Beyond the Devil’s elbow

Entering the wilds of the East coast

Hardinge Road of my youth was a tangle of bitumen-covered tanks and pipes, and the fishbones of old trawlers pulled up on the shingles from the sea. It was old Port Ahuriri, the colonial heart of Napier. With the ‘cackle cackle’ of overhead gulls riding the flotsam of worker’s cottages spread along the high water mark. And the Crown and Union as the two ventricles at the heart of this salt-crusted community. We never drank there, we hadn’t yet earned that right. 

All a sepia memory lost to the allure of progress and gentrification. I cross the old causeway and bridge for the southern spit of Westshore. This was the site of the first public house in Napier, the McKain Villers Accommodation House (1851). Robina and James McKain moved to the spit as formative colonial families in the area. Soon to be followed others north at Petane. As go all arrival families.

I’m now drawing a long shadow in dawn’s early light. Crossing the northern trail and the Keteketerau sediments of the old inner harbour towards the hill of Roro o Kuri towards Petane. Prior to the great earthquake of 1931 families sailed across these shallows from Napier for Sunday picnics at that foot of that hill, when it was one of a scattering of small water-bound inner islands of the Ahuriri lagoon. 

Beyond Petane domain I cross the narrow saddle at Bay View into the Esk valley adjacent the cemetery of Douglas Mary McKain. James’ mother, matriarch, and my maternal great, great, great grandmother.  She was Glaswegian and a widow when she emigrated with her four sons and a daughter to New Zealand. She arrived at Port Nicholson in 1841 where she worked as a nurse for some 20 years before moving north to the Esk Valley to be amongst family. She died on the 3rd of April 1873. 

Darky’s spur

I’ve come this way before, climbing above the narrows of the Esk river. Chasing it upstream to its headland at Taraponui. Waipunga Road is a decent grind, where seal soon turns to shingle into the relentless East Coast hill country all the way to Darky’s Spur. The great river plains are behind me, I’m now entering the wild of Te Tairāwhiti. 

Now a good 350 metres above Lake Tūtira, and another 200 above the sea, the view from there is remarkable. Looking north and east into a clear high sky over the ramble towards Mahia, Hikurangi and my destination. Whatever mystery lies behind the name, Darky’s is a magnificent ride only equalled by its rapid descent that cuts hard, like a well-weathered wrinkle into the face of the Spur. Down, down, down I fall into the Waikoau valley to rejoin my old companion, the Gisborne line. Then on, navigating a sheep muster to reach the old general store at Tutira. 

I pull in as the proprietor and fry cook stub out their cigi’s, give me the once over and step back inside. “What’ll you have?” I gave my order and then waited, leaning back against the cool of the chiller door. Their conversation was audible above the overhead din of the deep-fryer fan. I waited. ‘Some story about Rob, his dogs, his ute, and him chasing down a butch pig somewhere north of Te Kooti’. They cackled in laughter. I waited.

My eventual feed of Charleez chicken and chips was worth that wait. 

Away beyond the Devil’s elbow

Tutira is just beyond the Devil’s elbow. A notorious bend of State Highway Two signalling the entrance to the east. This landscape is a tablecloth of gathered creases, all ridges and valleys, but it’s deceiving. Just when you think it eases, it doesn’t.

It was mid-afternoon. I hadn’t planned to ride much beyond Putarino, but had arrived early with ‘the minimals’ to push on. The road to get there proved easy, the road beyond… not so much. 

The endless ramble continued all the way to the viaduct that spans the mighty Mohaka. I cross the river terraces before climbing the peak of Taumatataua, reaching the summit just as the sun disappears beyond the Kaweka’s away in the west. It was already well after five. 

I stood there. Quiet, and seriously contemplating camping wild that night. “Fuck it”, I saddled up and committed to the descent. Chasing brake lights through the bends as the last of the days logging trucks made its way down into the Valley to Waihau beach. At last, I had rejoined the Gisborne line for the last 20 km trek across the plains to Wairoa.

I set camp in the dark that night. Exhausted and enveloped in the warmth of the Wairoa river shingles. My mind adrift in its eddies. I slept.

River of memory

From Central Hawkes Bay to home

Louisa (McKain) Burke was the caricature of a classic sixty’s grandmother. Pastel green smock, blond bouffant, black high-rimmed ‘cat eye’ glasses. Father often snidely remarked “she was as mad as a hatter”, which wasn’t far from the truth. She was a staunch Catholic, with a penchant for a strong gin and believe it or not, she was also a qualified Milliner. 

As the story goes our family fled from Auckland for Napier to escape the ‘endless meddling’. Back then Napier was an all-day bus trip away, but still not nearly far enough. It wasn’t long before she’d up sticks and moved residence to Waipawa, a mere hour away as a housekeeper for the local parish priest. 

Mortified, as I’m sure my father was, my parents made the decision that rather than run the risk of her turning up on our doorstep, it was better to pack me up and dispatch me to hers. I recollect spending the odd school holiday and weekend on the Railways bus to Waipawa, and I hadn’t stayed a night there since. It’s been nearly fifty years.

I picked up the trail from Saint Patrick’s rectory up on Waverley Street, before turning wheels north and my Grandmother Louisa’s sisters (my Great Aunt Margaret) home at Otane. I was now entering McKain country.  

Otane is yet another small and somewhat quaint settlement strung along the Gisborne line. I sauntered through, and stopped for a pastry at McCauly’s general store, before heading east in search of a river and a pub. 

“Beer?” he bellowed, looking down at me, as I sat sprawled on the curb. Ryan (the publican) had a wide grin and a wider girth, with those eyes of someone not quite recovered from last night’s closing. “Tuī?” I got to my feet and began fumbling through my gear for a lock. “Don’t worry about all that, just bring it inside”. Within minutes both ride and rider had hitched themselves to the bar of the Patangata pub. 

The pub sits at one end of the Patangata bridge that straddles the Tukituki river. The river runs 117km from its headland in the Ruahine ranges to the sea south of Napier at Haumoana. Although my pepeha identifies with the Tutaekuri and its historical association with Ahuriri-Napier, there is a romance with the Tukituk’. As it wanders through the wide golden terraces of central Hawkes Bay to the base of the Te Mata hills.

Outside the winds were gathering. This place isn’t far from Pōrangahau and Cape Turnagain (place of the mad winds). I’d soon be tacking hard against another bloody nor-wester. Time was spent before I untethered myself from the bar and headed back up Middle road for the world. That westerly didn’t disappoint as I climbed through the pass before dropping down onto the alluvial of the Heretaunga Plains of home. 

Middle road straddles the northern slopes of the TeMata hills through to Havelock North before rejoining the Tukituk’. I met the river and rode it to the sea. Leaning hard into another squall I pushed past the stink and shingle spit of Awatoto towards that flat inland island of Mataruahou or Scinde Island Napier. 

I grew up in Napier South on the Marine Parade. Back in the bad days when that road was a thunder of trucks making passage to the port.  Home was squeezed between the mob and a private hotel. Both collecting the wayward and unwanted like sea foam gathered on that shingle shore. I spent my youth playing within the ruins strewn along that shore.

I passed that point of memory and arrived at the top of old town just as the squall turn to shower.

Seventy mile bush

Travelling north through pioneering trails to home

Seventy-mile bush was a continuous track of forest spanning an area just north of Masterton in the Wairarapa to just south of Takapau in central Hawkes Bay. The landscape was transformed by the more than 4,000 settlers that arrived here from Denmark, Norway and Sweden in the 1870s. With sawmills, logging and burning they rapidly turned the forest into fertile 40-acre family farms.

So with the wind at my tail, I’d chosen this trailhead north by northeast up Opaki-Kaiparoro Road, which goes on to link the original Scandinavian settlements from Mauriceville to Eketahuna, Dannevirke and Norsewood before reaching the expanses of the Takapau plain.

The Bohemian

“What do you mean you were born in Mauriceville? I thought you just sort of arrived here on some sort of cosmic space beam from another planet! Mauriceville? Seriously Antonios… Mauriceville?”

I first met him about 20-something years ago, when he commissioned me to build a solar-powered cafe for Shell oil for a three-day music festival. It was right on Christmas, and with only two weeks’ notice, it proved to be an insane assignment that built a lasting friendship. I got to work and ended up at the event, surviving 48 hours on a diet of No-doze and Tattinger’.

As I attempted to get the contraption working, I’d failed to check the alignment of some core components, obscuring the letter ‘S’ of the required Shell signage. As Antonios stood by for the great unveiling he broke into laughter “That’s brilliant” he cried looking up at the overhead sign, “_hell rocks!” 

A bohemian, Antonios is an accomplished author, musician and father. Has played live on intercontinental Virgin Atlantic flights and lived in places as diverse and random as Mumbai, Tangiers, New York and Kyiv. I’ll never forget the time he arrived at my house dressed in an ape suit, nor the time I arrived at his, with a bottle of Tattinger under one arm and a live duck in the other. What else do you give this guy on his 40th birthday? 

A continuous and stanch supporter of Clueless living, here he now is, telling me he was born at the southern frontier of the 70-mile bush. I laughed as I rode past the Mauriceville School & Community centre. Mauiceville!!!

I pushed on as the day grew low, grey and grim. With great squalls funnelling through in swells, pressing hard into the blades of the harakeke and tī kōuka that were all hiss and shiver in the brewing southern storm. It was a very Wairarapa kind of day, being chased up the great inland valley of the Mangatainoka in that very male of pilgrimages – to the Tui brewery. 

The following day dawned dew-covered and hush, the quiet calm between brews. Once reverence was given, I turned east off of the ‘main drag’ down Kohinui Road. Bypassing Woodville (not one of the original Scandinavian settlements) to follow the Manawatu valley system towards its headland and Dannevirke for an appropriate pastry. 

Kopua and Southern Star Abby

As the trees fell, a rail economy replaced it. Bypassing Norsewood, some six kilometres to the north of the Gisborne line. I turned east of that at Matumau towards Kopua, where the road traces the rail through Makotuku and Blackdog tavern to Ormandville. Beyond that is Kopua and the Southern Star Abby – a Cistercian monastery.

Father Nico

Father Nico (then a novitiate), arrived in New Zealand from the Netherlands in 1961 and spent two years boarded with my Grandmother at Point Chevalier in Auckland before moving south to the Abby. He was a surrogate son to her since before I was born and I remember him clearly from my childhood. I couldn’t pass Kopua without seeing him. We sat on the steps of the Abby looking out over falling pasture as the Friesians drew near. We quietly talked of family, my late mother and his pending and likely last voyage back to the Vatican. Then with his blessing, I saddled up and crushed through the dense gravel back to rejoin the trail north.

To the finish

The rolling hills dropped away to the plains, the Takapau plains. I had reached the northern memory of Seventy mile bush. There was nothing else for it, a lime milkshake at the Takapau Foursquare.

The wind was up again, another one of those damn spring nor-westers that blows low across the plains. I’d have another tail-wind to close out this day and I was eager to dismount at the historic terminus of the Scandinavian trial, the Tavistock Hotel, Waipukarau. Unfortunately, it was between management, so I needed to push onto Waipawa. Tracing the Tuki Tuki river as the sun set, before settling into the Commercial Hotel. 

As the solo patron, I pivoted back in my chair and looked into my tequila. I’d been a long time in the saddle, even for me. It must have felt longer for the pioneers, and eternal for the spiritual ones.

Over the hill

Into big sky country

I’d just spent the last year of my life as her caregiver. Stoking the last embers of old coal that warmed the hearts of so many. I’d been given the gift of her time and I needed some sort of closure. So as her world ended I needed to find the trailhead of another for me. It just seemed appropriate to ride to where it all began – Te Araroa up on the East Cape of Te Ika-a-Maui. The north island of New Zealand.

It was mid-September. I’d packed light and quietly stepped out the door into that cold-grey Whitemans valley mist. I tapped the weathered saddle of my old Surly before walking my way up the path, out into the world and was gone.

I didn’t have a plan. All I knew is I wanted to do this as much for me, as for her. My only thought was to see the sunrise on a new world and with it my own. This was a trail best taken alone. 

I took that now familiar rolling road through Mangaroa then up and across the Rimutaka’s into a low ceiling of morning cloud. Its temper gathering in tightening pleats as it blew and squeezed through the narrowing valley walls until I reached the summit. The skeletons of rusting fell engines were the only remnants of a small community that once called this place home. Home and me alone, shivering in the low cloud under the bow of a king Macrocarpa. Behind me, the long descent back to the world of the upper valleys, in front was a wonder.

That long summit tunnel separates those two worlds, and it’s a clear distinction. That whipper wind remained but the sagging grey overcast turned to a high arch over the mountains and dissipating waves across the big Wairarapa sky. I dropped down through the tunnel and trail to the valley floor below. 

Back roads inevitably lead to places unknown and for me, this particular road turned into a stream. I didn’t have the power to push through the current and rock to get to the other side and soon had two feet firmly anchored to the river bed. Wet feet don’t mean cold feet. Time to push on.

The Duke

The Duke

Paul and I have known each other for more than three decades. He’d recently remarried and moved to Carterton, so I’d arranged (sodden feet and all) for a long overdue catch-up. One of life’s characters, he is a great father, a marriage celebrant and a gun enthusiast. And typically as we sat down over a coffee came the question… “fancy a shoot?”.

Out back of Gladstone, just over the Makahakaha stream is a short dusty off-road track down to a tiny corral with a saloon facade better known as the ‘Wairarapa Pistol & Shooting Sports Club’. It was there that I received my first proper lessons in gun etiquette.

Paul set about constructing some devilish obstacle range with hidden targets, barrel barricades and two-by-fours, so we could both practice the finer art of pistol shooting. And with a “yip, ah huh, good, great shot, keeping going, pour it on”, he continually encouraged me until I’d emptied my clip.

Like a scene from a bad western. With the smell of burnt powder on my grip and brass casings strewn across the yellowing prairie grass of an early summer sun, I slowly sauntered back to the bar to reload. I’m not really a gun-toting kind of guy, but as the Duke once said “Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.“ So I continued to reload again… and again.

A memorable first day on the trail. Was it unplanned… yes. Completely clueless… absolutely!

Three harbours

The Herekino, Whangape and the Hokianaga

Gnarly old man Macrocarpa bent down on his crutches, cowering and a cussin’ over me in the early morning gloom of November in Northland. It was cool and windy as I lay there waiting. Not wanting to be the first to find my feet this particular morning.

We needed to saddle up and head back south, retracing our path through the Herekino gorge, with little choices we needed to break that one golden rules of all Clueless trails; ‘to never go the same way twice and never turn back’. But today we had good reason.

I watched on as the others rallied, getting to their work. Raising an assortment of steam and sizzle for coffee, breakfast sausage and savoury bits. But not me. I wasn’t hungry. I was still full with reminiscences of last night’s shark and tatties up around the corner of Foreshore and Takahe at ‘Bidz’ (the Ahipara) takeaways. Nonchalantly strolling up to the drive-by only to be cussed at by the sweaty fry cook to ‘order inside’, then counter-commanded to ‘get outside’ once in. We all huddled with the rest of the mob for safety, eagerly waiting our turn to have our number called before scarpering off for a safe zone to quaff down the kai.

We got underway, just as the first squall of the day blew through.

The pub at Herekino

With showers at our back. Each in our own way made it back through the gorge to the intersection where Rangikohu road meets the main drag – just before it turns back east toward Awaroa and the Broadwood general store. But we weren’t going back that way (well not if we could help it). We were off to find Lindsay and the Herekino tavern.

I’d spoken with Lindsay some days prior about how our Clueless rabble could cross the Whangape. He’d said to “take our chances” and stop by on the way through and ‘see what he could do with the cuzzies”. So we slowly road up under the now quiet crush of a gravel road. We passed on the above the pub’s low weatherboard to the chainlink, and there was where we found him. Lindsay was staggering out of the seeping smoke of a remnant fire, carrying a fistful of empty’s, clearly still suffering from yesterday’s swill. He stopped and squinted up at our rabble through his haze, as we stared back down at him. After the longest of pauses, he yells ”I remember you”.

Lindsay and the Herekino tavern

I squeezed on through the chainlink and into the Tavern. Its dark mustard-high windowed walls were well-cured and seeping with decades of nicotine oil and tall stories. This was a local – a Clueless kind of place. I followed Lindsay around as he tirelessly pursued a cell phone signal. He was desperately trying to raise Mane, his Cuzzie with a boat at the place on the water. He relayed how ‘fucking munted’ his boat was, but that he’s all good to take us across the narrows to Pawarenga, so long as we can help to ‘steer it’. “Just get there and ask around, everyone knows Mane.”

Never go the same way twice, they say… we were committed. We left Lindsay with a promise of eventual return and headed on up the gravel to the Whangape.  

Crossing the Whangape

Whangape was once home to the Ngāti Ruānui, who after fleeing and burning their pa at Pawarenga became known as the Te Aupōuri. Like many inner harbours of the northland region, Whangape became a prominent colonial timber port in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Exporting Kauri to ports elsewhere. Few remnants of those times now remain. 

We entered this quiet backwater in the cool grey drizzle. “Now where is Mane…?” We noticed a couple working on an old tinny at Te Kotahitanga Marae. Sure enough, it was him and his nephew. They’d been busy welding a steel iron onto the outboard engine to act as a tiller. Mane smiled at me… “she’ll be right”.

Crammed aboard the tinny

Now the tinny wasn’t what you call ‘big’ and there were two of them, six of us plus six of everything else. I looked at Horse, he looked at Glenn, Glenn looked at everyone else and collectively we all knew we couldn’t turn back. Clueless, we waded out into thigh-deep water and ‘hurled’ everything including ourselves in the back. Stern deep, Mane put on the power and yelled to his nephew “left full rudder”. With weight on, we had all the grace of a plough turning fresh sod, but we slowly made passage. 

Mane recounts stories from his youth of swimming horses bareback across that hazardous narrow channel linking the inner harbour to the sea. Whangape Harbour is still, deep and dark. Tannins of lost memory – what these hills must have looked like crowned in Kauri. And as nature returns, distant chapels (Holy Trinity, Mehopa and Saint Gabriels) now dot the headlands like ivory lighthouses guiding weary souls to safe passage. 

Our headland was Taiao Marae on the southern shore of the harbour as we settled in its shallows, unloaded and bid our grateful goodbyes to Mane and the munted tiny. 

Pangaru pie stop

St Gabriel’s Church sits atop a small hill next to the remnants of Te Aupouri pa, at the head of Pawarenga road. We make our way east from there, along the quiet gravels into the mists of a fresh squall, before climbing to join Runaruna road. 

We climbed up and up through the sealing of low cloud into rain. Traversing around the Panguru ranges, chasing growing rivulets, ruts and muck before descending at pace down into the valleys. One by one our shambles of Clueless riders rolled up to the Whakapapa Toa convince store at old Pangaru. 

Birthplace to Dame Whina Cooper, there is a memorial to her outside Waipuna Marae. A depiction of her walking a dusty road at Te Hāpua, holding her granddaughter Irenee’s hand as they set off south on their great hikoi to Parliament in 1975. ‘Not another acre of Maori land’ became a battle cry for Maori and led to the great cultural renaissance and birthed what Aotearoa has become today – a bicultural nation endeavouring to live up to its treaty principles and obligations. It seemed apt that it all began there, Pangaru and its wild remoteness. The very edge of our world.

After gorging ourselves on pies, fries and even better lies, we remounted our sodden bikes and continued on south, on our pilgrimage north of the Hoki’. With stiffening muscles, we pushed on. Way beyond Waihou and up over the crest of the aptly named Windy hill roads where there, beneath us lay that amble tide of Hokianga. From the dunes at the harbour entrance in the west to the upper reaches and Rawene in the east. Directly over the harbour lay Pakanae. Quiet, unassuming Pakanae. The place Kupe chose to settle for its fertile river flats as the ground to plant Kumara for his eventual return to Hawaiiki. His being the first of the many waves of peoples that followed. Northland and especially this place is everyone’s true colonial heartland.

We had made it directly south to the coast, to Rangi point and the low tidal sands to the tip of Kawehitiki to await the last of our water-born rides. Re-crossing the mighty Hoki’ to make landfall at the head of the Opononi Hotel. Our day was all but done, just one more task lay before us… “Another pint of the black stuff please barman?”