Fifty minutes’ drive north of Wellington, the Kapiti Coast is well known for its exceptional cheese and unique flora and fauna. Many of NZ’s most endangered birds reside on this coastline which leads north to Whanganui, a historic riverboat town. It once formed part of a thriving tourist route between Auckland and Wellington, and today this bygone era is recreated aboard New Zealand’s only coal-fired paddle steamer, the PS Waimarie. Further north the symmetrical volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki can be seen clearly on the horizon. Taranaki’s bulbous coastline is tucked firmly around two-thirds of this zen-like mountain, providing New Zealand’s most consistent surf conditions. Access is provided courtesy of SH45, the Surf Highway, which follows the coast road from Hawera to New Plymouth. We spend three days exploring the coast from Wellington to New Plymouth. Bob milks his first cow and I take a tandem surf ride. Together we sample Kapiti’s award winning cheeses and icecream, visit Jerusalem, drink endless cups of tea with Whanganui River Road locals, shovel coal aboard an old paddle steamer, and watch the sunset over Mt Taranaki.
After two days discovering the capital city of Wellington, Bob and I are eager to get “on the road again” and Bob throatily sings this well known tune as we leave town, and travel north to Paraparaumu.
“Para para para – what?” he suddenly exclaims as he sees a sign. A quick language lesson follows – Maori vowels for dummies – before we come to a halt outside Lindale Animal Barn. Here we watch a shearing and milking demonstration but the highlight comes when Bob tries to master hand-milking a cow.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he later moans, “I only got one squirt!”
Before leaving we visit the Kapiti Cheese Shop and Factory where we sample some of their cheeses and purchase blocks of gold medal winning Aorangi and Kikorangi cheese to lunch upon later.
In the meantime a creamy Kapiti ice cream keeps the hunger pangs at bay. I try the ginger nut – it’s scrumptious; Bob can’t decide between the fig and honey, lemongrass and ginger, or port and prune. So – in true Bob-fashion – he takes a scoop of each.
At Waikanae we debate whether to visit the bird sanctuary on Kapiti Island, then settle upon a visit to the Nga Manu Wildlife Sanctuary. Here we walk through huge aviaries and discover New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna in a variety of recreated habitats. Bob spots two North Island brown kiwi in the kiwi house as well as three prehistoric-looking tuatara basking in the sun.
We enjoy our picnic on an island surrounded by eels. “Here’s the great-grandmother,” says Bob, feeding a cracker to an enormous eel who looks like he’s enjoyed a lifetime of overindulgence. Replete we drive north on SH1 through numerous small towns: Otaki, Levin, Foxton and Bulls, where we take SH3 to Whanganui, a town nestled on the banks of the Whanganui River. Now somewhat out of the way, Whanganui was once a major tourist attraction forming part of a thriving route between Auckland and Wellington. Steamers plied the river transporting visitors from the central plateau town of Taumarunui to Wanganui; a stationary houseboat and hotel in Pipiriki accommodated guests en route. Plummeting tourist numbers in the depression years brought an end to the riverboat era, but memories of its heyday survive in the towns many original homes and historic buildings.
Visitors can also recreate the experience aboard NZ’s only coal-fired paddle steamer, the PS Waimarie. We arrive in time for the ‘Cruising on Friday’ departure and with a cheerful toot we’re off. Captain Barry Thorner is at the wheel and we join engineer, Kevin Holly, and stoker, Murray Greathead below in the engine room. Bob lends a hand to shovel coal but it’s excruciatingly hot, so I retreat to the comfort of the saloon leaving Bob to discuss the Waimarie’s original, fully restored engines.
Later we drive down Wanganui’s main street and admire its many beautiful buildings including the Opera House, built in 1899, and the Sarjeant Gallery, which features many notable artworks from the 19th and 20th centuries, before checking into a B&B nestled beside the river.
We finish the day watching the sunset over distant Mt Taranaki from the top of a 33.5 metre Memorial Tower constructed at the end of WWI. The 176-step staircase helps build an appetite and we dine at Vega on Taupo Quay upon salmon and ostrich steaks before returning to our accommodation, where I (at least) enjoy a sound sleep.
“Donna wake up,” Bob whispers urgently at some ridiculous hour of the morning. He awoke at 4 am and, not wishing to disturb me (until now) read a book about the River Road. But it seems he can wait no longer, we must go to Jerusalem – without delay! And so it is that we follow the emerald Whanganui River up a route that is more like a driveway, so friendly are its inhabitants. Near Koriniti we stop and chat to a group of pig hunters who heave a glossy black boar up the riverbank. “It’s a big’n,” says Tex, who invites us to share in the pig which will be cooked on a spit, in true Whanganui River style.
Sadly we decline and leave tooting the horn. Bob comments on how welcoming everyone is. As we continue our drive Bob entertains me with an account of his early morning read including the Maori legend of the forming of the Whanganui River. Mt Taranaki lost a fierce battle with Mt Tongariro over the fair maiden Pihanga (a smaller mountain in the central plateau) and fled to Taranaki, carving the Whanganui River and filling it with his tears. Later, when Europeans set up farms, transport was required to get their produce into town so in 1891 the paddle steamer Wairere began a regular service.
When we arrive in Jerusalem, St Joseph’s Church casts a mirrored image of its steeple upon the river. A Roman Catholic Mission was established here in 1854 and the late James K Baxter, an influential NZ poet, formed a community here in the 1960s and wrote the Jerusalem Sonnets. His grave is at St Joseph’s where Sisters Sue, Laboure and Anna Maria, the guardians of this church and its grounds warmly welcome us. Sister Sue makes us tea and then leads us to Baxter’s grave.
On our return to Whanganui we stop again on the riverbank in Koriniti to watch canoes float past. Here we meet Ann Handley, who with all the usual friendliness of Whanganui River folk, invites us in for a hot cuppa with ninety-eight-year-old Granny who has lived on the river all her life. Her earlier days were spent at a huge farm station across the river from Jerusalem and once a year she would make the long journey by paddle steamer into town. Back then it took one day to get there, one day to shop and another day to return. “They were the best days of my life,” Granny tells us.
After several cups of tea and slices of fruit loaf served with lashings of Ann’s homegrown manuka honey, mid-afternoon comes all too soon. We depart for Whanganui and rejoining SH3, drive through the townships of Waverley and Patea to Hawera where we check into a motel and order a takeout meal. Although tired from his early start, Bob’s jubilant. “I’ve never drunk that much tea or met such friendly people,” he says. “Is it all a dream?”
In the morning Mt Taranaki is parading his magnificent Fuji-like torso in the sun as we begin our day at Kevin Wasley’s Elvis Presley Museum. Kevin or ‘KD’ as he’s known in these parts, greets us at the curb and vigorously shakes Bob’s hand when he discovers that he’s a fellow enthusiast.
But perhaps not as passionate – when we step inside his garage it’s like a shrine, with the floors, ceiling and walls plastered in Elvis pictures, posters and newspaper cuttings. KD began his collection in 1959 when he was 14 years old and amongst the numerous exhibits are old LP covers, signed records and albums from around the world, photos, posters, number plates, cuff links, a jumble of replica clothes and endless other memorabilia. “It’s my tribute to the man,” he tells us before we depart to climb up the Hawera Water Tower. From the top we have excellent views of the vibrant, green Taranaki countryside, before we drive to Tawhiti Museum, hailed as one of the best private museums in NZ.
The brainchild of ex-art teacher, Nigel Ogle, its galleries recreate many aspects of early life in South Taranaki, from the Maori-European land wars to the struggles of the dairy industry.
“It’s so lifelike,” says Bob as we admire Nigel’s painstakingly crafted models in realistic historical settings.
We leave town on SH45, the legendary Surf Highway, which horseshoes around the coastline beneath Mt Taranaki, past several popular surfing haunts en route to New Plymouth.
In Manaia, a town centred upon an octagon-shaped roundabout and dubbed the ‘bread capital’ of NZ, we stop at Yarrows, a family owned bakery which has been in operation since 1923. Their buttery hand-rolled croissants and Danish pastries are renowned and after a Danish each, we continue onto Opunake, where we meet Dave, the town’s barber, after Bob (spotting the stripy barber’s pole) peers through the window and announces that he’s due for a cut.
While Bob attends to his grooming, I visit the eye-catching Everybody’s Theatre next door where Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin grace its billboards. Movies play every Friday and Sunday night and its interior is charming, with old-style movie chairs and posters.
When I return Bob’s hair is under control and he’s chatting to Dave about a message he discovered in a bottle. “I found it up the road,” Dave tells us, “it was sent by a guy in the South African Navy.” Quite a talking piece, the bottle is on display in his shop. “Lots of people come to see it,” he says.
For lunch we have delicious chicken cranberry pizzas followed by huge slabs of homemade chocolate cake at the Sugar Juice Café, then admire the town’s many murals, and hunt for treasures at the Old Curiosity Shop before we leave.
In Oaonui we catch a glimmer of Taranaki’s $2 billion energy industry at the Maui Production Station visitor centre before we arrive in Pungarehu. We drive through an unusual landscape of bobbly hills and cabbage trees to the Cape Egmont lighthouse where Bob takes a stunning photo of the tall beacon with Mt Taranaki in the background. In Oakura, a famous surf beach just south of New Plymouth, Bob hires a surfboard and gear from Vertigo Surf, while I don a wetsuit and go for a tandem surf ride with Greg Page on a custom-made four metre surfboard. It’s totally exhilarating and later as we stand on the beach drinking mugs of hot tea Greg tells us that he first learnt to surf with his father, balancing on the front of his board.
It turns out that Greg’s no stranger to carrying extra bodies on his board – he’s even surfed on a 28-foot board with 13 others for the Guinness Book of Records. We check out the photographs and newspaper clippings at Vertigo before we depart for Puke Ariki in New Plymouth, a unique combination of library, museum and information centre located behind the waving Len Lye wind-wand sculpture on the waterfront. Here we learn the stories of the region, including a rendition of Mt Taranaki’s sad tale, before taking a pre-dinner stroll along the waterfront.
All of a sudden Bob stops and stares profoundly at the pounding sea. “They say Mt Taranaki’s lonesome here all by himself but you know what, I think he’s loving every minute of it - look at him now,” he drawls.
I turn to look at Mt Taranaki’s icy crown which basks in the last rays of the setting sun. He has a rosy glow and actually looks extremely content – if you believe that a mountain can find happiness. “You know Bob,” I say eventually, “I’d really have to agree.”