Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Historic gems, the coast and kai moana

Herald reporter Jamie Morton and photographer Alan Gibson reach the Eastern Bay of Plenty on the final day of their five-day journey exploring the hidden gems of the North Island's East Coast

Rick Yorke pictured with some of the thousands of oyster shells fronm his oyster farm, in the background, in Ohiwa Harbour, near Ohope. Photo / Alan Gibson
Rick Yorke pictured with some of the thousands of oyster shells fronm his oyster farm, in the background, in Ohiwa Harbour, near Ohope. Photo / Alan Gibson

For the first-time visitor, farewelling Waihau Bay is like being torn from a childhood summer fling.

With Mahia, Gisborne, Tolaga Bay and the East Cape behind you, and the hour-long glide down the last of State Highway 35 to Opotiki, the heart can't but help mourn the end of the golden dream.

But the coast has a few more treats tucked away for you. Just 5km down the road at rugged Raukokore is an historic Anglican Church, perched proudly over a rock-strewn shore and Papatea Bay beyond.

I'd seen dozens of images of it before, one pitching its resplendent white frame against lights in the night, but all failed to capture the beauty that only comes with seeing the landmark for yourself.

Stony strands, along with scrub-clad saddles and the occasional makeshift campground hidden by pohutukawa below the highway, typify the sort of scenery that the western side of this East Coast constantly throws at you.

It's an odd swap for the browned hills and golden sand we'd seen so much of between Gisborne and Tokomaru Bay.

The Te Kaha Beach Resort, a sleek structure of steel and glass with a knockout view, was a strangely modern sight after days immersed amid the ghosts of tumble-down baches and concrete ruins of factories that shut up shop half a century ago.

But Opotiki, though proudly part of the Bay of Plenty, feels like it could be uprooted and plonked anywhere between Wairoa and Tikitiki without the slightest shift to the landscape.

A few months ago, the local council met to discuss grumbles about kids on horseback damaging grass verges around town.

And when we pass Judge Louis Bidois in Church St, we wonder if he'd just been presiding over list day at Opotiki's century-old courthouse.

You can't help but picture the way things once were here: flatbed trucks spluttering in from Whakatane and supply boats in the serpentine Otara River docking at the back of the Shalfoon and Francis Old Grocery and Hardware Store, which has been frozen in time since it closed a decade ago. It's now lovingly preserved by the Opotiki Heritage and Agricultural Society.

"We guard this place with our lives - this is a huge bit of heritage," Dorothy-Ann Wilson tells us.

Jars still hold corks and blue copper sulphate, and parcel string dangles above the counter where folk might have come to collect their Victory gums, Imperial Alliance tobacco, or flour from the bin.

Antony Shalfoon and two brothers started the Shalfoon Brothers general store around 1899. And when his son and successor George retired a century later, a 75-year-old cash register was still in daily use and the "office girl" of 15 years, Cecile Harris, who finished up on Christmas Eve 2000, aged 80, used a 65-year-old Remington typewriter.

George died two years later, ending an era.

"A lot of people have fond memories of George ... they tell me he was a fantastic ballroom dancer," Dorothy says.

She leads us through the dusty hardware store next door, stopping to tap out a sweet old ballad named Peg o' My Heart on a vintage pianola, and on to the "dynamite shed" out the back, where one old crate is marked with a curious disclaimer: NOT LIABLE TO EXPLODE IN BULK.

"If this had caught fire, the whole town would have gone up," she muses.

Plenty more yesteryear gems are on display at the Opotiki Heritage and Agricultural Museum, including turn-of-the-century scenes depicting everything from a church to the local pub.

I decide a dip at Waiotahi Beach is the appropriate thing to do next. Standing sentinel above this seemingly endless ribbon of white sand is a pair of large carved poles titled Te ara Ki Te Tairawhiti - The Pathway to the Sunrise - representing the arrival of Maori to Opotiki.

They watch over me as I drift weightlessly behind the breakers, squinting past my toes toward a steam-topped White Island far across the blue.

Whether freshly caught crayfish or deep-fried crabstick, tucker had been as much a part of our tour of the coast as the sights - or at least that was the way we justified our final stop, and our last chance to gorge on some obscenely cheap kai moana.

Rick Yorke's Ohiwa Oyster Farm, tucked behind Ohope, is a foodies' dream come true.

What separates his small operation in the shallows of the Ohiwa Harbour from other farms is the fact that you can sample his freshly harvested product between two buns with salad and a piece of steak.

The oyster burger is the star attraction at his highway-side caravan, usually crowded with tourists and locals.

"I think there would be a few oyster burgers around, but I don't think the oysters would come straight from there to that door," he says, pointing between his shed and the stall a few metres away.

A nasty virus known as oyster herpes has been ravaging the industry, killing off nearly all stock at affected farms. Despite its remoteness, Rick's farm was among them.

"Unlike Psa, the Government won't help ... it's just called a growers' problem."

But Rick, with that typical folksy outlook we'd come to adore on the coast, reckons 15 years doing the best job in the country was more than worth the odd bump in the road.

"Just look out there, mate," he says, smiling at beachside Ohope over the harbour and tugging the brim of his faded cap.

"I've got the greatest office in the world ... so why grumble?"

Grumble? We hadn't heard one on our whole journey.

The series

Tuesday: Lake Tutira and Putorino.
Wednesday: Rere, Gisborne and Tautapouri.
Thursday: Tolaga Bay, Tokomaru Bay and Te Puia Springs.
Yesterday: East Cape to the backdrop of Boy.
Today: Waihau Bay to Opotiki and Ohiwa.

- NZ Herald

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