Voyager 2021 media awards

S**** towns? No way - a charming road-trip through small-town New Zealand

NZ Herald
By: Diana Clement

I love small towns. And I can always find beauty in them. My cup isn't just half full. It flows over. I can even find charm in dead freezing works towns.

When friends asked where I was heading off to on a road trip, I planted my tongue in my cheek and replied: "The shit towns of the North Island", a reference to the infamous Facebook page: "Shit Towns of New Zealand."

The plan was to tiki tour around small towns I'd only driven through in the past; spend the night and look for local charm.

Leaving Auckland I headed down the mighty Waikato to Huntly where the through road is less than picturesque. I turned off State High 1 and began driving randomly around town. Whoever would have known that Huntly is so large? I had often noted that signs pointed to a campsite, which turned out to be on the shores of Lake Hakanoa (no swimming) at the start of a walking trail.

Lake Hakanoa. Photo / Cara Hansen
Lake Hakanoa. Photo / Cara Hansen

My dream to tour the small towns of New Zealand was born a decade back when I stopped for a less than successful coffee break in Morrinsville. Sadly, on this trip, Morrinsville's accommodation was full, so I made a beeline for accommodation in Te Awamutu, where I have more than a few tipuna buried. Technically our accommodation was in Kihikihi at the southern end of town, which felt very much like the 1970s New Zealand I grew up in.

The plan was to look for local attractions and I hauled my bicycle off the back of the car and started investigating. Kihikihi's domain is huge, but has the dinkiest grandstand I have ever seen. I spent a couple of hours pottering around the historic Kihikihi Jail, Te Awamutu Space Centre (Kihikihi), which was a tad different to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida that I visited a few years ago. My visit was topped off with a coffee and cake from Viands to-die-for bakery.

Poor Putaruru. Once a thriving rural town, it's bypassed by tourists who prefer the draw of its formerly ugly-duckling sister Tirau. Like every town, I knew Putaruru would have more than a few attractions. After a visit to the iSite, I toured Putaruru's pavement art, and then spied the highly desirable Over the Moon Dairy, a cafe/cheese shop. The nearby Te Waihou Walkway to the blue springs is a must. Like all small towns, there's always a scenic reserve nearby.

Next stop, Tokoroa, was a thriving hub. Unlike Putaruru it has all the main get-fat-quick fast-food chains and barely an empty shop in sight. As in many of these drive-by towns, I went for a leisurely meander around some of the back streets, where I found an abundance of mature trees and well-kept sections. Google Maps was my friend on this trip and in Tokoroa, like elsewhere, I perused it looking to see if anything caught my eye. The answer was the Lake Moananui Reserve, which turns out to be part of the South Waikato Walking Trails. It proved an excellent spot for a picnic and leisurely book reading until it was time to find somewhere to stay for the night.

Central Tokoroa - a thriving hub. Photo / Hamilton and Waikato Tourism
Central Tokoroa - a thriving hub. Photo / Hamilton and Waikato Tourism

Anyone checking my list will wonder why I bypassed towns such as Matamata and Te Aroha. The answer is that I've stayed overnight in the past, and in the case of those two, written articles about my adventures for the NZ Herald.

Sometimes I turned off the main road simply to see a new town. En route to Hawke's Bay I tried to drive straight past the turn-off for the rural community of Reporoa. The lure was too great, however, and I doubled back. These off-the-main-road settlements are usually surprisingly well-kept thanks to farming money and Reporoa fitted that bill. The big surprise was that the local food market sold Jesters pies; but the real draw of Reporoa is the free Butcher's Pool. Set in farmland the manmade pool is fed by a natural thermal hot spring and chances are, like us, you'll have the pool all to yourself.

The small towns of Hawke's Bay were a treasure trove. In Clive, I admired the war memorial, the best of many that caught my attention on my travels. It got me thinking about how beautiful but sad these monuments are.

Heading south from Hastings are three towns that often featured in the Napier Daily Telegraph's crime reports when I worked for that newspaper in the 1980s: Waipawa, Waipukurau and Dannevirke. But first I pulled off State Highway 2 to the hamlet of Ōtāne. Its old library turned cafe, Ōtāne Arts & Crafts Corner and Sunday Market are well worth the visit.

Ōtāne. Photo / Kirsten Simcox
Ōtāne. Photo / Kirsten Simcox

Waipawa is the posher of the two Ws in Central Hawke's Bay and sells itself on antiques and gourmet food. I was drawn into another world at The Central Hawke's Bay Settlers Museum. It's packed to the gunnels with old machinery, ranging from antique dentistry equipment to washing devices, forestry apparatus, petrol bowsers, boot-making equipment, telephony paraphernalia and more. Time passed me by.

Just down the road, Waipukurau reminded me that I was in cow-cocky country and the cow-pat aroma brought me back to glorious childhood holidays on my uncle and aunt's farm outside of Taumarunui.

Waipukurau, in the Central Hawke's Bay. Photo / Kristen Simcox
Waipukurau, in the Central Hawke's Bay. Photo / Kristen Simcox

The point of this trip was to see what I'd never seen before, and invariably I took the scenic route between towns. Leaving Waipukurau that meant via Ormondville, a tiny railway community with a refurbished old train station and very eclectic and apparently closed down Port Motors service station. I took a zigzag back to Norsewood, which oozes appeal, if not much in the way of Scandinavia.

The stop for the night was damp Dannevirke. Despite a few signs depicting Vikings, on first glance the town seemed to have as much in common with Northern Europe as a roast kūmara.

What a difference fine weather makes. I awoke to glorious sun the next morning and went for a wander. Dannevirke's Copenhagen Square really did look like something vaguely related to Northern Europe and the local playground sports a Viking ship, which my son would have adored back in the day. The Dannevirke Fantasy Cave, started life as Santa's Grotto, but is now open all year and has expanded to fairies and all manner of imaginary beings. The op shops are incredibly cheap.

The real highlight of Dannevirke, however, turned out to be the town piano. Restored and decorated by the local musical theatre group, the piano is moved to different locations on the high street. The day I was in town it was outside the Catching Pen Cafe and patrons were serenaded by a passing tourist as locals gathered and chatted.

Woodville, which I'm sure I've never visited before, turned out to be lovingly restored. So much so I stopped for an unplanned coffee. Every last shop in the town has something interesting on offer. The best has to be the cavernous Viking's Haul, with what looks like half of the 50-year output of the Crown Lynn pottery factory piled high.

Just over the Ruahine Ranges, Feilding's role in my adventure was to provide me with a seriously large town square that would have been quite at home in a Spanish or Portuguese outpost of Latin America. The centrepiece of the square is a three-storey high clock tower. The Feilding Sale Yards are one block and a bit from the Town Square and the aroma gave the town a bit of a frontier-town air.

Feilding's town square. Photo/ Central Economic and Development Agency
Feilding's town square. Photo/ Central Economic and Development Agency

By 4.30pm Saturday when I arrived, almost all the shops were closed and the local blokes were drifting into old-style "taverns" resplendent with gaming lounges. Leaving town next morning, I chanced upon the old Pakeha Brand Butter factory, which hailed from a bygone era.

Even an arch museum lover can't go to every museum. But my "five-minute" stop at the Bulls Museum stretched for way more than an hour. The museum has more than a few stories to tell, including the Bulls Bridge collapse of 1973 and the long-forgotten world of the Flock House agricultural and farm training school.

Next up was Marton, which to be honest was the hardest of all the towns I visited to find a place in my heart to love. The church and post office were boarded up and for sale and the main street was seriously in need of resealing. Locals sent me to Frae-Ona Park, where the ducks and geese were either the hungriest or more aggressive than I have ever encountered in my life.

On another day the vibe would have been different. It was Sunday and the place was closed as many small towns are. Long may that last, even if it did make my job of finding joy more difficult.

Marton is the grain bowl of New Zealand, resplendent with gleaming silos. The town has the Marton Historical Village, Scottish Centre, Turakina Highland Games, and a James Cook statue, thanks to the fact that the famous sea captain had been born in Marton, England.

The whole point of this trip was to find the interest and beauty of everywhere I visited. Not wanting to be unfair on Marton, from which I have one of my earliest childhood memories, I took another random circuit before leaving and concluded that I could quite happily live there.

I considered missing Hunterville, famous for its statue of a huntaway dog. It was a little out of my way, but turned out to be a pretty crossroads with a nice shady Queen's Park, and a cute grandstand at the ubiquitous domain. Over lunch I mulled about New Zealand's domains. I'd never given them much thought before this trip. They're quiet reflective places, although usually have at least one big loud, busy event each year.

Pohangina Valley. Photo / Central Economic Development Agency
Pohangina Valley. Photo / Central Economic Development Agency

Some small towns are towns no more. On one of my long cuts off the beaten track up the Pohangina Valley on the Manawatū Scenic Route, I took detours down side roads to settlements with appealing names including Apiti and Rangiwahi. When I stopped in these people-free places I found that they used to be thriving towns with banks, butchers, creameries, butter factories and more.

Likewise, Mangaweka on the main trunk line was busy enough in its heyday to have an imposing two-storey Bank of New Zealand, on, you guessed it Bank St. The street looked more like Wild West America than New Zealand and I would not have been surprised if a couple of cowboys had ridden into town and hitched their horses. The other attraction at Mangaweka that appealed was the Rangitīkei River canyon and its swimming holes on the edge of town.

What to make of Taihape, described on Wikipedia as a "minor urban area"? Empty shops and old-style naff tearooms on one hand, but really decent outdoors shops and posh cafes such as Le Cafe Telephonique on the other.

The Taihape lookout. Photo / Central Economic Development Agency
The Taihape lookout. Photo / Central Economic Development Agency

Taihape turned out to have a lot in common with my home "town" of Devonport if you take the time to look. It has quaint little shops, a beautiful florist, a few decent eateries and a local independent cinema that reopened thanks to community fundraising. In fact, Taihape was so good, thanks in part to great movies and the comforts of the Magpie Manor BNB, that I stayed a second night. From there I meandered my way back to Auckland over two days stopping at Waiōuru, Raetihi, Taumarunui, Te Kūiti, Ōtorohanga, and home.

The holiday was cheap and made cheaper by a few unplanned but scenic nights in DoC campsites. The only big expense was the petrol from getting lost (deliberately) over and over again in the name of adventure.

I never did get to Morrinsville, which had been the very first inspiration for the trip. That will have to wait for "next time". There's still Kaikohe, Hāwera, Levin, Martinborough, and a bunch of other small towns in my sights in the north, and lots of ordinary towns away from the tourist trail in the South Island.