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           Home >  Regions  > Gisborne  :

The sun is rising on New Zealand's wild East Coast
Jacqueline Steincamp - 04/02/03

A visit to the wild East Coast of New Zealand's North Island and staying at the remote Waikawa Lodge in Waipiro Bay plunges the traveller into Lonely Planet country. You experience a thriving mix of Maori, forestry, arts and crafts, a champion Maori rugby team, Tolaga Bay knitwear, peerless beaches and matchless surf.

You get there from Gisborne along Highway 35 ("If you want to feel truly alive, try Highway 35", sang the novelist Witi Imihaera). You must not drive with your eyes firmly fixed on the white line on this meandering, switchback route. You must dawdle, you must peer and poke. You must swerve down the side roads, whether to the sea or the hills if you are to find another New Zealand and glimpses of a past you never learnt at school. That fine (and largely overlooked) Maori film, "Broken Earth", (released 2000) depicted its roughness and the hardness of life for today's inhabitants.

This is an area long in history of the Maori and of early white settlement. When Paoa, captain of the Hourouta waka (canoe) first glimpsed Aotearoa, he named the first headland he saw Te Kuri a Paoa - after the dog he brought with him. Captain Cook came along in 1769 and named it Young Nick's Head, for Nicholas Young, the cabin boy who saw it first.

Cook and his crew marvelled at the dense forests and the myriads of birds as they sailed along this coast. The trees were the first to be exploited by the white man. Logging was in full swing in the early 1800s, mainly to provide timbers for sailing ships and Sydney buildings. Then the sheep and cattle farmers started moving in and land clearance stepped up as the Coasters developed a thriving export trade wool, wood and produce for Auckland, Sydney even Russia.

The massive tree plantings along the way are an indication of an impending dawn for an area which has had many false ones. You find mournful reminders of an early colonial history you never knew existed - massive Victorian brick warehouses, brick cottages and county buildings, long empty wharves with nothing on them but the occasional fisherman. You find forgotten little settlements. You find poverty, squalor, apathy, too much appalling housing. This is not a tourist area. Accommodation and cafes are few and far between.

You also find proud communities doing their best with what they've got; an art school at Tokomaru Bay, potters, writers, photographers. You find Trish Girling-Butcher's luxury merino wool design and production company in sleepy Tolaga Bay. You find talented, creative people living outside the square; others simply doing their best to survive.

Such as in Waipiro Bay, where we touched down the longest. It's a couple of hours north of Gisborne and a steep swerve down from Highway 35.

East Coast Map
Map showing the wild East Coast area
Source Waikawa Lodge
(Click here for a larger version)
First stock up at the understandably famous little store at sulphurous Te Puia Springs (long famed for its hot springs). Then you drive down a winding road to the coast. You'll find a long sweep of sands, rolling breakers that attract surfers from all over the country, an empty surging sea and magnificent headlands.

Today's Waipiro is a shadow of its past. Though upwards of two hundred people live in and around it, you could drive by almost without noticing it. The houses are scattered and hidden in the trees. Gardens are few and far between. Horses eye you over untidy fences. Imperious piebald porkers parked in the middle of the roads challenge you to run over them.

If you look a little harder, you'll see a Maori language primary school, three marae, a little church. Film magnate Bob Kerridge's very first cinema is now a marae dining hall. The nearest store, or pub or business of any kind is at Te Puia, six kilometres away.

One hundred years ago ten thousand people lived at Waipiro. It was the administrative centre for the district, with a busy port, a trading post, handsome brick shipping offices, and a hospital.

In those days Maori and pakeha worked alongside each other: farming cattle and sheep, cutting trees, saw milling; packing goods for export, and manhandling them onto a multitude of little ships that worked right along the coast. It was an exciting time, full of hope for the future.

Horses were the main means of transport then. They were valued for their uses. It is much the same today. Rough, unkempt (but hopefully loved), they are in every paddock, and often on the road. Kids go to school on them, farmers use them for mustering, they are "wheels" for many social occasions.

Entering the Lonely Planet world
Four of us stayed at Waikawa Lodge at the southern end of the bay. This is a six-person chalet belonging to Anne Bogle (formerly legal advisor to the then fledgling MP and Environment Minister Helen Clark) and her partner Jimmy Chatfield. They and their two children live nearby in a crazy, book-filled house at the furthest end of an improbable road.

Waikawa Lodge
Drawing of Waikawa Lodge
Source Waikawa Lodge
Anne and Jimmy make a living by taking guests, breeding horses, breaking them in and selling them. Anne keeps her hand in the law business, especially in environmental matters. She's also a valued member of the area's District Health Board. Jimmy is a great horseman, big, very strong and seemingly tireless. He was the leading Black Horseman in "Fellowship of the Ring".

They offer horse trekking to their guests, and general riding along the spectacular beaches, on tracks through the bush covered hills or on the quiet road through the little Maori settlements. That Waikawa Lodge features favourably in the latest Lonely Planet guide to New Zealand, indicates that this will be a holiday with a difference.

Jimmy met us outside the general store at Te Puia and led the way to "Lee Tamahori's place", where we left our cars. Lee is a noted film director who cut his teeth on films like "Once Were Warriors" and is directing the next James Bond film. This area is his turangawaewae the place of his family, his home and his heart.

We'd been warned before that we would be wise to take the offer of being driven in. At first we thought Jimmy was exaggerating. Not so. Reality struck after the big 4WD turned off the tar seal at Waipiro. We held on like nervous clams, thankful to have left our late model town cars up the hill. In places the track negotiates rocky outcrops on the beach, crosses nasty streams, and lumbers up steep bluffs. Gates in awkward places add to the challenge.

So what was it like to stay there? A welcome dinner with the biggest, juiciest crayfish imaginable - freshly caught by Jimmy. Comfortable beds, cozy lounge with a fabulous view, diesel generated electricity, a shower out of Beverley Hillbillies.

There's an outdoor long-drop with no door and a view straight into the treetops, and over them to the headlands and the sea. Friendly fantails flutter around, even inside the edifice. At night moreporks (little native owls) call to one another - a haunting cry that is now but rarely heard. The biggest, brightest moon in all the world shone down for us on that empty sea and eerie land.

A land not for riding
It is unstable land, constantly shifting and falling down. Much of the countryside turned, literally, to lumpy custard as a result of Cyclone Bola in 1988. We learnt this for ourselves when looking for lost horses. Holes and hillocks everywhere - and because there are few livestock to keep the grass down, waist high paspalum smothers everything. Fortunately, that same grass made a soft landing when we fell into holes.

Horse riding along the beach
Source Waikawa Lodge
The next day, it was up the coast to find those horses. A swim helped us on our way. How far can horses wander without someone giving them ideas, we wondered as we trudged on up the beach. We asked at a Maori enclave with a small stockade around the few makeshift buildings above the beach. The flag of Aotearoa, a handsome, two-colour Maori design, flew proudly from a little watch tower. It is not often seen, and to our minds, looked wonderful.

This small family settlement was on undeveloped Maori land with access from the beach only. No power, no telephone, no sewage, and with water supplies that had vanished after a long dry summer. The residents, true survivors on their own ancestral lands, were doing their best to create incomes by rearing day-old chicks and pigs. The pigs were having a great life - some were having a dip in the sea as we arrived.

We warned the residents that Jimmy would be coming out on horseback to look for the horses very soon. Such a warning is politically correct in the area. No-one wants unwary intruders tripping over their marijuana patches.

Jimmy rode out the next evening to bring the missing horses in. By the time he reached this enclave, the tide was up and the route was blocked. So he was invited in for a meal - sausages cooked up in tomato soup and freeze-dried vegetables, washed down with Coke or Fanta. Then on up the coast, until the horses came down from the hills to meet him. His ride home with them on this balmy night beside the sparkling sea was lit by that brilliant moon.

So what of the future?
There is massive forestation going on everywhere - just about the only thing possible after the damage caused by Cyclone Bola. So almost every piece of open ground is covered with immature pines. The owners are largely Asian - companies like Hikurangi Forest Farms, and an Asian joint venture company with the local people, Ngati Porou. The old wharves are being strengthened. Gisborne Harbour is being improved, and a major timber processing plant has just been approved for the city.

Yes, a new dawn is on the way for the East Coast as the wheel turns full circle. First the forests are felled, and then they are planted again. Let us hope this dawn will not be as short-lived as those which were promised in the past.

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