Whakatane: The New Zealand sunshine capital full of surprises

Published: 20 Mar, 2015 12:00pm 

Justine McLeary at Ohiwa Harbour with her daughter Amanda. Photo / NZME. NZ Herald 

Justine McLeary and her young family enjoy an adventurous weekend of wildlife, wild islands and wild water in Whakatane. 

Legend has it a fish once leapt into the lap of a kayaker in Ohiwa Harbour. It was quite the surprise for the unsuspecting woman, our guide for the morning tells us. 

She got rather more than she bargained for, he agrees. 

Most visitors to Whakatane do. It’s the country’s sunniest place — leading Tekapo by 200 hours so far this year — and there are few crowds, even in summer. Too good to be true? With a rare free weekend at hand, we decided to find out. 

Our short break in New Zealand’s sunshine capital starts with an early morning family paddle around Ohiwa Harbour led by Kenny McCracken, owner-operator of KG Kayaks and the source of the leaping fish story. 

He’s a wealth of knowledge and very patient while we convince our stubborn 2-year-old that kayaking won’t kill her. Once we’re out on the water she calms down and all is well. 

The rising sun warms our backs and we have this corner of the harbour to ourselves, bar a stowaway in the form of a spider determined to climb up my leg. It’s postcard-perfect. 

Ohiwa is a great place to kayak, whatever your level of experience. It’s largely protected by two spits and there are plenty of inlets and channels worth exploring. It’s a pretty forgiving environment, Kenny says of the harbour he clearly loves. 

“I can see a mosquito,” Master Four calls from his perch at the front of our double kayak. I tune him out in favour of soaking up the early morning peace while I watch a lone shag fishing up ahead. Ohiwa Harbour, I decide, is the hidden gem in Whakatane’s crown. 

But White Island — New Zealand’s only active marine volcano — is what most visitors come here for. I can see why. Its jagged rocks, gaping craters and sulphur-yellowed paths are out of this world. We clamber to shore over rocks and head towards the main crater, resplendent in the yellow hard hats that are compulsory here. 

We’ve also been given gas masks in case of eruption and our guides reiterate safety warnings every few minutes. This place demands respect. 

It also surpasses all other geothermal attractions I’ve seen. It’s like being on the moon. 

Getting here isn’t fun, though. Strong winds make the 90-minute boat ride out very rough. Waves lash the boat and the crew is kept busy distributing sick bags. The return trip isn’t much better. 

We walk off our sea legs on the popular track walk between Whakatane and Ohope, voted New Zealand’s best beach by the Automobile Association last year. The Nga Tapuwae o 

Toi Walkway encompasses some of the country’s best scenery and offers stunning coastal views and it has a few challenging hills that, for me, add to its appeal. 

According to the oral traditions of Ngati Awa, one of Whakatane’s main iwi, Toi was descended from Tiwakawaka, the area’s first inhabitant. His stronghold, Kaputerangi (pa of gentle breezes), is one of New Zealand’s oldest pa sites and a highlight of the 16km walkway. 

We only have time for a half-hour walk and promise ourselves we’ll be back to finish the job in summer when the pohutukawa are in bloom. 

We’ve been promised a real Maori experience for the evening with NATIV ConnectioNZ. It’s normally a walking tour but pending rain forces us on to a bus to check out Whakatane’s historic sights, which include sacred Muriwai’s Cave near the river mouth. The tour ends with a hangi dinner – the perfect way to wrap up our day. 

We’re back on the water the next morning for a visit to Moutohora (Whale Island), a dormant volcano five nautical miles from Whakatane. It’s a refuge for endangered birds, including kiwi, and plants under Department of Conservation protection. 

Access is restricted, making a visit here special indeed. Highlights include a giant rock elephant and the baby seals we’re lucky enough to catch sunbathing on rocks on the Whakatane side of the island. 

It’s better than a day in the office. 

CHECKLIST Getting there: Whakatane is about three hours and 40 minutes by car from Auckland, via Tauranga. 


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