“Go waaaay out East” – grinned the man at the info site – “as far as you can go“. Out to a part of New Zealand that’s less trodden than most, out to a blueprint of its past. Out East to see the new day before the rest of the world, where the ways of its ancestors still run deep and to where the land and the ocean collide. We’d arrived more quickly than we’d anticipated, having found the Bay of Plenty to be the Bay of Sod All in poor weather, and now found ourselves in Opotiki at the start of SH35, better known as the Pacific Coast highway. The info guy jabbed his finger at a map of unknown place names. “Go here” he said “here, here and there“. Eventually glancing up, he caught the growing look of bewilderment on our faces and stopped, pushed the map at us and laughed – “Ah it’s East as bro, you’ll love it out there, eh?”
And we did. In fact it took less than a day for the Eastern Cape of New Zealand to imprint itself on us forever, and it all came about by chance. We’d hadn’t planned to stop in the small village of Te Kaho on our second morning, but the need for a land line telephone made it so. We certainly hadn’t planned to hang around following the phone call, but curiosity at something flapping close to the waters edge led us down to find a sunbathing sting ray. Now this alone is enough to impress us mightily, so suspecting there may be some more to see among some offshore rocks we grabbed our snorkels and debated on where best to swim. Now it’s here that chance becomes luck, or laziness, as it soon became clear that we couldn’t really be bothered to get wet. I know I know, last of the intrepid explorers hey? The water was pretty nippy though, believe me. Having dithered for some time, we finally gave up and started heading back to the van for a gourmet breakfast of muesli bars, and it was then, out of the corner of my eye, that they appeared.
Huge black fins, several of them. We stood, gobsmacked, and when the first whale broached the surface to reveal the unmistakable white eye patch of an Orca, I believe I may have involuntarily yelped a little – in fact I’ve got goosebumps writing this now. They’d come through the very rocks we’d planned to snorkel around, so while it’d have been nice to re-enact Free Willy that morning – I’m glad we sat this one out. We counted nine in the pod as they passed us, no more than 15 metres out from the beach, with a number of smaller calves in amongst them. Following them on foot for as far as we could, we then found ourselves clambering up and racing through someone’s back garden as a shortcut back to the van – offering only wildly flailing legs and red panting faces by way of an apology to a bewildered chap at his kitchen window – before we hurtled off to meet them at the next beach. They were even closer to shore here, nosing around the very rocks we stood on for their favourite snack of sting rays, before moving further on up the coast where we managed to catch sight of them again. They were incredible to see, even more so unexpectedly from the beach, and it was only when they’d disappeared that we eventually stopped babbling like madmen, and realised we’d lost about three hours and had no idea where we were.
Having eventually found our bearings we pressed on, deeper into the living history museum that is the East Coast. This is a part of New Zealand which has ferociously clung on to its roots, where ‘tangata whenua’ – or ‘the people of the land‘ – still uphold the customs and traditions of their ancestors. An intricately decorated Marae – the meeting place for local Maori tribes – could be found in each village, a theme seen on numerous other buildings along the way. We found school gates carved with twisted patterns and wild eyed, gurning faces, while the churches, particularly at Tikitiki, had interior walls of weaved flax and beautifully carved pews, font, alter and pulpit – each decorated with paua shells and their own story to tell. The custom of moko – tattooing of the face – is more evident here too. If I saw a man with a tattooed face at home I’d most likely run away blubbing like a girl, but here it’s merely their life story and genealogy depicted upon them in ink, as their forefathers did before them. Either that or they’re copying Mike Tyson, in which case I’d definitely run away in tears.
The alternate history to New Zealand’s inhabitants can be found here too, that of the Europeans. These days, when the English go abroad it’ll generally conjure up images of drunkenness and debauchery on the streets of Greek and Spanish towns. Well it wasn’t always that way. 250 years ago the English arrived here, and while their behaviour was probably pretty similar, they were able to justify it under the label of ‘exploring’. Probably not something a Spanish copper would accept now after you’ve vomited on his shoes. Nonetheless, it was here that Captain Cook first clapped eyes on New Zealand in 1769, meeting the descendants of native tribes which still populate the area today. Cooks influence on the East Coast is still clearly apparent – Poverty Bay still bears the name given by the man himself, the streets of Tolaga Bay are taken from the crew of his ship ‘Endeavour’ and in Gisborne, his statue fronts the harbour along with a map of the astonishing routes taken on his trio of world tours. Despite a few initial misunderstandings (they shot a few Maori performing a Haka for them – that’d be interesting to see at Twickenham), Cook was generally impressed by what he saw and triggered an influx of settlers that would change the country forever, including the revolutionary concept of 8 pints and a fight being a good night out. Makes you proud, doesn’t it?
We went as far out as we could. In fact the East Cape lighthouse is the most Easterly in the world and due to the time zones and what not, is supposedly one of the first places to see the sunrise of a new day. I’d love to say we did just that, but having overslept we only managed to be one of the first people in the world to see in 11.23am on Sunday 24th February 2013, which doesn’t sound as great admittedly. The SH35 road took us South, along the coast and into Gisborne. It was here that we deviated inland, led by the promise of a 60 metre natural water rockslide at a back end of nowhere village called Rere. It was a touch dry – more rock and less slide – and what water there was appeared to be mostly be made up of cow crap, but we’d made the journey so pressed ahead nonetheless – acquiring some impressive grazes and a distinctive aroma in the process. Once again however New Zealand provided a natural cure to our ailments in the guise of a hot bath in the natural thermal pools of Morere, before taking in the quite stunning scenery of the Mahia Peninsula – a picturesque outcrop of never ending beaches and rustic settlements. Our exploration of the East Coast came to an end in Napier, a mecca for art-deco architecture fans, but for us a chance to see some friends and plan our next move. From here we were to cross the country and see what the West coast had to offer in comparison. It had a lot to live up to. The guy at the info site was right you see –we had loved it out there, in fact you could even say we’d had a whale of a time.