Wopwops! A term used by Kiwi’s to describe a vast area of remote bush country which aptly describes the stunning East Cape of New Zealand’s North Island, a fantastic example of classic wopwop land! Having spent two weeks driving from Opotiki to Napier I discovered an unspoilt, undeveloped and ruggedly scenic region that most backpackers haven’t even heard of and others dismiss because ‘there’s nothing there’. How wrong!
New Zealand’s East Cape is still untamed. It may not have the activities of a Queenstown or the bright lights of Wellington but that’s exactly what makes the East Cape so unique. Following Highway 35 around the coastline allows you to see the best of the East Cape without even trying. The majestic Ruakumara Ranges dominate the hinterland, whilst the mighty Pacific Ocean pounds the shore, providing endless opportunities for breathtaking seascape photography.
The drive from Opotiki to Te Araroa is stunning. Although the road is a fully fledged national highway, plenty of concentration is required! Hundreds of feet below thunderous waves crash against huge cliffs. The East Cape is also host to countless Maori settlements with traditional Marae’s (the village meeting point, akin to a church or town hall) taking centre stage as they have done for throughout history. Time may have stood still here, it’s probably worth checking your watch just in case!
On the approach to Te Araroa (a main town on the East Cape – it’s tiny!) I pulled the car into yet another cliff top viewpoint, whipped out the camera and snapped away at the glistening bay that stretched out beneath me. Photographs never seem to capture the reality do they?!
My picturesque campground (home of the world’s most easterly cinema!) was only a short drive from the infamous East Cape Lighthouse. A few ‘early birds’ set off at 5am to see the first light of the new day, however the snooze button got the better of me and several hours later I turned up at New Zealand’s most blustery, sorry easterly, point. The 700 steps to the Lighthouse are very worthwhile. Aside from being at the most easterly point of New Zealand, you’re surrounded by a fantastic 360 degree view. Facing the choppy, swell ridden seas, you’re kind of grateful you’re not on the original site of the Lighthouse, 6km’s away on the slowly eroding Whangaokeno Island.
I also gloried in the fact I couldn’t go any further without crossing the International Date line – the furthest you can go without time being yesterday….confusing but true!
My next overnight stop was Tolaga Bay (home of the Southern Hemisphere’s longest wharf at 660m!), typical of the East Cape’s secluded bays, a gentle curving horseshoe shaped beach sheltered by huge cliffs on either side. Naively, I decided to brave the sea, cold permeated my bones after five minutes whilst the local kids played on and on!
Slightly miffed to be leaving the East Cape’s rural serenity I arrived in Gisborne, where I discovered Captain Cook first landed on Aotearoa in 1769.
However, Mr Cook left a disappointed fellow due to a hostile Maori reception and consequent lack of food. Frustrated, he named the area Poverty Bay – hence Bay Of Plenty where he received ‘plenty’! I was luckier and left with fresh food supplies and a brand new wetsuit!
My last stop on the East Cape was Lake Waikaremoana (Sea of Rippling Waters) in the tongue twisting Te Urewera National Park. Its worth persisting with the 60km’s of gravel road to get there because the end reward is an opportunity to spend a few days in enchanting, pristine wilderness.
The area has magic skies; affected by weather systems from four directions, as a result the sky is constantly changing and it’s absolutely amazing to watch. I loved Lake Waikaremoana, it’s eerily timeless. The gigantic Paneriki Bluff juts out over the lake and is always an imposing outcrop whatever the weather or time. To see the area in its full glory, get out onto the lake, its awesome, I hired a kayak, just make sure the wind is behind you on your return!
The East Cape is a rugged paradise. Life is slow and the people friendly and super casual. I turned one corner to be met by a wall of sheep, a local farmer on horseback moving his herd with sheepdogs blocking the road for 10 minutes, he gave a nonchalant wave before plodding on East Coast style.
If you’ve got a few days in the North Island, I seriously recommend heading out to the East Cape, it’s an untouched wopwop wonderland not to be missed.