery. The owners told me they moved to town from Hamilton as it was cheaper and prices in Auckland were out of the question; waving their hand away in a swatting motion to make the point. I asked if there were other Cambodians in town. The owner told me she’d been in New Zealand for 30 years, and said there were “a few”. More lately government immigration policies have seen other migrants moving into rural New Zealand adding value and industry.
Over the hill from the town centre is Ohope, a beachside community with permanent residents and packed in the holiday season. From the lookout above the town skydivers take to the air landing on the beach below. The hillsides are covered in Pohutukawa trees. Known as the New Zealand Christmas tree, the Pohutukawa bursts into bloom in early December, the flowers sometimes scarlet, sometimes a deep red, and occasionally yellow. I was told about yellow Pohutukawa trees by an English-born resident of Ohope who stopped off to chat on her way home to water her garden. Against the blue water, the white sand beaches, the trees their foliage in dome-like form sometimes 25m high, make a wonderful sight.
Tourists driving are warned New Zealand’s roads are different and for many this will be true. New Zealand’s road network comprises secondary roads but driving is permitted at motorway speeds. There are no autobahns just single lanes in each direction save for some motorways around the main cities. The country is hilly and mountainous, and roads twist and turn on tight bends. The many large trucks on the road negotiate these roads with some skill – they can reach motorway speed on the flat but often lead a convoy of vehicles on the corners and hill sections unable to pass. Truck driving must be exhausting; there’s no such thing as winding up through the gears like on a motorway and just staying there, drivers are constantly working at negotiating the road which must be physically tiring and mentally draining. New Zealand drivers can be casual in attitude and sometimes dangerous by action exacerbated by performing domestic and local tasks using the main road network there being little other options. Some foreign drivers find it terrifying and with traffic accident fatalities in New Zealand increasing sharply while in most of the western world these are declining, they have good reason.
Around every corner
New Zealand roads are also constantly being repaired, which may sound like a good thing. The country allegedly has more orange traffic cones than any other nation, and travelling across the Bay of Plenty and around East Cape you can see there’s merit to the claim. Roadworks abound, but are somewhat curious. In some places it’s intensive with heavy machinery, work crews, all controlled by traffic lights. In other places there are signs and cones but no action, no machinery and no people in sight; it’s not even clear what is happening, if anything. Then there is the array of speed signs. There is the open road speed limit (100kph), then variable speed limits in and out, and through towns (70, 60, 50kph); then more limited speed zones (80kph); and followed by the travel safety advisory signs for cornering (anything from 85kph down to 25kph – I think there’s even one in the South Island that says 15kph) and the temporary speed zones for roadworks (usually 30kph). For added confusion, combinations of all of these can be found at any given place, in an array of orders, which must be baffling for visitors.
There has been a Māori settlement at Ōpōtiki since about 1150. Captain Cook sailed past in 1769. The first European settler was a priest. He was followed by traders and whalers; usually a rough lot. Later there was war and land confiscations – a British tactic – severely impacting local Māori to this day. White farmers grabbed all the best land and a military station ensured they got no trouble; a pattern repeated along the coast and across the country more broadly. Ōpōtiki has the last supermarket before Gisborne; a long way between drinks. There are no banks past here or ATMs and few services of any kind. People fend for themselves. The noticeboard at the supermarket has a collage of ‘persons of interest’ - stills from the security cameras, close-up frontals presumably of shoplifters – most wearing distinctive sports replica clothing. In a community this small probably not hard to find.
The road around the cape takes in many small bays. Here and there are isolated communities. Occasionally you see another car on the road. There are some magnificent homesteads and other houses long abandoned. At Te Kaha, an old whaling station, the Beach Hotel, a rather grand establishment for such a small place. The first thing I thought of when I saw the building was Kep in Cambodia, the “Saint Tropez of South-East Asia” or “Cambodian Riviera” with all its old colonial relics looking grander than the location warrants, or so it seemed. It was hot, the sun in New Zealand burns faster than most other places I’ve ever been. Basically, I get just over 10 minutes and that’s it. The staff making the coffee were having an argument. Outside town a large logging truck piggy-backing the trailer was down to a crawl at the latest set of road works. At one point he began veering off the road entirely the reason for which it turned out, was an ageing golden Labrador wandering across his path and back to the seaside campground. Once the dog had gone the truck picked up speed and on the open road was impossible to pass.
Later I saw, driving over a brow of a small hill, two women standing in the middle of the road. On seeing the car, one leapt up and ran to the roadside shoulder. I’d have though on hearing an approaching vehicle you would get off the road altogether, but on the coast you wait until you see the whites of the eyes of the driver, albeit at 100kph, and then move. In another spot a woman was pushing a pram down the main road and waved hello. If you have no car, you walk along the only road, there being no buses. Further along the road a young guy was driving a tractor at a snail’s pace; no hazard lights, no lights at all, the scoop of the digger elevated at head height and in the shade of the trees virtually impossible to see. He seemed surprised anyone else would be on the road.
At Hicks Bay you turn south. The road winds around a point to Te Araroa through a series of hairpin bends each higher than the other until you start heading down again. The layby near the top afforded a great view of the sweep of Hicks Bay and closer, Onepoto Bay. Standing amongst the native bush looking at the vista I was distracted by a smell, which turned out to be used toilet paper, half buried, the by-product of “freedom campers” those with their own vehicles sleeping by the roadside for free. Te Araroa once had a campground with the world’s most easterly cinema, but it’s all gone, all that’s left is a café. The town has reputedly the world’s oldest Pohutukawa tree estimated to be 600 years of age, and is the birthplace of Sir Apirana Ngata (1874-1950) a lawyer and prominent statesman active in promoting and protecting Māori culture and language. From here you can drive to the East Cape lighthouse, 22kms away which looks out to the mighty Pacific Ocean.
Then it’s a run south to Tikitiki on the banks of the Waiapu River. The road can be narrow, and like much of the East Cape still in places the original stage coach route. Logging trucks, 30m long, 4m high with up to nine axles ply these routes. The wear of the road surface tells the work pattern – fully laden south, empty running north. South of Gisborne the pattern is reversed. In a field a rusting stock truck long abandoned with what appeared to be a vulture perched on top, though no such birds live here. Road signs warn of children on horses; not hereabouts for pleasure though sometimes for recreation, but more usually for transport. I knew a guy who daily rode his horse to work. If he was late clocking in, it was usually because he hadn’t been able to lasso his ride in time. Tikitiki, like most everywhere else on the Coast has suffered from urban drift. The town seems to be hanging on. On my cycle trip years ago, I stopped at the general store for ice cream but was told they had none and were waiting for the truck. St. Mary’s Anglican church is on the hill above town, built on the urging of Sir Apirana Ngata to recognize all the soldiers from the area killed in overseas wars.
The bridge over the Waiapu takes you to Ruatoria. People were riding horses in the river, the water a turquoise blue and fast flowing. Local children were jumping off the road bridge. There’s not much of Ruatoria left. In the 1980s the area was ravaged by crime. There were the gang problems and outlaw Rastafarians stealing from everyone and rustling livestock. Arson was rampant and took half the town’s buildings, none of which it appears, have been replaced. The church was destroyed; the Anglicans have now been replaced by Mormons. A work van was parked on the only street, part of the nationwide rollout of broadband, and driven by Sikhs. At the picnic table I met Julia, an older Māori woman who was thinking of returning to the area. She worked for Corrections in Hamilton. She explained she was from Rangitukia, to the north, an even smaller settlement. With next to no work around for her she would have to make her own. Rangitukia is where George Nepia lived and farmed. Nepia was arguably New Zealand’s first rugby superstar, though he left the game in the 1930s to play rugby league, a game that didn’t mind paying a bob or two for something well done. He later played rugby again in a team captained by his son.
Ruatoria is overshadowed by Mount Hikurangi, 1750m high snow-capped in winter but in 35-degree summer heat looking like a jagged alpine peak. I once climbed it at night and saw the sun rise with the light moving through the swirling cloud, like fireballs. The peak is traditionally regarded as the first land in the world to catch the sunrays, though this is open to interpretation and can depend on the time of year, but likely truer in summer. Te Puia has natural springs, hence the district hospital, and is a one-stop shop, literally. The bay at Tokomaru is 7kms wide and the water about three shades of blue. There was once a whaling station and passenger ships would stop. In the nineteenth-century immigrants from England would arrive and then travel for days by wagon to some inland farm. Sailing for months to New Zealand must have seemed like going to the end of the earth. Once there they’d be no going back and likely you’d never hear from or see from your family again, so you’d have to make the best of it – some did and some didn’t. further south is Tolaga Bay. Whereas there was no one to be seen at Tokamaru Bay, Tolaga (a corruption, the Māori call it Uawa Nui A Ruamatua, or Uawa for short) is by comparison bustling; everybody seemed to be in town at once. The town wharf at 600m is the second longest in New Zealand and last loaded maize in 1967. Now everything is trucked to Gisborne or sometimes Tauranga
Gisborne once had a train service to Wellington, some of the route with spectacular sea views before hitting the flat of Hawke’s Bay. At one point there is the Mohaka Viaduct; 97m high and 275m long, the highest in New Zealand built as part of a public works programme. The route opened in 1937 having been delayed by war, the depression and a major earthquake. The route was slow, stopping at tiny settlements along the way. I could get off in Napier, hitchhike to Palmerston ahead of the train, and still wait an hour to reboard. The railway line crosses Gisborne airport runway, the only line in the world to do so since the Khyber Pass Railway in Pakistan closed. Now the line only runs from Wairoa to the port of Napier. The demise of rail evidenced by Gisborne railway station being boarded up and the area in front used as a layby for heavy trucks, the victory of road over rail now complete. Above Gisborne is Kaiti Hill overlooking the town and the ships loading all that wood. By the port a statue of Captain Cook who “discovered” Poverty Bay as he called it, which must have been news to local Māori who called it Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa, and had been living there for 500 years.
North of Gisborne the beaches stretch one bay after another. Usually quiet, they are during the holiday season populated, but not overcrowded, with campers some in converted buses and house trucks. Tatapouri once had a pub. The inverted sweep of the bay meant it was possible to sit at the bar and watch the surfers go past the window. One high tide combined with a storm flooded the premises, a line drawn on the back wall behind the bar evidence of where the water got to. A distinctive feature of the land on the East Coast is the soil erosion, made worse by chopping down all the original bush for farming, and exacerbated by Cyclone Bola, which devastated the region in 1987. Forestry has made a return, for commercial logging and carbon credits, so the process is somewhat reversed but at the detriment of animal farming. ‘You can’t eat trees’ said one roadside sign.
The East Coast of New Zealand, turn right out of Auckland and head south then east. You can make it on your own time, the locals certainly do.