The East Cape on the North Island of New Zealand, Aotearoa, is remote and it’s sparsely populated - most tourists never get there. Those that do, discover one of our best kept secrets.
The climate is warm and generally dry. The people, although there aren’t many, are friendly and welcoming, and the traffic on the road is light.
Within a few hours of being on the Cape, day to day worries and routines are supplanted by the whoosh of the waves, the rustle of leaves in the wind, the tang of the sea air, the call of tui during the day and morepork at night. You won’t be disturbed by texts, or Facebook notifications or email alerts - there’s no cell-phone coverage for most of this trip.
The total drive time around the Cape, along State Highway 35 from Gisborne to Opotiki, a distance of about 330 kilometres, is four hours. You can do it in a day - if you must. Most guide books suggest allowing two. But this is a part of the world that lends itself to meandering. We were away for six days - it wasn’t long enough - and this was our second trip around the Cape.
My highlights of the highlights:
Tolaga Bay wharf
At 600 metres the Tolaga Bay wharf is the longest in New Zealand. On a previous trip I watched stingray sailing through the waters beneath the wharf. This time the weather was wild - a squall struck as I reached the end of the wharf. I felt as if I was fighting with the wind to get back to the beach. And then as quickly as it arrived the squall was gone, the wind died away and the sun came out.
(Tolaga Bay wharf, after the squall)
At Tokomaru, only a few kilometres further along the road, it’s easy to assume there’s not much to see.
(Tokomaru main street)
But if you take the turning at the junction of State Highway 35 and Beach Road, and follow the narrow road that abuts the foreshore it will take you down to the site of the old Tokomaru freezing works and the wharf. It’s a lonely place - it oozes history, a history filled with broken dreams.
(The ruins of the freezing works at Tokomaru)
(Tokomaru Bay - taken from near the old wharf)
St Mary’s church at Tikitiki is watched over by a lone soldier - a memorial dedicated to the men and women who died serving our country.
(War memorial above St Mary’s Church, Tikitiki)
If you’re lucky and the church is open you’ll see one of the finest examples of traditional Maori carving in a church in New Zealand. Sadly, it was closed the day we visited.
(St Mary’s Church, Tikitiki)
Christ Church at Raukokore is one of the loneliest churches in the world. It sits on a low lying promontory, that juts into the Pacific. In comparison to St Mary’s, the interior is plain. If you detect a rather strong, fishy odour - it’ll likely be from the penguins nesting beneath the sanctuary.
(Christ Church, Raukokore)
The East Cape Lighthouse
If you have time, and you are confident driving on shingle roads, visit East Cape itself. We had to give it a miss this trip. But I can tell you that a few years ago I climbed all 700 hundred steps up to the lighthouse. It was worth it.
Between Tokomaru Bay and Tikitiki keep a look out for Mount Hikurangi. The mountain is sacred to the tangata whenua here. According to legend, it was the first piece of land to emerge when Maui fished Aotearoa, New Zealand, from the ocean.The Gods smiled on us that day and the cloud lifted, revealing Hikurangi. It’s possible to take a tour to the Mountain. That’s on my yet to do list!
(Mount Hikurangi - photo taken from State Highway 35, near Ruatoria)
A must have lunch
The kiwi classic of fish and chips, is best eaten straight from the paper, at the beach. We bought ours from the camping ground cafe and store at Waihau Bay and ate them perched on a log, with the entire bay to ourselves.
If you prefer the comfort of a restaurant try Waihau Bay Lodge. We enjoyed a generous pot of tea there and followed it with an ice-cream from the General Store.
(The view from Waihau Bay Lodge)
It was May, well into autumn, winter wasn’t very far away, but for an hour or two, it might have been summer.
All along this route you’lll see evidence of an active community life that in many places centres around the local marae.
Two of the most well-known are at Raukokore and Te Kaha.
Each wharenui (meeting house) on a marae is not only named after an ancestor but its structure represents the body of that ancestor and is considered sacred.
Wandering on to a marae without an invitation is as much a social affront as walking into a stranger’s house uninvited. So if you want to explore them the best way to do that is on a tour.
A note about accommodation and food
On this trip we booked accommodation through bookabach.com. It worked well for us.
(This cute little cottage was ours for a couple of days.)
If you do use this system, you’ll need to plan ahead both for booking and food. Baches (holiday homes or cottages) are usually self catering and there aren’t always shops nearby.