On Cook’s Tail

By Jason Burgess

Using Captain Cook’s first points of contact as a reference and a Roadcraft BaseJumper OCV (Overland Camping Vehicle) as his stead, Jason Burgess set the controls for the farthest eastern edges of the lower North Island. Along the way he discovered wide open-country and hardy souls along epic beaches where he retired each night within earshot of a shore break.

“You must see! You must see!” chant the excited family of Thai tourists who wave us down on the rocky road to Cape Palliser. “Seals there, many, very beautiful. You must see!” On a coast so raw, Maui could have just lifted it – wind stunted manuka, dwarf flax and all – straight from the sea, our encounter with a mini bus full of eastern explorers on tour in an unseasonable storm, is surreal.

Imagine, methinks, how bizarre then the first sight of Captain Cook’s Endeavour must have been to East Coast Maori. Initially the Endeavour was thought to be a mythical floating island. As this southerly gale pins our ears back, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chathams suddenly drove northward. Peaked tops of cliff faces emerge like hooded druids from a fog of rain, adding mystery and an overwhelming sense of isolation to this southernmost tip of Te Ahi No Maui. Well, that is if you discount the intrusion of a drenched elderly Englishman who approaches our campervan and points to two women gingerly shuffling down the 250 stairs from the cast iron Palliser lighthouse. “I’m not so good with heights,” he tells me, “but that’s my wife and her sister.”

Up the coast, the iconic Castlepoint lighthouse sits on the shoulders of a monkey-face promontory, jutting deep into the Pacific about where Cook traded with waka offshore, as he had at Palliser. A loop track around the point proffers wide views across the arcing bay, reef and Deliverance Cove. Normally a surfer’s paradise and an angler’s heaven, oceanside the sea boils, and salt spray flails the rocks on the back of a force ten blow. Cook dedicated the names of his home-country landmarks, Lords and Admirals onto a coastline already better tagged with handles representing the landscape. In this case the Maori name, Rangiwhakaoma, “the place to stand to see the running sky,” is apt.

“Herbertville?” says Hugh at the Seaview campground, “even people in Dannevirke and Waipak’ don’t know where we are and we’re only an hour from there.” While Kiwi’s might not be aware of its whereabouts, “European cyclists,” says Hugh’s wife Pam, “have no problems at all finding it.” The names Joseph and Sarah Herbert probably won’t mean much to many, but to the community formerly known as Wainui, these early settlers left their name. Big water is an apposite moniker for this 11km stretch of wild sands, which sit capped by the headland Cook dubbed, Cape Turnagain.

There’s no cell phone coverage but there is a pub/store, a couple of crumbling barns near the golf course and a garden with a hedge pruned to read ‘BUGGER‘. Hugh says, “At the turn of the century Herbertville was thriving. It had a big old hotel, several shops, a police station and blacksmiths.”

Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimau ngahoronukupo-kaiwhenuakitanatahu near Orangahau, is little more than a road sign and a distant hill, but as the world’s longest placename in an English speaking country it draws a steady pilgrimage of international visitors down SH52 for been-there done-that photos. (The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one).

It’s a bit of a culture shock heaving to for a coffee in Havelock North. The public toilet greets me before playing a Richard Claydermanish version of “What the World Needs Now.“ The shop assistants all speak with grapes in their mouths and the Info centre pushes vineyard visits over everything else. I catch sight of my gone-troppo-self in boutique windows – I’m about as mismatched in this town of long-lunching ladies as one of Cook’s crew would be.

Following Cook, lead we head to higher ground. At the stunning Te Mata Peak track, a kaumatua’s karakia welcomes a group of tourists and stops us dead on the ridgeline. With neck-hairs bristling we get an insight into the chronicles of legend regarding the Sleeping Giant that rests within this sacred range.

Gannet Safari’s Overland 4X4 tours leave the tarseal at the Cape Kidnappers Golf Course. For two hours we traverse the spectacular cliff tops of Maui’s hook and the hallowed vales of the Tom Doke designed 18-holes enroute to the point where local Maori snatched the Endeavour’s Tahitian interpreter’s boy, Taiata, thinking he was one of their own. Pulling up onto the headland, Tony, our guide casually suggests “Look to the right, you might see a gannet or two.” Kidnapper’s is the largest mainland colony of Australasian gannets anywhere: there are thousands. Stepping down from the bus an Australian visitor asks, “We won’t disturb them, will we?” “Not at all,” replies Tony. “They actually said to me recently that they were thrilled we were now bringing two bus loads people for them to look at everyday!”

The ‘Devil’s Elbow’ on SH2 is a prelude to the challenging but beautiful drive between Napier and Wairoa, skirting Lake Tutira and wending through the gorges of the Mohaka River. Blue skies are now shining on me. As we hit the Mahia Peninsular, the shoulder of the Nuhaka-Opoutama coast road gives way to the sheer chalky cliffs dwarfing three surfers feasting on a banquet of perfect peaks. Kahawhai St, Pipi Cres and Moana Drive sum up the coastal vibe of Mahia Beach. And, as luck would have it, Wellington reggae band Hikoikoi kick off at the aptly named Sunset pub, easing us into the spirit of the peninsula.

Among Mahia’s better-known residents is a dolphin called Moko, although according to Di, herself a local, “Our Moko went to Gisborne looking for a mate. It’s been over a year. If he doesn’t find a girl soon, I’m thinking he might be…you know…he-he-he?!”

Cook renamed Waikawa Island, off the end of Mahia, Portland. The island can be seen from high on Kirikiri Road. Before Europeans the island – once visited by the sacred waka Takitimu – was a Whare Wananga (school of learning.) Cook never landed here. He was met by warriors brandishing arms, and the distraction saw the Endeavour narrowly miss running aground. Further around the coast road is Bishop Williams’ baptismal font, a basin within a stone at Whangawehi, where Maori were first baptised in 1842. An industrial zone marks the spot where in 1769 two worlds collided on the west side of Turanganui River in present day Gisborne. Cook’s effigy stands on the east bank near the statue of Young Nick, who still points from an imaginary crow’s nest to the white cliffs of Te Kuri o Paoa, a sighting that not only earned him two kegs of rum, but naming rights in-perpetuity.

A local on Waikanae beach laughs knowingly as he asks, “Going up the coast? Nothing much changed up there, eh?” “On the Cape you’re either going up or coming around,” says Mike at the Tolaga Bay Holiday Park, the ideal base to go up and over on the hour long walk into Cooks Cove. Triple trunk cabbage trees sprout from open fields. In the distance below whistling farmers and barking dogs herd skittish flocks in dust clouds that disperse into a heat haze. The Cove remains serene. When Joseph Banks came ashore here, he was overawed at discovering the “hole in the wall” arch. He commented that “so much is pure nature superior to art.” Local Maori were less enthusiastic, referring to it instead as Te Kotore o te whenua, “the anus of the land.”

From the 660m long Tolaga Bay wharf north, we allow a couple of days of ducking and diving into bays like Anaura, the second landing site for the crew of the Endeavour, and their first friendly Aotearoan welcome. Even then time gets away on us along the timeless SH35. Like surveyors in a foreign land, we round the 20 odd kilometres of gravel road from Te Araroa towards East Cape, where reefs meet stony beaches before sweeping up into steep hillsides. It feels like Hawaii. Seven hundred and fifty steps ascend the Cape’s hump, and from here only East Island and a distant fleet of fishing boats spoil the horizon’s bend to South America.