Escape From The East Cape

Journey to the East Cape



I arrive in Wellington early on the ferry and find a nice spot by the beach to spend the night sleeping in my van. I plan to spend a day in Wellington to go to the Monet exhibition then head off tomorrow. I also caught up with a friend and we went out to dinner. After that I dropped her back at her house, I met her daughter and I had a cup of tea. As I was leaving her house (the door is round the side of the house) there was a huge crash from outside in the street followed by a few more. I ran to the street as a car was driving away very fast. 

The car that was driving away had hit a parked car and rammed it into the side of a house then hit a trailer, which had hit another car, as it sped away. The trailer was sitting sideways in the middle of the road and broken glass and plastic all over the road. Within minutes all the neighbours were out in the street seeing what had happened. As we were standing round talking a car full of boy racers pulled up in the street and said that they had just seen a silver Nissan up the road with the front all smashed in and it had pulled into a driveway and they told us the address. The woman whose car had been smashed got her phone and called the police. After that a different car full of boy racers pulled up and said that they had seen it happen and gave us the number of the car that had done it. I was the only English speaking person there so I heard the number and remembered it as both cars of boy racers had sped away fast before the police came. I wrote all the details down for the car owners who were Cambodian and left also before the police came, I was tired and wanted to go to sleep. Nice contrast to the bad press that boy racers get down here in Christchurch where they are all painted as villains.

I drove back to the beach, it is still raining too. I pull up and am getting ready to lay down when there is a knock on the window. I shine my torch and see a young man outside and he asks if I can come and help push his car which has a flat battery up the other end of the car park. I go up there and there are two guys and their car needs to be pushed up a slope to the road. We just about get it uphill to the road and one guy gets in while we push it. It doesn’t start so we push it back up the road and try again. It still doesn’t start. I notice that there are no lights on the dashboard so I ask the guy if he has the ignition on an he says no. I ask if he has ever done this before and he says no. So we push it back up the road, I tell him to turn the key on and we push it and it starts immediately. They both wave and drive off and I am left standing there in the rain soaking wet and sweating….

Next morning I wake and found that I had slept to 8:30am. It felt good to wake by the sea. It rained hard in the night and at one point I woke up wondering what the noise was until I realised that it was rain on the roof of the van. At the place I parked was also a set of very modern toilets with hot water! so I had a bit of a wash before I left for the city. 




Driving North East from Wellington towards Napier via Masterton. 

Everything is unremarkable until I hit the Tararua Ranges. Without warning the road rises abruptly and within minutes the blandness is gone and the road clings to the side of surprisingly big hills. As the road climbs so the view is glimpsed sideways on in snatches. I pass a sign that says Summit Cafe and like Homer Simpson all I see is COFFEE and then I see a building at the top of the rise with cars parked in front. I pull in and swing round in the car park. The building is boarded over and what I thought looked like advertising was in fact layers of graffiti. Two guys in leathers with Harleys are standing in the car park. In a glance I take in that these are NOT lawyers or accountants but fully patched gang members. I feel no antagonism but drive on anyway.


The Ham Sandwich.

I am peckish and it is about 3pm so I decide to get a bite then drive on. I pull up outside some poncy looking tea house and go in. It is very clean as in Obsessive Compulsive clean. The food display is empty AND clean so I ask if I can still get something to eat. The girl says that depends. I spy a plate of ham on the bone and ask if I can have a ham sandwich. The girl looks over her shoulder to another woman who nods yes. I also order the coffee and go to the loo. The toilets are the cleanest I have ever seen outside the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. It is completely clean. Beneath the sink is a basket of used hand towels. Above the sink are piles of clean ones rolled into a pyramid. Amazing.

I go back into the cafe and the woman who gave the nod to my sandwich was cleaning the table next to mine so we make small talk. I jokingly ask if they have ever made a ham sandwich before. She says that the person making it has made a few in their time. Shortly after, the girl appears with a plate and two halves of bread, one piled with cut ham and the other with salad and olives. It is simply superb. Just as I finish a man in chefs clothes appears and asks if the sandwich made the grade. I fell on my knees and kissed his feet. Not really but he was genuine and seemed pleased that I loved his sandwich.


The Detour

I look at the map and see that the road goes through Eketahuna. I’ve always wanted to go to Eketahuna but this time I’ve decided to drive a parallel road that goes though nowhere until it eventually hits Waipukurau. I leave the highway and start down what I think is the right road. I am using the GPS and after a while I notice that there is a large white-ish spot on the screen where the arrow is normally indicating where I am on the map. Not this time though…I cannot believe that it seems to be lost. I stop and cancel the route and suddenly it knows where I am. I re-program the route and off we go. The map I have doesn’t show enough detail for me to know if I ma on the right road but I follow instructions and pretty soon I realise that we are on the right road. What I never realised was how far it was and how curvy and windy the road was. By the time I realise this I am already committed to this route. Somewhat alarmingly I realise that the fuel is getting low. It is 27km to the last small place on this route where I can turn back to the highway. I drive slowly to conserver fuel. Eventually I come to the place where I can take a direct road to Dannevirke. I set the GPS and cannot believe my eyes when it says that it is 68km. Already the fuel light is occasionally flashing on. I drive through this now dark landscape. I check the phone, no signal and realise that I have not passed another vehicle for hours. Jesus, I’m gonna die out here. I laugh, I have my bed in the back of the van, I have food and drink. I relax and I roll into the soon to close gas station in Dannevirke and fill her up. 



Motel Porn

I get to the campground about 2 hours after it closed so I decide to stay in a motel as I haven’t showered for 2 days. I check into the Viking Motel and watch a every odd movie on Sky that looks like a vampire movie without vampires. I hear an odd noise from next door  and realise that the neighbours are bonking and the noise is the woman moaning aaaaahhh, ooooohhhh, oh, oh, oh, oh, aaah, aah, and then she laughs. I turn the telly up but the dialogue is so bad that I turn the sound down and watch several beheadings and stabbings to the sound of the moaning woman next door. It went on and on and on…I wondered if they were watching porn and were watching the same bit over and over again or maybe he had some Viagra…who knows? I went to sleep and by the time I woke up the next day they were already gone. Shame I wanted to see what they looked like.


Save The Whales


I drive into Napier where I have been before, I fill up the van and buy bait. Time for fishing. I drive round to the marina where I previously saw a place to fish from. As I drive past the marina I see a large crowd of people standing around the water all looking at the same spot. I park the van and go back to see what’s a foot. I approach the crowd to see some people standing in the water and everyone is looking at something in the waves. It is a dead whale. One man is standing very still just metres from the whale. He is soaking wet. I notice that some of the others are wet too. I soon figure out that the whale has just died and these people had been trying to save it. I hadn’t noticed the silence when I arrived but now it was stunning, the slosh of the small waves, the cars on the highway, not a sound. I turned and walked back to my van, tears running down my face. Mine was not the only wet face. As I am walking along the road to my van I see people with children hurrying from their vehicles. A woman tell me that she’s just heard that a whale has stranded itself and she’s come to help. She looks at my face and says nothing as she too works out what the score is. I get back in my van and drive away from Napier. I no longer feel like fishing.






Many soothing miles later I get to Gisborne. It has many lots of large palm trees all along its main roads and it feels kinda good to be here. I feel like I’m on holiday! I check into the campsite which looks crowded. I am offered an non-powered site right at the end of the camp ground. I tell them that I don’t see too well in the dark and is there any place near the kitchen and toilets and they look at me sympathetically and offer me slot 13 which even though it is powered I only had to pay the non-powered rate. As I walk away I wondered what would happen when they asked themselves how I drive at night? will they throw me out for the fraud I am? I grabbed my rod and went round to the jetty and cast in among a whole load of other people. I catch a kahawai and put it back. During the excitement of the catch a young girl came and stood next to me. Next she got her fishing rod and stood next to me and told me the story of Free Willy in great detail and not in any particular order that I could make out. Her name was Ari and she caught a fish! We both laughed. Magic.


The Longest.

I drive up the coast and was now beginning the East Cape. 



The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t get National Radio on either AM or FM. I thought this was maybe just a bad reception area and that I’d drive through it. But that wasn’t the case, the whole of the East Cape it wasn’t possible. I found that hard to believe but no matter how many times I tried I couldn’t find it on either my portable or the van radio. Instead I found Radio Ngati Porou 81.3FM, Radio Uwea 97.7FM both Maori run local radio stations. The only other beacon of civilisation was Radio Rhema. Odd that Kim Hill holds no sway in this whole chunk of NZ.



 I drive to Tolaga Bay. Having seen many photos of the longest jetty in NZ I just couldn’t wait to get there. I miss the turn off the highway and have to turn round. I drive to the beach and there was a Motor Camp right there so I check in, it is $12 per night to park the van in a non-powered site. I pay the money, grab the rod and I’m off up that jetty. There’s a few people fishing so I do my usual greetings and laughs and set my rod up, bait up and in she goes. Jesus it felt good. The jetty is the longest concrete jetty or something but it sure was long. It was also crumbling away at a rapid rate. Luckily I never saw the photos of the legs that are falling apart until the second day. However, whatever daydreams I was having were soon smashed away as my rod was almost snatched out of my hand as a fish took my bait. A huge kahawai jumped out of the water right below me. I wound it in and pulled it up to the jetty and just before it came over the edge my line broke and down it went. Gone. Laugh. Everyone commiserated but I wasn’t upset or disappointed. I was once caught and released.

All was soon forgotten as my neighbour’s rod bent over and her line screamed off her reel. She pulled up a large snapper and apologetically explained that she never usually caught anything. In no time at all she had to offer two more apologies for next two snapper that she pulled up. Next a Maori guy pulled out an even bigger one and everyone agreed that this was what fishing was all about. The sense of bonhomie was strong and love was all around. Magic. The wind had come up and I was getting cold so I packed up and went back to the camp ground and changed from a one night on a tent site to two nights in a basic cabin.


The First Hint

Next day I drove into Tolaga Bay township to get some milk and hopefully have a coffee. I did both. At the cafe, which was run by two Maori women, whilst the service was prompt, you couldn’t describe it as friendly, perfunctory yes, welcoming no. I thought that maybe it was just that same old prejudice that all men over 40 get from young women, that “dirty old man” look when you just try to pass the time of day the same as you do with everyone else. Little did I realise that this was just the thin end of the wedge. Later that day I went for a walk along the beach. As I was walking back a Maori bloke was also walking back, he had a bucket in his hand and had collected some kind of shellfish from the rocks. As he passed me I said gidday to him and he didn’t even look at me and just grunted. It didn’t feel good, it felt more than he was just having a bad day, I thought at the time that he’s done that before a few times. I went back to the camp, got my togs and had a swim.




Meanwhile back at the jetty the fish were not biting. I was down there late afternoon with most of the previous suspects except for the fish. I stayed after the sunset and the moon rose and the wind was warm and sweet. I was alright until realised that I was alone and that I had seen the photos of the legs of the jetty that were collapsing. I packed up and left. Tolaga Bay jetty. Great!


Ever North



I drive north the next day along a coast road that seldom sees that coast. I take small detours to see the sea, windswept, driftwood piled beaches. I visited many. One place called Anaura Bay was idyllic except for a swag of signs warning about unauthorised use of toilets, unauthorised camping, unauthorised parking. What was this? Who were the offenders? I kept moving.


I drive off the highway to enter Ruatoria. The road into town is sealed  but bordered by dirt. A man cutting a lawn throws up a huge dust cloud behind his mower. Closer to the town gardens have lush plants and calla lilies grow as weeds. Shrubs that only grow slow and stunted in Christchurch grow rotund and full here. It is hot and dry and the threat of rain is present.

On the right there is a bus parked on the verge with a kind of awning in the middle and a sign that reads “Kai Kar”, as I slowly drift past I see a toothless Maori woman standing behind the counter and two young women standing in front of the counter, one has a pushchair. They are talking. I pass three buildings that stand out, the Kingdom Hall, the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Probation Service. Further down the road I pass what looks like a shiny new Police Station. 

I pass a sign that says “Enz of the World Accommodation” so follow the directions until I come to a normal house that has a wooden cabin on the front boundary by the footpath. I turn round immediately and head back to the main street. Nothing feels normal here. I pull up outside the only cafe/food place in town and only the second place I have seen that is obviously open. In other small places I have been I have waved as I have driven by and been waved back, here they just stare. I sit in the van and look at the cafe. I could really do with a cup of coffee. I pull away.

Ruatoria, slightly sub-tropical and vaguely menacing.


East Cape

I drive into a small town where the road goes off that ends at the East Cape lighthouse, A round detour of some 45km. But first I stop for coffee. I go into the cafe and am ignored by a couple of Maori women and I remember “Island Time” when everything is a bit slower. After a while one of them comes over and smiles and asks what I want. I say “a smile” and her face breaks open into a wide grin. Hooray! While she is making the coffee, a process that looks like she has never done it before so I don’t look. Anyway we chat then she says “you know this depression won’t have much effect round here, we all poor anyway”. She’s not smiling and she speaks the truth. Everything I see that’s modern is just a veneer over grinding poverty. And it has a long history. Like all Maori history it is written in their blood and our lies. I can feel the spirit of Tuohoe never far away.


Hicks Bay and beyond. 

I drive along the coast road that hardly ever passes the beach, on the map the two look the same line but in reality there is between 500m and 2km of bush clad hills. When the two do coincide the beaches show themselves as tree trunk strewn, wild, rocky, windy swept desolate vistas. The road snakes over low hills winding backwards and forwards until it drops down to the flats that border the sea. I see a road off to the right that obviously goes to the sea. I am looking out for a campsite near a fishing place. Everything I have read say that there are heaps of fishing spots along this coast. I am preparing to have a nose at the beach and swing over the deserted road. There is a huge sign that reads:

This is private MAORI land
Entry prohibited, no trespassing, no camping
Offenders will be prosecuted


Next to the sign is a house that overlooks the road and sign and has a window wide open. I have this idea that if I go any further a fat face will appear at the window maybe with a gun. I don’t wait to find out. I drive on.

As I drive into Hicks Bay I am aware of the number of Maori flags that are flying from houses back from the road. I am also aware that I have been seeing them more as I’ve been going north. I get the impression that these people are no logo-wearers and up here the flag means something more. Again the same sense of unease, no friendly waves. I drive around looking for the fishing spot I saw on a photo down the coast. I find the spot but access is not straightforward so I drive on. Everyone is Maori, there are very few pakehas here and no Asians at all. Not even in the shops. I can see a jetty across the bay and drive over there

I follow the road along the bay, the houses I pass are much like all the others I have passed, really old weatherboard houses in various states of disrepair, modern Skyline Garage based buildings about 15 years old and various other eras and styles all slightly run down except for the pristine maraes of which there are more and more as I progress around this coast. Just before the jetty I pass what was once a factory of some kind and is now a collection of derelict buildings in which someone is living. As I pass a man appears from a building and he just eyes me as I pass.




I get to the jetty and get my road and bait. Just across from me and man is getting rod from a ute so I go over and ask him about the fishing. He’s an Islander and we laugh about the folly of fishing. We walk on to the jetty and I do what I always do, go and speak to everyone there, ask about the fishing and try and have a laugh. There are two older women fishing together who tell me that there are no fish there as they laugh. A man just says that nothing is biting. I go across the jetty to a Maori woman and say “have you seen my fish? it’s about this long and silver? if you see it give me a shout”. This normally gets a smile from most adults and all children. She looks at me coldly. Oh well, I ask “how deep is the water here off the jetty?”. She doesn’t even look at me, she just says “why don’t you jump in and find out”. I wish her good luck then sit behind her and throw a line in the water.

A black dog with a white patch on his breast comes over and sits next to me and just leans across me. I hear the Islander call him “Jacks”. I look at him and there is Jack looking back at me. He rubs his nuzzle along my cheek and kisses me. We both laugh and he wanders off but just before he walks away he turns and looks at me, just a glance but there he is again. I thank Jacks for the message from Jack. I pick up my rod and leave the jetty convinced that everything good had already happened.


Waihau Bay Motor Camp

I drive out of Hicks Bay and the feeling of wanting to leave this area immediately is now strong enough to be heard above all else. So I am now driving to leave the area completely. I am not coming back this way any time soon. I pass derelict churches aplenty


I get to Waihau Bay where a large sign informs me that there is a motor camp with cabins. As I pull in I notice that there is a cafe adjoined to the office. I walk in the office and press the bell that says “Press bell for service”. I wait and wait. I press the bell again and wait some more. I leave the office and go in the cafe. I try making small talk to the woman behind the counter but she just looks at me. I see a pie in the warmer and ask for that pie. I ask if it is ugly or good looking. She looks ate me deadpan and says “Mince and Cheese” she’s not joking. I order a coffee and say that I went to the office but no-one came. She says that she can tell me about the motor camp. I ask how much a cabin is. She says “Eighty dollars” and doesn’t even wait to see what my reaction is before she turns away. I get my pie out of it’s bag and see that the pie comes from Ruatoria. I muse that it wasn’t that long back that I would have been in that pie. I drive on.




I set the GPS for Opotiki and drive and drive through this area that doesn’t receive National Radio and appears to be the Caravan Graveyard of New Zealand. Every other house seems to have one or more caravans in various stages of decay. I wonder about how they all got here and why I have never seen so many in one area before.


Opape Motor Camp

I ask my GPS if we are near a motor camp and it says that there is one just 12km along the road. The day is getting on and I feel in need of shelter. I am not sleeping in the van tonight. I pass a sign on the other side of the road that I’ve been seeing for many miles but never actually read. I stop, turn round to read it:

Nau Mai
Haere Mai
You are entering the tribal land of
First nation People

It reads more as a warning than a welcome.

As I approach the Motor Camp my GPS talks me down “Turn right in one hundred and fifty metres”. I follow instructions and sweep off the highway into a tree lined nightmare landscape. I am convinced that I have turned into the wrong place, derelict vehicles and parts of vehicles litter the ground. All kinds of junk is everywhere. The sky is low and dark, clouds swirl just above my head. It feels very bad to be here. As I stop I pass a small building, on the door is a hand painted sign that reads:

“Shut the door” and underneath that in very big letters is the word RATS. 

I cannot believe this is the motor camp that my GPS knows about. This is some hideous mistake. As I look for a space that is big enough to turn the van I see a small pink building that has the word OFFICE on its side. It looks like half of a caravan but more like the middle part that would be left over if you cut both ends off except that they look like they were ripped off. I quickly turn the van and making sure that I do not skid the tyres I drive out as fast as I can without waking the zombies that must surely live there. I get to the highway and there is a palpable sense of relief as I feel my tyres grip the asphalt and pull away. I wonder about all those derelict vehicles and wonder if they were people that never got away quick enough. And all these derelict caravans? I wonder if the lack of people that claim to have been along this coast might be due more to the survival rate that the visitor rate.








Tirohanga Motor Camp.

I ask the GPS for the next motor camp and it is 11km along the road. I drive fast, I am tired and feeling harried. I pass a huge sign that says:


“3 KLM Motor Camp” it agrees with the GPS in all except spelling and grammar so I continue at speed. Again the GPS talks me in except it is telling me to turn left when the motor camp is clearly on the right. My heart sinks and I dread what I will find. I pull into the office and a white woman greets me with a smile and a warm welcome. I feel welcome and realise that not since Tolalga Bay have I felt that. I check in, phone the Ferry company and bring my booking forward. I am going home while I still can.



 Desert Road

On the way back I pick the route that takes me across the Desert Road. The volcanos are hidden behind rain clouds and veils of falling rain even though the sun is shining on the other side of the sky
I remember stopping here some years back and taking a picture of myself here while on holiday so I stop and do the same again: