The oldest tavern in New Zealand beckons after a great ride from Okaihau to Horeke, writes Eleanor Hughes.
On first impressions, early morning Okaihau looks as dull as the sky. Boarding covers where windows might have been on the food market. The mechanic is shut. Further along, a cafe is bright and cheery but empty, as is the butchery across the road.
Outside the creamy-painted Okaihau Hall, I read colourful history display boards with hands in my jacket pockets, huddled over, bare knees clamped tightly together. It's not the weather for bike shorts. The town lives up to its name, meaning "feast of the winds".
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I laugh reading the local legend about a fireman pouring a beer down a horse's throat causing the horse to "thunderously break wind and erupt out of a bog" where it was stuck. Is it worth finding a bottle or two to help me along the Okaihau to Horeke leg of Northland's Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail?
Fellow riding companions return from shuttling cars to Horeke, so that we have transportation at the end of our ride, and I'm thankful to get moving. Okaihau improves as we ride the trail running alongside State Highway 1, which passes through the town.
I pass by sparkling white churches, the high school and primary school, the war memorial gates. On the right, three train carriages and a station house are dotted around a yard, the Okaihau Rail Stay Accommodation. Those carriages once worked the line from Okaihau to Whangarei, in the early 20th century when Okaihau was bustling with railway workers. It looks a fun place to stay.
Leaving the road, the trail runs through farmland. Steers stare from behind wire fences, seemingly oblivious to the smell they've spread. Bare wooden posts supporting the fences resemble giant matchsticks. With gravel crunching beneath my bike tyres, I view the Utakura Valley below. The yellow sign depicting a cyclist going head first over the handlebars of their bike and "danger", "steep grades", "sharp curves" written below has me getting off my bike on the zig-zagging trail descending into it. I get braver further on, where the steepness isn't quite as steep, and ride again, like a nana, brakes on.
At the bottom of the valley, we ride alongside Utakura River, rushing water sounds like wind in the trees. It would be great for white-water rafting — if it wasn't so shallow. In other parts, it lies peacefully among native bush. A turkey runs, abandoning its eggs on the side of the trail, as we come out on to a gravel road.
We ride past derelict, desolate weatherboard homes, what once was a school — the concrete court out the front cracked, part of the building on a lean and the streaky red corrugated roof curling at the edges and patched with unpainted iron. The rusting skeletal remains of a rugby stand remain upright, backing on to the trail, which is dried mud in places, rutted by cattle. An occasional car throws up dust, which stings my eyes and gets up my nostrils.
Fighting a headwind, I ride the 1.2km boardwalk across a mangrove estuary to the Hokianga Harbour and come out on to tar-seal and into civilisation. Well, there are buildings. Horeke is New Zealand's second-oldest town, home to a short-lived, early 1800s shipbuilding industry. A handful of wooden houses, some that have seen better days, date back to that time. Apparently there was no land for sale back when they were built so they're supported on piles over the water.
We pedal a little further to the Horeke Hotel, the oldest surviving pub in New Zealand. Built in 1826 it looks out on to the harbour, a thatched umbrella flaps at the end of a wharf leading from the grounds. But we haven't finished riding, a drink will have to wait.
Tar-seal ends. A gravel road has me gripping my handlebars tightly, wrestling to stay on tracks made by car tyres, which are slightly smoother than the rest of the road. I have to deviate when a car goes by and nearly come off.
Three kilometres from the tavern we reach the end of the Twin Coast Cycle Trail, the site of the Mangungu Mission House. Here, on February 12, 1840, 70 Māori chiefs and a crowd of 3000 gathered for the third signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. It must have been a magnificent sight with hundreds of waka arriving in the harbour. A white church and cemetery are overlooked by the Mission House. I take a stroll between the gravestones dotting the green hill. Some are recent, others remember those who have been gone nearly two centuries — a number, victims of drowning. I wonder how rough the white-flecked harbour gets.
We dither at a crossroads. To keep riding on rough gravel for 2.3km to Wairere Boulders, or back to the tavern? We decide we'll drive to the boulders and cycle back to Horeke Tavern.
Passing chickens in a coop, a goat resting and barking dogs chained up, a shot rings out. A hunter? An unfriendly local? For a split second, I wonder if I should hit the ground. Several seconds later, I realise it's not a shot, my bike tube has blown. Luckily, the car is parked 100m or so further on at the tavern.
It takes a while to be served in the oldest tavern in New Zealand, there's only one person behind the bar and another group of cyclists have arrived. Three pool tables sit unused, red-painted poles are carved with Māori designs. I enjoy a cider in the garden at a green-painted table that is tacky to the touch, freshly painted for the coming summer.
Wairere Boulders call. The only people there are those who, I guess, are the owners of the farm the boulders occupy, and a few family members or friends. A young girl of about 10 informs us of what we can see, hands us a map and assures us we can't get lost. We pass through the "information shed", once a milking shed where photos and information decorate walls. The $35 entrance fee is pretty steep, I think, for a walk which takes us through bush, over bridges and under basalt boulders about twice the size of a smallish car. Some rest precariously, supported by mere inches of rock. I wouldn't like to be here during an earthquake.
Moss blows in the wind, hanging off fence wire like a green sheep has rubbed up against it and snagged its coat. Trough-like grooves course the surface of boulders, one looks like a felled tree trunk. Nearing 5pm we come to the junction where we could go on, to the platform walk, which apparently offers great views. I'll never know.
Back at the "information shed", I learn that many of the drownings in the Hokianga Harbour were due to alcohol consumption. I also read about Cannibal Jack, an Australian convict shipwrecked off the Hokianga Heads and believed to be the first white man to live in the area. He helped build the Horeke Tavern.
We pass by it again leaving the Hokianga Harbour behind, bound for Paihia. This area and a 28km bike trail have taught me so much about New Zealand history. And I didn't even need a beer to propel me through it.