State Highway 35 wriggles along the coastal hills. There are multiple slips on the road. Some are little more than a handful of pebbles, others cover a whole lane. Gaps in the trees show lush dark green valleys. 50 shades of native green. Rivers usually shallow, braided and clear now run high and thick with mud. Clouds linger but the rain has passed, for now. Townships spring up on the flat land around the river mouths. Brightly coloured filing cabinets full of bees are the only thing in empty fields. Finches explode off the road. I am still waiting for the day I find one that wasn’t fast enough stuck in the front grill of the van. I drove into Opotiki, unsure of what to do, where to go. I am trying to make a habit of visiting the iSite in the towns and cities I visit. While the staff don’t seem to be able to offer more than the leaflets in front of them, those leaflets have occasionally sent me somewhere unexpected, or given me another place to explore. Things are a little better in Opotiki. The man behind the counter seems genuinely interested in making recommendations and offering an opinion. I still leave with a handful of leaflets. I tick off the other important chores, food shopping and fuel. Safe in the knowledge that I would not die in the next couple of days, I drove to the beach.
I’m almost at the start of one section of the Motu Trails, a series of cycling networks that link Opotiki with the ranges all the way through to Gisborne. Having been longing to surf only a few days ago, today I was beginning to question why I didn’t have a bike. I am increasingly feeling the need to add another outdoor pursuit to my list of hobbies and interests. The imaginatively named Dunes Trail follows the sand dunes that stretch back towards the East Cape. Walking the trail is easy. There is actually a track for a start, I’m not walking on the sand. While the dunes do rise and fall, nothing amounts to any serous climbing. The worst thing I can do is stop. The minute I’m not moving, attempting to steal some fun facts from the information boards, I’m swarmed. The fantails and swifts were an early indicator I’d ignored. Where there are birds hunting there are usually bugs hunting too. I reached the point where the trail joins the side of the highway and decided to walk back along the beach. Crossing the soft sand I move towards the hard, compact, still damp sand closer to the waves. The pair of oyster catchers let out a shrill cry of alarm before taking off. Green sea foam grips the waves before being dumped on the beach. I assume this is what the signs mean when they say water quality may be poor after heavy rain. Dog walking in New Zealand is an interesting pursuit. Literally a pursuit. A man drives his ute down the beach. His three dogs chase after him. One significantly less fit than the others plods along behind. I get back to the van to find the sun has made an appearance for the late afternoon. I fling the doors open, glad to be able to get some air flow through. I have no idea if the van smells or not. I don’t think it does, but in the way you become tolerant, accepting even, of the things you live with I also don’t trust myself. In the evening as I switch the lights on, I realise I have a large number of guests. I don’t know if these insects are the biting kind but if they are, I hope they’re not hungry.
A white sea rages beneath a black sky. White clouds cling to black land. I think about waiting another day before leaving. I want to drive inland, through the Waikomea Gorge. Back towards Gisborne. Cutting the corner this time. The forecast is better on the coast than for the ranges but I’m restless. I need to do something. I speak briefly to the Italian woman who stayed in the car park last night. She’s on her way to Auckland, to try and sell her van. The other solo travellers, and there are plenty of them, seem like the most interested in talking. We depart at the same time. Our lives like our vans, moving in different directions. Having run from the rain, hidden from the rain, I find I am now on the chase. State Highway 2 wobbles all over the place as it enters Waikomea Gorge. I am readily served up some of the most intense driving I’ve ever experienced. I’m thankful for every passing place, being able to get out of the way and let the tailgating locals disappear ahead of me.
I stop at the historic Tauranga Bridge. A bridge that goes nowhere. I cross the Waioeka River with the intention of completing a loop track that reaches into the opposite valley. I read there are two stream crossings required. With all the heavy rain I’m not expecting to be able to do more than go out and back. I descend to the river first to have a look, to see how high it is. At first I don’t notice the crossing. I’m hypnotised by the eddies of the green stream where the water refused to mix with the gravy brown river. A little upstream I notice the half-submerged cable crossing. There’s no way I’m getting across today. I head back up and into the valley. The clouds are running from blue skies, I feel the sun on my face. Rewarded for moving on. The land here was once cleared by settlers who though they could carve a living out of the valley. Nature proved too strong, ferns and thorns have grown up. Higher up the steep hills of the valley are thick with life. The hills look like they’re covered in broccoli, tree ferns stick out like bright green crabs. The forest’s march back down to the river has begun. I cross several fast flowing streams before I reach one where I hesitate. I could maybe jump to the boulder in the middle, but if I miss or fall off I’m done. I take the sensible choice and turn around.
The road meanders with the river. The water clearing as the valley deepens. The van climbs slowly, steadily up towards the ridgeline. I cross into the next valley. Everything changes. I have caught up with the rain. The windscreen wipers are on full blast, flapping like wings. The road disappears into the clouds. Out of the gloom I can see a land stripped bare. The dense forest is gone. There is nothing. Grass covered hills slump against one another. I’m shocked by the devastation, even though it must have happened years ago. I drive through the village of Motu and towards the Whinray Scenic Reserve. The trees return. I park up, sitting in the van, eating a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Trying to decide what to do.
The walking track here is a four hour return trip. If I do the whole thing I won’t be back before dark. Waves of rain wash over the van. Was it a mistake to leave the coast after all? I’m overdue a shower, the rain is meant to last for the next 24 hours. I’ve come this far, if nothing else I can see the falls.
Thick spray comes up from the river. I smell the water before I see it. Motu Falls is flowing hard and fast. Huge quantities of water explode over the 9 meter drop. I cross the bridge and poke my head in to the forest. I decide I’m already out. The canopy should provide some shelter. I can walk for an hour then turn back. There’s a place I can park for the night back in Motu. I find joy again in the green. The moss, the ferns, the giant trunks that punch through the canopy. By the time I return to the village of Motu I’m feeling good. The rest area here is on the corner of a road, next to a toilet. It isn’t much but it’s enough. Motu isn’t much either, barely reaching beyond the corner. A school, a closed cafe, a couple of houses.
I wake up to the dawn chorus of dogs barking. The doom whistle of the Australian magpie. Quad bikes roar past. A livestock lorry moves in and is loaded with sheep. Heavy clouds roll over the top of the hills. I think back to when I had a normal life and a good weather forecast might lead to something exciting happening, like going outside. Now I’ve seen the full sun symbol over Opotiki I think that would be a good day for laundry, or I could strip the bed and flip the mattresses. Living out of the van is becoming normal. I find I’m less anxious, more comfortable. Willing to park anywhere and use whatever facilities are available, no matter the state they may be in. I look forward to the nights on more official holiday parks. A free hot shower has become a luxury. I decide it’s time.
I enjoy the drive back through the Waioeka Gorge. The landscape is spectacular. The twisting, turning road rides around the knuckles of hills. I want so badly to take a good photo, one that shows the road, shows the forest covered valleys, shows the fast flowing river deep in the gorge below. I don’t have a drone but I can see here would be a good place to have one. I lean forward in the driver’s seat, trying to take the whole view in. I can’t, the windscreen isn’t big enough. I’ve got one eye on the road, one eye on the rear-view mirror and no more eyes left to find a good place to stop. None of the picnic areas are on the tight hairpin bends, for obvious reasons. When I do stop, I’m staring at one wall of green There’s no depth, nothing to provide context. I realise I’m never going to get quite what I want, which means I’ll have to try and describe it. How does it look? It looks like a gorge. A river weaves along the middle, a road runs beside it. The steep, high walls are covered in dense green forest. I realise I don’t have the language for it either. Take my word for it, this section of State Highway 2 is a stunning drive.
As I approach the coast the road straightens out. The speedometer climbing closer towards the limit. The sky is a big empty blue. There’s one last thing I want to look at before I take the rest of the day off. I cross the Waioeka and travel up the opposite bank towards Hukutaia Domain. Compared to what I’ve seen this is a tiny pocket of native forest. The loop track takes no more than 20 minutes. There’s one tree in particular I’ve come here for. A huge 2000 year old Puriri tree. This tree is massive in the size of its trunk rather than being particularly tall. You could probably build a small home within. The local Maori tribes used to fill the hollow trunk with the bones of their dead. Due to storm damage the bones have since been removed and placed somewhere else. I can just imagine the look Mr Settler’s face when he passed by to find a tree leaking human bones. So that’s it, my day is done. I drive down to Island View Holiday Park where, after some confusion about whether or not I’m still supposed to be in isolation, I turn the mattresses on my bed and take full advantage of a hot shower.