The Road Less Travelled
22 February 2022
On safari to the east coast we find the world’s longest place name, New Zealand’s Wimbledon and a publican in a leopard skin dress
Story + Photos Jane Dove Juneau
One of the great aspects of New Zealand is if you are tired of one coast it is a relatively short hop cross country to the other side for a change of scene. From where we live in Ōakura it takes between four and seven hours to make the drive depending on where you’re going. When the westerlies hit the Taranaki coast for a week it was the perfect time to load up the car and head off on a camping trip to the east side. After studying our trusty NZ Road Atlas hunting for somewhere we had not explored before, somewhere with surf, we decided on the little coastal settlement of Herbertville on the Tararua coast near Cape Turnagain.
With the car packed we drove south around Mt Taranaki on the Wiremu Road down to Hāwera. The weather cleared as we travelled south through the historic South Taranaki towns of Pātea and Waverly. Whanganui is around two hours from New Plymouth and a good place to refuel, pick up groceries, or stop for a bite to eat. The downtown area has a range of eateries with plenty of choices for a quick stop. One of our favourites, especially when passing through Whanganui after skiing at Turoa, is the authentic Turkish Kebabholik – their kebabs are delicious.
After crossing the large flowing Whanganui River we drove south on SH3 to Makirikiri Road where we turned off to take a ‘short cut’ across to Feilding and Ashurst, and from there (now the Manawatu Gorge is closed) it was a windy uphill drive past the towering 70-metre high turbines at Meridian’s Te Apiti wind farm. It is worth a short stop at the public viewing area to check out these huge rotating structures, especially on a blustery day. At Woodville we turned north on SH2 to Dannevirke where we stocked up on groceries at New World and fruit and vegetables at Shires Fruit and Vege Market. We planned on camping five days on the coast at Herbertville and Akitio and supplies might not be available there.
The road from Weber to Wimbledon is paved but rather bumpy due to the passage of heavily-laden logging trucks. We travelled in on a Sunday and didn’t see any trucks, but it pays to drive carefully through this section as the road isn’t very wide for two large vehicles. The historic Wimbledon Tavern looked interesting but was closed so we turned off there to follow the Wainui River to Herbertville.
We passed the pub and a little settlement of Kiwi baches to where we could get a view of the beach. The Wainui River runs along the foreshore for some distance before the gravel road aligns to the beach. A commanding fence topped with barbed wire and an electric wire prevented access to the beach on the southern end. I wondered why? I presumed this land belonged to the Pipi Bank Station we had driven past.
Back at the Herbertville campground we got a warm welcome from the host and chose to camp on a sheltered site surrounded by hedges for protection from the wind. Call me a purist, but there is something infinitely satisfying about tent camping. It takes some preparation and planning but once you are set up, it brings life down to its simplest form – eat, play, sleep.
After Rick’s ham and egg breakfast, we set off down the beach to look for pāua. We parked by a gate providing access through the fence down to the beach. The 14km windswept white sandy beach had a big swell running due to a cyclone north of the country, which made conditions challenging out on the rocks. We spent some time looking for pāua and mussels but didn’t have much success and the tide was moving back in. It was a stunning setting with the spray flying off the waves and the beach stretching north to Cape Turnagain and south for miles.
Back at the car, a group of divers who were parked next to us were celebrating their morning success. We were waved over for a chat.
“Do you want a beer or Jack (Daniels),” asked one of the blokes. Richard introduced himself and his partner Tanya, who turned out to be friends of friends from Ōakura. They’d had a successful morning diving with Tanya’s bag beating the boys with the biggest haul. We were entertained with stories, including one of finding ambergris (excretion from a sperm whale) on a beach and selling it on Trade Me to a guy from India for $8000. I mentioned I was writing a travel story.
“I have a name for your story,” said the other bloke. “The road less travelled. You meet interesting people on the road less travelled.” And yes he was right. They recommended we went to the pub to see Lorraine, the lady that runs the pub in her leopard skin dress. She had impressed the boys with her ‘assets’. They would be good people to talk to for my story, was the consensus. With several of Tanya’s pāua generously donated for our dinner, we said goodbye to our new friends.
Later in the day after a bike ride up the river flat, Rick and I stopped by the Beachhaven Inn for a cold beer and hot chips. Lorraine was there as promised in her fitting leopard skin dress while Aad Bloom, her Dutch husband, also sat down for a chat when he got a break from the kitchen. Their life story was full of adventure, spending eight years travelling with the Gypsy Fair and building hydroponics glasshouses in Helensville. After six years at the Beachhaven Inn, Aad reckoned it’s time for someone younger to take it over. It was originally built as a general store in 1880 and the pub was across the road. After the pub burnt down the store eventually converted into a pub. Lorraine and Aad have worked hard to upgrade the business, which has reasonably priced accommodation, staples such as bread, milk and ice cream along with pub food.
I found out that the fence along the roadside protects a 200-acre Pipi Banks Bird Reserve. Before the area was fenced, freedom campers and off-road vehicles used the area. According to Aad, the area was abused by campers/visitors who left rubbish behind, including old couches, and tore up the sand dunes, so the owner of Pipi Bank Station decided to fence the area to protect it for the future and create a safe habitat for wildlife. It would be helpful if there was a sign to identify the bird reserve and explain the imposing fence that restricts beach access.
The next day we rode our bikes across the river along to the north end of the beach. We pedalled along the sand until it was too soft and then leaned our bikes on a driftwood tree while we walked out to see the seal colony near the imposing grey cliffs of Cape Turnagain. I saw hollows in the sand hills where the seals slept but decided not to go too close to the seals sleeping on the rocky shore as it was breeding season.
Captain Cook named Cape Turnagain in 1769 on a voyage to find the great southern continent. Sailing south from Gisborne, Cook could find no place for shelter and water so he turned around and sailed north again, naming the point as Cape Turnagain. In early colonial days, there was a landing place at Cape Turnagain where coastal ships called, bringing stores, household and farming goods, taking away wool and other produce, along with passengers. For many years it was the only outlet for these goods for the nearby settlement and farms, and was in use until the 1930s.
The other claim to fame for Herbertville, according to the publican, is the golf course. But our experience when we rode our bikes down to the clubhouse at sunset was not positive. The greenkeeper came screaming down in his car furious that we had ridden our bikes down the dirt road through the course.
“Lucky I didn’t criticise his greenkeeping,” said Rick, glancing across the bumpy green where sheep were peacefully grazing. I laughed – that would not have been helpful.
Herbertville is a quiet place and the locals are fairly friendly, but I did get the feeling that tourists are tolerated not welcomed, and likely there was good reason for this.
The surf was too wild for Rick to go out because of the big cyclone swell and strong winds, so we packed up our camp and headed down the coast to Akitio. Although not far south of Herbertville, to get there we had to return inland then back out to the coast. On the way we detoured north of Wimbledon through rolling green farmland to visit the place that holds the Guinness World Record for the World’s Longest Place Name with 85 letters, Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu. This is one name no one will frown at you if you can’t pronounce it – even the locals have shortened it to Taumata or Taurmata Hill – and I have found a number of valiant attempts to pronounce it in various videos online. It was named in honour of a great chief and warrior called Tamatea who spent days grieving and playing his kōauau (a Māori flute) on top of the hill after his brother was killed in battle with another tribe. The local students at Pōrangahau School have a singing version of the name to help them learn it and can be viewed on Stuff NZ.
Returning the way we came, we stopped for a beer at Wimbledon – yes it does have a tennis court but that’s the only similarity to its English namesake. A resident in 1880 shot a bullock from a considerable distance, and onlookers thought the shot was worthy of the rifle shooting championship held in Wimble-don at the time – hence the name.
Set in a valley enclosed by hilly sheep country, the main landmark is the old wooden tavern built in 1886. Inside by the old wooden bar were a couple of young farmers’ wives (I assumed) dressed in striped T-shirts, both with dark hair tied back off their faces. I made the mistake of asking if they were twins.
“No we’re not related, just friends.” Ah yes, probably a silly question. The girls were in for lunch and a catch up while a wild brood of country kids played under the pool table. The cold beer tasted good as I surveyed the historic photos of coastal ships at Cape Turnagain, hanging on the wall. I asked the girls about a winding road I’d seen on the map that cut across to Akitio. “It’s a shortcut if you’re used to driving narrow country roads,” she said. “Watch out for stock trucks or logging trucks. My husband likes going that way but I go around the other way.” Good advice, I think we’ll stick to the paved route today.
After about an hour driving around corners we arrived at the coast. The bank of Akitio River was like a boneyard covered with bleached tree skeletons. Stretching north the dark blue ocean was filled with plumes of spray whipped by the wind. Windy Akitio. Exactly as I remembered from our last visit several years earlier.
The road follows the shoreline of the white beach and is lined with baches nestled under the hills. A number of fishing boats and cray pots give signs of good fishing nearby. The beach is more sheltered than Herbertville and offers easier access for boats. At the campground we stood and surveyed the area trying to decide where the most sheltered site was. All seemed calm until we raised the tent into the air and all hell broke loose – I rushed to secure the flap-ping poles. Visions of last time we camped here flashed through my mind. We had to abandon ship in the middle of the night and retreat to the car as the tent was collapsing in our faces with the gale force winds. Luckily, this time it was not so bad – the wind dropped and the surf was pumping. Rick was happy. I left him to his debate about where to surf. A reef was breaking quite far out off the beach and a couple of surfers were paddling out.
We had several relaxing days at Akitio exploring the southern coast at low tide. Inside the reef offshore from the campground, is a big lagoon ideal for snorkelling at low tide, or for wading around and exploring rock pools. We snorkelled looking for pāua and managed to get a feed each day. Although one day I stayed out a bit long, floating around upside down in the surging seaweed and ended up feeling crook.
Along the beach north of the campground are a few old posts in the sand – remnants of an old jetty that was once used to unload people and goods from the coastal freighters. Today the Akitio area is mainly sheep and beef farms with crayfishing adding to the local economy.
This wild stretch of coastline south of Cape Turnagain is interesting to explore, especially if you enjoy being off the beaten path. The campground at Akitio is popular over the summer holidays so it would pay to book a site in advance. Come well supplied as there is not much available at Herbertville or Akitio, and if you’re lucky you might catch a fish or gather shellfish for dinner, catch a hollow tube on a surfboard or see a stunning sunrise.
Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine.
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