The happy-go-lucky highway
Poor as can be, but living the lives of kings—a Coastie’s description of the laid-back lifestyle on New Zealand’s easternmost seaboard—means there’s always time for loving and laughing. Father and daughter Wallace and Jardine Walker make that quintessential East Coast connection while whanau and friends fish from Hicks Bay wharf for kai moana to put on the table tonight. Hicks Bay is one of a few dozen isolated communities on the Coast; forgotten treasures along a happy-go-lucky highway.
It was the kind of East Coast day when summer looks set to stretch out for the whole year. Sri Lanka was thrashing the New Zealand cricket team on TV, but no one in the public bar cared. The publicans, Elliott and Helen Grace, were reading the paper and licking ice-creams, relaxing before the start of afternoon trade at their 1920s Makaraka pub on the outskirts of Gisborne. I was there for a quick ceremonial beer before starting out on Highway 35. The only other patron, a regular, was lingering over his daily noggin.
The paper had a front page article on this season’s “Operation Jane.” Police had recovered and destroyed $25 million worth of cannabis plants on the Coast, it said.
“They’ll be watching you,” said Helen from her perch on a bar stool. “The older Coasties are pretty good—they’ll take you at face value. But some of the younger ones are very suspicious. They’ll think you’re undercover, unless you can prove otherwise.”
I stepped outside into the blue haze and asphalt shiriimer and took a long look down the straight towards Gisborne. So it begins, I thought. State Highway 35, the main provincial artery that runs 334 kilometres from Makaraka up and around East Cape to Opotiki. Slow, narrow, bumpy, meandering, magnificent.
I’m driving an inconspicuous Rent-A-Wreck Ford Laser with surfboard and fishing rod on top and bottles of wine and square gin in the boot—a koha for my hosts, whoever they will be. Gifts are the only passport I’ll need on this road.
Like most people who travel with solitude in the passenger seat, I also bring a cargo of memories and wistfulness. I’ve travelled this road for 35 years. First as a kid on a family tenting holiday, when long stretches were still gravel. Later I delivered beer on it, when my parents ran a pub in Opotiki. I rode it in my student holidays as a labourer on the back of hay trucks and on a double-decker cream truck collecting the grey iron cans from dairy farms that are long gone.
I’ve toured it and raced on it by bicycle. I’ve even made sacrificial offerings on it—if that’s what you can call cliff-dropping a friend’s Humber 80 to a watery grave. As 18 year-old school-leavers departing the Coast for the Big Smoke (Auckland, Wellington and beyond), five of us had met on Maraenui Hill, 40 km from Opotiki, to salute the sad end of a great summer and—something I realised only later—the end of boyhood.
Now I live on 35. Until 1990, when the Ministry of Works put in a 1.8 km bypass to cut out our village, the highway ran past the gate of my oceanfront home at Wainui Beach, where the full coastal splendour of the road is first encountered heading north from Gisborne.
I love it here. The way the rising sun creeps out of an empty sea. The heat and the remoteness of a place that contains 10 per cent of the North Island’s land mass yet only 0.3 per cent of its population. I love its secrets—the secrets of Maori history and folklore, of fishing and hunting grounds, of the poor and the blessed. I love the inevitable mixing of cultures, which makes it a home for the improbable and the unexpected. I love the fact that the Coast, for most New Zealanders a distant hinterland, is for the people who live here the centre, a separate place with an identity and meaning all its own.
On 35 you travel the least-travelled regional roadway in New Zealand into the part of the country least visited by international tourists-18,000 is the last official figure from the New Zealand Tourism Board. Locals don’t mind the statistic at all. Near East Cape, roadmen joke that their vehicles make up most of the daily traffic, though radiata logging trucks are changing that. On a carriageway seldom wider than a minimum two-lane road, these juggernauts are the curse of the Coast.
On 35 you’re wise to slow down and stay slowed down because of its idiosyncrasies. You might turn a corner and find yourself among wandering cows or horses, or come across a sunburned farmer shooing sheep across the road, or pass a kid on a bike with a pet pig trotting along behind. Ninety percent of the cars are clapped-out V8s and Big Sixes: Holdens and Falcons and Valiants in the nothing to–$5000 price bracket. They chug about like ghosts on an abandoned stage set, and everywhere the roadsides and fields are decorated by their wrecked remains—”statues,” locals call them. Periodically, the police hold amnesty days, when unlicensed drivers come forward in their unlicensed, unwarranted vehicles to sit tests and get legal. One such amnesty yielded a third of the community’s adult population.
Makaraka Crossroads, the start of my pilgrimage. Roseland Tavern. Makaraka Dairy (“Your Happy One-Stop Shop”). Makaraka Butchery (“No Bum Steers Here”). A few old colonial cottages, a fish and chip shop, a saddlery, a gas station.
Highway 35 heads straight into Gisborne city, through the main street where you can still get a three-course roast meal at The Mill tearooms for under ten bucks. U-turning motorists and shoppers in shorts, singlets and bare feet tell you there’s no hurry from here on.
It’s been this way for the 118 years since the town was founded as a trading port. Soon the highway may be rerouted around the seaward perimeter to cut out the Gladstone Road thoroughfare, and a $2 million mall development is proposed to jazz up the main street shopping area. But cosmetics won’t change the fact that in its back streets Gisborne is a placid, small-town world of village greens, riverside vistas and corner dairies: an oasis of sunlit optimism suspended in a sleepy haze of laissez-faire conservatism.
Gisborne’s 30,000 residents are cloistered in a tightknit community that is isolated from New Zealand’s main routes by tough drives through winding gorges: three hours south to Napier, two hours to Opotiki (via the direct route on Highway 2), seven hours to both Auckland and Wellington. Commercially, the city is a general factotum with one of everything. It’s the supply depot for the 4500 Coasties living north of here for 200 km to the top of the thumb-shaped East Coast at Wharekahika or Hicks Bay.
As far as Coasties are concerned, Gisborne is a separate place. It’s where they go more by necessity than preference, to deal with banks, lawyers, courts, supermarkets, farm suppliers, appliance shops—everything they can’t get at their local general store.
Though officially excluded, Gisborne is also the start of the East Coast proper: heartland of the Ngati Porou, 40,000-strong and second largest Maori tribe. Most live away from the region, though about 10,000 are in Gisborne, leaving a few thousand scattered around the Coast’s 60-odd marae to guard Ngati Porou turangawaewae.
A few minutes and the town is far behind, replaced by the green and burnt brown hill country that characterises the Coast. The hills are blotchy from slumping where the land was cleared for farming by colonists in the 1880s. The scars of slips from Cyclone Bola, which in March 1988 sluiced away farmland and rearranged rivers, are all but healed now.
Sponge Bay turn-off holds the first secret to journeying on 35: it is down side roads that the Coast really exists; it is here the traveller will find treasure. The beauty of Sponge Bay bursts upon the eye like privilege. Grey escarpments rise a hundred metres on both sides of the tiny bay, and at their feet frothing seas smother the long reefs that run offshore to Tuamotu Island and its legendary surf spots.
Not many people live on the highway. The very thing that makes the Coast “The Coast” is the beaches, river mouths and settlements in little bays. A myriad of side roads run off 35-96 of them heading inland to the forests and sheep and cattle stations of the backblocks, 75 of them toward the sea.
The 15 km stretch from Wainui Beach to Pouawa is my favourite because it hugs the Pacific. In fact, it is the only bit of the road that does on the eastern half of the Coast. Again today it sighs under the weight of a heavy, sleepy sun. The air is as thick and sweet as honey. The sea is the cobalt blue of deep water, and it glitters in the hard unfiltered light.
From the hills of Makorori and Tatapouri, exactly where horse-drawn coaches laid the first wheel tracks of a coastal route in 1887, you can see Mahia Peninsula in the south and Gable Islet in the north. Beside the road a few “freedom campers,” with their semi-permanent summer set-ups of tents and tarpaulins, hippie buses and old caravans, are still in occupation. The local authorities grumble about it every year, but free camping is still allowed on much of the Coast—officially only between Labour Weekend in October and Easter in April.
In the hills before Whangara I overtake a schoolbus doing the afternoon drop-off and a family ute jam-packed with groceries and sporting a new TV set in its box.
I’m buffeted by a logging truck and a semi-trailer of squash breaking the speed limit going the other way to Gisborne port. In the flat paddocks of the Whangara Valley I see where the squash is coming from. It’s March—harvest time, and there is laughter in the fields. Chain‑gangs of young Maori men play passing games with the ripe green footballs as they load them into bins for export to Japan. The 30-odd pickers wear jeans and track pants, bandannas and flaxen cowboy hats. They have bare muscled chests and tattoos. I’m a stranger, possibly an undercover agent, and they look at each other or the ground when I ask where I can find the boss. Someone on a tractor points me to a farm cottage.
Nohoroa Haapu, 42, is breast-feeding her new baby at the kitchen table, surrounded by books and tax forms and pay envelopes. The last loads of squash and sweetcorn are on their way to market, and she is happy because her organic gardening venture is doing well. The corn will pay $249 a tonne compared with $116 for 1994’s non-organic crop. The squash will fetch a similar premium. At last there is vindication for her years of bullying and wheedling the Tapuwai-Whitiwhiti Incorporation to let her phase out chemical fertilisers and pesticides and get organic certification for the 1300 ha tribal farm.
This year Nohoroa cropped 35 ha of flat, chemical-free land, and by 1996 the whole farm’s 5000 sheep and 1200 cattle will qualify for the lucrative organic meat market in Europe. Trial plots of trees have been planted for firewood and stock fodder, and hilly sites have been earmarked for berries and vegetables like potato, kumara and onions.
Her project is a key to the Coast’s economic renaissance, she believes. “It’s a humungous goal, I know,” she says, Afro grey hair and magnified eyes behind thick glasses. “If we can get to a thousand hectares of organic cropping land by the year 2000, that will take care of unemployment. So far we’ve got probably 150 hectares, including ours and three new blocks undergoing conversion [to organic methods] at Tolaga Bay and Tokomaru Bay. But 1000 hectares is only the beginning. My vision is for the whole Coast.”
The biggest problem with her vision, she says, is men. Men dominate Maori land management. Men have always run the committees that run the three incorporations of Maori farmland at Whangara, all of it owned by the one Ngatiera hapu, or group of interconnected families.
Tapuwai-Whitiwhiti is the smallest block. It has 240 shareholders. Nohoroa inherited her mother’s share at the age of five, and, fresh from boarding school at 15, “decided to tootle down to the AGM and, in my inexperienced youth, stood up and said my piece.” Her presence and words were frowned on, but her grandfather gave silent support by ignoring the challenges of other men. She says she has “never shut up since,” and after returning to Whangara 11 years ago was voted on to the TapuwaiWhitiwhiti and Pakarae committees, and started to implement new ways of working the land.
“Our land has always been our land, even though we’ve lost touch with what AT taught us,” Nohoroa says. She is referring to Sir Apirana Turupa Ngata, the statesman whose portrait is on our $50 note, the Ngati Porou scholar, writer, orator and politician who created land corporations and revived Maori art and crafts in the first half of this century. “We’ve been blessed on the East Coast by never having had our land confiscated or sold out from under us—thanks to our forebears cooperating with the Crown and to AT selling our inland high country to Pakeha leaseholders while retaining the more valuable coastal country.
“We’ve sustained the land, but we haven’t sustained the people. We relied on traditional pastoral farming, but we had no protection—no alternative except forestry, which only sustains Japanese mill owners—when meat and wool prices dropped to uneconomic levels. So the people left the land in a mass exodus to the cities in the fifties and sixties and early seventies. To sustain the people coming back since the eighties is our collective responsibility. I feel it’s my responsibility.”
Five minutes away is Whangara Beach, landing place of the first Maori on the Coast. It’s a settlement of about 20 houses and shacks and an assortment of wrecks, boats and domestic animals. The central buildings are the lofty marae and meeting house of Paikea the whale-rider, commander of the ocean-going waka Takitimu which voyaged here from Hawaiki via Rarotonga in the 1500s. The myths do not agree on whether Paikea’s canoe was whale-shaped or an actual whale. The carving on the roof of the meeting house shows the more dramatic rendition: Paikea riding his whale.
Under a makeshift iron shed on the marae lies another whale-44 metres in length, 23 tonnes in weight, lifeless and stranded by disagreement. This giant waka, largest in the land, was carved from 32 laminated totara logs over the last five years. Before going to sea it will need a crew of 200 paddlers or a massive rig of sails. But lack of funds and quarrelling have brought it to a stop for almost 12 months.
Will it make the water? In a way, it doesn’t matter. Time waits for everyone, and everything, on the East Coast. I asked for a local opinion and was told that only Tangaroa, god of the sea, knows: “If it gets on the water and sinks, well, it was supposed to sink, and if it gets on the water and floats, it will float.”
Such fatalism would be laughed at in Auckland. Here it seems as natural as the sun.
Tolaga Bay is busy today. Kids loiter about the main street’s strip of a dozen shops, sharing takeaways and jokes; youths outside the pub share a smoke. I’m here to see a woman about aloe vera and a man about a mule.
Tolaga is the biggest town on the Coast: 686 people, a motel, two fast food joints, a garage, three grocery stores and dairies, a liquor store, a video shop, the pub and the Coast’s sole bank. Two cars pause on the bridge into town so their drivers can talk. Ninety years ago, when this bridge was opened, local folk celebrated with a public holiday. So momentous was the occasion that they called out the local brass band, formed a procession of 250 people and treated themselves to a formal lunch and an evening dance.
The Coast’s mountainous spine creates a river system that has riddled Highway 35 with bridges-73 in total, 12 of them still single-laned, all of huge local importance.
Living right on 35 by the Tolaga bridge, Ngaio Morrow is 64, a part-time practitioner of aromatherapy and acupressure at the liberal local doctor’s medical centre, and an aloe vera grower. She and husband Milton left the Coast in 1950 but came home six years ago to grow aloe vera commercially as a “retirement lark.” From 100 plants of the Australian barbadensis variety they now have 6000 under shade cloth in their quarter-acre plantation. Working to government-approved recipes in their factory cum garage, they manufacture a system-cleansing aloe vera tonic, gel for human and animal cuts and sores, moisturising cream and soap. Keeping up with orders from health shops, naturopaths and private customers is difficult; expansion unavoidable.
“We could go into this in a big way if we could find the land,” says Ngaio. My eyes drift to the paddock next door. It’s obviously not being farmed. Ngaio reads the question in my mind. “It makes me mad that the weeds are six feet high and the owners can’t agree on a use for it. We wouldn’t be opposed to a co-op venture. I feel like kicking their backsides. It’s all here. The soil is here. The land is here. But it’s all just too iffy for me.”
The age-old Pakeha bugbear: Maori land lying idle. It’s an argument I don’t feel like getting into right now, so I drive north to find Des McGrannachan for a laugh.
Des and his wife Kathy, the local Plunket nurse, live on a chaotic hectare of machines and animals sandwiched between the highway and the Uawa River. Des was a possum trapper and goat culler, but now, at 46, sharecrops maize and corn and uses his tractors to do contract work for farmers. For recreation, he surfcasts on every full moon and hunts runaway red deer-240 of which escaped and went feral in Cyclone Bola, and now provide sport and food in the hills behind Tolaga Bay.
“Har, har, har, har,” Des guffaws with squinting, friendly eves when I say I’ve come to talk about his mule. Des is wiry, weatherbeaten, bushy-bearded and wears a beanie to cover a thoroughly bald scalp. Hair from the sides of his head is tied back into a ponytail.
“Muley? Why? What do you want to know about him for?”
“Because I heard . . .” I choose my words carefully, of “that he was . . . an accident.”
“In an accident? Not that I know of.”
“No, I mean he was an accident. Like you weren’t expecting him. He was a surprise.”
Des belly-laughs again. Smiles. Sighs. “All right, come and meet Muley.”
I follow Des to meet the animal rumoured to have been his shameful undoing at many a social function in this horse-loving district. Behind an overgrown orchard, we first meet Muley’s mother, Little One, a fine-looking brown thoroughbred mare, and a winner at the nearby Kaiaua Beach Horse Races, held annually on New Year’s Day. Then here comes Muley, bounding toward us, all legs and jet black. It half-skids to a stop, and I see that, indeed, this creature is half-horse, half-donkey, like nothing I’ve seen.
That’s how it should be, Des says. You don’t see mules, because no one who likes horses deliberately has or wants a mule. When Little One got pregnant, Des couldn’t work it out. He’d loaned her to someone to ride in the races, and suspected a stallion did the deed there. But she wasn’t on heat then, so he was puzzled. It was Des’s dad, an old Gisborne farmer, who deduced the sire could only have been Des’s donkey in the back paddock. It was further concluded that, because donkey was so short and Little One so tall, he’d straddled a broken fence on a slope to gain his cunning advantage.
“That bloody donkey,’ I said,” says Des. “‘If it’s him he can go!”
Donk did end up going. Before Muley was born, and the hypothesis finally proven, Donk was trucked to Hawke’s Bay to a cattle farm, where he could perform his true role of kicking and biting bulls to keep them under control. But before he got there, Donk was forgotten about and left in the truck, where he died of dehydration. The truck firm, Des says, even had the cheek to ask a hundred dollars for freight. ‘Get stuffed!’ I told them.”
In a part of the country where every man owns not just a dog but also a horse or two, Des McGrannachan has been laughed at by his fellow man. “But, hey,” he says, fondly stroking his gangly freak, “I can live with that.”
Last stop: Anaura Bay, ten minutes down another side road. When Sydney Parkinson, Captain Cook’s natural historian, wrote in 1769 about the East Coast being “agreeable beyond description” and “a second kind of Paradise,” I suspect he meant Anaura Bay.
My Laser spits gravel grunting up the corrugations of the hill that isolates Anaura from the highway. The climb finishes in a crescendo of beauty: the white arc of the bay sweeps for three alluring kilometres beneath a bowl of green grass and bush slopes. What Parkinson found is still the same: “Flowering shrubs intermingled with tall and stately palms fill the air with a most grateful fragrant perfume.” Creeks spill down from the drainages, and on the fertile flats of the shore vegetables and fruit flourish as they did when the Endeavour called 226 years ago. Cook’s scribe was astonished then at the neatness and luxuriance of the native gardens and the abundance of seafood. Food and hospitality were showered on the English sailors, whereas they got nothing down the coast—which is why they called it Poverty Bay.
At Anaura’s south end, an old schoolhouse serves as a camping ground, and a handful of beach houses look out towards Motuoroi Island. Before the white man, Anaura had 2000 inhabitants, and the island its own colony of greenstone workers, who built terraces into the rock so that greenstone weapons and ornaments could be polished using the action of wave and tide. Today, as the terraces erode in timelessness, fewer than 20 families have the bay to themselves, living in Paradise.
In Harry’s Bar, resplendent in a black double-breasted suit, white shirt and crimson tie, his greying hair swished back, beard neatly trimmed, Don Blakeney looks the archetypal movie star.
Harry’s is the old tack room and farm office of Anaura Bay’s gorgeous Waipare Homestead, a rambling colonial kauri villa built in the 1880s. The sheep station it once served reverted to Maori ownership when its lease expired, and the homestead was sold. It sits back from the beach at the northern end of the bay among towering Moreton Bay figs, pohutukawa, giant Norfolk pines and an orchard.
Blakeney, 52, lean, handsome, known to his friends as Scrubbs, presides as lord of the manor. Holding forth in Harry’s Bar, an outhouse with oiled kauri walls, a glass of his own rose petal wine in one hand, a Rothmans in the other, Scrubbs is passionate. Tonight’s discussion rambles over a range of subjects: his work as a community employment adviser, the book he’s reading—Primitive Christianity, Waipare’s gardens, the surf he rode this morning out beyond his front gate.
Tonight’s dinner wine, he announces, is his wife Louia’s special blend made from rose petals, rosemary and red clover picked from the roadside. The fresh pesto Scrubbs has made for dinner, from his small commercial plot of basil, is served formally in the front drawing room of the homestead overlooking the grass tennis court, to the sound of breaking surf and a crackling open fire. The pesto comes with steamed karengo, a lettuce-like seaweed, fresh kina (sea eggs) and crayfish—all of it harvested from the bay. For an aperitif, and subsequent nightcaps, Scrubbs pours shotglasses of 37.1% proof square gin, an East Coast drink if ever there was one; sales of it are greater here than anywhere else in the country.
For both its natural and human attractions, Waipare has a constant flow of guests: relations on two sides, old friends from the movie industry, local Maori consulting him for his accounting and business knowledge, teenage dropouts whose parents send them here for direction and motivation, sick people needing rest, and foreign WOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) coming to stay free in exchange for work on the one-hectare property.
It’s usual for the Blakeney household to be catering for a few extras most nights and maybe a dozen people at weekends. In summer Scrubbs and Louia run garden parties for holidaymakers and visitors, drawn not just by a curiosity to nose around the homestead but also by sales of fresh pesto, a pig on a spit, and showings of pop art and sculpture in the converted stables and coach-house at the bottom of the garden.
So how did Don Blakeney the Dunedin schoolboy dux, the Ernst and Young accountant who became financial controller of P&O in London by the age of 29, the chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission in its formative years of 1977 to 1981—responsible for the making of Goodbye Pork Pie and Smash Palace—the producer of the feature film Utu, his arc-de-triomphe in the movie business, fetch up on the shores of an isolated bay, surfing, entertaining and making gorse blossom wine?
Burn-out, he says, musing on the event that both slew him and saved him. Fleeing Wellington in the late 1980s, he travelled to the East Coast beaches he had frequented as a surfer during his youth, chanced upon an ad for Waipare in the real estate columns of the Gisborne Herald and pounced on it with all the money he could scratch together.
Scrubbs the Coastie has drunk deeply of the local culture and become a man with a mission, for the last few years spending most of his time on contract to the Labour Department’s Community Employment Group. Like an itinerant minister, he travels Highway 35 every day, dispensing business advice, helping organise finance, writing business plans and doing accounts for mainly Maori individuals and community groups.
The Coasties he has helped get into business include forestry contractors, grocery store owners, music teachers, tourism operators, surfboard makers and traders in flowers, essential oils, arts and crafts, possum skins, seaweed and firewood.
Perhaps the Coast is a place where philosophy and ethics naturally run deep, or perhaps Scrubbs is still on the rebound from the heady days of hustle and spin. He takes the local tikanga—protocols— seriously, reprimanding me when I inadvertently break a custom over the taking of seafood. A year ago he dismantled his computer, because he felt his already TV-free stepson, Dwight, aged eight, was spending too much time playing computer games instead of reading or conversing, making music or listening to travellers around the kitchen table in the evenings.
Being without a computer is no big deal for his business, he tells me, because he has always done his writing and financial planning, including calculations and spreadsheets, by arithmetic and long-hand. “It helps me figure my figures and think things out,” he says. Many a client has sat through tedious budgeting exercises in his stately study, which faces the sea, cats curled up at his feet, embers of a fire glowing in the hearth. You soon realise how effective it is to hand-craft budgets and cashflow forecasts the slower Scrubbs way, talking through every detail, sipping brewed coffee.
When a real estate agent approached Scrubbs recently to see if he would sell Waipare, talking of clients who wanted to make it a holiday house and park their yacht in the bay, his message was blunt: “This isn’t a rich man’s paradise. It’s a community resource. The reality is that it is better for local people, tangata whenua, to be here than it is for anyone else.”
Such values are expressed in all his business plans, and especially his tourism project proposals. He speaks of the need for Maori to approach tourism developments with confidence and cunning, rather than being pushed and manipulated by external market or investment pressures. “The East Coast is a taonga, a treasure to be protected from outside exploitation,” he says. “The East Coast is not a bungy jump.”
Yes, I muse on my way back to 35, this is a taonga. It feels good that Waipare is no longer the domain of landed gentry. The consummate 1990s mix of things Maori and Pakeha? I don’t really know. Paradise? Definitely.
I pass the house of Waipare’s nearest neighbours, a 1950s-styled weatherboard box with car wrecks, chooks and a few pigs in the yard. “We haven’t got much,” a woman from the bay told me in Harry’s Bar, her words still ringing in my mind. “We’re as poor as can be. But we live the lives of kings.”
Another sunny day, another day on a road chiselled into the East Coast hill country like the lines of a moko. I stop to the sound of hooting, yelling children outside a woody country schoolyard at Mangatuna. It’s like stepping back in time 50 years to a scene from Sylvia Ashton-Warner, the pioneer educator, whose books Teacher and I Passed This Way describe life in the East Coast’s “native schools” (a term she hated). “Young Maori children,” she writes, “are the only real clue we have to what a Maori warrior was like in the past, before European discipline is clamped down on them.” All the children I can see are Maori, primary age, and like Sylvia’s young warriors they are “full of take, break, fight, and be-first.”
About 30 of them are running in a circular relay, cheering their mates on. They pound around a concrete court in front of the two-classroom school building; little girls in hand-me-down dresses, hundred-dollar Doc Martins, bare feet; little boys in baggy shorts, Rasta t-shirts, basketball boots, bare feet.
“Sir, sir, their team’s cheating,” one complains, but the teacher isn’t listening.
They’re supposed to be taking off at intervals to the signal of their teacher, Jack Tuhiwai, 50-ish, white-shirt-and-tie, white boater-style sunhat, dark dress trousers.
“Tahi, trrrrreee!, rua, trrrrreee!, toru trrrrreee!, wha trrrrreee!” he counts and blasts on a silver whistle. It’s bedlam.
This is a thriving Kura Kaupapa Maori, one of the new-age “total immersion” Maori language schools designed by Maori for Maori. All instruction is in Maori, and includes teaching on custom and cultural tradition, art and craft and spiritual values. There are six Kura on the Coast. This one is a great success. In a year the roll has gone from 19 to 39, with most pupils coming daily by car and a parent-funded bus from Tolaga Bay. In the main, they come because of Jack, who a year ago returned to his birthplace after 25 years of secondary teaching all around New Zealand.
“These kids thrive in the Kura Kaupapa environment because it gives them the confidence to stand up and be counted and to say, ‘This is who I am,”‘ Jack says. “Throw them in the mainstream education system and they’d be lost because they haven’t got the whanau around them.” With an A-grade teacher, a teacher-aid and a resource person to help him, Jack’s Kura takes credit for reopening a perfectly suitable government school building and property which were shut down under the State system.
Also thriving is Rob McKenzie’s waka ama (outrigger canoe) club at Tokomaru Bay. The nationwide revival of waka sport among Maori has come to the Coast in recent years thanks to this man—a strapping six-foot-something Pakeha shearer and beekeeper who shifted here from the South Island 16 years ago. He jokes that he expects to qualify as a local “any day now.”
With one six-seat racing canoe—a 14 m fibreglass version of the traditional carved wooden craft—Rob trains 38 teenagers every week on the sea. They travel away to compete, charged by the excitement and pride of paddling alongside scores of boats. “It’s a bit more than the sum of its parts when these kids are on the water,” he says. “They get the connection between effort and reward, and get fired up. I get a buzz out of it, too.”
Outside Rob’s home, a run-down 70-year-old farmhouse, Rob’s good shearing mate Boy Raihania is passing up new spouting to a plumber. As I go, he tells me to make no mistake: Rob Mckenzie is a local. “Everyone likes him,” Boy says. “He’s easy-going, he’s massive with kids. You’ve got to fit with the life up here, eh, not fit the life to you. Rob does that, eh. T000 much!”
“Tooo much!” I can hear myself thinking when I slip away. “Too much!” or “Tu meke!” is a favoured saying on the Coast.
I stop for a brew of thick coffee at Tokomaru Bay with Jill Carlyle. In the Waiapu Community Arts Council art and craft shop, one of six main-street businesses, a young Japanese tourist couple staying at The House Of The Rising Sun, the local backpackers’, ask Jill if she’s got any greenstone tikis. No, she hasn’t, but she’s got some very nice carved bone ones made in Ruatoria and priced from only $50. They decline. “I suppose if I’d had a plastic tiki they’d have bought it,” Jill mutters. Business is slow today: she’s sold a couple of postcards and a flax kit.
Jill, 38, was born at Waipiro Bay and raised at Ruatoria, where her parents had a drapery business for 40 years. Her passions are horseriding and black-and-white photography. To date, she’s shot 550 rolls of film, mostly of local Maori whom she counts as family. “These people have a beautiful simplicity about them, no pretentiousness at all,” she says. Jill was halfway through a book on the Coast with the writer Barry Mitcalfe when he died in 1984; some day she’ll finish it, she says, or she’ll donate her unfinished work to the Gisborne Museum.
She and partner Al Mount, a writer, live in an old one-room schoolhouse a few kilometres west of town which they get to by fording a creek on foot. They park their HQ Holden on the verge of Highway 35 overnight, and never lock it. Says Al: “If Marx and Engels and Trotsky had come to the East Coast, they’d have said, ‘Forget the revolution, let’s stay here—socialism is already working fine here!”
A stone’s throw away, I make an astonishing find. Squatting clandestinely behind a screen of trees less than a hundred metres from the road are the bones of a sailing ship—in fact, a replica of a 23-metre coastal schooner named the Miro which traded on the East Coast and Auckland coastline at the turn of the century.
The owner-builder doesn’t want to be identified, paranoid he could get into trouble with Income Support. I wonder if, instead of being harassed for his transgressions, he deserves a hand-out to finish such a worthwhile project. On an unbelievably small budget over four years he has cut and milled all his timber, salvaged and rebuilt an engine and created the 40-tonne wooden hull—mostly alone and barefooted, with hand tools and steam boxes.
He is an ancient mariner possessed by a dream. Or a demon. The project has consumed a marriage and more borrowed money than he can afford, but he still yearns to sail the Coast like the salts of old. There’s at least a year of work to go before stepping the 20-metre masts. All going well, the second Miro will freight produce and tourists to make a living off the Coast. I’m booked on the maiden voyage; I’m a dreamer too.
Te Puia Springs, with views of Mt Hikurangi to the west and Waipiro Bay to the east, is a sanctuary of stately trees, a lake, mineral springs and 189 people. The town smells sulphuric, and for a dollar I soak in a mineral bath in the gardens of the pub to see if it’s true that these waters are “most exhilarating and possess curative properties of a high order” as written in Bradbuty’s 1924 Travel Guide to the East Coast. Certainly, after a couple of cold beers in a hot pool I feel a little exhilarated, but for curative powers I think I’d be better off at Te Puia’s hospital, a 40-bed complex on the edge of the lake. The hospital serves the whole Coast, and is talking of making a bid for independence from the Gisborne-based Tairawhiti Area Health Board, if it can get government approval. Good luck.
The road draws me on. I skip the detour to Waipiro Bay—once a coach trail staging post and a thriving port. Now it’s a ghost town with a population of 99 and a point break that attracts surfers the world over.
Nearby Ruatoria looks worn out, too. Its better days were the 1930s, when they called it the capital of the Coast and several thousand people lived here. Today it’s a quarter that size, and has the media reputation of a Beirut or a Belfast. During the last ten years the town has been physically and emotionally blighted by a cultish Rastafarian uprising: nearly 30 counts of arson, in-family fighting and bloodshed. Peace reigns at present, and people prefer not to talk about the matter. What they do talk about is forestry—for and against.
Ngati Porou tribal bosses at the Runanga headquarters in Ruatoria have their hearts set on forestry as the hope of the future. Manager Ned Ihaka says there are 102,000 ha of Maori-owned land in the tribe-50,000 to 60,000 ha of which would be better off planted in pine trees than left as scrub or farmland. He says work schemes, horticulture experiments and alternative land use are Band Aids that come from an ambulance mentality. “Our land owners have to get real,” he says. “The only real means of employment and wealth creation here is forestry.”
That wealth is still just a promise—and decades away—for most of the tribe. In the meantime, Social Welfare pays the bills. From Gisborne to Hicks Bay there are nearly 1000 adults on the dole—probably more than half the adult population. Dole day, Thursday, is a boom day in Gisborne’s supermarkets, toy shops and fast food outlets. In townships like Ruatoria it’s also the day for “Battens Up”—a lottery where you buy a numbered batten and wait hours for a series of draws for meat, produce, clothing and appliances. It’s the social highlight of the week.
Don Blakeney says that lack of money is one of the reasons the Coast is so lovely—it makes everyone equal. “I don’t begrudge anyone $130 a week. Hell, what’s the dole? It’s not depriving the taxpayer of $130. One crooked tax deal by the white collar boys can diddle the taxpayer of $130 million!”
A ghost woke us just before dawn, scattering Rastafarians in all directions. It brought a sudden end to the three-day religious gathering to which I’d been invited at Whareponga marae, south of Ruatoria. The marae sits beside a lonely pebble beach wracked with driftwood at the mouth of a quiet green valley. I was a guest of the notorious East Coast Rastafarian sect known for its dreadlocks and full-face moko and fearsome crimes. We were there in peace to celebrate the birthday of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s deceased ruler and divine head of Rastafarianism. It was a weekend of cooking, eating, tattooing, reasoning, singing and resting by fire and candlelight in the meeting house and kitchen of the old Maori pa.
“Now is a time when there is a thin line of peace for the Rastaman, but the good fight is still going on,” they tell me. They see themselves as knights between crusades, and, for the time being, this marae is their round table.
Etched all over their bodies are swords, shields, scrolls, scriptures and flames. Theirs is a holy war, they say, and they chant and sing in a negroid growl to contain the pain of the tattoo needle and the pain of their hearts.
The ghost’s arrival in the wee hours of the third morning was reported by Stryker Kupenga, the Rasta kaumatua who presided over formal whaikorero (speechmaking) during the weekend. Stryker was asleep on the concrete floor in front of the kitchen fireplace when the ghost came and told him of a death in the valley. In a separate visitation, there was a ruckus when a stranger burst upon Stryker and demanded the Rastafarians leave, because a funeral party was arriving at daybreak, and they didn’t want the Rastas hanging round.
Stryker Bonecrusher Lavendar Marijuana Kupenga Jones—the Rastas’ name for the 55-year-old seer of their hybrid sect—is also a Ringatu minister who is said to have spent three years as a recluse in the bush alone with God and his Bible. “Afterwards, when I joined the Rastamen, my family said I was mad,” says Stryker, his face tattooed according to local Rasta custom. “But I listen not to man but to the word of God which says in Revelation chapter 22, ‘They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.'”
At first light, Stryker brought instant action to our camp with one word: “Mahi!” We were to clean up and go. In 30 minutes, mattresses were stacked, belongings gathered, floors swept, dishes done. For those quick enough there was a standing breakfast of leftovers from the weekend “boil-up”—wild beef, spuds and puha. The 25-odd Rastas fled by horses and old cars back up the gravel road through the valley to 35.
I stopped in the bush to help three of the dreads, as they call themselves, chainsaw and load replacement firewood for the marae. Looking at the mokoed, laughing faces of Hone, Whare and Chiefy as we felled, hauled and cut up manuka logs, it was hard to see them as arsonists, drug lords, social vermin. Such are their labels.
“You coming back to see us for ta moko, Hone?” Chiefy jested, asking me for the third or fourth time that weekend if I wanted a tattoo. “No, bro, next time,” I lied.
“You make sure you write good about us then, eh Hone,” Chiefy said, less frivolously this time. I knew what he meant.
They need good PR. They had told me so during a business discussion. They’ve formed the Kirikiritatangi Charitable Trust with help from Employment Service and Labour Department people. Their aims are to run commercial vegetable gardens and to build their own marae with low-cost adobe housing. They hope to get funding support now that they have a legal structure and plans on paper for self-sufficiency. Getting people to believe them, they say, is the biggest battle.
The Rastas of Ruatoria first made headlines in the mid-1980s when family feuding, beatings, retaliations and extremism led to 27 cases of arson running to millions of dollars—churches, school buildings, businesses, houses, the Courthouse, the Police Station. The controversy was fuelled by the kidnapping of a constable, a macabre Rasta beheading, vigilante patrols and the fatal shooting of Rasta leader Kara (Chris) Campbell by a redneck local farmer, who was acquitted. Prison sentences were slapped on many of the Rastas, but a core has kept the sect alive.
When I reached the Whareponga roadhead around 10 in the morning, I was sweaty and stunk of manuka and marijuana smoke. I hadn’t changed or washed in four days.
Still mentally stricken by the ghost incident, I was stripped to my undies, lathered in soap, brushing my teeth and cleaning my breath with Pepsodent, thigh deep in the Waikohu Stream beneath a bridge on Highway 35 when I heard a car coming. This trip I had no vehicle of my own, and needed to hitch home to Gisborne.
What I heard was instantly recognisable. This cannon-shot backfiring, metallic shuddering joke of a car, a broken-down 30-year-old Morris 1100, had attacked me already on this trip. Three days before, I’d ridden 20 km by horseback to the Rasta hui in the company of Stryker and Rasta leader Hone Heeney. For four hours we trotted along quiet roads in the overshadowing presence of snowcapped Mt Hikurangi, talking off and on about lives and families and beliefs.
“We are the rainbow people of the last days,” Stryker said, “direct-line descendants from the seed of Elijah right through to the Lion of Judah—Haile Selassie I-228th direct descendant from Jesse, father of King David. Jesse was the blackest man the world had ever seen. We are the remnant of the lost tribe of Israel, and this land is the holy land, and Hikurangi is the sacred mountain . .”
Hone interrupted: “And from that mountain a white horse will appear carrying the man who is coming when his time is right to give us victory over our enemy.”
Stryker chanted karakia and sang waiata as we rode. No bellicose details followed, only the rhythmic jolting of my mount, a stallion called Catch A Fire, which made me torpid and sleepy. We were well down the Whareponga valley when the rusty red Morris snapped me out of it. For a split-second I thought Armageddon had begun. Out of nowhere it came blasting and clattering around a blind corner, spooked Catch A Fire and had me hyperventilating in an instant.
Here it was again, with its herniating death rattle.
By the time I dressed and climbed up to 35 from my bathing hole, the 1100 had stopped and gone silent right on the bridge. Its hapless driver was all smiles and big white teeth when I appeared. “Ki’ora, bro,” he grinned, “you wanna lift?” I was incredulous, but accepted. “Chuck your gear in the back, bro. Jump in, bro. Would you like a cuppa tea, bro?”
That sounded good. “Thanks.”
“We’ll just have to wait for my cousin Thomas, though, he’s coming on his car.”
On the Coast you learn to go with the flow, to not ask questions sometimes, and to wait. A black car, old as the Morris, appeared on the bridge with cousin Thomas in it. He pulled up and got out with a length of number eight fencing wire, freshly cut. He and Harry tied it to the cars as a tow-rope, and we took off in our respective vehicles, Harry and I merrily making our acquaintance as we jerked along behind Thomas.
Five k’s down the road we stopped at Hiruharama (Jerusalem) marae and the housing area Te Papakainga 0 Waitakaro. Harry and his young wife and kids live in a garage at the back of Harry’s brother’s house.
Over cups of tea, poured white and sugary from the pot, Harry opened up. “Seen you on the horse the other day, eh. You been down at Whareponga with the dreads?” Yes, I said. “I was s’posed to be there, eh, getting masked up for ta moko.” Harry joined the Rastas ten years ago, then a teenager and the youngest of the original dreads. He’d been planning to get a full face moko for years, and this year’s ra—the annual gathering—was meant to be his time. But when he heard a journalist and photographer were attending, he scarpered. Too shy, he said, and so were a dozen other dreads who didn’t attend on our account. I felt bad. I had intruded and spoiled their weekend. I tried to apologise.
Harry became lucid. “I was there when the trouble went down. I remember the day a Jamaican Rastaman came and told us we had to forsake our cultural ways if we wanted to be real Rastas. We didn’t like what he said, so he jumped on the wind and was gone again. All he really wanted was some weed.” Harry recalled the beatings, and the beheading of a young member of the group who’d been “playing games” with the leadership. He believed these incidents were justified as internal law and order. “An eye for an eye, bro, that’s how it’s always been. No one questions it.”
After Harry’s, I got a ride with a clean-cut young Mormon named Eddie Tuhoro. He told me Mormon and Ringatu followers shared the belief that the Maori people were descendants of the lost tribe of Israel. If the Rastas were following Ringatu teaching, he surmised, it was because they identified with the founder of the religion, Te Kooti Rikirangi Te Turuki, the warrior rebel who massacred 60 people at Matawhero, near Gisborne, after escaping from exile on the Chatham Islands in 1868.
Eddie was right. “Ringatu is the closest English interpretation we can get to Rasta Far-eye,” leader Heeney told me at Whareponga. “We were cast out of our families and homes and hunted like the Ku Klux Klan, as they did to Te Kooti and to Ihu Karaiti [Jesus Christ]. Only the vigilantes didn’t have white hoods, they had motorbike helmets and baseball bats and came to our houses and called out, `C’mon, boy, we’re gonna get you.’
“The fires were retaliations. We knew we would be persecuted, and so for seven years we went through prisons, and now we’ve learned how to live amongst people. We just want to live as trouble-free as possible until the end when Armageddon comes, when the white horse and its rider, who is living among us now just waiting for his time, will give the call to rise up for Jah. Jah is coming from the holy mountain Hikurangi, and the righteous will enter this holy land from the south gate at Pouawa and the west gate at Opotiki.”
Highway 35: the highway to heaven.
Steamy mist and rain swirled in the treetops, and a torrent of chocolate-coloured floodwater greeted me in a clearing where the muddy bridle track I had hiked from Rangitukia crossed the Waiora Stream, deep in the bush near East Cape. I had come to meet a mystic and hermit named Nig Manuel, who spends half of each year camped here with his horses and dogs, living off the land.
I started across the chundering creek, chest deep with my pack held above my head. My splashing set the dogs barking, and an eerie hooded figure appeared on a knoll in the middle of the camp. He was wrapped in a cloak of canvas, and threw it off when he saw me coming. I could see why they call him Nig: blacker complexion than most, matted black dreadlocks, droopy black mustache, tatty black skier’s overalls and sleeveless black jersey.
His barrel chest and muscular arms were like Popeye’s, and his teeth and big round eyes flashed white as he locked a fierce stare on me. Half crouching with one foot forward in a haka stance, he let out a cry that echoed around the valley. “Tee-heyyyyyy mauri oraaaah! Tee-heyyyyyyy mauri oraaaah!” He grabbed me by my wet arms, then reached up and clasped the back of my head, pulling my nose against his for a prolonged, wet hongi. “Ka pai, Hone,” he said. “I didn’t think you would come in this weather. Tooo much, bro, tooo much.”
For 18 hours we lay on wire-wove beds without mattresses and crouched by an open fire under his A-framed tarpaulin bivvy, talking with understanding as the rain pelted down. The dogs huddled under our beds, and two horses stood still outside next to an old plough and an earthen rua where Nig stores his potato, kumara, kamo kamo, fern roots and corn. In sacks in the creek he keeps fermenting corn for porridge. We sipped black tea and nibbled on burnt, baked roke roke (purple potato) and Licorice All-sorts. “In the hills of holy privacy,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a story about the vanishing hobo, “there’s nothing nobler than to put up with a few inconveniences for the sake of absolute freedom.”
Absolute freedom is what Nig’s lifestyle is all about. At 42, he has been back on his family’s 250 ha property called Makaikatoa (plenty of food) for five years. Prior to that he tried living in Wellington for a few years doing concrete work on high-rise buildings. But booze, drugs and a lag in Wi Tako prison made him wake up and brought him to Christ. His aging mother brought him home to Makaikatoa, and showed him where she had cast his pitohis umbilical cord—telling him to centre his life on the Waiora’s living waters.
Now Nig wants to bring others here, to share with them his love of to reo Maori (“Now that I’m home I’m losing my English tongue!”), his Ringatu religion and his interest in natural Maori medicine. A planned tourist venture will involve horseriding, camping in the bush and on Te Pito Beach near East Cape lighthouse, gathering and eating the wild food of the land, sharing the stories of Paikea and exploring sacred sites like a perfectly round tarn on Kautuku Hill where Paikea established a whare wananga—a place of higher learning.
“I’m here as the kaitiaki, the guardian of the land,” Nig says, as we rest our horses atop a craggy lookout above Kautuku Tarn, ringed like an eye by blackened raupo. “We’re sitting on a million-dollar deal if you see it through Pakeha eyes. But that’s not what this is about. This land must stay as it is.”
From Nig’s, the bucolic road draws me on. At Te Araroa, its skyscraper bluff overhanging alluvial flats with the sea in an uproar beyond, I search out Arewhana Street, named after a circus elephant which died and was buried here in the 1930s. But there’s no sign of anything except the street name.
I stop at the old Ministry of Works depot, where essential oil is extracted from manuka scrub by a tribal trust trading as Manex Natural Solutions. They make a range of skin oils, creams, lip balm and soap, and have plans for a new factory employing a dozen people. Company chairman Syd Clarke, the local councillor, tells me they had a visit from Rita Broderick, The Body Shop magnate, last year. She was looking at making an investment in Manex, but felt the company and place “weren’t Third World enough” to fit with her corporate ideology. Everyone laughed when they heard that, Syd says.
From Hicks Bay, Highway 35 turns inland for 30 km, away from the east to a buffer zone of bush and rock forming the vast Wharekahika, Waikura and Potaka forestry and farming district. Good fortune laid a path of valleys through most it—a sawtooth extension of the Raukumaras. No shops. No cellphones. Just schools—one of them exclusively for the 20-odd kids on stations in the Waikura Valley. These are the borderlands, where the tribes of Ngati Porou and the Whanau-a-Apanui of the Bay of Plenty meet and marry, where progress arrives last on the Coast. Here the tyranny of distance and isolation from the rest of New Zealand, the very thing that has outlawed theCoast for so long, still seems its best friend.
Whakakotahitanga (joining together as one), the association of schools, holds its interschool swimming sports in a river, placing stronger swimmers in the lanes where the current provides a natural handicap. The association ekes out good money every year to send the form one and two kids on a trip to a big city. Last summer they raised $4200 on a betting tote for parents at the athletic sports.
In an old state house near the Waikura turn-off, on its own in the middle of nowhere, memories of swagmen and Model T Fords are still vibrant and alive in the heart and mind of Sam Taitua. Sam is 70 and a Maori Battalion veteran. For 22 years he was the Potaka roadman—one of 15 employed by local councils to maintain the highway until it was all sealed in 1974. Sam’s dad Bob was the Cape Runaway roadman in his time, and for a few years they shared Isboundary. “We’d meet on our horses for a brew by the river, and talk about the vehicles that came through—a few every day,” says Sam.
Sam retired in 1984, but for years afterwards he made a daily patrol of the road out of habit, to clear slips and repair washouts. Today, the Potaka section of 35 averages no more than 200 vehicles a day.
On Hippie Hill, a commune of sorts that has long amused locals by its infighting, I am welcomed by Norm and Glennis Anderson. They live in a solar-powered treehouse, run a wood-fired pottery, and keep a house-cow and a German shepherd called Plato for company. We feast on mountains of baked tofu, spiced vegetables, bean sprouts, yoghurt and dried fruit, and that night I sleep deeply with a hottie and quilts in a bed next to snoring Plato, the thinker.
The commune’s 45 ha property was bought in the 1970s by a group of idealists, including one named Jim Jones. Like his namesake’s community at Jonestown, the dream fell apart. Some changed their ideals and left. Others argued—over whose patch was whose, stock grazing rights, environmental issues—and then split. Of the present 28 stakeholders, many are gone-address-unknown and not paying their share of rates. “It’s a mess, really,” says Norm. Keeping to yourself, he adds, is the best way to coexist with the dozen other occupants, each with their own little house in the bush, each with an unofficial subdivision of about a hectare.
“When we came here from Port Waikato,” Glennis says, “I thought with this being a community it would work really well if you went away for a few days and wanted someone to look after the cow and the chooks. But it doesn’t work that way.”
Disillusioned? “No, not really,” says Norm, “because we came here in 1988 for our independence and privacy. We were late-starting hippies who took a bit of time to gather some finance and sort out our ideas first. We came here to stay, regardless.”
Big, burly Norm, 42 and 16 stone, has a ten-year-old beard plaited and twisted in dreadlocks, and is on the electoral roll as a Subsistence Peasant. He’s never been on the dole, and makes his living as a potter, relieving schoolteacher and part-time forestry worker. He refuses to plant pines, though, saying they are a blot on the landscape. The only part of forestry he likes is the burn-off after the radiata has been harvested. He plays rugby for Hicks Bay—the only Pakeha and the oldest player in the team—and was nicknamed Stormin’ Norman for his propping and mauling prowess.
Glennis and I watched Norm in a bruising match against Waiapu, held in the school grounds at Hicks Bay right next to the cemetery. “Dead ball!” a young girl shrieked when the ball went over the fence, sending up a roar of laughter from a hundred-odd spectators. “You’re dead now!” taunted a grandmother to the player who went to fetch it. “Get the water! Get the water!” bellowed Mrs Rangi White, a large woman pacing the sideline. It is the custom to wash away evil spirits with the water, placing it on both the ball and the forehead of the player who retrieves it. There was plenty more cheek from the sideline, and during a lineout Norm got into an argument with a woman for telling another player to put the boot in.
“No one really means any harm,” Glennis told me. “The other day someone called out to an opposition player to give Norman a boot in the backside. ‘Kick that Pakeha bastard up the arse!’ they said. But Rangi White swung round from the sideline and yelled back at them, ‘You leave our Pakeha bastard alone!”
Suddenly everything is different, yet everything the same. It’s such a capricious place, this coast. Raw and wild one minute, soft and benevolent the next. From the drowsy hills of the borderlands, the road seeps back to the sea at Cape Runaway, where lagoons of ducks and pukeko float on marshy shores.
From here on to Opotiki the thickly forested ranges of the Raukumaras back almost into the water. A narrow strip, an afterthought of foothills, farms and orchards no more than a few kilometres wide, separates the summits from the sea. Along this ribbon runs the road. Sun drums on the blue, blue Bay of Plenty. White Island puffs on the horizon. Wispy waterfalls spill from gullies choked by gnarled pohutukawa. Rocky coves and stony beaches entice the traveller to make stop after stop. And on pastured promontories between river valleys, little villages bask in the glory of it all.
But life is hard here, too. I pass the weekly tourist bus on its round from Rotorua to Hicks Bay and back: one passenger today. “Sorry, all credit is cancelled,” declares the blackboard notice at Omaio Store. At another: “Cigarettes strictly cash—no exceptions—I pay cash and don’t even smoke, so why shouldn’t you.”
To send his kids on a school trip, a cannabis grower raffles off a bag of sticky buds among his friends. Old people gather bits of twisted driftwood for pocket money from an Auckland merchant who exports it by the containerload to Korea and Japan for ornamental uses. A contractor’s bulldozer is torched because his employee set fire to a much-loved puriri tree. I help judge the finals of Te Kaha Pub’s $1000 karaoke contest, and am warned—quietly in the toilets—to watch out for myself because there are people who will not like the result. Hard people, living on a raw edge.
On 35 I’m a pantheist in paradise. At Waihau Bay I spy a 17 kg “Runaway red” snapper in Bill Hol’s freezer, then discover my own secret spot: in two hours we have a surfeit of hapuka, snapper, terakihi, gurnard and lesser species. At Whanarua Bay I wander unbelievingly among groves of macadamias, bananas, pineapples and nikau palms. On the Motu River I raft and canoe a virgin wilderness where time and eternity at last do meet.
In a hidden place of the past, a holy headland pockmarked with caves and archways, I sit inside a room of rock and dream back through centuries when travellers would stop here to rest and write. On the walls of this place, Te Ano Whakairo (the cave of writing), the first pilgrims to this Coast inscribed messages from their journeys: who they were, where they were headed, when they passed this way.
I leave my mark, too. It’s a child’s simple prayer of thanks. For the Coast. For the road. My road.