Taranaki scenic splendour

Cape Egmont Light House in Taranaki.
Cape Egmont Light House in Taranaki.
South of New Plymouth, the glittering sweep of the Surf Highway 45 offers a tantalising taste of the diverse scenic splendour endowing Taranaki - and its many characters, as  Mike Yardley discovered.

Surf Highway 45 is a ravishing 105km-long coastal route, stretching from New Plymouth to Hawera.

I hit the road south, tootling through a necklace of sweet villages like Oakura, where the Lemonwood Eatery is a tempting pit-stop to fuel the tummy on fabulous vegan fare and re-caffeinate. A short diversion down Timaru Rd leads you to gnarly, rusted wreck of the SS Gairloch, which ran aground on the reef in 1903. Mercifully, no lives were lost.

If you want to check out some great surf breaks, top spots include Stent Rd, the Kumara Patch and Fitzroy Beach.

Steve Mannning is a ‘‘wizardly’’ leather craftsman in Rahotu.
Steve Mannning is a ‘‘wizardly’’ leather craftsman in Rahotu.
Just before arriving in Opunake, I stopped in Rahotu, where I had an appointment with Steve Manning, a local legend who is a wizardly leather craftsman. He is wizardly in every sense - he even looks like a wizard (he dressed up like Gandalf for me) and is a masterly storyteller. Steve kept me enthralled for several hours, sharing with me his epic craftwork, which has seen him routinely deployed for our biggest movie productions.

Steve has specialised as a leather artist on a dazzling roll-call of movies, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, Spartacus and The Last Samurai. Deployed in both the costume and props departments, he has designed and produced hundreds of boots, bags, saddles and costumes from scratch. His Rahotu main street workshop doubles as a glorified museum, laden with priceless movie memorabilia.

While Steve regaled me with gripping anecdotes from working with some of Hollywood’s A-listers, locals would pop in with repair jobs or to commission him to design a custom piece. He does it all. Steve is planning to set up an on-site boutique backpackers’ business while also running leathercraft workshops. It’s a must stop in Rahotu.

Tawhiti Museum owner and curator Nigel Ogle.
Tawhiti Museum owner and curator Nigel Ogle.
Speaking of the big screen, in the neighbouring gem of Opunake, Everybody’s Theatre is a sweetheart cinema, steeped in community pride. This century-old theatre has been fully restored to its former glory, with an eclectic and heart-warming range of original restored seats and comfy sofas.

Powered by volunteers, the theatre screens movies six times a week. En-route to Hawera, how could you not succumb to the yeasty scent of a famous hot bread shop? Manaia is proudly home to Yarrows Bakery, which explains those colossal loaves of bread on the outskirts of town. Stocking up on some oven-warm goodies from the bakery shop, I burnt off the carbs hauling my way up the 215 steps of the imposing Hawera Water Tower.

Constructed in 1914 to provide the town with a trusty water supply for fire-fighting purposes, a sudden quake several weeks later caused it to list 75cm to the south. Thankfully, this was corrected by anchoring the tower with weights when the tanks were filled. However, it is still New Zealand’s ever so slightly Leaning Tower, leaning by 7.5cm. Soaring to a height of 54m, the tower, when the red neon lights were fitted to it in 1932, was billed as New Zealand’s tallest lighthouse. This cherished landmark still dwarfs Hawera and from the balcony, the horizon-wide views across the town and countryside are spectacular.

Blending the scenic highlights with a heady dollop of history and culture, you’ll want to make tracks to Hawera’s Tawhiti Museum. Every history buff I know considers it the best private museum in the country. It is absolutely gob-stopping with life-size exhibits, scale models, intricate figurines, highly detailed dioramas and displays and the centre piece experience Whalers and Traders, vividly depicting the raw, blood-stained history of Taranaki in the time of European settlers and colonisers. The ingenious powerhouse behind Tawhiti Museum is its owner and creator, Nigel Ogle, who’s been developing this magnificent heritage showcase over the past 35 years.

Tawhiti Museum, in Hawera,  is considered  the best private museum in the country.
Tawhiti Museum, in Hawera, is considered the best private museum in the country.
Nigel describes the museum as "one big art project’’. It’s got its own bush railway and it’s complemented by the truly wondrous Traders and Whalers attraction. Weta Workshops deployed their technical expertise to help construct the artificial underground caverns.

The river boat ride through these caverns, clad in convincing lush bush and rocky coastal settings, glides you past compelling animated displays, graphically illustrating Taranaki life in the 1820s and ’30s. Modelled on Disneyland’s iconic It’s a Small World attraction, this exhilarating tour de force at Tawhiti is compulsive.

Another show-stopper to be found in Hawera is KD’s Elvis Presley Museum.

If you think Nigel Ogle’s creations have to be seen to be believed, KD’s emporium of all things Elvis is equally gobsmacking.

Kevin Walsey has been a relentless collector of the King’s records and memorabilia since his childhood. It all began when he was 12 and was given what he now calls his "pride and joy’’ - an original record of Heartbreak Hotel. The mega-fan has visited Graceland 17 times and has amassed what is considered by Elvis buffs to be one of the greatest memorabilia-loaded museums in the world. Step inside his household garage and you’ll be awestruck by this glittering grotto to the music legend. Kevin remarked to me that people walk in, and they say, "‘God!’ And I say, ‘No, Elvis.’"

Kevin Walsey has been a collector of the King’s records and memorabilia since his childhood. They...
Kevin Walsey has been a collector of the King’s records and memorabilia since his childhood. They can be seen in KD’s Elvis Presley Museum, in Hawera.
Every single surface within the garage is awash in Elvis. He’s on the walls and ceiling, on mugs, glasses, cufflinks, ties, books, album covers . . . you name it. A television belts out Elvis performances non-stop. There are over 10,000 objects within KD’s staggering collection.

KD is a gifted raconteur with an infectious character, who regaled me with some enthralling stories about his collection and his life. As a high school student, he struck a pen pal relationship with a chap named Roy Lyon who lived in Memphis. Roy had no interest in Elvis but was starstruck by New Zealand and its greenery. Roy would send KD images of Elvis, out and about in Memphis.

Kevin’s delightful wife, JJ, was also a joy to meet. She knew nothing about Elvis when she met Kevin. Elvis has not left the building in Hawera. Entry to the museum is by donation and by appointment.

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter