Surf and Turf in South Taranaki


Beaches, countryside and an iconic museum – major attractions beneath Taranaki Maunga

Generally, the drive from Piopio to Eltham takes about 2.5 hours, but this trip began a further 1.5hrs away in Hamilton, and a huge number of road works, including the significant developments at Mt Messenger, added almost another hour to the journey. It’ll be a great drive when the work’s done, but in the meantime it’s a bit irksome. However, we reached our destination, Eltham’s Fonterra Cheese Bar, with half an hour to spare before closing time and stocked up with enough delicious product to see us through a fair few pre-dinner wine, cheese and cracker evenings. Eltham’s got some interesting dairy-related history, and its street art demonstrates the enormous talent of local artists, but we had another mission for the day, and that was to see Dawson Falls before heading out west to Ōpunake for the night.




As usual I’m overawed by the beauty of our mature native bush, and it is close to us on both sides of the 6km narrow, winding but sealed road to the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre within the Egmont National Park boundary. A fine pou stands outside the centre while Taranaki Maunga (formerly Mt Egmont) provides a stunning backdrop above the forest. Bad news for those travelling with pets though; signage advises a strict ‘no dog’ policy, even if said dog is kept in the vehicle. We stop at the small, historic power station near the visitor centre. It’s 100 years old and was moved to its present site, only 70m from the road, having previously been used in Wellington. Then it’s down a series of steps to the falls themselves. The height of the steps lead us to believe that they were built by someone with long legs, but the view of the falls from the bottom makes the walk worthwhile.

Surfers from all over the world come to catch the waves at Taranaki’s many beaches. In fact, the 105km State Highway 45 heading south from New Plymouth to Hāwera is known as the Surf Highway. We’ve based ourselves at Ōpunake Beach, just across the dunes from the beach itself. Patrolled by lifeguards in the summer, it’s said to be one of the safest swimming beaches in the country, although it’s recommended that swimmers avoid the southern end. Ōpunake Beach Holiday Park, where we stayed, has a photo book showing the hordes of visitors and vehicles that show up for a surf or a swim in the holiday season. The Park also has a children’s paddling pool complete with a dragon slide.




There’s a rāhui in place on the coast to prevent the gathering of shellfish, particularly pāua, to protect these species for the future. Dramatic cliffs are a feature along this coast and Ōpunake has its own clifftop walk as part of the Ōpunake Loop Trail. At the top of the hill above the holiday park there’s a painted tōtara post-dating from 1890. It’s actually a ship’s navigational marker, a relic from when the only access was by sea; when lined up with another post on the beach it identified the approach lane for vessels coming in to tie up at the old jetty. In the town itself, more than 20 historic and contemporary murals are a feature, and there are a couple of second-hand shops full of interesting bits and pieces. With the sun setting over the ocean it was the perfect spot for enjoying some of that wine and Eltham cheese.

When they take time from their busy routines, farmers near Surf Highway 45 south of Ōpunake must look up in wonder at views of the ocean on one side of their pastures and Taranaki Maunga on the other. But today’s lush green paddocks and stunning views belie the fact that this land was once highly contested during the devastating Land Wars of the 1860s. Several monuments and the remnants of redoubts and pā sites acknowledge these conflicts, but it’s not until a visit to Tawhiti Museum near Hāwera that we realise, through seeing the most detailed and interesting information, the impact of these and the previous Musket Wars of the 1820s.

Tawhiti Museum and its historical Traders and Whalers presentation are ‘must-see’ experiences. Apart from learning such a lot of previously unfamiliar history, the sculpting and modelling skill of proprietor Nigel Ogle demonstrates an incomparable degree of patience, talent and ingenuity. From life-sized human figures to the tiniest detail in the many dioramas, this is world-class representation at its best. One display shows a realistic-looking child in tears while Mum cooks dinner, and another display has a little girl clutching a soft toy on her dad’s knee as he drives an early model tractor. An area is dedicated to entrepreneurial settler Chew Chong who helped many families stave off starvation by purchasing wood ear fungus from them for export. Chew Chong also made butter and was awarded a silver cup for the ‘best half ton of butter packed suitable for export’. This was at a time when Chinese settlers were not always well treated, but Chew Chong was eventually recognised for his contribution to the community.




Traders and Whalers includes a boat trip through a darkened canal, again revealing history and again with some interesting surprises and previously unknown facts. Learning that sailing ships had 20–30 kilometres of rigging that needed to be replaced every 4–5 years made me realise just what a valuable commodity our harakeke (flax) was at the time.

So much to see, to learn, to reminisce at, and so much that demonstrates just how much our society has changed over the years. We’re accompanied by sound effects including birdsong and barking dogs, and there are surprises and laughs to be had along the way.

We were at the displays for several hours but were told that some visitors, particularly those who choose to listen to the audio that accompanies the dioramas, have taken up to two days to see and hear details of our past. Buoyed by our visit, we’re confident in recommending it to anyone.

Our final Taranaki trip was to a secluded setting at the end of a long, winding, hilly, but mostly sealed road with some magnificent rural views. At approximately 46km long, Lake Rotorangi was formed in 1984 when the Pātea River was dammed for electricity generation. The southern end of the long narrow lake has a campground and toilets, a boat ramp and a 1.5km walking track. It’s a very pretty place where we went for a wander then ate lunch while watching boaties towing kids on biscuits, kayakers, paddleboarders and swimmers enjoying themselves.




My organisational skills need work as, once again, although we’ve been there before, we didn’t leave ourselves enough time for a good look around the Stratford, Eltham and Hāwera areas. We got lost looking for Eltham’s 17ha Lake Rotokare, a stopover for migrating birds and with a 4km walk, and among other things, we’ve yet to follow the interesting-sounding branch railway line on the 3hr York Loop Track, and to spend time in Pātea and Waverley. Still, we’ve got a good excuse to return – Taranaki – you’re still in our sights!


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