East Cape

With spring finally coming, Steve and I took a long weekend and drove to the East Cape, a peninsula that makes up the eastern most part of the North Island. It is a rural and somewhat isolated area with a large Maori population.

Close readers of this website know that Steve and I have not had the best of luck in our travels thus far. I was determined to find good places to stay this time—charming, small, not too expensive. Of course, traveling with a dog adds another dimension and accommodations on the East Cape are somewhat limited anyway. Campgrounds are popular in New Zealand so we decided to give it a go and made reservations at three places that had cabins and that would take dogs. These campground cabins are pretty basic (bring your own linens) and quite inexpensive, which probably should have sounded alarm bells.

We got an early start from Waiheke on the 6:15 a.m. ferry. It was supposed to be the 6:00 ferry, but Subritzky (the ferry company) called several days earlier to say it would be 15 minutes late and it would be the old, small (read slow) boat. It didn’t matter, though, once we had gotten up in the dark and rushed to the boat, we could nap for an hour across the Hauraki Gulf. We decided to drive out of our way and visit our old favorite the Wholesale Tree Company for breakfast. When we got there, however, we were too early; they didn’t open until 8:30. We didn’t want to wait so we headed off to our second favorite, the Black Beagle Café. When we found the Beagle closed too, it was time to break out the provisions. After our last two trips, we have learned a fundamental lesson about traveling in the New Zealand countryside: bring food. By this time, homemade date-nut bread with cream cheese and orange juice at one of the Black Beagle’s outdoor tables tasted pretty good.

It was grey and windy as we drove through farming and dairy country along the Hauraki Plains towards the East Cape. The coastal plain and river estuaries in this area are favorite birding locations. It took us most of the day to drive to our first stopping place, the town of Whakatane. This was actually second choice as our first choice (Opotiki) was hosting the Motu Challenge, a famous triathlon, and rooms were not to be had. We were booked at the Whakatane Holiday Park (“On the riverbank, large sheltered sites, handy to town, 5 standard cabins, 4 tourist cabins …”) and it was like driving back to 1950 or so. We had reserved a “tourist” cabin for the night (meaning it had cooking facilities) and were greeted by a very cheery woman who came out to examine Sam carefully. I guess you can never be too careful about some of these dogs. She and her husband had spent five years traveling around New Zealand in a camper before they retired and bought their own campground. Our cabin was clean enough but smelled like old cigarettes. It had a good bed and even a small fridge and TV. Unfortunately, the toilet was out back and the showers down the road, but this really was what I’d expected for $50 (NZ).

Whakatane looks like a nice place to live—not too big, not too small, mentioned every night on the TV weather report. It’s located on the coast, at the outlet of a small river, with fishing charter boats at the wharf. The town center has lots of shops, some big stores, and several restaurants, which meant we didn’t have to open the canned chili yet. We chose the Where Else Inn (“Western style bar and restaurant, serving Mexican and Texan food styles”). We probably should know by now that ethnic restaurants based on the cuisine of a country 12,000 miles away, in the hands of a small-town chef, may not be the best choice. The burritos were edible though a little thick and chewy; however, they were covered with a strange, bright red, very sweet salsa-like topping. Enough said.

The cabin next to ours at the holiday park was home to a long-term resident. I never saw him, but TV cartoons were playing loudly when we arrived, quietly during the evening, throughout the night (observed on a toilet run), and even at the crack of dawn as we left the next morning. Once he put his head out the window and told Steve it would be a wet weekend, but that was all we saw of him. I tried the showers down the road and they weren’t too bad (I’ve had worse cruising), a little dark because I couldn’t find the lights, but clean. After making coffee for the road, we headed toward Opotiki and the East Cape.

Before the road around the cape was built in the 1930s, the only link was by boat; the road wasn’t paved until the 1960s. The road surely changed the area, but it is still mostly farming and fishing. Our plan for the day was to drive out to end of the East Cape where a lighthouse marks the eastern-most point of land. While it was only 150 kilometers or so, the going was slow as we kept stopping to look at the landscape and take photos. Many signs along the road say “Report Wandering Stock” and give a phone number. Sure enough as we rounded one corner we came eye-to-eye with a cow in the middle of the road. Because we’ve both been studying for our New Zealand driver’s licenses, we knew to drive slowly. (What else would you do? Drag race with the cow?)

We reached the East Cape by mid-afternoon and found the small parking lot. We had to ask for directions to the lighthouse path which crosses someone’s front yard. According to the guidebook, you should offer a donation of several dollars to use this path. Unfortunately, there were two large dogs chained to the house that barked, snarled, and lunged as we passed by as quickly as we could. The trail up to the lighthouse is 600 wooden steps, but the view is worth the climb. It was blowing very hard and the sea was a mass of whitecaps and crashing surf. The sign said coastal activity is monitored from Wellington. How reassuring. Wellington is about 300 miles away.

Our reservations for the night were at the Te Araroa Holiday Park. The description sounded great: “The grounds are lavish with trees that extend down to the beach, with a fresh-water stream. In this remote area you will find a full cinema. The ablutions [shower block] also have individual vanity areas and excellent showers.” The grounds were nice, but the cinema wasn’t working and the showers looked too grim to try. There was a sign in our cabin that said to boil drinking water and we both wheezed the night away on the moldy mattress. It was a good morning for an early start. We got up in the dark and the pouring rain and packed up the car. We headed out the drive at about 6:30 a.m. only to find ourselves on the inside of a locked gate. So much for an early start. There seemed to be no one around to let us out. The office sign said open at 7:00. Finally Steve went looking for someone and found a sleepy child who said it was his job to open the gate.

After Te Araroa, the road heads inland for a stretch through spectacular hills and valleys. Much of this land is used for grazing cows and sheep. A pair of ranchers on horseback and their half-dozen dogs came by as we were stopped taking photos. They were about to move some animals to a new paddock. One dog was friendly and came running up for a pat. “That dog was raised in the house by the kids.” One of the drovers said in disgust. This one had been too spoiled to be a good working dog.

We stopped again at the Anglican Church in Tikitiki. It was built in 1924 to commemorate Maori servicemen killed in World War I. It is one of the most ornate Maori churches in the country and its construction led to a resurgence of traditional Maori arts and crafts in the area. The door was unlocked so Steve and I went in and looked around at the beautiful carvings and paintings. We weren’t there long when the side door opened and in came the pastor. He was happy to see visitors and loved talking about the church. He had retired six years ago from teaching Maori at the Auckland University of Technology and had supervised a complete restoration of the church.

“Ruatoria is the largest town since leaving Opotiki and offers facilities not found in other coastal towns so far and is a service centre for many outlying valleys.” You would think you could get breakfast in Ruatoria. You would think wrong. Another roadside meal, but the scenery was hard to beat. The sun broke through a drizzly sky and we drank coffee between two fields of cows. It was very still, on these backcountry roads, and the cows watched us without comment.

The road twisted and turned, over hills, through valleys, along the coast and back. We drove through the town where the movie Whale Rider was filmed and along some spectacular beaches. At our lunch stop, we were alone at a marine reserve until just before we were ready to leave. We were close to Gisborne, a small city at the southern end of the cape, and it seems Sunday drivers were about for the afternoon. After our stop, we headed to Gisborne where we had reservations for our final night on the road. Gisborne’s main street feels like a city after the East Cape. It has a wonderful bookstore, where Sam sacked out on the carpet while Steve and I had a good browse. It also had lots of restaurants and shops.

We were booked for the night at the Gisborne Show Grounds. The Show Grounds are used for exhibitions—an agricultural equipment show was breaking down and the next weekend a wine show would open. They have a dozen or so small cabins for show exhibitors and others and that’s what we rented for the night. The cabin was new in 2002 and a no smoking cabin, a rarity. It was very basic—two beds, two plastic chairs, and a fold-down table. But, at $30 (NZ), it was clean and comfortable and all we needed. Also, it was close to a clean and modern kitchen and shower block. After a shower and settling in, we went back downtown to the Fettuccine Brothers for dinner. The food was good, the wine was better, and it was nice to sit at a table with linen.

Next morning we had a long ride back to Auckland, about 250 miles. Our route began with a road through a spectacular mountain gorge. As we started out, we saw the best rainbow either of us had ever seen, complete with every color of the spectrum, and a second rainbow beyond. This should have clued us about what was to come—heavy rain, fog, sleet, and more heavy rain—all along a very steep and twisting mountain road. In fact, the road is often closed in the winter and now I know why. It took us about two hours to make it through the gorge and back to Opotiki, where the sun broke through the clouds. We had earned breakfast at the Hot Bread Shop and Illy Café. The place was warm and friendly and the eggs benedict were great. What more can you ask?

After Opotiki, we had the long trek back to Auckland. It didn’t take as long as predicted and we made an earlier ferry back to Waiheke. It was blowing hard on the Hauraki Gulf, but the new, big red car ferry was steady as the parking lot. Of course, we need to wash the encrusted salt off the poor Demio.

I do tend to write on much too long. I figure you may want to know what we had for breakfast. If I were you, I'd skip to the photos.


Last update:
Monday, December 27, 2004
Copyright 2004 - Ellen Freda