The Mangatoa Road

 

 

David Whitley ignores his SatNav to head down a back road that contains all that is good about the west of the North Island

 

Marokopa is a one shop town, and that shop closes when the owner is doing the school bus run. Beyond the pretty-but-functional wooden houses, the beach guides the remnants of the Marokopa river out to the Tasman Sea. The sand is a moody, volcanic black; the spit of dunes opposite largely off-limits. The parts that aren’t ancient Maori burial ground are reserved for nesting penguins and endangered seabirds.

 

Marokopa encapsulates New Zealand’s wild west coast. It’s unheralded, it’s evocative and it thrills with its raw, unpolished beauty. But it’s also the start of the road that nobody goes down.

 

Few people go west beyond Waitomo, the North Island’s well-drilled tourist village of cave adventures. Getting out of Waitomo is usually a case of doubling back and rejoining State Highway 3. Refuse to retrace your steps and you enter a world almost entirely uncovered by tourist information pamphlets.

 

The collapsed cave splendour of the Mangapohue Natural Bridge gets brief mention. The seemingly endless cascading tiers of the heart flutter-inducing Marokopa Falls get the criminal undersell treatment. And the rest is territory to be a pioneer in.

 

GPS systems and Google Maps won’t send you west because a significant chunk of the 58.5km Mangatoa Road between Marokopa and Awakino is unsealed. But it’s perfectly manageable in a conventional vehicle, and it takes in some of the North Island’s most magical scenery. Hobbity hills commandeered by ambling sheep give way to soaring coastal views, dense unlogged forest and wheel-clutching zig-zag descents. It’s the sort of road that turns driving from chore to unbridled joy.

 

A right turn at Waikawau leads through terraced green hills and the sort of dreamy pastureland that’s probably home to cherubs as well as cows. But the road stops before a narrow tunnel topped with an almost Gothic arch. The tunnel was cut through the limestone and made just wide enough to transport cattle through – it was easier to take them along the beach than up and down the hills.

 

That beach, however, feels like a cherished discovery. A brooding capturer of lonely headlands at low tide; an intimate cove at high tide.

 

Arriving Waikawau beach feels like uncovering a treasured secret, but for overpowering majesty, Pukearuhe further south is the king. Again, the sand is a deep, sparkling black. But it’s set against transcendent white cliffs. As long as the tide is not fully in, it’s possible to walk for hours, crunching shells underfoot and looking up at the chalky walls.

 

It may be the road that no-one goes down, but it’s a road to wonderful nowheres. It’s a New Zealand of Heathcliff-style brooding romance; a drive into the unknown for those who want their own special piece of the country to themselves.

 

by David Whitley

 

 

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North Island

 

 

David Whitley survives where Steve Irwin perished, feeding stingrays from the beach on New Zealand’s East Cape.

 

There’s something of an aquatic scrum going on in front of us. The plucky cormorant is on his own, but is diving between the increasingly aggressive kingfish with impressive bravado. It’s rather like a hyperactive child running between the legs of annoyed adults at the drunken stage of a wedding reception. In the midst of all this mayhem, the real big boys of the bay are attempting to glide serenely around the trouble, and enjoy their meal in peace. It’s these stingrays that we’re supposed to be feeding, but the ongoing feast has attracted interlopers. And they’re far more aggressive about going for the bait than the placid rays.

 

The chaps at Dive Tatapouri on New Zealand’s East Cape are keen to restore the formerly good reputation of the short-tailed stingray. Since the tragic death of Steve Irwin as a result of a toxic barb through the heart, these largely harmless beasts have developed an unwarranted reputation as killers. “They’re incredibly good-natured,” says Dean Savage. “It’s extremely rare for them to be aggressive, and they’re absolutely fine around us.” 

 

Dean started out by offering dive trips and fishing charters from his scenic little pad on the Pacific Coast Highway, but the stingrays have quickly become the most popular draw card. The human-ray interaction at Tatapouri started by accident. At one stage, a crayfish depot sat just off the beach, and the used bait and scraps were left at the water’s edge. For the stringrays, this meant easy pickings. From there, says Dean, it was relatively easy to move them on to hand-feeding.

 

And that’s what a line of 15 visitors kitted out with deeply unflattering waders and bamboo staffs has signed up for. The waders are to stop us from getting wet as we stand in the shallows, while the staffs are partly to help us walk out there. Mainly, though, they’re to stop the stingrays from sneaking round behind us.

 

Dean asks the group to stand close together with the staffs evenly space in front of us. This theoretically stops the rays from having contact with the waders, but all it takes is a small deviation from the military formation for them to start nuzzling at your shins like an over-affectionate Labrador. The rays are probably more interested in what’s in Dean’s bucket than what’s in our waders, however. Big chunks of barracuda are on today’s menu, and Dean hands me a piece.

 

“Hold it out flat, as low as you can in the water,” he says. “And then just let the ray swim over it.” Despite a couple of smaller eagle rays being rather keen, the 200 kilo short tail wins out. I rest my hand on the rock, just below the water’s surface, and it glides over my fingers. Soon afterwards, my hand is engulfed, and the chunk of barracuda is sucked up. It’s somewhere between a vacuum cleaner taking in a ball of fluff and a UFO beaming up an unsuspecting earthling.

 

The ray stays long enough for me to give it a stroke. The skin is unbelievably soft – the texture feels like velvet. “Pretty loveable, aren’t they?” says Dean as he hands over another chunk of barracuda. He also attaches a piece to the end of his bamboo staff, and the ray follows it around as the lure is slowly dragged through the water. Whilst leading the ray on a wild goose chase, he asks us to look at the tail. “The barb is about one third of the way up,” he explains. “It’s razor sharp and full of toxins, but unless it gets you through the heart, it won’t kill you.” He explains that pouring hot water on the site of impact is the best way to draw out the sting, but that this should never be necessary. “As long as you don’t try jumping on top of the ray, it’ll see no need to defend itself.”

 

The rays aren’t allowed to get reliant on the handouts. The feeding doesn’t happen every day, and sometimes won’t happen for a few days at a time due to weather conditions. It’s thought that 40-odd live in the immediate vicinity, and regularly come in for their free meal. But most of the time they have to fend for themselves, and compete with the kingfish.

 

And hand-feeding the latter is an altogether less elegant experience. Instead of the hover and hoover approach, the kingfish opt for pouncing like a shark on fish, fingers, the works. It’s a ferocious gummy nip from a fish not known for its placidity.

 

Despite their unfortunate killer image, the rays are absolute pussy cats in comparison...

 

David was a guest of Tourism Eastland (Gisbornenz.com), Dive Tatapouri (Divetatapouri.com) and the Teal Motor Lodge (Teal.co.nz).

 

 

By David Whitley