By Jason Burgess
It was on one of those rare occasions when my seldom heard-from Alpha-male voice (let’s call him Grumpy,) spoke up, pooh-poohing the idea of hiking Wairarapa’s fully catered Tora Coastal Walk. “Eating gourmet dinners and tramping with no packs?” I heard myself say. “Huh! That’s not tramping.”
Fortunately my inner, Happy, Dopey, Sneezy, Bashful and Sleepy disagreed, while Doc – and my wife – privately counselled me on the benefits of fitting a relaxing back country tramp into a harried schedule. So hi ho hi ho, it’s off to Tora we go.
In the space of four short days from hotel door to hotel door, we’ll cover around 35 kilometres of surf and turf, the postman delivering our packs to the next night’s digs where hot showers, cakes and delicious dinners await.
Whakapata Cottage is an old musterer’s home on the Elworthy farm. It’s our first night’s lodgings. Like the historic Cookhouse at Tora and the 1920’s Shearers Quarters on our last night at Greentops, there’s a plethora of magazines, books, historical prints, and maps to occupy the curious. My nose, however, leads me to the kitchen. Tonight it’s fresh venison steaks and a Mediterranean bake for the vegetarians, accompanied by enough salads and vegetables to feed a Buddhist monastery.
James Elworthy comes by at dusk to deliver Lemon Tart and the trail maps. In the morning, his wife Kiri arrives with her trusty black lab, Waka, to brief us on our day’s walking route.
Day one is described as moderate, at 19km it’s the longest of the three. While not technically difficult, there are still a few steep climbs up Limestone and Tim’s Hills, so it’s no walk in the park either (that’s day two!). The Tora is more about enjoying some clean air, wide-open spaces and the hospitality of the locals than pushing the limits of human endurance, so there are always options to reduce walk times and/or difficulty.
We make for the capricious Pacific seashore across backcountry farms, riverbeds and summits, mostly following the original fence line of the Riddiford estate, which in Victorian times comprised 90,000 acres. Deep in the crumpled hinterland, the distant roar of surf creates a sound bed for birdcall, barking farm dogs and the whistles of herd gathering farmers, the salt tinged breeze, piqued with an earthy pungency of livestock and dewy meadows. The bustle of skittish sheep and nonchalant cud chewing cows are constant companions.
From a lookout on Pukemuri Hill we gaze out over the beachfront Tora Station. The arc of ocean is furrowed into two-metre swells delivering thunderous claps and white water spumes onto ragged outcrops. The wind kicks up an extra ten knots, it’s nothing short of invigorating. Wandering cattle meander along a gravel road that traces northwards to an estate known to locals as Te-White (a corruption of Te Awaiti.) Sheep forage oncoastal mountains picked clean by Antarctic on-shores. After six hours of open country walking, I’m gaining fresh respect for the farmers out here.
We descend rapidly down Rope Run, an impossibly steep bulldozer track, to the hundred year old Cookhouse. It’s oxidised patina bearing more scars than all the sheep ever mustered in the nearby shearing shed. “G’Day,” says a friendly voice from behind the gate. “I’m Jennie Boyne. Welcome to Tora. Your packs are around the back. There’s a cake on the table, tea and coffee in the kitchen. If I were you two, I’d grab the Ocean Room. Alistair will be across later.”
Until recently, the Cookhouse was the Boyne family home. The wood walls are covered with 30-plus years of Alistair’s rugby team photos, while the shelves are festooned with Jenny’s cookbooks. ??The coal range, fold-up counter top and shop door from the original store and kitchen are still in place, as are the ancient coat hooks for the oilskins of the stockmen that once dined here. Speaking of stock, there’s none finer than 86-year old Bob Boyne who turns up to help rally his son’s cattle herd that have suddenly transformed the cookhouse into an island. Bob moved to Tora in 1952 and is the last of ten WWII vets who bought subsidised land parcels from the government. Back then there were no roads or bridges, access was by ship or on foot. “My wife came from a privileged upbringing in Sydney,” says Bob. “Couldn’t boil a potato when she came here. She became the best cook in the district. Blokes would turn up to give us a hand just to have her cake at smoko.”
An old boiler and skeletal frame is all that’s left of the wreck of the coal freighter Opua that ran aground at Tora in 1926. It’s our first port of call on day two, and one of Wairarapa’s most celebrated surf breaks. A shoeless half hour soon follows as we walk lopsided up the steep sweep of beach leading out to Manurewa Point seal colony. The sun is unrelenting – the seas mountainous. The dust of the odd passing vehicle shimmers aloft on a brisk salty breeze.
In treeless fields, the heat haze casts a mirage of stupefied sheep, standing like stoned surfers staring out at the pounding waves across the road.?? A farm gate announces “Shirley’s Coastal Gardens. Coffee. Welcome.” A sweet cake and a cuppa are a gratifying prospect on any ramble and, as it turns out, Shirley is more than proud of her fresh baked fare. “You know the playwright Roger Hall?” she asks. “He said he didn’t like muffins until he tried one of my Morning Glories.” Shirley’s afternoon refreshments come with an obligatory ‘garden tour.’ Among the few hardy coastal natives, she’s pleased with the progress of her Datura, agapanthus and ginger and, without a hint of irony, tells us about shooting the last of her exhausted doves to save them from a stoat.
Later, from the trig above Greentops, an unimpeded 360º panorama sweeps up the coast and across the continuous ride of scrunched hills past the windmills at Hau Nui wind farm and the three inverted canoes of Kupe that make up the Maungaraki Range, to the distant Rimutaka’s. Chris and Jen Bargh have been farming Greentops for 29 years. Chris knows every intimate detail of this unforgiving landscape, and Jen has been involved with the Tora Walk since it’s inception in 1995. Her cooking is one of the many reasons for its ongoing popularity.
After a trip up to the trig I’m ready for what Kiri and Jennie Boyne promise is the best menu of the walk. Chris hand delivers course after delicious course, the main, stacked high with fresh caught, pan-fried Blue Nose and Blue Cod fillets.
More the better, methinks, for getting up Mt Bugler in the morning, where Grumpy is last seen gripping an ancient totara post for dear life, as a freak southerly storm, blows the last traces of slick from his city slickness.
TORA COASTAL WALK – an all inclusive three day/ three night walk. All you need to bring is sunscreen, a sleeping bag, lunch-box, drink bottle and daypack. Ingredients for breakfast and lunches are provided. t: Kiri Elworthy, 06 3078115, w: toracoastalwalk.co.nz
GETTING THERE – For out-of-towners travelling to Tora via Wellington, transport is a no-brainer. Jim and colleen Bargh at ‘A Day out’ tours provide door-to-door pick-ups and drop-offs at hotels, residences or airlinecounters. Depending on your timetable, A Day out offers the opportunity to tailor your own tiki tour through the vineyards, cafes or other attractions of the Wairarapa. Jim and colleen’s down-home hospitality, and local knowledge is refreshing; the perfect entrée to the hospitality of the Tora walk which they have serviced exclusively for a number of years. t: 04 385-1112, c: Jim: 027 275 0913, w: www.adayout.co.nz
For those with their own transport, you can drive right up to the front gate of the Whakapata Cottage and safely park your vehicle for the entirety of the Tora walk.