The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 12 (March 1, 1938.)
Letters to Elizabeth — II. Rotorua To Hicks Bay
As we have travelled about 300 miles since I last wrote, and as the country through which we have passed has been so varied, I'll have to sort out my impressions into some sort of order before I can hope to give you anything like a coherent recital of our wanderings.
First of all, although I'm not going to dwell on it because you know it so well yourself, I must say how much I liked Rotorua and simply must mention one place in particular. You haven't spoken of Te Wairoa so I take it for granted that you haven't been there. Mount Tarawera, as you know, erupted in 1886 and buried Te Wairoa in its ashes and its mud. Recent excavations have revealed the pitiful relics of that tragedy.
We left Rotorua one bright morning, our goal being Opotiki. A twisty road took us past the three famous lakes, Rotoiti, Rotoehu and Rotoma. We couldn't decide which was the most beautiful. There were poplars growing near the water and pohutukawas and ratas just breaking into blossom. On the terraced hills were evidences of older Maori civilisation in the form of ancient pa sites and fortifications. I noticed, by the way, an old Maori meeting house complete with modern windows and typical pakeha lace curtains. Incongruous in one way, but in another typical of the manner in which the Maori, while adopting the white man's manners and customs to a certain extent, still maintains his own individuality and the characteristics and emotions of his own race.
When we finally left the Lakes we were soon climbing towards the summit of the Otitapu Range, some 1,200 feet above sea-level. Then down again to the country where the almost perfect cone of Mt. Edgecumbe soon dominated the landscape. This mountain which rises to a height of 2,946 feet, is an extinct volcano which has played its part in Maori history.
The country around here is inclined to be monotonous after the varied procession of bush, lake and mountain which we had recently passed through, but when we realised that it was once part of a 100,000 acre swamp—the delta of the Rangitaiki River—and that Governments, from 1911 onwards, spent upwards of £555,000 on a drainage scheme, we began to “sit up and take notice.” Now instead of fetid swamp land there are acres and acres of maize fields.
Whakatane was our next port of call. It is a sea port, and is the centre of a rich dairying, stock-fattening and maize growing district, but against all the very modern business of shipping and shops there is an historical background which is well worth investigating. The little town is set between the sea and the hills. On the hills can be found what is left of one of the oldest pas in New Zealand—that of Kapu te Rangi. Skirmishing took place in Whakatane in the Maori Wars, and Te Kooti raided it in 1869. We would have liked to have stayed longer in Whakatane, but our time-table did not permit, and after passing through the beautiful Waimana Gorge we were soon skirting the shores of Ohiwa Harbour where we had a good look at White Isl nd.
We followed the road by the sea for many miles over what is the loveliest marine drive I have yet seen in New Zealand. First there were the hills on our right, then the white road, and then —pohutukawa trees. Mile upon mile of them, gorgeous flaming things, flaunting their scarlet banners between us and the golden sand and the grey-blue, endless sea. The sand they had made crimson with their fallen petals and the tyres of our car were dyed the same hue. Many lands are known by their flowers. When we read of avenues of cherry blossoms, or of dark-eyed maidens with hibiscus blossoms in their hair, we have no need to wonder in what country the story develops, because these flowers have become so much a part of the land they adorn. I have seen neither the hibiscus of the southern seas nor the cherry blossoms of Japan, but I am certain that the long row of pohutukawa trees in bloom on that lovely sea road is just as worthy of becoming a national symbol.
We camped the night at Opotiki, after exploring the town. Opotiki, which is bounded by the sea and by the Otara and the Waioeka Rivers, has quite a pretty camping spot close to the small but extremely busy wharf, and here again we passed over ground which has figured largely in New Zealand history. In a side street stands a little wooden church with a tall bronzy-greeny steeple. This was built by the Rev. K. S. Volkner, in 1860. The church is very little changed since that date, although it has witnessed the fury and blood lust of a fanatic, the death of a very brave gentleman, and has withstood seige.
The road from Opotiki to Hicks Bay has been opened very recently, and it is looked upon by tourists in the light of an ogre in a fairy tale—something rather big and angerous and generally to be avoided. Running out of Opotiki we passed over the Waiou River bridge and were soon spinning over a long, straight road which seemed to be heading directly towards the mountains, but which somehow never seemed to get there. Two lupin covered hills now lay page 35 between us and the sea. We passed many little farmhouses, lonely and remote. Some were tenanted, but some had been deserted years ago, to judge by their various stages of dilapidation.
The road (which was so far, very good) bad now climbed above the sea, and we saw the water far away below us on the horizon. We had left the bush miles behind and the land was, if not so pictorially interesting, somehow, more essentially New Zealand. Here was the real, solid backbone of the country, where man watered his stock, milked his herd, grew his grain. Here was the home of the man of the soil, hardy, persevering, deep rooted, wholesome as bread, working out his destiny in a tiny farmhouse so far away from the life that you and I know. We passed through little settlements, mostly native, comprising usually a schoolhouse and a store. The road ran on and on. Now into the hills, now climbing, and then all at once out and down by the sea once more, when again we saw the steam on White Island. The sea was very blue and the beach, log-strewn. We felt like pioneers. Now we were actually on the beach itself, with Cape Runaway in front of us, beckoning us on.
A few miles on, at Maraenui, the road left the sea-front and made for the hills again. At the summit, before turning inland, we stopped and looked back. The coastline stretched far behind us. It was a clear, still summer day and each tiny bay and inlet with its complement of rocky foreshore and fringe of pohutukawas, made a picture we will not quickly fdrget. We still saw White Island, with its plume of steam and its background of deep blue water, and could actually pick out Mt. Edgecumbe, which must have been a good forty to fifty miles away.
All along the route we passed little wooden storehouses for keeping maize, each surrounded by the drying husks of the corn cobs. The road meandered over the hills for a time and then dipped shorewards again. All along the route hereabouts are old pa sites. Te Kaha, the next settlement, was once a whaling station, but all that is left to remind us of the fact is a mouldering whale boat and an old try pot. Then came Te Keru. At one time the Te Keru river was spanned by a massive and substantial bridge. Now, however, although still massive and substantial, it no longer spans the river but lies at the mouth, a veritable lone, lorn, Mrs. Gummidge of a bridge, with the silt of the river bed almost covering it. The rivers on this coast very quickly change from peaceful streams to raging torrents, and if a mere bridge happens to be in the way—hey, presto!—and it isn't!
Our next ford of any consequence was the Raukokore River, after which no river gave us any real trouble, though we could see that wet weather would tell a different tale, and we were soon spinning merrily along towards Hicks Bay. All the way, so far, the road had been excellent, even better in many places than many of the better-known and more frequented routes through which we had passed.
It was just getting dark when we arrived at Hicks Bay. There are two stores at Hicks Bay, and two petrol pumps, also quite a large school. The Bay itself is a perfect semi-circle, where the blue waters of the Pacific roll thunderously onto yellow-grey sands. There is less bush than we expected and the countryside is more rugged than we had anticipated, but it has an appeal and a grandeur which is none-the-less because of this. At the north end of the bay is a tiny wharf which is laden with great bales of wool ready for shipment. We have been here three days and have seen in the time, three busy little coastal steamers plying up and down.
I am writing this at the door of the tent. There is a soft breeze coming across the water and the sun is shining on the sands. All around green high hills frame the bay. Two Maori boys, white of teeth and merry of eye, have just passed on their way to bathe. We leave here to-morrow and I shall be sorry to say good-bye to Hicks Bay and the friendly folk we have met here. However, we are now bound for Gisborne, through Ruatoria, Tokomaru Bay and Tolago Bay, which ought to prove most interesting. A rabid Scot, just before we left Napier, on hearing of our projected tour, told us that the country down the East Coast reminded him, just a bit mind you, of the Scottish Highlands. And if you know a rabid Scot, you'll realise that this isn't damning with faint praise at all, but sheer screaming enthusiasm!
So heerrrre's hoping!page 36