The Wild Wild East

Trip Start Nov 06, 2009
Trip End May 28, 2011

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Where I stayed
Brian's Place
Maraehako Bay Retreat Backpackers

Flag of New Zealand  ,
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The East Cape of New Zealand's North Island is one of the lesser-visited, most off-the-beaten-track, parts of the country. We weren't sure whether to bother visiting as we'd not met anyone else who'd been there so had no recommendations to go by. Of the people we'd spoken to everyone said more or less the same thing; that they'd heard it was pretty, but pretty boring too.

It wasn't until we arrived at the Funky Green that we decided to go, as we finally met a couple of people who'd actually been there as said it was worth the trip, and Gerard (who used to run a hostel there) told us it was stunning and recommended a couple of places to stay.

We definitely made the right decision.

The East Cape is like nowhere else in the country. Granted, there's not much there - other than beautiful bay after beautiful bay all along the coast, and a few very small, predominantly Maori, settlements (each with a beautifully carved wooden marae (meeting house) in the centre) scattered sparsely along the Pacific Coast Highway. We loved it.

From Rotorua we drove through the Eastern Bay of Plenty through to Whatakane (pronounced fa-ka-tan-ee - finally starting to get to grips with Maori pronouniation!), where we fuelled up and stocked up on a few groceries, as it would be our last chance to do so for a good few hundred ks (there really isn't much in the way of mod-cons along the East Coat at all).

From Whatakane we had an amazing view across the Pacific of Whakaari, aka White Island, NZ's most active volcano which lies about 50km off the coast. The island is privately owned so you can only visit as part of an organised tour by boat or chopper, which was a bit out of our budget range. Nevertheless the view from the mainland was still pretty awesome as we could clearly see the volcano coughing up huge clouds of billowing smoke.

We followed the shoreline past Ohope Beach and Ohiwa Harbour and stopped to eat our packed lunch at Ohiwa Spit, where a few big Maori mommas were gathering cockles, mussels and paua on the rocks.

Then continued on through Kutarere, over the Waiotahi River and past Waiotahi Beach to Opotiki, the gateway to the East Cape region. It's a pretty town with many Maori carvings on display on the main street, and was one of the first places to recieve settlers (from 1150 - a couple of centuries before the bigger 14th century arrivals).

Next we passed through Tablelands, the driftwood-strewn Hukuwai and Tirhanga beaches, over the Waiaua River, through Omarumutu, Opape, Awaawakino, Torere, Hawai, and Maraenui, with a 198m hill from which we were treated to another spectacular view over White Island, still busily puffing away. From there we road veered inland for aq few kilometers through rolling countryside, before crossing the Motu River and heading back towards the coast, past Whitianga Bay, Omaio, Little Awanui, Te Kaha (an old whaling settlement, and one of the first places to recieve European missionaries), over the Kereu River, through beautiful Whanarua Bay, and finally to our destination for the evening, Maraehako Bay.

We stayed at the Maraehako Bay Retreat Backpackers, as recommended by Funky Green Gerard. Run by Pihi and his family (whose ancestors have owned and lived on that spot and the surrounding 2000 acres since forever), the retreat is right on the waterfront, and truly unique. It   looked like a Swiss Family Robinson treehouse, decorated with old family photos, colourful paua shells, pieces of driftwood and rope and all kinds of curious bits of flotsam and jetsam washed up from the ocean below.

We spent the rest of the day drinking tea whilst enjoying the paradaisical panoromas from the terrace and chatting with fellow backpackers who later joined us; Adoline from France, Meg from Japan, Tom from Germany and Lukas from London. Pihi and his son also spent some time chatting with us about the history of the area, wild pig hunting (Pihi's son's favourite pastime - he single-handedly killed his first wild pig, a 142lb beast, last year aged just 16!) and fishing (Pihi's passion - he'd got a good haul earlier in the day and later shared some of it with us - a bunch of the biggest and most succulent crayfish we've ever had!).

The next day we continued south, through Raukokore, past Waihau Bay, Oriauiti Beach, Cape Runaway, Potaka, Whangaparaoa (aka Hicks Bay - named after one of Cook's Endeavour crew, stunning beach), Onepoto Bay, Te Araroa (where we stopped for a coffee at the East Cape Manuka Company) and took a few kilometres' detour to climb the steep hill up to the 110 year old East Cape lighthouse. It was well worth it for the fantastic views on a a clear, sunny day, across the East Cape.

Then peeled off away from the coast through rolling countryside to Tikitiki, where we stopped to have a peek at St Mary's Church; nothing particularly special from the outside, but inside the little church was covered in beautiful Maori carvings, woven panels and a stained-glass window depicting a first world war Maori battalion at Christ's crucifixion.

From Tikitiki to Te Puia Springs the Raukumara Range and 1752 metre high Mount Hikurangi (New Zealand's highest non volcanic peak) dominated the skyline. We were tempted to stop at the springs for a quick dip in the hot pools until we learned that there's a risk of contracting amoebic meningitis from the waters there. Eurgh.

When we eventually arrived at Tokomaru Bay, and Brian's Place hostel, we were delighted with what we found. Tokomaru Bay is one of the prettiest bays on the East Cape, and Brian's Place is easily one of the best hostels we've stayed in; on top of a hill overlooking the bay, very eco-friendly (it even has composting loos!), run by a super friendly and very lovely Swedish girl called Kira, and with that all important feature in any good hostel - a cat-in-residence named Gypsy. Purrfect!

As we were kicking back and relaxing on the deck a familiar face pulled into the driveway; Esther from Holland - one of the new friends we'd made back in Rotorua. After filling in the gaps from where we'd last seen one another, we decided to head down to the pier and try our hand at crayfishing. We borrowed a fishing net and a bucket and Kira kindly provided us with some frozen red snapper, and we set out optimistically. After about 40 minutes of not catching anything (impatient? us?!) we decided to call it a day and catch a drink in the local pub, the Te Puka Tavern, instead.

The rest of the evening was spent enjoying the log fire and a good meal over a couple of bottles of wine with Esther (and Gypsy the cat).

We'd planned to just spend one night in Toko Bay but again found that we loved the place, and the hostel, so much that we weren't ready to leave... so we stayed. We decided to have another bash at crayfishing - and take it more seriously this time. So we packed some provisions, a couple of books, and some comfy cushions to sit on, along with the net and a big red snapper head as bait, and spent the morning and most of the afternoon sitting on the sunny pier, waiting for dozens of crayfish to crawl into our tasty net, and trying not to salivate too much over the thought of the delicious dinner in store for us.

For all our efforts we caught, not one, nor two, but.... wait for it... precisely zero crayfish. But had a very pleasant afternoon nonetheless, followed by another very pleasant evening and tasty (albeit crayfish-free) dinner with Esther.
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