Whakatane: Beachside bliss

There are days and nights of plenty on a steamy weekend in New Zealand’s sunshine capital, writes Paul Rush.

Heroic Wairaka takes flight at the Whakatane Harbour entrance. Photo / Paul Rush
Heroic Wairaka takes flight at the Whakatane Harbour entrance. Photo / Paul Rush

Holidays are treasured as valuable family times and for those who seek seaside bliss, the Eastern Bay of Plenty is always a good choice. Whakatane is our undisputed sunshine capital and Ohope was awarded the title of New Zealand's Best Beach in 2010 - it's an 11km long crescent of smooth sand, safe for swimmers of all ages.

Ohope Beach is backed by a long ribbon of road lined with modern homes suggesting a hint of hedonistic lifestyle. At dusk I wander along the swathe of sand listening to the muted voices of the surf, the hiss of the wave surge and the raucous cry of black-backed gulls soaring in perfect harmony with the wind. The setting sun paints the sky red and orange and casts a pale pink light on smouldering White Island (Whakaari), which dominates the seascape from every viewpoint like some magical Bali Hi of the antipodes.

Quay Cafe at the west end of the beach provides sustenance for a new day with a fine English breakfast. My first view of Whakatane township comes as a complete surprise. This small town of 17,000 conveys a sense of big town attitude, with a raft of modern buildings, a hub of big box department stores, a 'Whaka Max' cinema, a sparkling architect-designed visitor centre and well-manicured parks and reserves.

The town conjures up images of relaxing holidays under the sun in a pleasing setting between the slow-moving, mirror-smooth river and precipitous forested cliffs with their time-honoured sacred waterfall, craggy Pohaturoa Rock and Muriwai's Cave. A string of moored charter vessels tells me that the peaceful harbour is a launching pad for marine tourism. Once I reach Turatura Rock I also become aware there's a rich vein of Maoridom in the town.

Standing tiptoe beside the narrow harbour entrance is the bronze statue of Wairaka, daughter of the great navigator Toroa. The statue has always impressed me as an inspiring piece of public art. This brave 13-year-old wahine is poised in perpetuity, hair billowing in the breeze and arms stretched back as if in flight.

When the great Mataatua canoe first arrived the men leaped ashore to explore the new land. The waka broke its moorings near the river mouth with only the women aboard. Wairaka stood proudly in the bow and proclaimed "E! Kia Whakatane au i ahau", meaning "let me become a man and guide the canoe to safety". This defied a tradition that prohibited women from paddling the great canoes.

Back over the hill on the ecologically significant Ohiwa Harbour with its salt marsh wetlands and rare, endangered birds, I meet the effervescent, hard-working owner of the Ohiwa Oyster Farm. The tide has receded and Rick Yorke is pushing a wheelbarrow along a narrow trench through the soft, estuarine mud back to his sorting shed.

Slipping on a pair of gumboots I follow him out to the racks where clusters of fat Pacific oysters fight for space on wooden lathes. He tells me, "It's basic farming, growing stock, fattening them up for the market, culling out the slow developers and placing them in baskets until they're fat and juicy." I sample a couple of succulent oysters and enjoy some tarakihi filets for lunch.

Later I join William Stewart, on his unique personal indigenous tour of Ngati Awa customs and culture. We begin with an introduction to the stories of the great ancestor Toi in the Te Koputu Gallery and then trace the footsteps of early Maori along the Awa Korero River Walk. The storytelling continues back at the tour base as an authentic hangi with a modern twist is prepared. A gas bottle attached to a leaf blower and pipe nozzle directs a fierce flame onto rocks to speed up the heating process.

While the hangi is steaming away merrily we drive up to the Kohi Point Lookout and enter the darkening bush to seek out Whiu Whiu, an active male kiwi that carries a transmitter. The local Kiwi Trust has liberated 200 kiwi in the area and proudly claims that Whakatane is the Kiwi capital of the world. Whiu Whiu proves to be elusive in the thick forest understory. We track him with night vision goggles close enough to hear his snuffling and scratching in the leaf litter.

My Maori experience is enhanced by a visit to Mataatua Marae to view the superbly carved meeting house that came home to Whakatane after 130 years. The magnificent Wharenui embraces all the great ancestral legends in its carvings. Guide Whitney presses noses in greeting and explains that the house was built to restore pride to a depressed Ngati Awa tribe after land confiscations due to their associations with rebel warrior Te Kooti.

The house was packed up and shipped to Sydney for a major exhibition despite local protests. It then began a series of peregrinations around the world to Melbourne, London and Dunedin until a Waitangi Tribunal deed of settlement released it back to the grateful heart of the Ngati Awa whanau in Whakatane.

There may not be many nights in white satin and black tuxedos in Whakatane but there is an abiding interest in white dwarfs and black holes. Norm Izett of the Astronomical Society has a passion for the night sky and every Tuesday and Friday night the eastern Bay of Plenty morphs into the sky of plenty at the Hurinui Road Observatory. I enjoy my first close up view of sunspots, solar flares and prominences and when the sun goes down I marvel at Saturn's concentric rings and dense star clusters in the Milky Way.

A new day dawns on the Rangitaiki River and I'm hooked up with one time world jet boating champion Bill Roberts for a hair-raising, thrill-seeking ride over 25kms from the country's largest earth dam at Matahina to the Aniwhenua Falls. It's a real jet boating experience that might be called "Cool Runnings in Bear Country".

Bill explains how he was the swift water rescue team when Yogi Bear jumped down the falls for the animated movie. He also operated the support boat when survival guru, Bear Grylls, abseiled down the sheer ignimbrite cliffs to a precarious pohutukawa tree and leapt into the water. Bill maintains that Bear was scared of the metre-long eels behind the dam, which are as thick as a man's thigh.

Ohope's Fisherman's Wharf is so convenient to the holiday camp it seems natural to sample the exotic offerings of the Sea Thai Restaurant. Jason McDonald and his Thai wife, Waraporn, serve up a surprising variety of gourmet European and Thai dishes and the restaurant doubles as a pancake parlour and fish and chip takeaways. I enjoy the excellent Thai soup entree and chicken and cashew nut mains in the warmth of this atmospheric restaurant.

The cool south-easterly wind prevails during the next day. This seemingly benign breeze will prove to be my undoing as I join Peter and Jenny Tait's ultimate adventure crossing to White Island on the sturdy cruiser PeeJay V - the highlight of any visit to Whakatane. Walking on the wild side on Whakaari, a barren Martian landscape streaked with iron oxide reds and vivid sulphur yellows is the ultimate eco-experience.

Our only active marine volcano is truly a fearsome giant with a 2km-wide crater belching out toxic steam while hissing, spurting fumaroles and bubbling mud pools put on a dramatic sideshow on the periphery. Knowledgeable guides share the secrets of this inferno from hell and lead us through the sulphur processing factory, which closed in 1933 and now crumbles into decay under the corrosive attentions of sulphur and salt. An earlier factory was carried into the sea by a giant landslide.

The relatively gentle breeze on land thoughtfully directs the steam billows away from our group, providing great photo opportunities. However, it assumes a different guise in Crater Bay where we are ferried out to PeeJay V on an inflatable boat. Skipper Paul displays exceptional seamanship in manoeuvring the rubber ducky but one-metre breakers saturate me and fill the boat. Our second attempt is successful and I'm soon drying out on the sunny decks of PeeJay V.

My memorable ordeal is over and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. A little foretaste of Dante's Inferno and a sampling of life on Mars do no one any harm. It just serves to emphasise how blessed we are to live in Aotearoa and to experience days and nights in the glorious Bay of Plenty.

FACT FILE
Whakatane is a beautiful coastal town located towards the eastern end of the Bay of Plenty 290km from Auckland, 97km from Tauranga, and 535km from Wellington. There are around 50 holiday activities on land and sea in the district and a number of mid-range hotels, motels, home stays and campgrounds to choose from. Ohope Beach is a 15-minute drive over the hill on a long sandspit enclosing the broad Ohiwa Harbour.

WEBSITES
whakatane.com
ohopebeach.co.nz
nativ.co.nz
mataatua.com
skyofplenty.com
kiwijetboattours.com
whiteisland.co.nz

* Paul Rush travelled to Whakatane with assistance from local tourist operators and Ohope Top 10 Holiday Park.

- nzherald.co.nz

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n4 at 21 Apr 2014 06:51:40 Processing Time: 880ms