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Mike Yardley: Free-roaming adventures in Tairāwhiti

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Mon, 26 Feb 2024, 1:33PM

Mike Yardley: Free-roaming adventures in Tairāwhiti

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Mon, 26 Feb 2024, 1:33PM

Blessed by nature with knock-out coastlines, sun-kissed beaches, rumpled hills and bountiful produce at every turn, Tairāwhiti is ripe with outdoorsy options. After you’ve seen the sights in Gisborne, spread your wings and dip into the platter of outdoorsy delights across the district.

Half an hour south of Gisborne, I drove to Muriwai, in the shadow of Young Nick’s Head. This is the starting point for a rail adventure to remember, with Gisborne Railbikes. Under the command of the ingenious Geoff Main, like a lightbulb moment, he first conceived his idea of railbikes in the middle of the night. This totally novel, distinctive cycle experience uses non-operating railway lines, that previously connected Gisborne with Wairoa, before KiwiRail pulled the plug on services in 2012, following a monstrous slip.

After years of planning, negotiations and designs, Geoff secured a lease on the track from KiwiRail and launched his positively unique cycling adventure six years ago. He doesn’t know of any other place on earth where decommissioned railway lines have been leased for side-by-side cycling. These purpose-built railbikes are joined together with steel bars, enabling you to rock the rails with your buddy – and it’s impossible to fall off. You don’t even need to steer or balance the railbike thanks to its bespoke-designed guide wheels that will keep you firmly on track. All you have to do is pedal – and because they’re e-bikes, it’s a doddle.

Under the blazing sun, I joined Geoff for a guided ride on the Beach Loop, which is a 32km return circuit, tootling south from Muriwai, skimming the coastline, flanked by scenic bush-clad valleys and interspersed with growing fields, awaiting the summer harvest. Geoff pointed out to me the curious presence of numerous fruit trees that have flourished immediately alongside the tracks. These sprang into life from the remnants of stone fruit and apple cores being biffed out of the window by passengers on passing trains over the decades.

The route ends close to the Wharerata Rd lookout, where a monstrous slip at Whareongaonga, caused by flooding three years ago, severed the mothball railway line on its path to Wairoa. Geotech engineering studies have deemed the hillside too unstable for a railway line to be reinstated, so it is now the end of the line. You’ll love the rich variety of scenery on this ride – from open farmland and orange groves to sparkling ocean views and the lush balm of natural ‘green’ tunnels, artfully formed from the verdant trackside canopy. Best of all, the 1.5km railway tunnel which takes a good 7 minutes in the chilled darkness to traverse.

Geoff quipped that some guests have suggested he install a sensor-triggered train’s whistle and blaring headlight, to jolt unsuspecting riders as they journey through the tunnel. Barely minutes after he mentioned that, suddenly a bright headlight uncannily appeared out of the darkness – and it wasn’t some trickery on Geoff’s part! A couple of farmers on a quadbike were taking an unapproved short-cut through the tunnel, hastily electing to get off the tracks when they spotted our bike headlights closing in on them. It was an unexpected frisson to cap off the tour! Be sure to add a Gisborne Railbike Adventure to your Tairāwhiti check-list. www.railbikes.nz

For a complete change of scenery, 30km northwest of Gisborne in Ngatapa, Eastwoodhill is home to the National Arboretum of New Zealand. Immerse yourself in 135 hectares of verdant, botanical wonder. Founded in 1910 by William Douglas Cook, his life’s work was the creation of a giant collection of Northern Hemisphere temperate climate zone trees in New Zealand. His dream eventually cost him all his money, buying and importing thousands of trees from overseas nurseries in particular. During the Cold War era, he grew increasingly determined to ensure Northern Hemisphere species threatened by nuclear war would live in, at Eastwoodhill, and as a place to

propagate new plants. As his health declined, he sold Eastwoodhill to Bill Williams who would later establish and donate the arboretum as a charitable trust, to safeguard its future.

Of all the arboreta of the Southern Hemisphere, Eastwoodhill Arboretum is believed to boast the largest collection of trees of the temperate climate zone of the Northern Hemisphere. 170 species at Eastwoodhill are currently on the world endangered species list. This arboreal ark is a stirring safe haven for threatened and endangered trees. Over 25,000 species of exotic and native trees, shrubs and climber plants unfurl their majesty across its grounds. Prized specimens include Blue Atlas Cedars, Coastal Redwoods, Michoacan Pines, Scarlet Oaks and the highly endangered Serbian spruce which hails from Bosnia.

The arboretum features a variety of spaces, from the formal gardens at Homestead Garden to the Cathedral – formed by the grand cross-shaped lay-out of Eucalyptus. It’s a popular wedding spot. There’s also a Native Reserve and my guide remarked that Eastwoodhill brims with Kererū. They get so drunk binging on berries, they will often be seen dangling upside-down from the branches. If you’re planning an autumn getaway to Tairāwhiti, Eastwoodhill hits its prime, with all its oaks, maples, liquidambars, ash and gingko trees ablaze in autumnal glory.

Pointing the car north, I zipped up the sun-drenched, wave-lashed coastline to storied Tolaga Bay. Tipuna Tours is an iwi-owned eco-tourism operator offering exceptional cultural and historic guided tours. I met up with Jock and Victor Walker who casually led me on a riveting walkabout, spilling forth with stories and history with an understated, salt-of-the-earth charm. After admiring the remarkable length of the Tolaga Bay Wharf, a century old landmark stretching for 660 metres, we set off on a fabulous hike on the Cooks Cove Walkway. Crowning Cooks Cove Lookout is Te Pourewa, the Carved Beacon of Light. This striking landmark was installed to mark the 250th Anniversary of Cook’s landing. Jock pointed out the relentless work underway to recloak the lookout in native plantings.

As Victor proudly explained to me, after the Endeavour crew’s most unfortunate skirmish with Māori, after coming ashore in Gisborne, the reception was far more harmonious in Uawa/Tolaga Bay several days later. Word had spread that Tupaia, the famed Tahitian navigator and translator was aboard the Endeavour, and the locals greeted him and the Endeavour crew with affection and compassion for the misunderstanding that had occurred in Gisborne. As Victor joked, Tupaia may well have fathered many children while ashore - such was his stature. East Cape high chief Hinematioro gifted Cook and Tupaia a carving or pou from her whare. As Victor noted, she was a noble chief of the highest rank, “our female Sovereign.” In addition to gifting the carving from her home on Pourewa Island, Hinematioro approved provisions for the Endeavour and granted Banks and Solander access to record native flora and fauna across Uawa.

Many of the species were drawn by Sydney Parkinson and some of them were engraved into copper plates in England. They’re all on display in London’s Natural History Museum. The carving represents the first gift accorded to Europeans by Māori and had been off-shore since 1769. Initially it was handed over to the Natural History Museum, before later being gifted to the Tubingen University Museum in Germany. As part of the 250th anniversary in 2019, this prized taonga came home as part of an on-loan exhibition at Tairāwhiti Museum in Gisborne. Victor remarked that Te Aitanga ā Hauiti has formed a close and enduring bond with the museum with regular visits. For an authentic, fuss-free insight into local history and culture, Tipuna Tours will enchant you. https://tipunatours.co.nz

Ever dreamed of wading with stingrays? I have to admit, I was feeling somewhat pensive about this assignment, but I soon discovered why Dive Tatapouri’s wild stingray tours are such a smash-hit. Dean and Chris Savage established and have nurtured this acclaimed New Zealand eco-experience on

the shallow reef at Tatapouri Bay for 24 years. After being kitted out in waders and armed with bamboo walking sticks, and learning how to shuffle our feet so as not to step on a stingray, our group ventured out into the knee-deep waters for an indelible reef ecology tour.

An aquatic rolling scrum soon played out as a fearless cormorant, dived between a school of kingfish. The supporting cast of marine life were all interloping on our feeding session with the serene big boys of the bay, half a dozen placid short-tail stingrays who were gliding around us, trying to enjoy their feed in tranquillity, as we hand fed them chunks of barracouta or manga fish in the water. I anchored my hand on the rock, just below the water's surface and a ray shimmied its velvet underbelly over my fingers.

Like a whip-smart Dyson vacuum cleaner, the fish was vigorously hoovered up by the passing ray, as if I was a drive-by restaurant. If you’re wondering about sting-rays and the Steve Irwin tragedy, it was an awful, freak accident. The barb is about a third of the way up a ray’s tail. It's razor sharp and full of toxins but unless it gets you through the heart, it won't kill you. I watched in awe at the graceful swimming finesse of these rays, as if they’re flying carpets on the ocean floor. This intimate marine tour is like no other. www.divetatapouri.com

Where to stay? Blindingly beautiful, why not linger for the night at Tatapouri Bay, caressed by the golden sands of the beach and the opera of the ocean? The holiday park at Tatapouri Bay features a variety of accommodation options including glamping tents and their truly splendid, perfectly formed Zen Cabins. This is absolute oceanfront self-contained luxury accommodation, with a lush queen-sized bed and fully equipped kitchen. You’ll also enjoy complimentary use of the on-site spa.

Watching a famed East Coast sunrise from this perch is my idea of paradise, as is the elemental drama of the ocean. In the early evening, strong westerly winds turned the sea into an angry tempest, churning, frothing and crashing ashore with quite the attitude. Goggled-eyed, I gazing in awe at nature’s might from my enormous Zen Cabin window, just metres from the high tide line. After taking my fill of the theatrically compelling water show, I drifting off into a deep sleep, lulled into the Land of Nod by the unrelenting, all-powerful rhythm of Tangaroa. https://tatapouri.co.nz

From Gisborne Tairāwhiti’s untouched beaches to its the flourishing vineyards, re-connect with this charismatic, relaxing region, steeped in our nation’s history. Discover Tairāwhiti’s treasures in an entire new light. www.tairawhitigisborne.co.nz

I romped my way around Gisborne and Tairāwhiti, courtesy of Ezi Car Rental. Kiwi owned and operated, I thoroughly enjoyed the Ezi experience, where excellent vehicles, super sharp prices and fast & friendly service are all part of the package. Ezi Car Rental operates an extensive network from 24 locations across the country, including Gisborne Airport. They’re everywhere you want to be. Head to www.ezicarrental.co.nz

Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.

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