Kiwi Guide Stories - Travelling the East Cape
Last spring MoaTours Kiwi Guide Andrew led a happy group of travellers through the East Cape of the North Island, here’s the story of their adventure.
There are a couple of corners of New Zealand which really fit the description of being “off the beaten track”, places where you feel the world slow down and it's like you’re stepping back in time.
Luckily for us in New Zealand many of these places are also rich with stories of our history and culture and being blessed with natural scenery. The East Cape of the North Island is one of those for sure and has been a hit with our guests at MoaTours since 2005.
My East Cape Caper with MoaTours - from Kiwi Guide Andrew
I feel very fortunate to have travelled all over New Zealand as a tour guide for more than 20 years now and in that time I've shown people from all over the world around our amazing country.
But in recent years I’ve been guiding more of our regional “MoaTours” itineraries, where our guests are Kiwis discovering their own country and we visit places which are a little more “off the beaten track”, just like the East Cape of the North Island.
This has been an incredibly rewarding experience and this East Cape Caper trip was no exception, so please read on for my travel diary from our recent trip.
Day 1 - Auckland - Whakatāne
We Aucklanders love our city but we all know the value of getting out of town once in a while too. After pickups and getting all our guests together we headed south on the motorway, over the Bombay Hills and down into the Waikato countryside.
Even before lunch we were travelling through some sites of real historical significance which relate to the East Cape. The New Zealand wars of 1863 started with British troops crossing the Mangatawhiri stream and this is exactly where we were this morning.
I had been reading up on our own “civil war” of the 1860s and sharing some stories and a few guests approached me at our morning tea stop in Waihi to tell me they too have been reading and were very keen to learn all about it as we travelled around the Cape. No pressure then!
Our lunch stop was perfect to put us in holiday mode, right on the beachfront at Mt Maunganui, it was a beautiful day with a pleasant sea breeze and after being treated to a wonderful lunch at our favourite waterfront cafe right at the foot of the Mount we all enjoyed a stroll along the beach.
After lunch we headed into the heart of the Bay of Plenty and Te Puke, the Kiwifruit Capital of the world and we happen to know the perfect place for an introduction.
Our friends Gavin & Amanda at Kiwi Country have been hosting MoaTours guests at their working orchard for many years now and as we say, what Gavin doesn’t know about Kiwifruit isn’t worth knowing! You’ll learn all about how the fruit are grown and a bit of fascinating science behind it on a short guided tour around the orchard and, of course, we couldn’t leave without the chance to taste the bounty!
It’s funny how learning all about Kiwifruit and seeing how they’re grown makes them taste even better!
After saying goodbye to Gavin and Amanda we continued through the Bay of Plenty countryside and along the coastline to Whakatāne for the night where a visit to a great local restaurant capped off a perfect first day of our adventure.
Day 2 - Whakatāne - Ōpōtiki - Hicks Bay
Leaving Whakatāne we took the high road for the short, but very scenic drive to Ohope Beach, the perfect little beach town and a great reminder how beautiful the Bay of Plenty coastline is (note to self: take more short breaks to the BOP!). From here we winded our way through to Ōpōtiki, the true gateway to the East Cape.
Ōpōtiki was the site of a very significant event in the New Zealand wars, something happened here in 1865 which ignited the East Coast wars through until 1872.
So after lunch I set everyone a little task, to find out what happened and report back! With a few New Zealand history buffs and retired school teachers on board the challenge was accepted and we had a lively discussion as we started out on the East Cape proper.
I don’t want to share all our secrets here, but if you’re curious go ahead and Google “Ōpōtiki incident 1865” and you’ll see for yourself.
From Ōpōtiki onwards you really feel like you’re in a different world, a world that’s a lot slower than the city we’ve come from and a world shaped by the interaction of two cultures, the original Māori inhabitants and the Pākehā, European New Zealanders.
If there’s one place which captures that in a single image, to me it’s the Anglican Church right by the sea at Raukokore, to me this is the image which comes to mind when I think of the East Cape. We were blessed indeed as it was such beautiful weather as we pulled up and enjoyed exploring the grounds with no-one else around.
We continued on our way around the coast to Te Kaha, a place that many New Zealanders may not know much about but it was actually a busy whaling centre until the 1920s.
At MoaTours we’ve been touring the East Cape since 2005 and over the years have got to know all the best spots, and our home hosted lunch here in a wonderful garden is always a highlight.
It’s visiting these little gems where we meet the owners and feel like family that make these regional tours so much fun for everyone.
Our destination tonight was Hicks Bay, if you look at it on a map it’s really out there, right on the far tip of the East Cape so we were really in a remote corner of the country now! We were welcomed by the locals and enjoyed a home style dinner with amazing views from the hilltops at our accommodation.
Day 3 - Hicks Bay - Anaura Bay - Tolaga Bay - Gisborne
We started our day with a quick trip over the hill to Te Araroa, home of the world’s largest Pohutukawa tree and also a locally owned Mānuka honey business.
This is where we take our stop and are given a warm welcome and a hilarious introduction to how bees work and honey is produced. Our host Sue brought us all right into the world of bees by giving us “jobs”, some were worker bees, some were baby bees, some were caregiver bees and of course, someone had to be the Queen bee too!
It gave us a real appreciation for what goes into the Mānuka honey we enjoy and also how hard these businesses in these distant corners of our country work.
We continued further round the coast to the little town of Tikitiki and for what many people was a highlight of the whole trip.
The great Maori leader Sir Āpirana Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is from this area and after World War I he wanted to build a memorial to the local Māori soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and St Mary’s church is it. He also wanted to revive the traditional arts of weaving and carving and the interior of the church is a showcase for these, completed in 1924, this is a both a living memorial and a showcase for Māori arts.
We were greeted and given a warm welcome by the Canon of the church and his wife, it was both humbling and moving as he showed the memorial board with all the names of the fallen soldiers and a memorial to Sir Āpirana Ngata himself.
Our journey “off the beaten” track continued on to Anaura Bay where we dropped in and visited our friend Judy Newell for lunch at her garden home, Rangimarie.
At Anaura Bay we’re in another site of great historical significance, one of the earliest encounters between Captain Cook and the Maori people of the Coast in 1769 was right here and we were travelling through almost 250 years to the day of this auspicious meeting!
Captain Cook’s diary tells in his own words of the early encounter and their forays on shore to get water and wood.
The online diaries of our early explorers give an amazing insight into these journeys and they’re all freely available and I’d encourage anyone with an interest in our early history to read them.
It certainly brings a journey to the East Cape to life when you’re standing in the spot of one of the earliest encounters between Māori and European and listening to the words written by the very people that were there.
After our wonderful lunch at Judy’s we continued on to Gisborne, on the way, of course, stopping in at Tolaga Bay for a walk out on the iconic wharf.
Day 4 Gisborne - Rere Falls - Eastwoodhill Arboretum
Today we explored the countryside around Gisborne, first stop was the picturesque Rere Falls about half an hour inland from the city. This area, Ngatapa, was also the site of a major engagement in the East Coast Wars between the rebel leader Te Kooti and the pursuing British troops.
Our highlight of the day though, without a doubt, was our visit to Eastwoodhill Arboretum.
Many New Zealanders won’t even know such a place exists and the story behind it is fascinating. This is the National Arboretum of New Zealand, a truely impressive collection of 4,000 different trees from all over the world.
Eastwoodhill is the life’s work of Douglas Cook, a larger than life Gisborne character who was inspired to create one of the largest collections of trees in the world after convalescing in the English countryside after being wounded in World War 1.
We were driven all over the property in their open topped 4WD by the Curator Martin and on the way he shared all his expert knowledge as well as colourful stories about “Cookie”, such as how unannounced guests would be surprised by his habit of working in the garden wearing nothing but one single gumboot!
Now it wouldn’t be a visit to Gisborne without trying some of famous local wines so after saying goodbye to Martin and the tranquil green world of Eastwoodhill, we headed back towards town to treat ourselves to a lunch and wine tasting at our favourite Gisborne winery, then on to the excellent Tairawhiti Museum for those who wanted to, while others took the option of a walk through town.
I have a sneaking suspicion that a few may have even taken a little afternoon nap but no-one would admit to that at dinner!
I have to give mention here to the wonderful meals and super friendly service we enjoyed on our visits to restaurants in Gisborne.
In recent times you may have probably noticed a regional dining renaissance all over New Zealand, some of our smaller towns and cities now offer some of our best dining and this was certainly the case here. We had great dinners at two local restaurants, the Works and the Union Steam Ship Company, and our breakfasts at the Flagship Cafe were works of art (no joke, see the photo below).
It was a special night for me too, as my Uncle and Aunty who live in Gisborne joined our group for dinner and shared their local knowledge and a few good laughs with the group. They have lived in Gisborne for 40 years and had a lot in common with our guests, I think I managed to mostly escape unscathed from embarrassing childhood stories from my aunty too!
Day 5 - Gisborne - Tiromoana Garden - Waioeka Gorge - Rotorua
We started the day with a visit to another significant site in New Zealand history, the lookout on Kaiti Hill overlooking the place where Captain Cook first landed here in Aotearoa on 9 October 1769.
We took in the scenery and I took a moment to read a few passages from Cook’s diary too, this auspicious first encounter between European and Māori is controversial but a real part of our nation's story.
Our next stop was the amazing coastal garden of Tiromoana, the home of world renown educator and arts patron Professor Jack Richards.
One of our guests was a retired English language teacher and she had used Professor Richards’s textbooks for years so was delighted to be visiting his home, garden and exotic art collection.
Jack’s sister Gillian was our host and she led us around the garden and shared all the amazing stories of how the exotic art came to be here in Gisborne.
To complement our coastal journey to Gisborne, our return trip was inland through the Waioeka Gorge. The forest clad hills and winding river views were a striking contrast to the landscapes of the coast for our journey back through Ōpōtiki and on to Rotorua.
This is also the route taken by Māori parties in the 1830s, dragging their waka through the bush for miles to meet up with the next stream, we pass right by one of the most famous of these sites at Hongi's track.
Rotorua felt like the big smoke after the tiny settlements of the East Cape, but we all enjoyed the comforts of our Lakeside Hotel, including the in house natural hot pools.
Day 6 - Explore Rotorua & Lake Tarawera - Home
Our last morning was spent exploring Rotorua and the surrounding lakes area.
We started our day with a visit to the impressive Kuirau Park and a guided tour of the Rotorua Museum gardens. There can’t be many cities in the world which have bubbling mud and steaming vents in a public park like Rotorua does!
We then headed out to Te Wairoa Buried Village and museum near Lake Tarawera for lunch and a guided tour through the museum.
This is a historical site we’ve been going to for a few years and local guides Karen and her daughter Tracy are like family now. They trace their Tarawera guiding heritage right back to Guide Sophia, one of the most famous Rotorua guides of all.
Guide Sophia was immortalised in a Gottfried Lindauer painting and foresaw the Mt Tarawera eruption in 1886 with a vision of a “ghost waka” on the lake. Over the years visiting Karen and Tracy we’ve come to learn what people remember more than anything is the warmth of their welcome, there’s a Māori word manaakitanga, and if you want to find out what this means come and visit Karen and Tracy with us.
We were sad to say goodbye but all good things must come to an end so after lunch we reluctantly started the journey back north and by late afternoon everyone was safe and sound back home with some great memories and newfound friends.
For all of us, this was a wonderful week in a part of the country none of us had spent much time in before. The combination of the scenery, Māori and European history and the friendly people we met along the way made it the perfect escape with a real feeling of getting to know our own country a little better than before.
I hope you enjoyed this recollection of our trip from last spring, of course nothing beats visiting first hand. Our East Cape Caper trip has been a guest favourite for over 15 years now we’ll be off again this coming season, we’d love you to join us!
Thanks for reading!