Opotiki to Gisborne Road Trip via the East Cape

tolaga bay east coast

The road around the East Cape, which begins its journey in Opotiki and travels around a seemingly endless necklace of picturesque bays to Gisborne, is a unique, seldom seen part of New Zealand with its own distinctive style and personality. If you choose to drive this route, don’t be surprised if you find horses tied up outside the Four Square store while locals shop inside, or if you’re invited to go pig hunting or fishing, or even offered a bed at a local marae.

Opotiki, the gateway to the East Cape, is where most visitors begin their exploration of this relaxed and friendly region. Although the route can be driven in a day, it’s worth taking the time to smell the flowers along the way. With blossoming pohutukawa trees lining the coast from top to toe all summer, their tiny red flowers carpeting the sticky tarmac bright red, it’s certainly not hard to do!

In Torere, a sight seldom seen by city slickers is the Pig Dog Training School. Hunting is a popular regional activity, and hunters travel from far and wide to test their skill in the rugged Raukumara range.

Venture inland on the East Cape and wilderness encounters await. East of Hawai jet boats and whitewater rafts ply the mighty Motu River, while keen fly fishermen stalk the reclusive brown trout lurking in deep pools at every bend. Mountain biking, horse treks and 4WD adventures provide further options to explore these ranges or you can take a guided walk to the peak of sacred Mt Hikurangi.

East Cape is the first point in NZ to see the sun every day - a uniquely spiritual experience that draws upon the lore of the local Maori, Ngati Porou. Visitors can sample macadamia nut products at Pacific Coast Macadamias in Whanarua Bay or delight in the region’s large array of gourmet foods including fresh crayfish, truffles, fine olive oils, award-winning cheeses and superbly crafted wines from Gisborne, New Zealand’s Chardonnay Capital!

There are many historical churches to see en route including the Anglican Christ Church in Raukokore, built in 1895 and on a bit of a lean thanks to the Wahine storm of 1968, and St Mary’s Church in Tikitiki, one of the most richly decorated Maori churches in NZ. Its stunning interior features carvings, tukutuku panels and stained glass windows recounting the history of the Ngati Porou.

Historical sites also abound. Whangaparaoa is the site where Maori canoes landed in 1350 AD, and Cook’s Cove near Tolaga Bay provided a temporary home for the crew of the Endeavour during Captain James Cook’s first exploration of the NZ coastline in 1769. Captain Cook made his first landing in Gisborne on 8 October 1769, seeking fresh food and water. Met by local Maori, he misunderstood their traditional welcome and left the bay without provisions. Naturally upset, he called the area Poverty Bay.

However, Ruatoria is the true heartland of the East Cape. Relaxed and friendly, it’s a mellow town where locals are happy to share their unique lifestyle and culture with visitors. The only remnant of Ruatoria’s once troubled past is its local iwi station, 98.1 Radio Ngati Porou. It was started to keep communication flowing in the community; today it simply provides entertainment.

While Te Araroa School claims to have the largest pohutukawa tree in NZ (Te Waha o Rerekohu is over 600 years old and has 22 trunks and a girth of 19.9 metres), Gisborne District also holds two outstanding tree collections at the Eastwoodhill Arboretum and Hackfalls Arboretum. In addition, there are many other town and country gardens for aficionados to explore. Whangara is the home of Whale Rider, and the site where this acclaimed NZ movie was filmed. A plaque on the northern end of Wainui Beach further south marks the spot where 59 sperm whales were buried in 1970 after stranding on the sand. The local surfers know the break as ‘Whales’.

Gisborne markets itself extensively as the first city to see the sun, but that’s not its only attraction. Tairawhiti museum has a fascinating collection of Maori and European artefacts and photos dating back to the 1800s, while at Maia Gallery, a contemporary art studio, students enrolled in Tairawhiti Polytechnic’s Toihoukura School of Performing and Visual Arts display their work. It is also the home of the Rhythm & Vines music festival, which is held from 29-31 December each year.

There are also excellent surf breaks up and down the East Coast, so if you want to give surfing a go, check out Surfing with Sarah. For something a little different, why not visit Dive Tatapouri and experience interacting with Short-tail stingrays (Whai), Eagle Rays and other reef dwellers when you take a guided Reef Ecology Tour.

A little further south of Gisborne is the beautiful Mahia Peninsula, which is a great surfing and fishing spot and home to the Rocket Lab Launch Complex, New Zealand’s first commercial spaceport.