The runway was approaching and we still didn’t have clearance. We’d reduced speed but the control tower was looming closer. Suddenly we got the green light. “There it is,” pointed Geoff, “Up in the tower”. Sure enough, a green light beamed back at us, permission to continue on the railway that cuts through Gisborne’s airport.
Geoff was a guard aboard Wa165, the only remaining Wa class steam locomotive in the world. As President of the Gisborne City Vintage Railway, over the clack clacks he shared the history of an engine that first ran when Queen Victoria reigned. After years of neglect, it was lovingly restored by rail enthusiasts and now plies its route as one of Gisborne’s hidden treasures.
“You’ll want to see this,” Geoff nodded ahead. We started to slow as the Waipaoa River Bridge came into view. Passing over the longest rail bridge in the North Island made for a vintage scene before picking up steam through the fields to Muriwai. Once the train had safely stopped it was the kids’ time – selfies lying in front of the cowcatcher and oohs and ahs as they clambered into the cab under the watchful eye of the driver.
John the fireman (in a steam train sense) took me through the stats: half a tonne of coal, 4,000 litres of water, and a whole lot of levers to get the three carriages here and back. As a trainee driver, it was his job to manage the ‘run around’ – when the engine is shifted to the ‘rear’ of the train in order to lead the way home backwards. As we rumbled back to the city and scenic views gave way to urban landscape, the piercing whistle reminded cars that a 200-tonne train was headed their way. At journey’s end Wa165 braked to a stop and 150 beaming faces disembarked.
Quite conveniently the railway depot is just a five-minute walk from New Zealand’s oldest independent brewery. The home of Gisborne Gold, Sunshine Brewing is a boutique brewery, pizzeria and off-licence all wrapped into one. Kahu was there to greet me, passionately explaining what it takes to create such locally-inspired drops as Life’s a Peach, Pipeline Pilsner and Stockies, before generously pouring me a tasting flight from a selection of their 20 tap beers.
Spilling out onto the patio was a melting pot of jandals and John Bulls, mullets and bangs.
Spilling out onto the patio was a melting pot of jandals and John Bulls, mullets and bangs. Piping hot pizzas landed with ice-cold pints as beer-matching is an art here: Rip Tide pizza accompanied by Mahia Pale Ale, slices of Shore Break with the award-winning No Access East Coast hazy IPA. As I left it was obvious that the locals appreciate it too as ‘double dozens’ were carried off to be sipped elsewhere.
Tūranganui-a-Kiwa has always had an active arts scene so it was exciting to come across Toi Ake. Located in the Ballance Street Village, its teardrop banner gave little away. Randomly popping in I was welcomed by co-founder Henare Brooking (Ngati Porou, Rongowhakaata), himself a painter, tā moko, pounamu and paraoa (whalebone) artist.
“We wanted to create a hub for local artists to work from, a place where they could grow their art”. Now one of the country’s leading Māori art studios, the gallery features work from across the motu. Paintings and prints cover the walls. Carvings look down and sculptures stand proud. While the front of Toi Ake is a gallery, it was out back where the action was taking place. One of the five full-time tā moko artists was carefully applying fresh ink to a client’s ankle; the concentration was evident.
On the other side of town, there was a different sort of concentration: wild stingrays. 24 years ago diver and underwater cameraman Dean Savage was befriended by a curious stingray, planting the seed for what is now Dive Tatapouri’s Ecology Reef tour. Today these kaitiaki of the ocean, sacred to the area, feel the vibrations of people from all over the world who have come to interact with them in their natural environment.
Thorough safety briefing done (“avoid the barbs”), waders on and pole in hand, we entered the reef at low tide. My partner's trepidation quickly evaporated as Stevie Ray glided up beside her. Graceful, serene, Stevie Ray investigated the line of legs before being joined by eagle rays Aroha and Rachael.
Our guide Matt handed out bait. “When you go to feed them take your hand right to the bottom, all the way down – their mouths are under their body.” Aroha came up to my partner’s hand and sucked the food in like a soft vacuum, despite pushy kahawai trying to get in on the action. Matt was encouraging: “Go ahead, gently stroke them if you like.” I nodded affirmatively as if I was a marine biologist. A hand went into the water and the report came back: slimy but cool.
Soon it was our turn for lunch and the city’s inner harbour beckoned. Years ago, when I was wearing Nomads at Gisborne Boys’ High, the Kaiti Freezing Works was a major employer in Tairāwhiti. Today the only remaining building is a gable-roofed structure that houses one of Gisborne’s best eateries, The Works. With an industrial-meets-casual vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on Ponsonby Road, the brick restaurant is less ‘hidden’ and more ‘destination’.
Like many a hospitality venue over the summer post-COVID, it has been “smashed as”, but you wouldn’t know it judging by what was coming out of the kitchen. Cradled in a halved brioche was my Pork Belly Karaage, a perfectly coated tonkatsu topped with honey soy sauce… which instantly got ‘shared’ with uninvited forks. The Orecchiette Pasta was nearly enough for two: prawns sitting atop lemon pangrattato and thinly sliced zucchini. There was no need for dessert, tempting as it looked.
It’s a little-known fact that the National Arboretum of New Zealand is… in Gisborne. To be accurate, the arboreal ark that is Eastwoodhill is a 30min drive away through the Ngatapa valley. Upon arriving I instantly regretted not putting more time aside to see the largest collection of northern hemisphere trees in this part of the world. Autumn sees the 100-year-old gardens come alive, a deciduous cloak of orange fluttering upon a bed of needles and cones.
Another little-known fact: it's not only the Giant Panda and Bizarre-nosed Chameleon that make the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; Eastwoodhill helps protect over 150 threatened or endangered trees on the list. We took the Yellow Walk to see them, zig-zagging through the woodlands before the scent of eucalyptus led us to The Cathedral. Originally an outline of Westminster Abbey planted in Lawson cypress, the enchanting smell comes from the tallest tree in the arboretum.
There is something soul-fulfilling in walking amongst giants and my partner couldn’t help but say hello to the trees in their native language: “Konnichi wa” “Ni hao” “Hola” ”Bonjour”. The arboretum isn’t all exotics though; there are plenty of natives for the kids to learn about if you can tear them away from the carved lion.
The fading sunlight was our cue to head down the road to our final destination, Gisborne Astro Tours. Pulling up outside a paddock and a large portacabin shed, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Our host, John Drummond (MSc Astronomy, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand) strolled out to meet us, extending his hand like we were old friends and inviting us inside. As we took a seat John explained how we were in a perfect position: zero light pollution and the best view of the universe.
As he started his interactive 30-minute presentation I realised that this astro-scientist was the epitome of Gizzy: friendly, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and authentic. Nebulae, clusters, supernovae, constellations - it was (excuse the pun) all so clear now. John put up with my inane questions (“Why did Pluto get demoted?”) with the skill of a science teacher and the patience of a saint.
Then it was time to see the real thing. Leading us out past wool-shedding Wiltshire sheep, John disappeared through a low door before popping up to roll back the roof of his custom-built observatory, revealing two large Newtonian Reflector telescopes. This is where stargazing guests spend most of their time, marvelling at the celestial worlds before them until reluctantly having to share the eyepiece.
As we were leaving John casually mentioned Gisborne Astro Tours’ Introductory Course to Astronomy: six lectures over six weeks focusing on how to use the telescope, astrophotography and solar system viewings. Humble as he was, I think it’s one part of the Gisborne experience that doesn’t deserve to be hidden.