The East Cape - New Zealand's Unpolished Gem

Do you like traveling in areas where tourist attractions are plenty and well sign-posted? Where you have easy access to basic conveniences like restaurants, cafes and supermarkets? Do you expect campgrounds and public toilets to always be spotless and spider web free and for locals to treat visitors like kings and queens no matter what?

If you do, don’t come to the East Cape!

The East Cape is a magical place where people are real (and that includes being moody at times), sights and attractions are often well hidden, everything is a bit rustic and rundown (in a charming kind of way), the next supermarket can be hours away, you’re more likely to be held up by cows and horses running wild on the street than traffic jam and the pure beautify and roughness of the landscape takes your breath away!

Beatuiful Clifs in the Morning light

Beatuiful Clifs in the Morning light

Over the last two weeks I have completely fallen in love with this part of our beautiful country. I’ve fallen in love with its remoteness and quietness – even in the middle of February.  I’ve fallen in love with its endless number of amazing beaches, rough cliffs and green hills. I’ve fallen in love with the people who believe in ‘real’ not in ‘tourist is king’.

You almost feel like you’re stepping back in time. As you pass through the small villages, it’s easy to imagine what life would have been like here 50 or 100 years ago. And unfortunately you also can’t ignore how these places are struggling in today’s technology and globalisation focused world. It does make you wonder if today’s way of life really is better than the community-focused, small-town life of the past…

I started my journey in Opotiki. My first East Cape experience was a drive through the Gorge in the pouring rain, waterfalls coming off the cliffs everywhere and parts of the road blocked by rocks, flooding and mud. An experience I really can’t recommend but I was worried the road would get closed and I was itching to get to the east coast. I’m planning to come back soon to do the drive through the Gorge with better weather and more time to explore the many stops along the way.

Once in Gisborne, the sun came out and I’ve hardly seen any rain since. I decided to make a little detour to the Mahia Peninsula before starting my trip around the Cape – a detour that was absolutely worth it! If you’ve never been to that part of New Zealand, I can highly recommend visiting for a few days next time you’re in the area to explore it’s gorgeous, unspoiled nature and amazing beaches – and if you time it right, you might see a rocket launch into space!

Stunning east cape scenery

The Wharf in Tologa Bay (The longest in the Southern Hemisphere)

After a couple of days in Mahia, I started my trip around the Cape. From Gisborne, State Highway 35 leads you through green hills and a combination of farming and forestry scenery. Every 30-50 Kilometres or so, the road leads back to the ocean where you usually find a cute little settlement like Tologa Bay, Tokomaru Bay and Te Araroa at the northern end of the cape – all well worth a stop.

Tologa Bay has two of the very few sign-posted tourist attractions in the area; the wharf (the longest in the Southern Hemisphere) and the Cook’s Cove walkway which offers stunning views over the Bay.

Tokomaru Bay was my favourite stop along the Cape. A beautiful Bay with a rustic, kind of artsy and creative feeling to it and campervan parking options right by the beach (a permit is needed during the Summer months which can be bought from the Gisborne District Council).

Beach front parking in Tokomaru Bay

One thing to know before embarking on the trip around the Cape is that it’s a place where you have to largely organise your own activities. For me, that’s never a problem. I went for bike rides, had good surf a few times and even had a bit of wind to go kitesurfing in Tologa Bay one day. There are also a few golf courses, lots of fishing spots and of course countless beaches for swimming and walking. But other than that, your options are limited. There are only a few public tracks and walks around the area – which is a bit of a shame. I would have loved to explore more of the cliffs and hills on foot.

Sunset at Loisels Beach

For those who love it remote and don’t mind a bit of gravel road, there are also a few great overnight parking spots off the main road like Waihau Bay (Loisels Beach), Anaura Bay and Kaiaua Beach.

One absolute must do when traveling around the Cape is visiting the East Cape Lighthouse – ideally at sunrise. While people seem to argue about whether it really is the most Eastern point in the world towards the dateline – and therefore the first to see the sun rise on a new day – you can definitely be sure to be among the very first to welcome the new day. While the 800 steps to the Lighthouse might sound daunting to some, it’s absolutely worth is and, when taking it slow, totally doable for most. I recommend to get to the top well before sunrise as the 20 minutes before the sun actually showed itself where the most beautiful and magical .

Sunrise at the East cape Lighthouse

After Te Araroa, Hicks Bay is the other small settlement at the northern end of the Cape. After that, the scenery along SH 35 changes. After a short trip over the hills, the Highway meets the ocean on the west side of the Cape and from there more or less follows the coastline all the way back to Opotiki.

The drive is absolutely stunning and I stopped several times just to take in the beauty. The settlements on this side of the Cape are even smaller and even more rustic. Hills with sheep and cattle get replaced by corn fields and forests and the stunning ocean to your right.  

Eventually, the road takes you back to Opotiki which is worth a visit as well. The small town centre is idyllic and the Motu bike/walk trail from town through the dunes along the beach is a great walk/ride. And at this point you will probably appreciate the opportunity to go to a café or restaurant and stock up at the supermarket.

As I sit here and write about the last two weeks I can’t help but feel sad that they’re over. Work took me to Lake Taupo for a few days and now to Auckland via the Bay of Plenty for a couple of days. But I’m sure I will be back soon. I can’t wait to go back to some of my favourite places and explore those that I haven’t had a chance to see this time around.