Route 35 – the Pacific Coast Highway – is a travel version of the slow food movement. It has to be savoured rather than gobbled.
Clusters of 25km bends don’t allow speed; the stunning scenery dictates against it; and the pace of life here sits at the sane end of the rat-race spectrum. Besides, there’s a whole bunch of “blink-and-you-might-miss-it” treasures that hasty travellers are in danger of missing.
My trek starts just North of Opotoki at Ohiwa.
A loop off the main drag, it hugs the tidal harbour that offers rich pickings for shellfish fanciers. Those not wanting to get their feet muddy can test out the local seafood at Ohiwa Oyster Farm whose roadside shop (between Ohope and Ohiwa Harbour turn-off) looks out over the farm itself – hard to get food much fresher.
A well-equipped campsite at Ohiwa is a great base for exploring the surrounding area – a huge sweep of beach, a wetland dotted with godwits, herons and oyster catchers – all dominated by Moutohora (Whale Island). Nine kms off the coast, the 143-hectare wildlife refuge looks and is a remnant volcanic cone that now acts as a haven for rare birds.
A hint of on-shore birdlife is the yellow road sign unusually warning of “bitterns” crossing. It marks a restoration project that’s currently up for the Keep NZ Beautiful community initiative award. Nukuhou is the largest remaining saltmarsh in the harbour and local enthusiasts have undertaken extensive plantings and interpretation work. It’s worth a stop to check for fernbird calls – and enjoy the pottery bird plaques.
I’d have missed it if I hadn’t been directed there by the plaque makers – Stuart and Margaret Slade of nearby Cheddar Valley Pottery.
It’s been 25 years since the couple bought what was once the local butter factory – to “make more room for my hobby,” says Margaret. Hobby is now a thriving business with pots largely thrown by Margaret and painted by Stuart. Unsurprisingly, local birds feature strongly on plates, cups and funky garden ornaments.
Beyond Ohiwa, where the road runs along a long stretch of sandy shore, two imposing red totems mark Waiotahi Beach. Te ara Ki Te Tairawhiti (the pathway to the sunrise) depict Maori arrival here, how Opotiki was named (after two fish), and celebrate Maori/Pakeha togetherness. They’re the work of local master carver Heke Collier who is also responsible for the centrepiece on Opotoki’s roundabout – as well as the Teko Teko (guardians) in Hukutaia Domain.
The 4.5ha Domain is another diversion off Route 35, a few kms out of Opotoki township. It was set aside as a reserve in 1918 mainly to protect the 2000-year-old Puriri which once served as a sacred burial tree. Taketakerau is now surrounded by one of New Zealand’s most extensive collections of native plants – some 1500 species, many collected from offshore islands. On a hot Saturday afternoon, it’s a haven of peaceful green – with fantails flitting through curving Nikau fronds.Beyond Opotoki, the highway winds gently in and out of a series of ever more scenic bays. I stop at Opape which boasts the area’s first coastal walkway; at Maraenui hill lookout; at Motu River – which offers both rafting and jetboating experiences; at Whitianga; and finally pause for the night at Hoana Waititi Reserve in Omaia. Here locals offer freedom campers use of an expansive mown paddock on a knoll overlooking the bay.
First stop next day is Te Kaha – another gorgeous bay boasting a range of accommodation – from backpackers to modern beach resort. And then it gets hard to stop stopping. There’s beautiful Whanarua Bay where you can eat the world’s most delicious macadamia icecream (mine was the double choc version) while gazing at one of the world’s most attractive views, courtesy Pacific Coast Macadamias.
Nearby a completely unheralded, un-marked track goes through private land to a hidden but surpisingly impressive waterfall. Then there’s Maraehoko – which has to be one of the world’s best camping spots. And I’m not even halfway!
Two “must-stops” along Route 35 are churches. The first is easy to spot – a white wooden building standing on a promontory at Raukokore;
the second, St Mary’s Church, some 90kms more down the road at Tikitiki is easier to miss. That would be a shame as it is truly a work of art.Designed to show Maori craftmanship at its best, St Mary’s features decorative tukutuku panels on walls and ceiling, beautifully patterned stained glass, carved pews and a highly decorated pulpit that was a gift from the people of Te Arawa.
After overnighting at a now derelict campsite along the access road, I arrive too late to see the first dawn light as it hits New Zealand. Clouds rather spoilt the effect anyway. Even the enthusiasts who’d dossed down on the hill where the lighthouse was shifted in the 1920s (from its original base on Whangaokena Island) missed out. As one German tourist, heading back down with tripod slung over his shoulder noted: “There was light – somewhere….I couldn’t see.”It was still well worth the 750-step climb. And it was my only overcast day on the Pacific Coast Highway. By Tokomaru, both sky and sea are again bright blue, dotterels scurry on the driftwood encrusted shore and I finally get phone reception. With a South Island ferry to catch, I have to up my pace a bit. Like the first light, other treasures along Route 35 may remain hidden – until the next trip.