I first saw it through a 1973 Holden Belmont station wagon’s smoke-stained window. Staring back at 11-year-old me was a blue and yellow sign: ‘Pig Dog Training School / Bookbinder’. Located just outside of Torere, Joshua Kauta’s iconic landmark still stands, symbolising the next 300 kilometres. Known yet mysterious, friendly yet wary, this is the East Coast.
State Highway 35 is its vein, an artery of townships that have risen and fallen with the tide of resources, people and politics. And yet this narrow, storm-beaten road attracts more passion than perhaps any other. ‘35’ logos proudly sit across low-hanging trackies, XXL tees and well-worn bucket hats. 35, the TikTok sensation by the 24-rangatahi choir Ka Hao and Rob Ruha has over 5 million views on YouTube.
Driving the road you can see why. Honour guards of rata canopy across the sticky tarmac while almighty ponga stand sentinel over isolated coves. Beehives and bulls fall into the rear vision mirror, as a new Haere Mai approaches. Each township has its own unique ways.
Te Kaha is home to the strikingly carved wharenui Tūkākī, next to a memorial dedicated to the Māori Battalion's C Company. Just before it is the Te Kaha Beach Resort complete with swimming pool, sea views, restaurant and event facilities. The Coast, authentic yet polished.
As the road curves a bright star appears on the isthmus. Raukokore’s church, its external beams glistening, is as picturesque as it is isolated. The Pacific laps metres away as a stallion nonchalantly looks up. A single ute’s exhaust splutters and then the quiet returns once again.
Further on the gears shift down, as does the pace. Fans of Taika Waititi pay homage to Boy’s Michael Jackson moves in front of the Waihau Bay Post Office, as kuia roll their eyes and chuckle. Fisherman patiently wait their turn to use the popular boat ramp as the sea begins to settle. After Hicks Bay the first straight heads towards Te Araroa and a carpet of needles under Te Waha o Rerekohu, the largest Pohutukawa in New Zealand. I played on it as a kid; there’s now a sign politely asking you not to.
The most easterly point of State Highway 35 is at Tikitiki. Atop its hill sits the historic St Marys, widely considered to be the most beautiful Māori church in New Zealand. Sunlight strikes the stained glass window depicting two soldiers kneeling at the feet of Christ, below them sit glowing pews. Kowhaiwhai and tukutuku panels bathe in the light, embracing the intricately carved pulpit. The church, which was built as a memorial to Ngati Porou who sacrificed their lives in the Great War, has been lovingly restored over the last two decades.
Under the watch of the maunga Hikurangi, the first place to see the Sun, lies Ruatoria. Home of Pa Wars - officially the Ngati Porou inter-marae challenge – every year over 20 marae come together for a day of competing fun. As varied as the Coast’s landscape the battles range from sprints to karaoke to euchre. A chorus of ‘chur bro’ sings out as kids collapse over the finish line into the embrace of cheering whanau.
Pa Wars is a welcome respite from a tough 18 months on the Coast. Floods, road closures, and of course, COVID-19 restrictions have all affected it. Erosion is no stranger to State Highway 35 either; the roads can be as uneven as the weather. Following another vehicle on the Coast forges an anonymous bond, a shared sense of navigating dips and swerving rocks, until they break away for their own journey as the road winds on.
The gastronomical pull of Tokomaru Bay is too strong to drive by. Served fresh and creamy, Café 35’s famous Paua Pies fuel locals and tourists alike. Heads turn as trays breeze past, the waft of hot flaky pastry delivered with a knowing smile, making the wait worth it. The pies travel well, making their half-eaten way to nearby ‘secret’ Anaura Bay. This stunning bay embodies ‘getting away from it all’, its long sandy beach bookended by DOC and commercial camping grounds.
The biggest township on the East Coast happens to have the longest wharf in New Zealand. Buttressed by easterly swells the Tolaga Bay wharf can be a stirring sight; a reminder of the respect Tangaroa commands. Light-coloured driftwood touched by fingers of ocean tentatively rests as the tide comes in one more time. A determined father with stroller heads towards the end of the pier, hair askew and hands clasped tightly. Waiting for him when he gets back are Broad Bills’ cheesy wheezies curly fries, a just reward for such a long walk.
Beyond Tolaga Bay the road straightens as it makes its way to Gisborne. Behind it is a unique unspoiled land, threaded with a living, breathing highway. The Coast, like State Highway 35 itself, is still a little rough around the edges, but nothing a 1973 Holden Belmont station wagon can’t handle.
· Getting there: Self-drive from Opotiki to Gisborne or vice-versa. 4WD is best.
· Accommodation: Te Kaha Beach Resort, Hicks Bay Motor Lodge, Freedom camping
· Stop at: Te Kaha, Waihau Bay, Te Araroa, Tikitiki, Tokomaru Bay, Anaura Bay, Tolaga Bay
· Web: tairawhitigisborne.co.nz/see-and-do/statehighway35/
Original publication: New Zealand Herald