(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 2.)
We live in a fantastic little country. I am reminded of this every time I take a long road trip, which is something I like to do often.
Note that I say “little” country – which New Zealand is when compared with, say, Australia or the United States. But I never cease to be amazed at how big this little country can seem when you set out to explore it. It’s the biggest little country in the world.
There are places where the back country seems to go on forever; where you can crest the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere and look out over dramatic, rugged landscapes that give the impression of stretching to infinity.
One of the factors that contributes to that sensation of “bigness” is the sheer diversity of our scenery, which is something overseas visitors frequently comment on.
Late last year my wife and I drove from Sydney to Canberra and then from Canberra to Melbourne – all up, a journey of more than 1200 kilometres in which the scenery varied little. In New Zealand you need travel only a fraction of that distance to experience striking changes in the countryside: sub-tropical beaches, park-like farmland, limpid lakes and fast-flowing rivers, forests (both native and exotic), alpine tussock country, snow-capped mountain ranges and lots more in between.
We squeeze a helluva lot into a small package, and there are always new places to discover.
A couple of weeks ago we decided to explore one of the very few parts of the country we were unfamiliar with: the Kawhia-Raglan area on the North Island’s west coast. Our route took us north via Taranaki, where we took the Surf Highway – which skirts around Mt Taranaki, staying close to the coast – rather than the more direct road to New Plymouth via Stratford and Inglewood.
It was worth the extra travelling time. The countryside is very easy on the eye – surprisingly so for dairying country – and there are some charming small towns along the way. We particularly liked Opunake, which is set behind a pretty bay (if you don’t mind black sand) and has the look and feel of a quintessential Kiwi country town.
One of the striking things about Taranaki, particularly north of Hawera, is the luxuriant growth. Trees and shrubs thrive in the mild, relatively wet climate and you can see that the people who live there (Taranakians?) make the most of it. So many houses boasted magnificent gardens that at times we felt as though we were passing through a giant park.
At New Plymouth we booked into a motor camp where I had stayed before, and which must be one of Taranaki’s best-kept secrets. The prosaically named Belt Road Holiday Park is only a few blocks from the city centre but occupies a superb elevated site right on the coast. We enjoyed crumbed snapper and chips with a glass of riesling on the verandah of our cabin and watched the comings and goings from the port below as the sun slowly dipped into the Tasman. I never envy people who stay in sterile, five-star hotels, and least of all at times like this.
Heading north the following day we admired the neat Kiwi baches beside the bush-fringed estuary at Tongaporutu, stopped for a coffee and a muffin at the pretty settlement of Mokau (at an excellent café run, like many these days, by Asians) and gave thanks that no developer had got his clutches on this beautiful and largely unspoilt stretch of coastline. Being a long way from Auckland must help.
We took the back road to Kawhia, turning off the main highway at Awakino and winding through bush-clad hills. There were large arrows on the road at regular intervals indicating the direction of the traffic – a pointer to the fact that many of the people who travel these scenic roads, well off the beaten track, are not New Zealanders but foreign tourists in campervans. At remote Waikawau we diverted to a beach accessible only on foot through a tunnel dug in 1911. (An irrelevant point of interest: one of my daughters tells me this intriguing location featured in an episode of the TV series Sensing Murders, a farmer’s wife allegedly having been murdered there in the 1970s.)
Several times while driving, my attention was caught by what at first glance looked like common harrier hawks, but which turned out, on a second look, to be the smaller and much faster native falcons, or karearea. My Field Guide to New Zealand Birds tells me the karearea is classified as uncommon, but these impressive predators seemed quite plentiful in this sparsely populated habitat.
At the quiet little harbourside town of Kawhia, a place that gave the impression of still waiting to be discovered, we ate a late lunch and watched Maori boys jumping into the tide from the wharf (or to be more precise, from the roof of a shed on top of the wharf). Then it was onto another slow, winding road through the hills to Raglan, a much livelier and trendier destination.
Lively and trendy it may be – Raglan is a surfers’ mecca, with wall-to-wall cafes – but it’s also a very appealing place, with an attractive harbour and magnificent beaches.
To return home to the Wairarapa, we cut back through the centre of the North Island. I chose another road I hadn’t taken before: SH30 from Te Kuiti to Taupo via Benneydale. I had been intrigued by the remote coal mining settlement of Benneydale ever since reading about the staunch unionists there who went on strike in support of the watersiders in the great industrial showdown of 1951.
Benneydale today is a forlorn township that has clearly enjoyed better days. There’s still a sign pointing to the underground mine and another indicating that it remains the property of Solid Energy, but it seems mining ceased some years ago.
Further along SH30 we deviated again, into the Pureora State Forest. Here I discovered there’s a gravel road that cuts through the forest for nearly 30 kilometres (and passes close to the geographical centre of the North Island) before coming out at Tihoi, west of Lake Taupo.
We paused for a moment to consider our options: a sealed highway through farmland via Mangakino and Taupo, or a one-way metal road through one of the largest remaining tracts of native bush in the North Island. There are no prizes for guessing which route we chose.