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East Cape

Photo: Felipe Skroski via Flickr CC (cropped)

Te Tai Rāwhiti, or “the coast on which the sun shines”, is the Maori name for the East Coast.

The East Coast encompasses the rather remote but lovely East Cape, and Poverty Bay, including the city of Gisborne. The region is rich in Maori history,  culture and language. The traditional lands of Ngāti Porou extend from Pōtikirua (near the northern tip of the East Cape) down to Te Toka-a-Taiau, a rock that used to sit in the mouth of Gisborne harbour. Ngāti Porou, the second largest iwi in Aotearoa, claim descent from the demi-god Maui. It is said that the canoe, Nukutaimemeha, from which Maui fished up the north island, lies at the peak of Mt Hikurangi.

The north-western side of the cape is the home of Te Whānau ā ­Apanui, whose territory includes the Mōtū River, and the volcano Whakaari/ White Island. Te Kapa Haka o Te Whānau a Apanui won first place at Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festival 2015 - so catch them performing if you ever get the chance.


Gisborne view from

It was on Gisborne’s foreshore that Captain Cook made his first landing on New Zealand soil in 1769, dubbing the region Poverty Bay. A short hike up Kaiti Hill, an obelisk marks Cook’s landing place and there are superb views of Young Nick’s Head. Take an hour or so and discover more about the history of the region at Tairawhiti Museum in Kelvin Rise.

Bookabach/32249 Wainui Beach
Wainui Beach, photo:

Gisborne is famous for its sun, surf and wonderful beaches. You can find gear and surf lessons in town at Blitz, who also have a useful surf guide.

Inland, adventurers will discover trout fishing on backcountry rivers, the exotic botanical delights of Eastwood Arboretum and the natural rock slide at Rere Falls. Here, kids of all ages arm themselves with old boogie boards and tyre inner tubes before hurtling some 60 metres or so down a slippery tract of rock. Even if you don’t feel like braving the rockslide, Rere Waterfall is a pretty spot for a swim and a picnic.

Clos de St Anne vineyard, Millton
Clos de St Anne vineyard, Photo: Millton

And then, let’s not forget that the Gisborne region is famous for its fine wine. There are tastings to be had among the vines at Tietjen Witters; organic wines to try at Millton, which has lovely gardens, and produces wines using sustainable, biodynamic methods, and at Wrights Vineyard - all renowned for their distinctive fruit flavours and full-bodied roundness, thanks to Gisborne’s deeply fertile, clay loam soils and abundant sunshine. The Gisborne Wine Centre, set prettily on the inner harbour, has a wide range of local wines available for tastings and for sale.

Round the East Cape

Take a trip around the East Cape and discover beautiful beaches, small Maori communities, marae, little, white churches and historic sites. There’s fantastic fishing and diving, and a unique character to the place. It’s remote, but friendly. Local kids ride horses bareback down to the beach. You can’t buy crayfish, but someone might give you one, if you’re lucky. East Cape transport

If you’re driving north from Gisborne, the road runs through the countryside for the most part, until the northern point of the East Cape, then turns and hugs the coastline, winding past pretty coves and bays around to Opotiki. Driving up the eastern side, at Tolaga Bay, the longest concrete wharf in the southern hemisphere juts out into the sea - stroll along, fish or jump from it. From the southern end of Tolaga Bay, you can take the Cook’s Cove Walkway - see where Captain Cook stopped in 1769, and read about the visit of the Endeavour, and the local Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti iwi.

At Tokomaru Bay there’s a pub and boat ramp, and children can play at the skatebowl, and playground, or in the creek. At the north end of the beach are the ruins of the old freezing works. Drive 10 minutes to Te Puia Springs, and you’ll find the mineral hot pool, and 16 hole golf course.

Inland from Ruatoria is Mt Hikurangi, the sacred maunga of Ngati Porou, which rises to 1754m, with “Te Takapau a Maui”, nine whakairo or Maori carved sculptures, standing on a plateau partway up. Guided tours of Hikurangi can be arranged through Ngati Porou.

In Tikitiki, St Mary’s is a historic church built in 1924 - 1926 as a memorial to the Māori men of the East Coast who died in WWl. The interior is a beautiful melding of Maori art and Christian tradition.

East Cape lighthouse is about 30 minutes’ drive from Te Araroa, along East Cape Rd. Walk up about 700 steps, and enjoy the beautiful views from outside the most easterly lighthouse in NZ.

From Cape Runaway the road follows the coast, past beautiful bays and coves down to Opotiki. There are small holiday settlements at Waihau Bay and Te Kaha.

The Motu River runs through stunning bush and gorge scenery. It’s rugged and remote, and can be explored by jet boat or white water kayakers. At the mouth, there are lagoons, and fishing spots.

The remoteness of the East Cape is part of what makes it so special. Don’t expect cell phone coverage all the way, and if you’re driving round starting at Opotiki make sure to gas up - there’s not another petrol station until Te Kaha. Take your time, fish, dive, surf, and enjoy the lack of crowds!

The East Cape is the setting for some great NZ films - “Whale Rider”, Niki Caro’s moving film based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, and starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, was shot on location in Whangara. Taika Waititi’s funny and wonderful film “Boy” was filmed in Waihau Bay.

Bike the Motu Trails

Pakihi track
Cycling the Pakihi Track

The Motu Trails, based around Opotiki, form one of the Great Rides in Nga Haerenga, the NZ Cycle Trail network. The Dunes Trail is great for a family fun ride. It starts at Memorial Park reserve and runs for 10kms along the coast, undulating gently, with lovely views of the sea. The Motu Road Trail is a 67 km intermediate grade ride that follows the historic coach road from Matawai to the coast. The Pakihi Track is a beauty - there’s about 17km of singletrack through the bush, with views to the river, a swingbridge, and swimming spots if you feel like it. Pakihi Hut is halfway down, and a nice place to stop for lunch. The trail is graded advanced, but as long as you don’t go too fast, in case the trail has eroded away, there’s nothing very tricky, it’s downhill, through gorgeous forest, just mind the steep drop-offs to the river. You can hire bikes in Opotiki and catch a shuttle service up to the start of the trail.

What to do

  • Be the first to see the new day, from Mt Hikurangi
  • Walk the Cook’s Cove Walkway
  • Take a winery tour
  • Cycle the Motu Trails
  • Climb to the East Cape lighthouse
  • Kayak at full moon on the Ohiwa Harbour

More info

Where to stay

East Cape
Opotiki District


Getting there

  • From Napier by road: 215km
  • From Rotorua by road: 286km

Surf photo (cropped): “Black Point - small”, credit: Felipe Skroski via Flickr Creative Commons

Piwa perched