Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Travelling the coast with the most

Herald reporter Jamie Morton and photographer Alan Gibson arrive at the North Island's most easterly point on the fourth day of their five-day trek around the North Island's East Coast

Bruno Clausen in the bar of his Lottin Point motel. Photo / Alan Gibson
Bruno Clausen in the bar of his Lottin Point motel. Photo / Alan Gibson

The tour from Waipiro Bay to Tikitiki, a pretty little amble past buttercup fields and stoney riverbeds, removes any doubt that you're as east as you can roam in the North or South Islands.

It's summer country, station country, the sun-kissed altar of Sir Apirana Ngata.

A memorial at Tikitiki's magnificent St Mary's Church tells us Sir Apirana was the "vine which bound together the churches and tribes of the Maori people, the guiding star of his people".

"Puanga has vanished into space," it adds, but I'm unconvinced - his legacy lingers everywhere.

If you haven't fallen in love with the East Coast here, it'll happen at Te Araroa, 20 minutes up the road.

Horses are forbidden in the local playground, and the New Year's Eve entertainment came courtesy of a family band from Wairoa named Too Much Cuz.

At Te Araroa's chippie, the Kai Kart, Vicky Nukunuku hums along to a cover of Sam Cooke's Cupid by Whangaparaoa's 1814 as she fries us up half a scoop. A little girl with pigtails joins in on the chorus as she glides past on a snakeboard.

A dedicated travel writer could spend a week sketching out a case study in coast life here, but we make the usual turn right at Moana Parade, on to East Cape Rd, which winds on for 16km across a wind-battered coastline.

Naturally, we've come for the lighthouse, and we're prepared to climb more than 500 steps to get to it.

If you're feeling miserable by the time you reach the summit of Otiki Hill, just look out to East Island, about 2km off the cape, where the lighthouse originally stood.

Three families of lighthouse keepers once lived on this lonesome rock, and somewhere on the other side is a small cemetery where three "lighthouse children" lie.

At the top we meet Paul Ellison and Judy Ellison, who is the granddaughter of the Cape Brett lighthouse keeper. "Must've been a barren existence," she says.

We set off back across the tip of the cape, through manuka-clad hills to Hicks Bay, where a brilliant blue ocean peeks at us through the pohutukawa.

An anti-oil drilling poster, one of dozens posted around State Highway 35, protests: "Listen to the voices of our children."

There's a smattering of baches, a general store opposite a small building signed "Aunties Shed" and a live lobster depot.

Sleepy Lottin Point, 20km down the road, serves up another coast quirk - an old house on a small section crowded with sheep, a sign next to the front door reading: "Holiday accommodation."

Bruno Clausen has been running the nearby Lottin Point Motel for nearly two decades, in which time he's decorated the walls of the lounge with more than 1000 different caps and banknotes from seemingly every nation between Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan.

"People love it here, it's beautiful, so quiet and the view is amazing."

We were struggling to picture a vista more impressive until we arrived at Waihau Bay bang on sunset, the twinkling lights far across the water drawing us to the historic Waihau Bay Lodge, scallops and steak.

I've never been here before, yet a pohutukawa tree and a general store and post office we pass appear familiar.

Waihau Bay, I later realise, helped form the backdrop for Taika Waititi's coming-of-age film Boy.

It was from the pohutukawa that young James Rolleston swung upside down, waving a machete, and it was at the general store that he shouted his mates ice blocks.

The movie is special to Dianne Dunn for more than one reason.

She taught James, "a lovely boy", at Opotiki Primary School, the machete scene was filmed right in front of her family bach, and Waititi stayed next door during shooting.

The settlement Boy made famous was also founded by her greatgrandfather James Walker, who opened the lodge and shop.

She and husband Paul have just returned from a fruitful fishing outing and Paul uses a paua shell to scale a few terakihi for us as we chat.

"You can catch all sorts in the bay, sometimes a big haul of snapper - it was one of New Zealand's best kept secrets, actually, still is," she says.

Her late father, Len Dain - a short, colourful character locally regarded as the "the poet laureate of the East Coast" - spent his days here writing, fishing, dancing, playing tennis and sipping home-made gin.

"At Christmas he'd come out of his bach and sit down in his chair, quietly watching over his children and grandchildren."

One of his best-known poems, A Toast to the Coast, paints a picture of the way things were here:

"There's not many left who remember the ways/Of the coast as it was in the good old days/When flat-bottomed scows risked the rocky bays/With stones and mail, loading wool and maize ..."

Waihau Bay may have changed since the golden days Mrs Dunn's father lamented - but certainly not enough to keep her family from its summer pilgrimage every year.

"We've just been overseas, and you just don't get anything like this, anywhere. It's our piece of paradise in the world."

WHERE WE WENT

* East Cape Lighthouse, 22km from Te Araroa (turn right at East Cape Rd).

* Lottin Point Motel (Lottin Point Rd, 4km from State Highway 35), phone 06-864-4455.

* Waihau Bay Lodge, Orete Point Rd, phone 07-325-3804, www.waihaubaylodge.co.nz.

* Waihau Oceanside Apartments, 10932 SH 35, Waihau Bay, 07-325 3699.

- NZ Herald

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