by Shane Boocock
It’s not often my journey is interrupted by a tsunami, but on my first day in the lovely seaside town of Whakatane a tsunami warning cleared the beaches and put New Zealand on high alert, as a devastating Chilean earthquake unleashed its power on land and out at sea.
Yet the sea is what makes this sunshine spot in the Eastern Bay of Plenty very special. Every morning of my visit I could hear it crashing on the shore from my apartment overlooking Ohope Beach as the sun began its ascent above the horizon. I could see it from ridgeline lookouts as I hiked the scenic reserve above town, as I kayaked on the harbour and strolled alongside the Whakatane River, and even as I was fishing off its coastline – the sea, it can be said, permeates many facets of Whakatane life.
Whakatane has a lot of good things to be proud of, including a town centre that hasn’t yet been demolished, a small architectural wonder with many art deco and original buildings lining the streets. What’s new is Whakatane’s upgraded waterfront lining the Whakatane River, including a lovely river walk and wharf area where the White Island tour boats and charter fishing trips depart.
Behind them sits Kohi Point Scenic Reserve, like some giant Neolithic sculpture. It was here that I met Rob from Walking Legends who would guide me on the eight kilometre trail that traverses the headland, snaking its way through bush and beach, over hills and humps, with hundreds of steps either descending steeply or ascending heavenward.
It was a humid day and, but for the shade of trees and bush, a scorcher! The first section was a steep climb that can take your breath away if you’re used to sitting at a computer. Then it meanders, and suddenly you find yourself on a Maori Pa site, part of a once vast fortress covering the reserve that protected the local Iwi from marauding tribes. The track eventually emerges out in the open on the Kohi Point headland, with views out to White Island, before dropping down into Otarawairere Bay, currently the home of the nation’s friendliest dolphin, Moko.
In the bay we stopped to have a morning tea – chocolate chip cookies and fruit under the shade of Pohutukawa trees, in front of a huge surf crashing onto lava rocks lining the edge of the sands. We then climbed more steps to another high point on the trail, before descending into the West End of Ohope Beach where surfers were riding some perfect point breaks. ??After a light lunch, I reached into my past to test my kayaking strokes.
It had been about 20 years since I’d last put paddles and boat to water. Kenny from KC Kayaks was my guide for the afternoon on the protected side of Ohiwa Harbour – all 26sqkm that was formed around 6000 years ago – home to dolphins, dotterels, black swans, wading birds, seals and even Okras searching for stingrays, all invading this paradisiacal environment.
Kenny is a replanted Scotsman with a passion for the outdoors and the abundant sunshine and climate of the Eastern Bay of Plenty. The harbour looked placid enough but afternoon winds can thwart the paddler at times!
On my third day, I lined up on the wharf with Ian, Matt and James from Papakura and Keith and his son-in-law William from England, as Phil and his deckhand, Steve, prepared Phil’s 33ft fishing boat for a fishing expedition to White Island – 50km offshore, a 90-minute cruise at top knots.??Phil mentioned on the way out, “I haven’t seen tuna here for about two years, but on my best day we boated 37 yellowfin.” He was confident about catching the big ones, not yellowfin but kingfish, in the deep waters off White Island.
As we approached the island, we could see the outer edge of the crater, where mutton birds nested, and in a few places, lichen-like grass made it look like a greenkeeper’s backyard. ??Phil attached some sleek long jigs to a 200lb trace tied to 80lb of braided line that was threaded onto his $1400 rods and reels. “Only the best gear will do,” remarked Phil. “I’ve snapped too many rods in the past. Now, when I walk into the local store, they all rush to serve me as they know I’ll be buying only the best.”
Later in the day, Phil reckoned we needed to toughen up – jigging requires technique and a certain amount of repetitive energy that is physically very tiring after a few hours. After hooking a big one (not some fisherman’s tale), it was enough for me to contemplate renewing my gym membership to pump weights – my arms ached with the sheer power these fish can exert when they simply strip off line at will. After 10-minutes of grunting, swearing and groaning, the giant kingfish was near the surface, when suddenly the fish seized its final bid for freedom and shed the hook.
On the day, we each caught at least half a dozen smaller kingfish that were thrown back, but they are still seriously strong fighting fish that can put up a real battle.
Having fished off White Island, named by Captain Cook (what didn’t he name?), it was only natural to go and visit it personally to explore New Zealand’s only active marine volcano. The volcano is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 years’ old. Inside the crater walls, virtually no vegetation survives the harsh acidic environment.
In the morning we met Marcus our pilot for a briefing and a 20-minute exhilarating helicopter flight out to one of the most recognisable landmarks in New Zealand. ??On touch-down, we were supplied with hard hats (compulsory) and gas masks (just in case of an eruption or serious gas exposure). We were then briefed on where to walk and where not to walk! In single file, we trotted off on a guided tour of one of the most unique hiking trails in New Zealand.
There were lush beds of yellow and white sulphur crystals growing amongst hissing, steaming, bubbling fumaroles, mud pools and lava bombs. ??Elsewhere, hot thermal streams and the smell of sulphur mingled with thoughts running through my mind that this little crater could go ballistic at any moment. However, it’s the colours that are the most vivid aspect of the hike – pools of liquid that looked like the seafood chowder I’d eaten two lunches ago, murky puddles ringed in saffron coloured hues, even streams of gooey fluid that looked like it was poured straight from a container of car anti-freeze.
An Australian summed up the White Island experience by writing in the helicopter company’s guestbook, “Fantastic and amazing – a trip to another world. Just us on the island feeling a bit like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren.”
Beachpoint Resort, Self Contained Apartments, Ohope Beach, t: 07 312 6100, w: www.beachpointresort.co.nz. Two-bedroom beachfront rooms in peak season start from $225 per room per night on a multi night stay. A one night stay is $250 per room per night. At different times of year negotiate the price, especially if you are staying longer.
Walking Kegends, Rob Franklin, t: 021 545 068 or 0800 walk NZ, w: www.walkinglegends.com. Guided 1 day trips to the Whirinaki Rainforest, multiple day hikes around lake Waikaremoana, into Te Urewera National Park and the Tongariro National Park.
KG Kayaks, Kenny McCracken, t: 027 272 4073, w: www.kgkayks.co.nz. Trips to whale Island, West End Ohope Beach or Ohiwa Harbour; limited to 6 paddlers. Hire only – $25 for one hour or $40 for two hours. guided moonlight trip $70, Ohiwa Harbour $80 (both 2 hours) and Whale Island $135, including return boat trip.
Roquette Restaurant and Bar, Whakatane, t: 07 307 0722, w: www.roquette-restaurant.co.nz. A riverside restaurant in the centre of town with stylish décor and a varied menu offering a fine dining experience in a wonderful setting.
Toi Toi restaurant, Ohope Beach, t: 07 312 5623, w: www.toitoi-ohope.co.nz. Another stylish restaurant offering great food, superior décor and friendly staff – you won’t be disappointed, especially out on the back deck with views of the beach.
Vulcan Helicopters, Whakatane Airport, t: +64 7308 4188 or 0800 804 354. Flights to White Island, including guided hikes from $455 per person, minimum three people.
Diveworks Charters, skipper Phil van Dusschoten, Whakatane, t: 07 308 5896 or 0800 308 5896, w: www.diveworks-charters.com. Phil has great local knowledge and some of the best gear available. White Island fishing trips are $300 per person. Also offer diving trips, swimming with dolphins and whale watching.
White Island Tours, t: 07 308 9588 or 0800 733 529, w: www.whiteisland.co.nz. Six hour white Island eco-adventure boat trip, $175 per person.
Salt Spray Surf School, West End ohope Beach, t: 07 312 4909, E: firstname.lastname@example.org. Beaver offers a range of instruction for individuals or groups, and hires out boards.
Budget Car rental, t: 07 308 6399. www.budget.co.nz
Air New Zealand, four times a week mon-Fri between Auckland and Whakatane, three flights on weekends. One flight a week between Wellington and Whakatane, w: www.airnewzealand.co.nz