The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway is one of New Zealand’s most scenic, writes Stuart Perry.
The Eastland section of the Pacific Coast Highway, State Highway 35, is one of New Zealand’s most scenic drives. There is something special about the isolation, the sometimes stark beauty and the interesting characters you meet along the way.
There is an amazing contrast between the north and south sides of this section of the Pacific Coast Highway. The drive up the north side of State Highway 35 from Opotiki to the East Cape hugs the coastline most of the way. The beaches and coves are starkly beautiful, mystical and spooky with their black, almost volcanic looking rocky inlets and native bush growing with wild abandon. The coast has a high Maori population.
You’ll see many Marae with ornately carved gateways; please remember to show respect as these are private property. At Hicks Bay and Te Araroa you’re in one of the most isolated parts of New Zealand but as with all of the Eastland region, there are plenty of good accommodation options.
The little church at Raukokore, perched poignantly on the edge of the world, complete with wild horses grazing on the grass in front, is one of the most photographed sights on the journey.
When you reach the most eastern point of New Zealand and start heading south towards Gisborne: The road takes you inland and the landscape transforms into lush rolling high country farms.
A journey Out East must include a trip to the East Cape lighthouse to experience the first sunrise in the world. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to the lighthouse from Te Araroa and there are about 700 “easy” steps to the top. The view is well worth the climb.
Perched above a sharp hairpin bend in Tikitiki, just north of Ruatoria, is the Tikitiki church. Built in 1924 as a tribute to those who fell in WWI, it is a stunning example of what happens when two cultures are married together in harmony. From the stained glass windows to the carved altar and pulpit, you will struggle to find a more beautiful and true work of art anywhere.
Legend has it that Te Ika a Maui (the North Island) was fished up by the Maori god Maui from his canoe (the South Island) and that Mt Hikurangi, just inland from Ruatoria, is the final resting place of his canoe. As such Mt Hikurangi holds great spiritual significance to Maori, particularly to the local people of the Ngati Porou tribe. A plateau near the summit of the mountain hosts a number of stunning carvings that depict the legends of Maui.
Thirty minutes south of Ruatoria is the character coastal settlement of Tokomaru, the location of another of the coasts historic wharfs as well as a number of historic places and a beautiful long sweeping beach. A major redevelopment and restoration project is planned for the wharf.
Just 40 minutes north of Gisborne, Tolaga Bay is a thriving little coastal town with a huge heart. The locals’ pride and joy is the Tolaga Bay Wharf, which has been lovingly restored in an epic community project that saw this tiny township raise millions of dollars to save their wharf. At 660 metres long, the concrete structure is the longest of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
A highlight of the journey around the coast is the Eco Marine Tour at Dive Tatapouri, where the stars of the show are the gentle and graceful stingrays, some of which are as big as a dining table. As you wander out on to the reef in fisherman’s waders and stand in line, your guide will tap on a plastic bucket to bring the sea life to you. Within a surprisingly short amount of time, the sea will be alive as reef dwellers gathered around for the feed. Dive Tatapouri is one of only a few places in the world ( and the only place in New Zealand) that you can feed stingrays in the wild, although you have to be careful the giant kingfish don’t get your offerings first. You can look, touch or feed the stingrays: You can even snorkel with them if you wish!
Opotiki is a great place to slow down and get into the mood of Eastland. There are beaches to wander, forests to explore
and rivers to ride. This is also the starting point for the Motu Trail, one of Cycle NZ’s great rides. Reflecting the area’s importance for Maori, the main street of Opotiki is decorated with the works of master carvers. To get a picture of local history, take a guided walk with a Maori historian or visit the museum. Opotiki was one of the first places settled by Maori; it was also a centre for the Hauhau religion. In summer, the town fills up with holiday makers who come to enjoy the surf beaches, fishing and river activities.
The natural beauty of Out East is hard to surpass, and it’s the beaches that make this most evident from the northern gateway to the Eastland region that is Opotiki to southern gateway of Wairoa with its natural native bush.
Gisborne enjoys some of the best weather in New Zealand, thanks to the high, hot sunshine hours, fertile clay loam soils and some of the most acclaimed winemakers in the country. Gisborne is famous for producing exceptional Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Merlot and Malbec.
Rich in history, Gisborne has played a crucial role in the story of Aotearoa/ New Zealand’s origins ( it is where Pakeha and Maori first met) but really, Gizzy – as it’s fondly known – is all about beaches and surfing. There are many stunning beaches to choose from, a fact that is well known within the surfing fraternity, with surfers from around the world visiting Gisborne to make the most of the legendary waves.
Image: Sunset at Makorori
Image: The Tolaga Bay wharf