Rounding the East Cape

In this book extract, Brett Atkinson takes  a look at a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list road trip for Kiwis around the North Island’s remote East Cape, from Opotiki to Gisborne  -  a  journey  also recommended for all visitors to New Zealand.

Opotiki to East Cape

The last time I was in Opotiki, I saw someone riding a horse down the main street. It’s an easygoing kind of place, with a population of less than 10,000, and a laid-back ambience foreshadowing SH35’s relaxed route as it heads around East Cape via the North Island’s most remote and rugged coastline. About half of Opotiki’s population have Maori ancestry, and Maori tradition is celebrated in design and culture around New Zealand’s East Cape region.

An impressive pou whenua (carved welcome pole) marks the centre of the town, while the interior of Opotiki’s Hiona St Stephens Church is decorated with tututuku (woven flax panels). Maori-influenced arts, crafts and design are available at the Tangata Whenua Gallery, (108 Church St, Opotiki). Most of the work is from local artists and only available there. It’s a top spot for unique gifts and souvenirs. Opotiki is also the hub for the Motu Trails, part of the New Zealand Cycle Trails Great Rides. The Dunes Trail (10km) traverses windswept coastal scenery and is achievable by most travellers (

Contact Motu Cycle Trails for bike hire and shuttle services (138 St John St; Opotiki; 027505-2120; motucycletrails. com), and visit the Travel Shop from Monday to Friday to rent surfboards, kayaks and e-bikes (106 Church St; Opotiki). Three kilometres east of Opotiki, Hikuwai is a safe swimming beach, and to the west, Waiotahe and Ohiwa are also popular for swimming and surfing.

East of Opotiki, SH35 soon delivers on its promise as one of New Zealand’s best coastal drives. After crossing the broad Motu River, popular for kayaking and whitewater rafting further upstream, the super-scenic road hugs the coast as it travels through sleepy fishing settlements. Stop in Raukokore, 32km east of Te Kaha, to see the modest Anglican Christ Church, built in 1894, and sitting in contemplative isolation on a grassy promontory. Nearby, Waihau Bay was the setting for Boy, film director Taika Waititi’s gentle 2010 coming of age comedy.

Good meals and accommodation are both available at the two-storey wooden pub opposite the pier, and there’s also a petrol pump, a rarity on this road. After Waihau Bay, the road diverts inland at Whangaparaoa (Cape Runaway), winding through rugged hills to again reach the coast at Hicks Bay.

Eleven kilometres further east at Te Araroa, Te-Waha-o-Rerekohu is New Zealand’s biggest pohutukawa tree. More than 350 years old and 20m high, the tree is especially spectacular in summer when its enlivened with crimson blooms. From Te Araroa, a mainly unsealed road heads to the easternmost point of mainland New Zealand. Its only 21km, but you’ll need around 30 minutes to drive to the East Cape lighthouse. You’ll probably also need about half an hour to conquer the lighthouse’s 800 or so steps, but stellar coastal views easily offset the effort.

Onepoto Bay's shallow arc near Hicks Bay.
Onepoto Bay's shallow arc near Hicks Bay.

Te Araroa to Tokomaru Bay

Return to SH35 at Te Araroa, and continue south through farmland and forest to Tikitiki. Built in the 1920s as a memorial to the Maori soldiers from the East Coast who fought and died in WW1, Tikitikis St Mary’s Church combines traditional carvings, woven tukutuku panels and a spectacular stained glass window in its beautiful interior.

Soon to be celebrating the centennial of its consecration in 1926, St Mary’s continues to be of great significance to the local Ngati Porou iwi (Maori tribe). Beyond Tikitiki, Mount Hikurangi (1752m) is also sacred to Ngati Porou, and the highest non-volcanic peak on the North Island is regarded as the first place on Earth to witness the new day. Ngati Porou offer Te Urunga (sunrise) and Haramai (daytime) 4WD tours for visitors to experience their ancestral mountain (

Tours leave from nearby Ruatoria, another place you may see a few locals getting about on a horse. From Ruatoria, SH35 continues resolutely inland 38km south to Tokomaru Bay. A recommended detour is the unsealed 14km loop taking in the sandy sweep of Waipiro Bay. Back on SH35 and bookended by coastal cliffs, Tokomaru Bay has a supermarket, petrol station and oceanfront pub, and is a good place to overnight before continuing south to Gisborne.


Journey 22km south of Tokomaru Bay for the turnoff to another coastal diversion. A 6km unsealed road leads to Anarua Bay. Try not to say OMG, or something more profane, when the bay’s perfect arc and tiny Motuoroi Island are revealed as you crest the final hill. In 1769, British maritime explorer Captain James Cook alighted here in search of food and water, with the Endeavour’s onboard naturalist Joseph Banks being impressed by the well-ordered vegetable gardens and plantations of resident Maori. There’s a rustic beachfront campground here for camper vans and tents, right beside a stream where Cook’s crew would have replenished the Endeavour’s water supply.

Kids’ spot

After all the beachy relaxation along SH35, here’s a chance for all the family to really get the adrenaline flowing. About 50km northwest of Gisborne, the Rere Rockslide is New Zealand’s longest natural waterslide, a 60m-long moss-cloaked downhill run, made smooth and fast by the free-flowing Wharekopae River, and ending with a big splash in a pool at the bottom. Wearing a rash suit or T-shirt is recommended, but not essential, and most rockslide fans ride the giant, rocky wave on an inner tube, inflatable air mattress or body board. About 2km downriver, the Rere Falls are another essential stop. It’s actually possible to walk behind the 20m-wide, 5m-high curtain of water, but care must be taken as the rocks can be slippery. Depart Gisborne on Awapuni Rd, and then turn right on Wharekopae Rd. It’s a journey of about 40 minutes to the Rere Rockslide.

Tologa Bay wharf stretches into the Pacific.
Tologa Bay wharf stretches into the Pacific.

Tokomaru Bay to Gisborne

Back on SH35, it’s 36km south to Tolaga Bay, population about 800, and the biggest community between Opotiki and Gisborne. Buy a pie from Cottles Cafe & Bakery — my favourite is the bacon and egg — before walking out for almost 700m on Tolaga Bay’s historic wooden wharf. Built in 1929 to facilitate exports of wool and meat, the wharf was used until 1968.

After falling into disrepair, its now fully restored, and during summer, local teens jump off and try make the biggest splash. Entering the water backside first in a perfect V shape is called a manu around these parts. Good luck with your own manu form. Starting near the wharf, the Cooks Cove Walkway winds for 6km through forest and farmland to a compact bay where British maritime explorer Captain James Cook anchored HMS Endeavour in 1769. History does not record whether Cook’s crew were manu enthusiasts.

On the final 60km south from Tolaga Bay to Gisborne, stop at Tatapouri Bay. Dive Tatapouri runs reef ecology tours where visitors can interact gently and safely with local marine life in the shallows of the bay. Waterproof waders and gumboots are provided to keep participants warm and dry, and its not uncommon for several stingrays and eagle rays to show up simultaneously for a feed. Before making the final 15km drive to Gisborne, definitely say hi to Pancake and Waffle for me. After a few years, Tatapouri’s friendly stingray duo are in no doubts about their daily routine.

Booking ahead for reef ecology tours is recommended (532 Whangara Rd, Tatapouri Bay; (06) 868-5153;

Gisborne's inner harbour combines fishing boats and restaurants.
Gisborne's inner harbour combines fishing boats and restaurants.


Waihau Bay Lodge

Hearty food and an absolute waterfront location make this heritage wooden pub a popular stop for East Coast road trippers. The scallops and oysters are always good, or you can push the boat out with the hefty mixed grill. On-site accommodation ranges from campsites through to en suite double rooms and larger motel units. 51 Orete Point Rd, Waihau Bay;

Te Puka Tavern

You’ll struggle to find better ocean views than at this friendly pub that's the social hub of the local community. Burgers, steak meals and seafood are all good value, and there’s a great  evening vibe. If you're staying overnight, options include campervan sites, and four self-contained units that are easily the best accommodation along SH35. 153 Beach Rd, Tokomaru  Bay;

Cottles Cafe & Bakery

I’m a sucker for a good pie, and the longstanding Cottles never disappoints. Classics like steak and mushroom and bacon and egg are joined by tasty paua (a New Zealand shellfish) and pork belly variations. Buy one and adjourn to the beach or a spot on Tolaga Bays famous wharf. Cook St, Tolaga Bay.

East Cape Manuka Cafe

Fragrant soaps, teas and skincare products infused with local manuka honey are crafted at this excellent spot near East Cape, while honey is also used in the cafe for smoothies,  cheesecake and slices. More substantial dishes include lasagne, bacon and egg pie and toasted sandwiches. Ask about guided tours of the factory. Open from Monday to Friday and also weekends in summer. 4464 Te Araroa Rd, Te Araroa;

Frank & Albies

Celebrating the motto we cut lunch, not corners, Frank & Albies is a popular spot along Gisborne’s main street. Bagels, smoothies, salads and sandwiches are all made with a light  touch, and my favourite combo is an espresso and a cinnamon scroll. Closed weekends. 24 Gladstone Rd, Gisborne;


Ohiwa Beach Apartments & Motel

Located 12km west of Opotiki down a quiet, no-exit road, this collection of four modern, self-contained apartments is right across from beach. Fully equipped kitchens and barbecues  are ideal for self-catering, and the luxury spa suite is particularly comfortable. Younger guests must be at least seven years old. 2/215 Ohiwa Beach Rd, Ohiwa; (07) 3154649;

Lottin Point Motel

Reached by a short 4km coastal detour off SH35, this welcoming spot features recently renovated two-bedroom units, all surrounded by lush East Coast gardens. Sea kayaks are  available for hire, and nearby Lottin Point is popular for land-based fishing. Evening meals are available in the motels bar. 365 Lottin Point Rd, Hicks Bay; (06) 864 4455;

Stranded in Paradise Ecolodge

An elevated location provides great ocean views at this longstanding Tokomaru Bay favourite. Stranded in Paradise's versatile range of accommodation options stretches from  campsites to dorms, doubles, and a couple of rustic cabins. 21 Potae St, Tokomaru Bay; 027 332 6506;

Tokomaru Bay Postmaster's Office

Tokomaru Bays former post office is now a cosy bed and breakfast also dubbed Te Poutapeta. Period furniture and interesting mementos of the buildings former life abound, and  there's a spacious lounge and kitchen for guests to share. Bookings are made via Airbnb. 8 Waimana St, Tokomaru Bay.

Tatapouri Bay Oceanside Accommodation

Right on the beach, options at Tatapouri Bay include spring- and summer-only glamping tents, campsites, and cosy self-contained podlifes made from shipping containers. More  spacious Zen cabins accommodate up to three guests, and there's also a popular beachfront cafe. Did I mention the beachfront hot tubs? 516 Whangara Rd, Tatapouri Bay; (06) 868 3269;

Soak away tiredness at Morere Hot Springs Lodge.
Soak away tiredness at Morere Hot Springs Lodge.



Allow three to four days so you can overnight at smaller settlements along the way, and take in attractions like the East Cape lighthouse and Cooks Cove Walkway.


January to March is the best time to take in the region’s beaches and lazy days of summer vibe. The water is also warm enough for swimming.


Held across three days leading up to New Year’s Eve, Gisborne’s Rhythm & Vines features local and international DJs and musical acts. Most attendees camp on-site at the festival’s  location at the Waiohika Estate vineyard (


Easy to moderate. SH35 is winding in many parts, and recommended diversions are usually on unsealed roads. Slips caused by heavy rain occasionally block SH35 in winter. Check  conditions in Opotiki before setting out.


Total distance: (without detours)   368km

Opotiki to East Cape:                      180km

East Cape to Tokomaru Bay:           98km

Tokomaru Bay to Gisborne:             90km


January:      15-23degC

July:                7-13degC


Opotiki i-SITE; 70 Bridge St, Opotiki; (07 315 1001;

Gisborne i-SITE; 209 Grey St, Gisborne; (06) 868 6139;

The book

This is an edited extract from Ultimate Road Trips: Aotearoa New Zealand by Brett Atkinson, published by Hardie Grant Books (Flexibound, RRP $50)



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