From Hobbiton to Rocket Lab: A slow journey around New Zealand's East Cape

July 25, 2020
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AFTER the Coromandel, I decided to drive around New Zealand’s remote East Cape. The East Cape area’s quite remote from the country’s main areas of population. Travellers on city business tend to go through the middle of the North Island, or fly. And most tourists also stick to better-known parts of New Zealand, such as the mountains around Queenstown.

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Map courtesy of ABMaps & Explore the East Cape Guide,

So, the East Cape’s got a long coastline with lots of beaches, and yet it’s also ‘off the beaten track’ even for tourists: which is perhaps getting close to a unique combination in today’s world. It’s a really good place to visit if you want to have an un-pressured sort of a holiday. Just two weeks by the seaside in a small hotel or cabin or under the canvas of a big old tent listening to the booming surf in your bunk at night. The kind of holiday a lot of New Zealanders had as kids and remember all their lives.

The East Cape is also an area with strong Māori traditions, as old-time European settlers also left it alone for the most part. In Māori the region is known as Tairāwhiti, which means almost the same thing, namely, ‘East Side’. If you drive around the cape in a clockwise direction, between Tauranga and the adjacent Mount Maunganui there are no cities until the very end of your journey at Gisborne.

The first part of the journey is along the sweeping, sandy shores of the Bay of Plenty or Te Moana-a-Toi (the Sea of Toi, an ancestral navigator), where there are two sizable towns, Whakatāne and Ōpōtiki. After Ōpōtiki the coast of the cape itself is quite rugged and there are no big towns, just villages, until you get to Gisborne, which is actually quite a long way to go. It pays to keep well gassed up.

Gisborne is located in a bay officially called Tūranganui-a-Kiwa / Poverty Bay. The Māori name means the great (or long) standing-place of Kiwa, an ancestral hero or demigod associated with the ocean. The Pacific Ocean is sometimes called Te Moana-nui a Kiwa, the great sea of Kiwa.

The English names Bay of Plenty and Poverty Bay also demand explanation. They were bestowed by Captain Cook, who was impressed by the fertile shores of the Sea of Toi and disappointed by a failure to obtain provisions in the long-standing-place of Kiwa. Yet Poverty Bay is also quite fertile. Even Captain Cook didn’t get everything right.

There’s a great Ebook guide with maps at the end called Explore the East Cape. And you can get printed tourism maps and fliers along the way as well, which are probably more convenient to use in the car. I-sites are one-stop shops for all tourism information. The national i-site website tells you where to find the local i-site in each town. Here is a PDF map of where all the i-sites are, along with driving routes.

Coming down from the Coromandel, I decided to pass through Matamata where the Hobbiton film set from the Lord of the Rings films is located. Hobbiton isn’t part of the East Cape. But if you set out from the Coromandel — or Auckland — it will be on the way, so it makes sense to stop in.

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A Selfie by the Hobbiton sign

Here’s a map of the Hauraki Rail Trail I saw in Matamata, which shows where Matamata is in relation to the Coromandel — namely, at the southern end of the trail. It’s accessible by road too, of course.

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Hobbiton costs NZ $90 to get in as an adult, in but it’s well worth it! It verges onto the streets of Matamata, rather incongruously. Then again, if all our country towns were like this, they might be a bit more pleasant.

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It’s better to go in the morning because it gets rather crowded in the afternoon, and you can book online for an early morning tour. They limit the numbers. And while $90 may seem steep, but it also means that the numbers are limited. You’re able to take photos and videos. The Green Dragon pub is the highlight: it’s fully furnished inside. Here’s a video I made of Hobbiton outdoors, followed by a scene in a blacksmith’s, and then inside the Green Dragon.

There’s a backpackers just outside of town, if you want to stay there. From Matamata you drive over the Kaimai range to Tauranga and Mount Maunganui, a sort of mini-Gold Coast.

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Mount Maunganui

The next sizable town after Tauranga and Mount Maunganui, along the shores of Te Moana-a -Toi, is Whakatāne.

Whakatāne is the town from which people used to set out to go to Whakaari / White Island. I doubt that these tours will resume but they haven’t had time to change the signs yet.

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Whakaari / White Island, from a little further along the coast. It always steams.

But that isn’t the only tourism activity in this town, where I spent the night. I found that it was hard to get a cheap place on Airbnb or in a hostel, so decided to stay at the Whakatāne Hotel, which is central.

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The Whakatāne Hotel

Here’s a video I made inside the hotel:

There is a huge rock in the middle of Whakatāne called Pōhatuora which has been consecrated as a war memorial. It sits in the middle of a town square, in a way that’s shown in the photo on this page. Pōhatuora makes it fairly easy to find your way around.

I had a full Turkish meal for NZ $16 at a place called Atatürk and spent ages chatting with the owner about Turkish politics, since I’ve been to Turkey of course and written about it elsewhere in blog posts and in my book A Maverick Pilgrim Way. He worried that the present times might be the beginning of the end for Turkey and that Turkey could end up becoming another Iraq.

There are amazing light-show experiences at the Mataatua Marae which you can take in for as little as NZ $15. The Mataatua Marae is also famous for having a meeting-house which has travelled around the world, on display and residing in anthropological museums in Australia and Britain for more than 130 years before being repatriated to Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) and re-erected! Signs proudly advertise the uniquely peripatetic history of the local meeting-house, an unusually cosmopolitan world-traveller as buildings go.

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Mataatua means ‘the face of God’ and it is the name of the ancestral waka, or canoe, which is said to have brought Māori to this part of Aotearoa from Hawaiki, the traditional ancestral homeland of the Māori: a name that’s cognate with Hawaiʽi but really refers to a part of what’s now French Polynesia, where the local dialects are similar to New Zealand Māori.

For such ocean-going craft, ‘canoe’ is a figure of speech. Though the word waka would later come to refer to single-hulled inshore canoes in New Zealand Māori, the original oceangong waka had double hulls and were quite formidable. Such vessels are sometimes called voyaging-canoes to make the distinction clear. One such voyaging-canoe from the early days of Māori settlement in New Zealand was unearthed in the summer of 2011–2012 at place called Anaweka. It was made from New Zealand matai timber but bore a realistic image of a turtle, more typical of carvings done in tropical Polynesia.

The eighteenth-century British explorer Captain Cook brought an inhabitant from that part of the Pacific, Tupaia, with him as an interpreter. Tupaia also possessed considerable navigation skills of his own and, on top of that, Cook was also amazed to discover that Tupaia’s translating abilities still worked as far as New Zealand, which was as distant from Tupaia’s island as England was from the Americas. Here’s a short video about Tupaia which begins by mentioning Rangiatea, another ancestral-homeland name with a cognate, or parallel, in the islands of tropical Polynesia.

Māori lore held that New Zealand had originally been discovered by a Polynesian navigator named Kupe, sometime in the early Middle Ages by the European calendar. And that Kupe made several voyages back and forth to build up the new Polynesian settlement. Cook recognized at once that Kupe must have been the equal, in navigational terms, of Columbus.

It was Cook who also first surmised, from similarities of language and culture, that Polynesians had come from South-East Asia. He learned, from Tupaia, that while the winds in the tropical Pacific normally blew from the east and were thus headwinds to anyone coming from Asia, for three months of the year they blew from the west.

The Polynesians were thus able to use contrary breezes to go wherever they wanted on the open ocean. The ability to navigate on the open sea using different winds was not mastered in Europe until the 1400s with the discovery of the trade winds, which blew from the west in the latitudes of Europe and from the east as you got closer to the equator.

As long as they stuck to the tropical Pacific, where the tropical easterlies periodically reversed, the Polynesians did have the advantage of having contrary winds in the same latitude. Even so, getting to New Zealand was still an amazing feat: not just because it was so far away, but also because the pattern of the winds was more westerly in New Zealand’s latitudes, so that Polynesians who sailed to New Zealand had to master the trade winds after all.

(There’s even evidence that the Polynesians made it to the Americas, from the DNA of modern Polynesians and of the sweet potato known in Māori as kūmara, a tropical crop that is a staple of Polynesian agriculture, yet native to the Americas. Somehow the Polynesians got hold of this plant, known suggestively in Peru as ‘kumar’, though precisely how has long been a good question.)

In any case, the revelation that Cook disclosed on his return — that a supposedly primitive people, brown in hue, had been five hundred years ahead of the navigators of Europe’s age of discovery — went quite some way toward conquering prejudice and encouraging a more sympathetic view of people who weren’t European. This is an achievement Polynesia can be proud of, and is at the same time, perhaps the most significant of Captain Cook’s discoveries.

Getting back to Whakatāne, the name of the town means ‘like a man’. It refers to an incident that is said to have happened shortly after the arrival of the Mataatua waka. By custom, only men were allowed to paddle at that time. The men went ashore to spy out the new land, and the waka then began to drift out to sea with the women on board. A female chieftain named Wairaka said that there was only one thing for it, “Kia whakatāne au i ahau” (‘I will act like a man’), and the women all grabbed the paddles and returned to shore. Which was, of course, just as well for the future of the new colony.

Whakatāne offers all kinds of wilderness and tourism experiences including walks and overnight stays in the Whirinaki rainforest and a visit to the Muriwai Caves. There are also several historic Pā including the Pā of Toi on the Nga Tapuwae o Toi, or The Footsteps of Toi, walkway.

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NZ Pocket Guide, a useful website founded a few years ago by a backpacker couple from France and England, seems to offer some of the most comprehensive lists of trails and things to do. When it comes to walks, you might want to refer to its list of 10 Must-Do Walks in Whakatāne.

East of Whakatane I drove around Ōhiwa Harbour, an ecologically important lagoon with two sandspits guarding it from the sea, Ōhope and Ōhiwa. Both are popular beach resorts, and I visited the Onekawa Marae at Ōhiwa.

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Whakatāne and the Ōhiwa Lagoon. The name of Ōhiwa township has been added for the purpose of this post. Background map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

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View from beachfront in the Ōhiwa area, showing Motuhoura Island, which is also conspicuous at Whakatāne

The next sizable town is Ōpōtiki. There’s the option, there, of a turn off to an inland road to Gisborne via the spectacular Wioeka Gorge, but I pressed on round the cape. Here I am on the beach, somewhere near Ōpōtiki.

Here’s a photo of downtown Ōpōtiki with a pouwhenua, similar to what’s known in the USA and Canada as a totem pole.

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Downtown Ōpōtiki, with pouwhenua.

NZ Pocket Guide lists no less than 15 Ōpōtiki Walks you can’t Miss (so you might be there for a while.)

It’s around here that my cellphone reception died on Spark, not to revive till I was further along at Waihau Bay. Vodafone and Two Degrees are apparently a bit more reliable on this stretch of SH 35, but not Spark . The shoe is on the other foot in other places.

Crap cellphone reception in the more rugged parts of New Zealand is par for the course. Getting a signal at any given map reference is a lottery, depending on who you’re with. There are even suburbs of Queenstown where some people can’t get a signal. I wonder if the rival carriers should pool their efforts?

The largest iwi or tribe in the East Cape region is the Ngāti Porou, but the coastal area on the northern part of the East Cape peninsula is the traditional territory of an iwi called Te Whānau ā Apanui, which literally means the Apanui Family, after a comparatively recent historical founder of the clan who was named Apanui Ringamutu. Other iwi in the region are Ngāti Awa, who live in the vicinity of Whakatane, Whakatōhea who live in the vicinity of Ōpōtiki, Tūhoe who live near Lake Waikāremoana, and Rongowhakaata who live in the Gisborne area. Other Tūranganui-a-Kiwa iwi are Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Ngāi Tāmanuhiri and Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti.

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A gateway welcoming travellers to the Whānau-ā-Apanui rohe (territory) on State Highway 35, the main coast road along the Bay of Plenty and around East Cape

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A sign in Whakatāne advertising the Tūhoe Iwi’s new, highly ‘green’ headquarters

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The offices of the Whakatōhea

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A Marae further along State Highway 35, including a flagpole in the style of a pouwhenua with conspicuous eyes

When New Zealand’s Covid lockdown was at its height, local iwi closed off much of the area to visitors with roadblocks that the Government supported, as there was a lot of concern that indigenous peoples might be extra-susceptible.

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The condition of the coastal road was variable and there were slips in places, due to heavy rain that dogged me on the whole trip.

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In fact, I only just made it through before State Highway 35 was closed, for reasons that are clear in this video:

‘Mighty Mōtū’: The last untamed river in the North Island

A big attraction for trampers and boaties, once you get past Ōpōtiki, is the Mōtū River, which enters the sea at Maraenui, and the Mōtū Trails which partly run alongside. These trails form a loop that goes far into the mountains and then back out again.

The Mōtū’s sometimes called the Mighty Mōtū, as it’s a really wild river full of high — grade rapids and waterfalls that attract daring kayakers and rafters for a distance of 100km up from the river’s mouth. You can also go up and down the Mōtū by jetboat if you don’t feel quite so brave, physical, or keen on getting soaked.

Every other big river in the North Island, even the Whanganui, has had rapids blown up or been subjected to flood-control measures at the insistence of local farmers and townsfolk. The Mōtū is the only big river on the island that is still completely ‘wild’. It cascades through a total wilderness for most of its length including the final stretches, and nothing’s been done to tame it.

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The Mouth of the Mōtū at Maraenui with the bridge carrying the coastal highway, State Highway 35, behind

Decades ago, there were plans to dam the Mōtū for hydroelectric power. Fortunately, nothing came of that scheme and the wilderness character of the Mōtū is now protected by Act of Parliament.

Speaking of floods and wild rivers, about a generation ago, a geographer called Geoff Park wrote a book called Ngā Uruora / The Groves of Life, which explored tensions between settlers and Māori over the domestication of New Zealand’s rivers and the draining of the country’s swamps. The existence of swamps and flood-prone rivers never used to bother the Māori, whose villages were perched on hills and for whom waterlogged conditions brought fish and eels to their doorstep. Traditional Māori agriculture also took account of periodic (or permanent) waterlogging.

But for the European settlers who arrived in the 1800s, drainage and flood control were signs of the advance of civilization, along with gothic cathedrals, planned towns, and all the other signs of the general de-wilding of the New Zealand landscape in order to make it into a ‘Better Britain’.

Park wrote that the idea of drainage and flood-control as markers of progress wasn’t just a colonial thing. It was also the way that the Europeans thought about their own landscape.

The Dutch, who had the most experience in pushing back the waters, did a roaring trade helping the inhabitants of other European countries to drain their own swampy bits. In the German language, for instance, a flat paddock populated by cows is sometimes called a Holländerei: a place that must have been pumped out, at some time, by folk from over the border.

Well, the Mighty Mōtū missed out on being made into a placid European-style waterway surrounded by dinky little farms along most of its length. And it is just as well to have one river that did.

The Cultural Experience

The last time I was in the East Cape region was many years ago, in the summer. It seems that there’s a lot less poverty now and a lot more employment. The growth of tourism, and the Waitangi Tribunal claims process whereby lands, money and natural resources were returned to local Māori who lost them in the nineteenth century, sometimes by outright confiscation, have both probably gone a long way toward achieving this turnaround.

Until the 1980s there was plenty of employment in the area, and this masked the fact that Māori had actually lost many resources. With the coming of neoliberal economic restructuring and mass layoffs in the 1980s, Māori were hit especially hard and it became clear that resources needed to be returned: something that’s just started to make a difference lately, and more effectively so in rural areas like East Cape than in cities like Auckland. It was in the intervening years of misery that I was here last.

The mānuka oil and mānuka honey industries have also brought new prosperity. Mānuka, a fast-growing shrub, was medicinally important to old-time Māori. After that it came to be regarded as weed. But now it is back in good standing and regarded as a serious earner.

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The place where I finally ended up staying for the night, the Waihau Bay Lodge (NZ $60 a night), is owned by a local Māori incorporation.

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Here’s the township and its beach in a video pan:

Cook’s expression, the Bay of Plenty, has a sound basis, as that stretch of coast is north-facing, warm and fertile with sandy shores, at least to the west of the East Cape peninsula.

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Being open to the northern sun, and sheltered from southerly winds, is important for the cultivation of the kūmara. In local lore, a female hero named Hinehākirirangi brought the first kūmara from the tropical Pacific islands in the 1300s by the European calendar.

After first being shipwrecked in the Ōhiwa lagoon, Hinehākirirangi made her home at the Muriwai Cave at Whakatāne for a time and planted kūmara all round the region, from Manutūke near Matamata and Hobbiton today, through to Tūranganui-a-Kiwa / Poverty Bay, a locality she dubbed Oneroa (‘Long Beach’).

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The Muriwai Cave at Whakatāne

Reliance on tropical crops like the kūmara meant that Māori population dropped off quite sharply toward the south. Two maps on pages 86 and 87 of recent book called We Are Here show roughly seven thousand Māori pā, or villages north of a line drawn close to the 39th parallel, but only a few hundred south of that line.

Tales of birds and flight seem to feature strongly in the stories of the ancestors of this region, especially among the Rongowhakaata.

One ancestor, Pourangahua was said to have returned to Hawaiki to fetch more kūmara and returned on the back of one of two great birds that belonged to another ancestor, Ruakapanga.

The founder of the Rongowhakaata iwi, himself named Rongowhakaata, was said to be a master maker of kites who could also shift his shape into that of a bird and fly. Did he build the world’s first hang glider, perhaps? That would really have been ahead of its time! And yet not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility either: I will come to that in a moment.

Kite flying was very popular among old-time Māori. It was both a hobby and a serious business, for kites were supposed to be able to look down on the land and provide information in a manner akin to water divining through their bobbing and weaving, or from where they came down if set free. It’s not known whether any early Māori rode aloft in really big kites to look down for themselves, but it’s possible. Kites that carried humans were being flown more than a thousand years ago in China, for example.

The hang-glider evolved out of human-carrying kite designs in which the weight of the pilot’s body was substituted for the pull of the kite string, a technique called single-point hang.

In theory the Māori could have invented a hang glider, an invention usually credited to the late-nineteenth-century German inventor Otto Lilienthal.

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The inventor Otto Lilienthal demonstrating an early hang glider at Derwitz, Germany, in 1891. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Lilienthal’s early efforts were perilous. He kept refining the design but was eventually killed by one of his contraptions all the same, a fairly common fate among inventors of flying machines. Nor did the Chinese seem regard going up in kites as something one should volunteer for. The mediaeval Italian European explorer Marco Polo recorded that as he heard it, the person sent up was generally either “a fool or a drunk.”

Interestingly enough, there seems to have been at least one incident in which an old-time Māori didn’t just go up in a kite but made an actual glide.

In the early 1800s, Māori society was convulsed by a series of conflicts called the Musket Wars. The wars got this name because Western firearms were being widely used for the first time in Aotearoa. And also because, in a wider sense, the old social order was suddenly being challenged by upstarts who could simply whip out a gun and shoot any practitioner of the traditional and ancient Māori martial arts, no matter how skilled.

In the course of the Musket Wars, a chief named Nukupewapewa found himself besieging a well-defended pā in the Wairarapa Valley north-east of Wellington. The pā was named Maungarake or, in some accounts, Maungaraki.

Maungarake could not be taken from the ground. The pā was, however, overlooked by a steep hill. Finally, in a story that seems by all accounts to be true and which appears on an official New Zealand Government website, Nukupewapewa attached a warrior to a huge kite and launched it from the top of the crag toward the village in the middle of the night, after having first told the warrior to open the gates of its stockade from the inside once he had, literally, dropped in.

A historical video about Nukupewapewa

The tactic worked and Maungarake would come to be referred to by later Māori as the Troy of the Wairarapa.

Interestingly enough, Maungarake is not far from Hood Aerodrome, where the Wings over Wairarapa airshows are held every couple of years, the next one in 2021. It might make a good theme for those shows if a connection were made with the Troy of the Wairarapa and its early airborne assault.

Turning back to Whakatāne, a nearby locality called Ōtuawhaki also has great importance to Ngāti Wai as a fishing ground and a place of learning. Nets were repaired there, and it was also known as the place where a demigod known locally as Tāwhaki had ascended to heaven to acquire the sacred baskets of knowledge for the people; a legend that exists in various forms but is generally important in Māori tradition.

There are lots of demigods in Māori tradition, people half human and half god, uneasy in the world and inclined to do things that get them into trouble as a result. The most famous, of course, is Māui, who dies after being punished by one of the honest-to-God gods for stealing fire and giving it to people, to go with the baskets of knowledge.

Anyway, it’s interesting to what extent Māori / Polynesian traditions stress knowledge, ingenuity, exploration and pushing the boundaries of things in various ways: habits of mind that are usually thought of as Western or the property of modern times and not the sorts of ideas that many people would have expected a technically stone-age culture to have upheld. We’re not so different as all that.

Another thing that Māori are famous for are the decorative arts. I was just blown away by the fabulous carving at many of the marae, or meeting houses, of the Bay of Plenty and the Tairāwhiti region.

One of my favourites was Whitianga Marae, near the Mōtū River mouth, which has an amazing gate-carving or waharoa and an equally amazing memorial to 2nd Lt Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu, one of two Māori to have won the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest military honour of the British Empire also and of modern-day Britain and some modern British Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand.

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Ngārimu’s VC was awarded in 1943, at a time when, scandalously, no American blacks were being granted the equivalent American award, the Medal of Honor.

(There’s a good, short little 2009 blog post by on Whitianga Marae by Adrienne Rewi, here.)

Traditionally, mountains were seen as the abode of the gods. The highest and most prominent local peak in the East Cape region is Mount Hikurangi, a correspondingly sacred mountain from which some of the earliest sun rays of the new millennium were broadcast around the world. They were indeed, for New Zealand is ahead of just about every other country in terms of clock time and because January the First also falls in midsummer in New Zealand, the sun rising early on the country’s eastern peaks.

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Mount Hikurangi, photographed by Phillip Capper (14 December 2010), CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

My cultural journey around East Cape included a visit to St Mary’s Church at Tikitiki, which was built in the 1920s as a memorial to Māori soldiers and other personnel who served in World War One. It was a masterful achievement, restored in the early 2000s.

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Carving in St Mary’s, Tikitiki

The church looks like any other from outside, and the magic is contained inside. Unfortunately most of my photos taken inside didn’t come out very well what with the dim light and a fogged up mobile phone camera. The one above is about the only one I could salvage. But you can see more online, such as this set of four photos (including the outside) on Te Ara, the online encyclopaedia of New Zealand. And I did manage to make a passable video inside the church at any rate.

An article in New Zealand Geographic describes it as “the gift and inspiration of Sir Āpirana Ngata,” one of the most prominent Māori leaders, politicians and modernisers of the first half of the twentieth century along with the anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa, also known as Sir Peter Buck. Ngata used building projects like Tikitiki to revitalize Māori crafts and also to remind Māori that they weren’t fading away in the face of European colonization, as some supposed they might.

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Sir Āpirana Ngata leading the Haka at Waitangi, north of Auckland, in the Treaty of Waitangi Centennial celebrations, 6 February 1940. Photograph by Bert Snowden, National Library of New Zealand, Tiaki reference 1/2–029794-F

Alcohol has generally been banned on the Marae of the East Coast; this was another of Ngata’s initiatives aimed at restoring pride and emphasising the character of the marae as solemn places.

Further round the cape, I visited Te Puia Springs, healing springs where there is a hospital now run by the health board of the Ngati Porou Iwi, Ngati Porou Hauora, which Te Ara, the online encyclopaedia of New Zealand, describes as “the principal health provider on the East Coast.” Te Puia Springs is also a resort that anyone can visit, with an old and traditional-looking wooden hotel which is supposed to be haunted by a ghost, as well as a more modern motel.

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Photograph by W. Oates, from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News, 14 October 1909, p. 15, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19091014–15–2. No known copyright.

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Te Puia Hotel, with sign advising drivers to remember to wear their seat belts

All in all the Māori lore and history of this region is basically limitless. There is a useful website called which also comes with an app.

Broken Barriers: The mixed bag of reasons for why Māori culture’s so strong on the East Cape

Māori culture really is a big draw for New Zealand tourism. To some extent it was ever thus: there are lots of old posters of Māori maidens boiling their food in a thermal pool, and so on. All the same, the confidence and ownership of indigenous culture is a new thing and its general comfortable acceptance by the wider society is a new thing.

Which makes it all the more jarring and incongruous that toward the end of the plaque in Whakatane we read that:

“As a result of the confiscation of Ngāti Awa lands, title of the site was transferred to the Whakatane District Council, which administers it as a special site to Ngāti Awa and for the whole community.”

Errrp! What? Administers it to this day?

Have we just slipped into some parallel universe where twentieth-century New Zealand was run on the same lines as one of those places where the whites got the best land, and a certain amount of paternalism was the best the ‘natives’ could hope for?

Well no. That’s the way it actually was and to some extent still is. For the fact is that Cook’s reference to a Bay of Plenty attracted covetous eyes and a pale of settlement in the low-lying and fertile parts of New Zealand established in part by a wave of confiscation in the 1860s, with Māori tending as a rule to be left with more rugged areas like East Cape.

Rugged areas that were also a long way from where most Europeans wanted to settle. And so, there’s a whole bundle of reasons why East Cape has such a strong Māori character, some natural and some artificial and enforced.

The confiscations and subsequent geographical separation of Pākehā (Europeans) and Māori were inspired by seventeenth-century repressive measures against many Catholics in Ireland, who were given the choice of ‘Hell or Connaught’: the Irish equivalent of New Zealand’s East Cape.

Or the misty Urewera mountains to which the Tūhoe repaired after the loss of its fertile lands on the Bay of Plenty shore. The Tūhoe have come to be known as ‘The Children of the Mist’. But on the whole they’d prefer to be in possession of coastal real estate, in the same way that anyone else would.

Reparations have been made, yet great inequalities persist. Certainly, the New Zealand land confiscations were not this country’s finest hour nor settler New Zealand’s greatest contribution to the world’s progress, though Kiwis like to think of themselves as progressive on the whole.

Further Ramblings

Dogged by unceasing rain, I took photos on the road that actually turned out to be a bit more artistic than they might have been in the sunshine.

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The Highway 35 motorcycle gang headquarters

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Jon’s Place

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A road safety billboard

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New Zealand and Māori flags

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Incredibly, accommodation was booked up even at this time of year and in this weather.

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At Te Araroa, I saw a Pohutukawa tree said to be New Zealand’s oldest and biggest, Te Waha o Rerekohu, 600 years old, 21.2m tall and 40m wide.

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A cross-looking guardian warns off interlopers who would injure the ancient, almost shapeless tree Te Waha o Rerekohu by climbing on it

Here’s a video I made as well:

I came across information about whales, including a grave where more than fifty sperm whales were buried after an epic stranding of these huge creatures.

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And many freedom camping sites.

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Tokomaru Bay is the site of an old (meat-) freezing works, now a piece of industrial archaeology.

The Tokomaru Bay Freezing Works offices (1912)

I used to come here as a kid. There are old baches (or cabins), and a famously long wharf which now needs restoring.

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At Tokomaru Bay I met a café proprietor named Rachel whose business was on leased Māori land. She was trying to sell the café for NZ $250,000 with 29 years still to run. She quipped that her pāua (abalone) pies, which get rave reviews online, earn a thousand dollars a minute in summer!

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I headed through to Gisborne fairly quickly because of heavy rain that had dogged my trip so far. But not without noticing logs and wood waste from forestry operations washed into the sea at Tolaga Bay, a local eco-scandal that is making the beach unusable.

Tolaga Bay has a wharf that’s even longer than the Tokomaru Bay wharf. In fact it’s the longest wharf in New Zealand, 660 metres in total. Unlike the wharf at Tokomaru Bay, this wharf has been restored. Such long wharves date back to the days when local roads were very poor, so that direct shipping was the only way to get large amounts of produce in and out.

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According to one account of the Tolaga Bay wharf, “It was ironic that much of the cargo that passed over the wharf was road-making material, used to construct the road through to Gisborne, soon providing an alternate means of transport.”

Here’s the last of my videos, which shows the wharf and also the wood waste choking the beach.

At Tolaga Bay there’s also the Cooks Cove Walk. The area is called Cooks Cove because Captain Cook pulled in here during his first voyage to New Zealand, in 1769. The voyage was massively commemorated on its 200th anniversary in 1969, though commemoration has been more controversial on the 250th anniversary in 2019.

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The area near Gisborne was also the base of operations of Te Kooti, a charismatic guerilla leader who resisted European colonisers in the aftermath of the extensive confiscation of Māori lands in the 1860s. Te Kooti founded a sect called Ringatū, meaning Upraised Hand, which still exists to this day. In an earlier post I describe how Te Kooti was arrested and exiled to the Chatham Islands, before making his escape once more.

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Portrait of Te Kooti, believed authentic and possibly a police photograph, donated to the Gisborne Museum by a Mrs Shaw, who said that it was in the possession of her father since at least 1873

Te Kooti is the main inspiration for the character of Te Wheke in the 1983 epic Utu (‘just deserts’), which has lately been remastered as Utu Redux. You can see the whole of the old version for free on Youtube.

Just before you get to Gisborne there is a marine reserve at Pouawa Beach.

In Gisborne I wandered around the town, noting its prominent statue to Captain Cook but an absence of statues to commemorate Māori; though I saw a conspicuous waka prow sculpture, and the new Council administration building has been designed in such a way as to incorporate Māori themes.

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The Rhythm & Vines Festival: I was there at exactly the wrong time of year!

Downtown Gisborne, also at the wrong time of year

Sticking with NZ Pocket Guide, it lists 10 Gisborne Walks you Can’t Miss. I did one of these in the form the Titirangi Domain up Kaiti Hill. There’s a whole heap of other things to do in and around Gisborne, including feeding stingrays (!) at Tatapouri and doing a natural luge at Rere.

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Finally, this leg of the journey ends at the Māhia Peninsula, where the Rocket Lab launch site is located at its southern tip. It would be a good idea for a regional holiday if you timed a visit to see a rocket go off, with other activities before and after. The launch dates and times are announced on the Internet on various sites, including Rocket Lab’s Facebook page. One thing you could do to while away the time would be to freedom-camp at Opoutama, or Blue Bay, on the west side of the narrow neck of land that joins the peninsula to the mainland. And enjoy the bay and Mahanga Beach on the east side of the narrow neck of land, and climb Mokotahi Lookout, and visit the Morere Hot Springs.

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Māhia Peninsula and Environs. Names of Opoutama and Mahanga Beaches plus NASA image of Saturn V (Apollo) rocket added for this post. Background imagery ©2020 Terrametrics, background map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

I think a rocket launch would cap that off very nicely!

This post is going to appear as a chapter in my forthcoming book A Maverick New Zealand Way: The North Island.


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