One of the most beautiful driving tours in New Zealand – and perhaps in the world - is around the East Cape of the North Island. This follows State Highway 35, otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway. The route takes in the easternmost point in New Zealand and starts at the Bay of Plenty town of Opotiki and finishes at Gisborne City in Poverty Bay. This article describes the first leg of the trip, from Opotiki to Whangaparaoa Bay, a distance of approximately 120km.
This is remote countryside. In addition to the scenery, the area is also steeped in Maori history and the Maori influence is still very evident. The part of the route is populated virtually entirely by Maori villages and settlements.
Planning Your Trip
This is one of the most remote parts of the North Island and traveling through it requires a bit of planning. There are no regular bus services so the only practical means of transport is by car. Mind you, there are so many places of beauty that you will want to take the trip at your leisure.
The full distance of the trip from Opotiki to Gisborne is 334 kilometers. However, due to the winding road, you should allow a very full day to make the trip. The accommodation and eating options en route are extremely limited, particularly on the first half of the trip from Opotiki. If planning to stop somewhere to stay overnight along the way it would be essential to book ahead, as many places may be closed for much of the year.
Although the roads are winding, they are sealed for virtually all of the route. Many parts of the road are nevertheless in quite poor condition. Needless to say, it is a part of New Zealand to take extreme care when driving.
Also make sure you fill up with fuel for your vehicle in either Whakatane or Opotiki. Like everything else, fuel stops are very sparse and may not be open. You should also ensure you have a bit of cash as there are limited options for using ATM machines or EFTPOS.
That all said, prepare yourself – this will be a trip you will never forget.
Here are some highlights and points of interest, leaving from Opotiki and traveling east. Distances noted are from Opotiki.
This is a small but lively town with many points of interest.
A small Maori village with marae. The War Memorial Hall contains some of the best examples of Maori art in New Zealand.
A place of historic interest as the landing place of several early Maori canoes. There is a fine walk from the beach to the top of the hill which rewards with spectacular coastal views.
Home to the local Ngaitai tribe, there are several examples of richly decorative Maori art in this settlement. Particularly notable is the artwork in the church and the carving which serves as the gateway to the local school. The beach is not suitable for swimming but there are some lovely areas of foreshore for picnics and walks.
Motu River (44.8km)
After passing through Maraenui, the road heads inland for several kilometers before arriving at a bridge crossing the Motu River. This 110 kilometer long river passes through some of New Zealand's most pristine and remote native forest. A sense of the beauty of the area can be gained by stopping at the bridge.
The only access to this forest river area is along the river; jet boat tours are available on the eastern side of the bridge.
This is a pretty bay and has picnic spots towards the western end (turn sharp left at the store as you enter the bay). The nearby marae also features some lovely Maori carving on its gateway.
Te Kaha (70.4km)
This was originally a whaling settlement when the hunting of whales was a major activity on this part of the coast in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Evidence of whaling activity from the past is seen at the adjacent beach, Maraetai Bay (also known as School House Bay); a whale boat is displayed at the Maungaroa Maraae in the bay, and is clearly visible from the road.
Whanarua Bay (88km)
When approaching this bay you may notice a subtle change in the climate; it suddenly seems warmer, sunnier and with a particularly soft light that gives the area an almost magical quality. It is due to the microclimate here and this part of the coast is perhaps one of the finest in New Zealand.
A macadamia orchard with an adjoining cafe offers the rare opportunity for a coffee.
Raukokore (99.2 km)
A small church on a prominotory next to the sea creates a spectacular sight at this beach. It is a good reminder of the significant influence Christian missionaries had upon Maori in the early decades of contact with the European. The church is beautifully maintained and still in use – and the location has to be seen to be believed.
Oruaiti Beach (110km)
Often cited as the loveliest beach on the entire Pacific Coast Highway.
Whangaparaoa (Cape Runaway) (118.4km)
This marks the boundary of the Opotoki district and it is a very important place to the Maori people; it was here that in 1350AD two of the most important canoes – the Arawa and the Tainui – first arrived in New Zealand from the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. It is also here that the Maori staple vegetable, the kumara, is said to have been first brought to New Zealand.
This is the end point of the coastal drive on this part of the coast. It is not possible to reach the northernmost point of the East Cape itself by road. The route moves inland and into rather different terrain; 120km travelled but still more than 200km to Gisborne!