From the eastern tip of the North Island, a mountainous backbone runs 650km southwest to the outskirts of Wellington, defining and isolating the east coast. The Raukumara, Kaweka, Ruahine, Tararua and Rimutaka mountain ranges protect much of the region from the prevailing westerlies and cast a long rain shadow, the bane of the area’s sheep farmers, who watch their land become parched, dusty and brown each summer. Increasingly, these pastures are being given over to viticulture, and the regions of Poverty Bay, Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa are world-renowned for their wine. Any tour of the wineries has to take in Poverty Bay, a major grape-growing region, where the main centre of Gisborne was the first part of New Zealand sighted by Cook’s expedition in 1769. Finding little – other than wary local Maori – he named it Poverty Bay and sailed south to an area he later named Hawke Bay, after his boyhood hero Admiral Sir Edward Hawke (the name of the surrounding province has since evolved into Hawke’s Bay). Here Cook clashed with Maori at Cape Kidnappers, now the site of an impressive gannet colony.
Hawke’s Bay has long been dubbed “the fruit bowl of New Zealand” and its orchard boughs still sag under the weight of apples, pears and peaches. The district is best visited from the waterfront city of Napier, famed for its Art Deco buildings, constructed after a massive earthquake flattened much of the city in 1931. Nearby Hastings suffered the same fate and wove Spanish Mission-style buildings into the resulting Art Deco fabric, though these won’t delay you long as you head south to the sheep lands of the Wairarapa and the temptingly accessible vineyards surrounding Martinborough.
Access to the mountainous interior of this region is limited, with only six roads winding over or cutting through the full length of the ranges. The tortuous but scenic SH38 forges northwest from the small town of Wairoa, the gateway to the remote wooded mountains of Te Urewera National Park and beautiful Lake Waikaremoana, which is encircled by the four-day Lake Waikaremoana Track tramping route.
No visit to Napier and Hastings is complete without a visit to the world’s most accessible mainland gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers and an exploration of the region’s surrounding seventy or so wineries.
After James Cook’s ill-starred initial encounter with Maori at Gisborne, he sailed to the southern limit of Hawke Bay and anchored off the jagged peninsula known to the Ngati Kahungunu as Te Matua-a-maui, “the fishhook of Maui” – a reference to the origin of the North Island, which was, as legend has it, dragged from the oceans by Maui. Here, Maori traders noticed two young Tahitian interpreters aboard the Endeavour; believing them to be held against their will, the traders captured one of them and paddled away. The boy escaped back to the ship but Cook subsequently marked the point on his chart as Cape Kidnappers.
Neither Cook nor Joseph Banks, both meticulous in recording flora and fauna, mentioned any gannets on the peninsula’s final shark-tooth flourish of pinnacles. However, a hundred years later, twenty or so pairs were recorded, and now there are 20,000 birds – making this the largest mainland gannet colony in the world.
Gannets (closely related to boobies) are big birds that can live for as long as thirty years. They’re distinguished by their gold-and-black head markings and a complete lack of fear of humans. The birds at Cape Kidnappers start nesting in June, laying their eggs from early July through to October, with the chicks hatching six weeks later. Once fledged, at around fifteen weeks, the young gannets embark on their inaugural flight, a marathon, as-yet-unexplained 3000km journey to Australia, where they spend a couple of years before flying back to spend the rest of their life in New Zealand, returning to their place of birth to breed each year. It is thought that the birds mate for life, using the same or an adjacent nest each year, but recent observation indicates that adultery does occur – usually because of mistaken identity.
During the breeding season (July–mid-Oct), the cape is closed to the public. One of the three colonies, the Saddle, is reserved for scientific study and allows no public access. The remaining two colonies, Plateau and Black Reef, are open outside the breeding season, and at the former you will get within a metre or so of the birds. When pairs reunite, after a fishing- or nest-material-gathering trip, you can get close enough to hear their beaks clack together in greeting.
Napier and Hastings are almost entirely encircled by the Hawke’s Bay’s wine country, one of New Zealand’s largest and most exalted grape-growing regions. Largely the province of boutique producers, it is threaded by the Hawke’s Bay wine trail, which wends past 35-odd wineries, some offering free tastings and many with a restaurant, or at least the chance to picnic in landscaped grounds.
With a climatic pattern similar to that of the great Bordeaux vineyards, Hawke’s Bay produces fine Chardonnay and lots of Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is also big but struggles to ripen in cooler summers. Many winemakers are now setting Hawke’s Bay up to become New Zealand’s flagship producer of Syrah, a subtler version of the Aussie Shiraz (though it is made from the same grape) that utilises the original European name.
Much of the country covered by the wine trail is also part of the region’s art and food trails.
Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s longest-established wine-growing region: French Marist missionaries planted the first vines in 1851, ostensibly to produce sacramental wine. The excess was sold, and the commercial aspect of the operation continues today as the Mission Estate Winery. Some fifty years later, other wineries began to spring up, favouring open-textured gravel terraces alongside the Tutaekuri, Ngaruroro and Tukituki rivers, which retain the day’s heat and are free from moist sea breezes. In this arena the vineyards of the Gimblett Road – the so-called Gimblett Gravels – produce increasingly world-renowned wines.
New Zealand’s easternmost city, GISBORNE, is the first to catch the sun each day, and, thanks to the isolating mountain ranges all about it has been spared from overdevelopment. Warmed by long hours of sunshine, broad straight streets are lined with squat weatherboard houses and shops and interspersed with expansive parkland hugging the Pacific, the harbour and three rivers – the Taruheru, Turanganui and Waimata.
It was here in October 1769 that James Cook first set foot on the soil of Aotearoa, an event commemorated by a shoreside statue. He immediately ran into conflict with local Maori, killing several of them before sailing away empty-handed. He named the landing site Poverty Bay, since “it did not afford a single item we wanted, except a little firewood”. Despite the fertility of the surrounding lands, the name stuck, though many Maori prefer Turanganui a Kiwa – honouring a Polynesian navigator.
Early nineteenth-century Poverty Bay remained staunchly Maori and few Pakeha moved here, discouraged by both the Hau Hau rebellion and Te Kooti’s uprising. It wasn’t until the 1870s that Europeans arrived in numbers to farm the rich alluvial river flats. After a decent port was constructed in the 1920s, sheep farming and market gardening took off, followed more recently by the grape harvest and the rise of plantation forestry. Today Gisborne’s Maori and Pakeha population is almost exactly 50:50, and the city’s relaxed pace and easy-going beach culture make it appealing to visitors in search of a little sun and surf.
Gisborne offers one of New Zealand’s few opportunities for heart-pounding shark encounters, albeit (thankfully for some) from the safety of a cage. The reef is worth a look, too, or you can try your hand at surfing. Wine tours are also popular, and a good way to see the surrounding countryside.
Inland HASTINGS, 20km south of Napier, was once a rival to its northern neighbour as Hawke’s Bay’s premier city, buoyed by the wealth generated by the surrounding farmland and orchards. Napier’s ascendancy as a tourist destination put Hastings firmly in second place, though it does have an attractive core of buildings, erected after the same 1931 earthquake that rocked Napier. Hastings was saved from the worst effects of the ensuing fires, which were quenched using the artesian water beneath the city before they could take hold.
After the earthquake, Hastings embraced the Californian-inspired Spanish Mission style of architecture: roughcast stucco walls, arched windows, small balconies, barley-twist columns and heavily overhung roofs clad in terracotta tiles. The finest examples can be seen in an hour or so, using the self-guided Art Deco Hastings walk leaflet ($2 from the i-SITE). If time is short, limit your wanderings to Heretaunga Street East, taking in the gorgeous bronzework and sumptuous lead lighting of the Westerman Building or, at the corner of Hastings Street, the Hawke’s Bay Opera House – built fifteen years before the earthquake, but remodelled to create the region’s finest Spanish Mission facade.
The city is also at the heart of the wonderful Hawke’s Bay wine country, and most of its vineyards are within easy reach. Apples, pears and peaches also continue to be grown in huge quantities, and the harvest provides work (see Long names and famous flutes).
Hastings’ more upmarket neighbour is Havelock North, 3km southeast and at the foot of the striking ridgeline of Te Mata Peak. There isn’t a great deal to it, and the only diversion is a drive up the peak, or try out the local bars and cafés that line its cobbled streets.
Laidback, seaside NAPIER is Hawke’s Bay’s largest city (population 54,000) and one of New Zealand’s most likeable regional centres, thanks to its Mediterranean climate, affordable prices and the world’s best-preserved collection of small-scale Art Deco architecture, built after the earthquake that devastated the city in 1931 (see The earthquake).
Thanks to the whim of mid-nineteenth-century Land Commissioner Alfred Domett, the grid of streets in the city’s Art Deco commercial centre bears the names of literary luminaries – Tennyson, Thackeray, Byron, Dickens, Shakespeare, Milton and more. Bisecting it all is the partly pedestrianized main thoroughfare of Emerson Street, whose terracotta paving and palm trees run from Clive Square – one-time site of a makeshift “Tin Town” while the city was being rebuilt after the earthquake – to the Norfolk pine-fringed Marine Parade, Napier’s main beach.
Around the northeastern side of Bluff Hill (Mataruahou), about 5km from the city centre, lies the original settlement site of Ahuriri, now home to trendy restaurants, cafés, bars and boutiques.
Napier makes a perfect base from which to visit the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers as well as the vat-load of world-class wineries on the surrounding plains (see The Cape Kidnappers gannets).
In 1769, James Cook sailed past Ahuriri, the current site of Napier, noting the sea-girt Bluff Hill linked to the mainland by two slender shingle banks and backed by a superb saltwater lagoon – the only substantial sheltered mooring between Gisborne and Wellington. Nonetheless, after a less-than-cordial encounter with the native Ngati Kahungunu people he anchored just to the south, off what came to be known as Cape Kidnappers. Some thirty years later, when early whalers followed in Cook’s wake, Ahuriri was all but deserted, the Ngati Kahungunu having been driven out by rivals equipped with European guns. During the uneasy peace of the early colonial years, Maori returned to the Napier area, which weathered the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s relatively unscathed. The port boomed, but by the early years of the twentieth century all the available land was used up.
The 1931 earthquake saw Napier rebuilt in line with the times. Although Art Deco embraced
modernity, glorifying progress, the machine age and the Gatsby-style high life, the onset
of the Great Depression pared down these excesses, and Napier’s version was informed by
the privations of an austere era. At the same time, the architects looked for inspiration to
California’s Santa Barbara – which, just six years earlier, had suffered the same fate and risen
from the ashes. They adopted fountains (a symbol of renewal), sunbursts, chevrons, lightning
flashes and fluting to embellish the highly formalized but asymmetric designs. In Napier,
what emerged was a conglomeration of early-twentieth-century design, combining elements
of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Californian Spanish Mission style, Egyptian and Mayan
motifs, stylized floral designs and even Maori imagery. For the best part of half a century,
the city’s residents merely daubed the buildings in grey or muted blue paint. Fortunately,
this meant that when a few savvy visionaries recognized the city’s potential in the mid-1980s
and formed the Art Deco Trust, everything was still intact. The trust continues to promote
the preservation of buildings and provides funding for shopkeepers to pick out distinctive
architectural detail in pastel colours similar to those originally used.
You can get a sense of Art Deco Napier by wandering along the half-dozen streets of the
city centre, notably Emerson Street. Worth special attention here is the ASB Bank, on the
corner of Hastings Street. Its exterior is adorned with fern shoots and a mask from the head of
a taiaha (a long fighting club), while its interior has a fine Maori rafter design. On Tennyson
Street, look for the flamboyant Daily Telegraph building, with stylized fountains, and the
Municipal Theatre, built in the late 1930s in a strikingly geometric form.
The National Aquarium of New Zealand is one of the finest in the country, with distinct marine environments from Africa, Asia and Australia, plus a substantial New Zealand section. At the time of writing, a display for penguins rescued from the defunct Marine World was under construction; once open it should add to the aquarium’s already excellent reputation.
The most spectacular section is the ocean tank, its Perspex walk-through tunnel giving intimate views of rays and assorted sharks; try to time your visit for one of the hand-feeding sessions. There’s more hand feeding at the reef tank, plus behind-the- scenes tours and the chance to swim with the sharks in the ocean tank. Within the controlled environment of the tank and without shark cages or nets this is a rare chance to come face-to-face with these ‘monsters’ of the deep.
There are also excellent non-aquatic sections on New Zealand’s reptilian tuatara, and a nocturnal kiwi house.
At 213km, the road from Gisborne to Napier is easily manageable in a day, allowing plenty of time to take in the at times spectacular scenery and all the worthwhile stops along the way. South of Gisborne, SH2 leaves the Poverty Bay vineyards behind and traverses the hill country of the Wharerata State Forest before reaching Morere. From there it’s just a short jaunt down SH2 before you can turn east and access the Mahia Peninsula. Continuing west on SH2 brings you to Wairoa, from where you can access Te Urewera National Park and Lake Waikaremoana, or continue on to Napier, stopping off to see the Boundary Scenic Reserve.
South of Hastings, the main road (SH2) runs through the relentless sheep stations of Southern Hawke’s Bay, a region uncluttered by places of genuine interest. Small farming towns stand as fitting memorials to the pioneers who tamed the region, particularly Danes and Norwegians who stepped in when the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s discouraged immigration from Britain.
Te Urewera National Park, 65km northwest of Wairoa, straddles the North Island’s mountainous backbone and at 2120 square kilometres encompasses the largest untouched expanse of native bush outside Fiordland. Unusually for New Zealand, it is almost completely covered in vegetation; even the highest peaks – some approaching 1500m – barely poke through this dense cloak of primeval forest, whose undergrowth is trampled by deer and wild pigs and whose rivers are filled with trout. One road, SH38, penetrates the interior, but the way to get a true sense of the place is to hike, particularly the celebrated Lake Waikaremoana Track encircling Lake Waikaremoana, the “Sea of Rippling Waters” and the undoubted jewel of the park. The lake’s deep clear waters, fringed by white sandy beaches and rocky bluffs, are ideal for swimming, fishing and kayaking.
Habitation is sparse, but the Tuhoe people, the “Children of the Mist”, still live in the interior of the park (the largest concentration around the village of Ruatahuna). Most visitors make straight for Waikaremoana, the visitor centre and motor camp on the lakeshore, but immediately south, the quiet former hydroelectric development village of Tuai provides some additional basic services. Otherwise you’re on your own.
Shrouded by bushland, Lake Waikaremoana fills a huge scalloped bowl at an altitude of over 585m, precariously held back by the Panekiri and Ngamoko ranges. The lake came into being around 2200 years ago when a huge bank of sandstone boulders was dislodged from the Ngamoko range, blocking the river that once drained the valleys. The Maori have a more poetic explanation for the lake’s creation. Hau-Mapuhia, the recalcitrant daughter of Mahu, was drowned by her father and turned into a taniwha, or “water spirit”. In a frenzied effort to get to the sea, she charged in every direction, thereby creating the various arms of the lake. As she frantically ran south towards Onepoto, the dawn caught her, turning her to stone at a spot where the lake is said to ripple from time to time, in memory of her struggle.
The Lake Waikaremoana Track is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”. It is also the most popular multi-day tramp in the North Island and often compared with the South Island’s renowned Routeburn and Milford tracks, although, with the exception of an exhausting climb on the first day, this is a much gentler affair, with plenty of opportunities to fish, swim and listen to the plentiful and melodious birdlife.
About sixty percent of walkers prefer to travel clockwise around the lake, getting the challenging but panoramic ascent of Panekiri Bluff over with on the first day, though if the weather looks bad there’s no reason why you shouldn’t change your bookings (through the Aniwaniwa visitor centre) and go anticlockwise in the hope that it will improve.
Three days is enough for fit walkers, but it’s normally done in four, spending nights in the five Great Walk huts or five designated campsites scattered around the lakeshore. When tackled clockwise, as outlined below, the first leg is the toughest, so carry plenty of drinking water.
Te Kooti Rikirangi was one of the most celebrated of Maori “rebels”, a thorn in the side of the colonial government throughout the New Zealand Wars of the late 1860s and early 1870s. An excellent fighter and brilliant strategist, Te Kooti kept the mountainous spine of the North Island on edge for half a decade, eluding the biggest manhunt in New Zealand’s history.
Born near Gisborne around 1830, Te Kooti was not of chiefly rank but could trace his ancestry back to the captains of several waka (canoes) that brought the Maori to New Zealand. By the middle of the 1860s, he was fighting for the government against the fanatical, pseudo-Christian Hau Hau cult that started in Taranaki in 1862. The cult spread to the east coast where, in 1866, Te Kooti was unjustly accused of being in league with its devotees. Denied the trial he demanded, he was imprisoned on the Chatham Islands, along with three hundred of his supposed allies. In 1867, he was brought close to death by a fever, but rose again, claiming a divine revelation and establishing a new religion, Ringatu (“the uplifted hand”), which still has some sixteen thousand believers today. Ringatu took its cues from the Hau Hau, but developed into a uniquely Maori version of Catholicism, drawing heavily on the Old Testament. Some say Te Kooti saw himself as a Moses figure – apparently given to dousing his uplifted hand in phosphorus so that it glowed brightly in the dim meeting houses.
After two years on the Chathams, Te Kooti and his fellow prisoners commandeered a ship and engineered a dramatic escape, returning to Poverty Bay. He sought safety in the Urewera Range, with the Armed Constabulary in hot pursuit. Te Kooti still managed to conduct successful campaigns, exacting revenge against government troops at Whakatane on the Bay of Plenty, Mohaka in Hawke’s Bay and at Rotorua. With the end of the New Zealand Wars in 1872, Te Kooti took refuge in the Maori safe haven of the King Country. He was eventually pardoned in 1883, and in 1891 was granted a plot of land near Whakatane, where he lived out the last two years of his life.
Most of the Wairarapa region is archetypal Kiwi sheep country, with wool-flecked green hills stretching into the distance. In recent years, however, the southern half of the region has increasingly benefited from free-spending weekenders from Wellington visiting the boutique hotels, innovative restaurants and many wineries surrounding Martinborough, the region’s current wine capital and, along with Greytown, its most appealing settlement.
North of Masterton, the region’s main commercial centre, the Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre provides a wonderful opportunity to witness ongoing bird conservation work; to the south, Featherston is a base for walks up the bed of the Rimutaka Incline Railway.
Back on the coast, the laidback holiday settlement of Castlepoint is good for swimming and surfing, and Cape Palliser is the ideal spot for blustery mind-clearing walks and dramatic coastal scenery.
Cross the Rimutaka Range towards Wellington and you’re into the Hutt Valley, full of commuter-belt communities, none of which really warrants a stop until you reach Petone, on the outskirts of the capital.
The establishment of New Zealand’s earliest sheep station in the 1840s on rich alluvial lands close to present-day Martinborough paved the way for development by the progressive Small Farm Association (SFA). This was the brainchild of Joseph Masters, a Derbyshire cooper and longtime campaigner against the separation of landowner and labourer, who sought to give disenfranchised settlers the opportunity to become smallholders. Liberal governor George Grey supported him and in 1853 suggested the SFA should persuade local Maori to sell land for the establishment of two towns – Masterton and Greytown.
Initially Greytown prospered, and it retains an air of antiquity rare among New Zealand towns, but the routing of the rail line favoured Masterton, famed chiefly today for the annual Golden Shears sheepshearing competition.
Visitors in search of the esoteric might want to stray along SH52, which makes a 120km tar-sealed loop east towards the rugged coastline from dull Waipukurau, 50km south of Hastings, re-emerging at Dannevirke. Almost 50km south of Waipukurau (and 6km south of Porangahau, where there is rare coastal access), a sign marks the hill known as Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, which, unsurprisingly, rates as one of the world’s longest place names; roughly, this mouthful translates as “the hill where Tamatea, circumnavigator of the lands, played the flute for his lover”.
Over the last couple of decades, little MARTINBOROUGH, 18km southeast of Featherston, has been transformed from an obscure farming town into the centre of a compact wine region synonymous with some of New Zealand’s finest reds. It’s within easy striking distance of Wellington, and weekends see the arrival of the smart set to load up their shiny 4WDs at the cellar doors. On Mondays and Tuesdays much of the town simply shuts down to recover.
Martinborough was initially laid out in the 1870s by landowner John Martin, who named the streets after cities he had visited on his travels and arranged the core, centred on a leafy square, in the form of a Union Jack. For over a century the town languished as a minor agricultural centre until the first four wineries – Ata Rangi, Dry River, Chifney and Martinborough (all of which produced their first vintages in 1984) – re-invented it as the coolest, driest and most wind-prone of
the North Island’s grape-growing regions. With the aid of shelterbelts, strategically planted trees and hedges, that splice the vineyards, the wineries produce some outstanding Pinot Noir, notable Cabernet Sauvignon, rich Chardonnay and richly aromatic Riesling.
Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre is one of the best places in the country to view endangered native birds and is staffed by people engaged in bringing those birds back from the edge. Kokako, kakariki, Campbell Island teal, hihi, kiwi, takahe and more can be found in spacious aviaries set along the trails through lowland primeval forest. Beyond the trail several thousand hectares of forest are used for reintroducing birds to the wild. The generous size of the cages on the trail and the thick foliage often make the birds hard to spot, so you’ll need to be patient.
More immediate gratification comes in the form of a stand of Californian redwoods, a nocturnal kiwi house, a new behind-the-scenes kiwi breeding facility, regular kiwi chick feedings (check times on entry), reptilian tuatara and closed-circuit cameras trained on other birds’ nests. A twenty-minute audiovisual gives a moving account of the decline of birdlife in New Zealand, or you can watch long-fin eels and kaka being fed. Alternatively join a two-hour guided tour with a ranger to add context, or a twilight tour to add atmosphere and change perspective. There is also a picnic area and café.