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Christmas 2009 Travels to Gisborne and Hawkes Bay

With 9 days off over Christmas and New Year, and a very limited budget, we've decided to kill two birds with one stone; we're doing a dry run in the MGF sposts car in advance of our 5 week trip to South Island, to make sure we have packed everything we need, and with Art hitting his 60th birthday next April we're investigating potential places to retire to.

Top of our list is the East Coast - Gisborne and Hawkes Bay. The weather is generally drier and sunnier than the rest of NZ, and there are good amenities such as shopping centres and hospitals (an unfortunate consideration when approaching a certain age!). We've been to both areas before, and have mixed feelings.

Both have the type of amenities that go with a city. Hawkes Bay (Napier, Hastings & Havelock North) is easier to get to, has a thriving tourist industry and caters for an older population. Gisborne is North Island's 'distant city' - it's tucked away to the south-east, and is a good 2 hours away from any other centre of population, and 6 hours at least from Auckland. On paper, Hawkes Bay is the obvious choice - BUT - on our first visit we preferred Gisborne.

Gisbornes beach is golden sand - Napiers is stones. The sunset at Gisborne is stunning - I can't say I remember it at Napier.

I prefer the beachfront in Gisborne - in Napier there's a main road and a railway line that run along the front. I prefer the country surrounding Gisborne. But Napier gives us a better chance at earning money from tourist accommodation. Head says Napier, heart says Gisborne.

So this holiday is going to be spent touring the suburbs and surrounding areas looking at all the 'non-touristy' things and deciding whether we want to move long-term to either. We're looking at plots of land ('sections') too to see what is available, and how much we might pay.


With a tiny boot which gets scorching hot because it's near the engine, and minimal space in the bonnet where we could store food, packing was an art. We discovered that the cool bags from the local supermarket fitted beautifully across the boot, so decided that we'd pack everything in these (a bit like car battery cells). Art also decide we needed to take the tent for emergencies - there went half the boot space! We packed a cool bag each with clothes, one with travel towels, pillow cases, undies and toiletries, one with kitchenware, and one with electrical and other sundries. The tent and shoes went in the bottom, then the cool bags with the sleeping bags stuffed up one end. A cool bag of food goodies went under the bonnet, with the spare tyre. Oh - and there was just enough space for a cooler with an emergency bottle of wine. Coats were put on the back passenger shelf, under the folding roof. The car is therefore well and truly stuffed!

Day 1 - Auckland to Gisborne

Boxing Day - and everyone warned us that the traffic would be bad. We've certainly been stuck on SH1 before, so set out prepared for a long journey. In fact the traffic was nowhere near as bad as we thought it would be.

There aren't that many options to get to Gisborne from Auckland - it's SH2 through the Waioeka Gorge, or SH2 through the Waioeka Gorge. We cut through Hunua to SH2, then down the road that runs parallel to the main Tauranga road. One place worth stopping at briefly is Te Aroha. Stop for a coffee and snack, then travel on to the museum and bowling club.

Definitely worth a photo. The road from here is superb - long and straight (but not too boring). Keep an eye out for Wairere Falls - very beautiful and unexpected. Then up to Tauranga, then across to Whakatane, Opotiki then through the Waioeka Gorge. There's a decent cafe at Matawai, half-way through it. Finally into Gisborne. Today it took us 7.5 hours door to door - but we did stop a couple of times.

Day 2 - Gisborne

We're staying in the Waikanae Beach Boliday Park. This is right on the beach front in central Gisborne - a fantastic location. The cabins are basic, but reasonably priced, clean and comfortable. The sunsets from the beach are some of the best I've ever seen. Gisborne is in a unique position as because of its proximity to the International Dateline it has the reputation of being the first city in the world to see the sun each day but because of its position it also sees the setting sun over the water.

Gisborne is on the delta of a river, and although the city is on flat ground there are hills surrounding it. The delta valley is very fertile, with many market gardens, while the slopes of the hills support the many wineries that Gisborne is famous for.

Gisborne and the surrounding district also has a nickname - a parody of the fact that, like the West Coast of America in the 1800's, it's off the beaten track, and is also a stronghold of the 'natives' - the Maori. It's known as the 'Wild, Wild East'.

So it's quite fitting that today we went to a Rodeo.

Gisborne Rodeo

We spotted it was on in a small pamphlet, that seemed designed for the locals and not the tourists. Finding it was interesting - there were no signposts - just a gate at the end of a dead-end road. At one point we nearly turned back. But it was great! And it was full of locals.

Gisborne Rodeo Images

The day showed all the signs of being very hot (it went up to 29 C mid-afternoon). We arrived at 9:30 am, and were very pleased to get a seat at the top of a rickety row of terraced seating under some shady trees. And I mean rickety. There are certain parts of NZ that just do not know the meaning of the word 'health and safety'. I was sitting at least 8 feet off the ground, with no safety rail and great big 2 foot gaps between the steps. One woman in front of us did slip through (fortunately with no major injuries).

The day started with calf lassooing. This is for the youngsters. Then on to the team event. One guy lassoos the head of a steer, and the other the feet to bring the beast down. Next, the team bring a steer down by one of the guys jumping from his horse onto the steers back. All of these are done on horseback.

Next comes the bull riding. This is one of the main events, and comes in a multitude of classes. We saw the 'level 2' bull riding - scary! The guys come out of the pens with the bulls bucking and twisting. They have to stay on for 8 seconds, then get marked on their style. The guys are allowed to wear helmets and protective body armour - but not many of them do! Most wear a cowboy hat, which usually flies off - very good for effect.

We were most impressed to see that a Mr Wilmot from Gloucestershire won second place in the Steer Riding - obviously he's taken to the life out here.

The girls and youngsters also got their turn - the 'barrel race'. This involved racing their horses and ponies round three barrels in the shape of a cloverleaf as fast as they can. We were amazed at the size of the competitors compared with their mounts - some were tiny! We were also fascinated by the 'hat boy' - about 10 years old, it was his job to collect all the hats after the competitors had lost them (apart from the very smallest, again, hard hats are considered 'for the wimps').

We decided to leave at the lunch break, mainly because we had other things to do (like looking at sections) but also there wasn't much to do for an hour until the second half started. There were two stalls selling saddle blankets, cowboy boots and hats. And the food stalls were a hotdog and hamburger stand, one for ice creams and 'slushies', and the essential coffee stand.

Gisborne Snippets

There are two statues to Captain Cook in Gisborne (it was Cooks first landing in NZ), one near our holiday park, a genuine likeness and the other on Kaiti Hill which is a statue of an unknown Italian.

Gisborne airport has a railway line across the runway, planes give way to trains!

Poverty Bay (the bay in which Gisborne stands) was named so by Cook, because misunderstandings with local maori led to bloodshed

Day 3 - Gisborne to Napier

The day started with a damp wimper - drizzly and dull. Not a problem, as we were driving to Napier and we really didn't want a day stuck in a car (even an open-topped sports model) if it was too hot.

First stop was back to one of the sections we'd seen the day before. Very tempting - lovely country and sea views about 10 minutes out of Gisborne. And with some hard negotiation we might just get the one we wanted within our price range. BUT as much as we like Gisborne, it's so far away from anything…..

Then off down the coast road, heading towards Wairoa. The Gisborne and Hawkes Bay districts are separated by the peninsula of land (almost an island) called Mahia. So we took a detour and investigated. Another lovely area! Especially at Mahia Beach. And there was a new development of sections that were definitely in our price range! The one at the top had superb 270 degree views over the sea, had a northerly aspect, and it was sheltered from the worse of the weather as it was next to a cliff. Tempting - but again, too far away from anywhere that could be considered civilisation……

Five hours after leaving Gisborne we rolled into Napier, and the 'Affordable Westshore Holiday Park'. Hm. The park itself was OK - basic but clean - but the location was terrible! There was no easy way to walk to the beach (which was about 50 meters away as the crow flies, but through a railway line and row of houses without an alleyway). The only bar within walking distance was dire - a typical 'spit'n'sawdust' type of place - and the only place to get food was a Chinese Takeaway and fish and chip shop.

Napier still wasn't doing it for us.

Day 4 - Napier to Hastings

We woke up to pouring rain. What could we do? Look at more sections of course! We headed to Eskdale and Bayview, to the north-east of Napier. Some very tempting sections, with sea views. But we're still not over the moon with the area. it's generally too flat, and the beach is much too stony. Hospital Hill and Napier Hill in the centre - no. Too crowded, and the views are over the port. We just can't get on with Napier.

A number of people had said to visit Havelock North. This town we liked. The shopping centre is full of cafes and boutique type shops. It felt like a nice place. So off we went to look at sections to the west of town, where it starts getting hilly. This is an area we could live in. And to cap it all, the rain stopped. We were going to look at a section on the road to Te Mata Peak, an area we'd never been to before. What a surprise…. you drive through the suburbs of Havelock North, then start climbing. The view at the top is stunning. The section we were looking at was not what we were after, but just before the gates to the regional park was another section, looking over the plains of Hastings & Napier. We'll be trying to find out more…

From Te Mata Peak we'd spotted some more sections too, on the way out of Havelock North and heading towards Ocean Beach and Waimarama. By this time the sun had also come out, so we decided a trip to beach was in order.

Ocean Beach is everything that Napier Beach is not. It is long, with golden sands, and virtually uninhabited. There is a small estate of typical NZ 'baches' and that's it. I'm not saying the weather had turned hot and sunny, but Art actually went in the sea! This is unheard of - normally he has to be wearing a wetsuit and have a couple of air tanks on his back. The temperature for Hastings hit 30 C - what a change from the rain of the morning…

Hastings local beaches…Ocean, Cape Kidnappers and Waimarama

On the way back we stopped at the sections we'd spotted. Wow! The most amazing view of Te Mata Peak. Another one to get more details on…. We still can't work out if we're being sensible in buying a section at all though!!

Then on to the holiday park - the Hastings Top 10. Very comfortable….. and a decent Thai restaurant that does takeaways down the road. We started with a drive into Hastings for a drink. We've decided we like Hastings too - much better than Napier (probably not ideal as a tourist - but as somewhere to live - nice.). The High Street was lined with hanging baskets and tubs, all in full bloom. And it has all the shops you'd need. With Napier a short drive down the road, the area covers all the amenities that are needed for a good life. And of course there are loads and loads and LOADS of vineyards…

Day 5 - Hastings

Te day was going to be another scorcher. I managed to get hubby up reasonably early, and dragged him off for a walk along the beach at Cape Kidnappers.

Cape Kidnappers claim to fame is a gannet colony at the far end of the peninsula. But getting there isn't so easy. There's no road to the end, and it's a long walk. And the only way to get there is either to walk along the beach at low tide, or on quad bikes - again on the beach at low tide, or over the hills.

Even though we arrived at an ideal time, I knew there was no way I'd get hubby to do the full walk, but we did manage a half hour in one direction before he started whinging.

We decided to take a slightly longer drive to Waimarama Beach - same coast as Ocean Beach but slightly to the south. Waimarama is larger than Ocean Beach as a community - more houses than holiday baches - but in other ways very similar. It seemed to have more families and less surfers. We were surprised that the compulsory surf lifesavers weren't there - then just as we were clearing up to go, we spotted them at the very far end of the beach.

Hubby had his third dip in the sea - it must have been hot!!

That evening it was a trip into Napier for a drink on the seafront, then back via Hastings for a $10 Chinese Smorgasbord (they give you a container and you fill it with what you want) takeaway. Yum!

Surf Lifesavers

NZ's surf lifesavers are an institution. The majority are volunteers, and most popular beaches are manned by them in the summer months. They are easily recognised in their yellow and red outfits. BP the petroleum people sponsor the Surf Lifeguards by providing bright orange inflatable boats with outboards to help the lifeguards get to people in distress.

The lifeguards at Piha Beach, to the north-west of Auckland, have become famous following a series of programmes about them called 'Piha Rescue'. It's compulsive watching, and amazing to watch these guys and gals risking their own lives to rescue people who have sometimes got into difficulties of their own making.

Find out more about Surf Lifeguards at

Day 6 - Hastings to Home

New Years Eve - and after our tiring few days lounging on the beaches of the East Coast, we decided that we needed the comfort of our own bed. So it was foot to the metal, and we let the GPS take us the quickest route home.

This took us back to Napier, and through Eskdale to Taupo. And while passing through Eskdale the GPS just happened to take us past some sections that were for sale! We had to go and look. These were the best yet! Fantastic viws over the vineyards to the sea beyond. Unfortunately they were about double our price limit!!! Ah well - I always knew we had good taste…

Just a warning about taking SH2 into Taupo. There's a T-junction where it hits the lake, where you turn right. And there is always a tail-back in busy times because it's so difficult to turn right! It's better to take the right hand turning about a kilometer earlier and cut round the back of Taupo before turning towards the lake.

Then Taupo to Tirau on SH1 - I do not like SH1! Next time I'm ignoring the GPS and taking the road that runs parallel to the top of the lake. It's a smaller road, but much nicer to drive on.

Then a turn north onto SH27 and the Matamata straits. This would be a lovely road if you didn't have to worry about speeding and traffic cops. As it is, it can become very monotonous, and it is very difficult to stick to the speed limit.

We then cut up to Miranda and Kaiaua, on the Firth of Thames, stopping for a brief while for a bit to eat and a beer with my cousins at their bach. Finally home, along the coastal road, in time for a lounge in the spa before an early night…

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