74. Beautiful Whitianga: Part One

We explored in and around Whitianga, taking a long road tour one day to visit the Waiau Kauri Grove, Whitianga Rock, Shakespeare Cliffs Reserve, Cook’s Beach, Hahei, the Cathedral Caves, and Hot Water Beach.

In Whitianga, we parked up by the river at the NZMCA parking area, which is HUGE. We are at one end of it in the photo above, and it stretched away into the distance beyond us – that’s what it felt like, at least.
The views from our caravan window…
At the main jetty in Whitianga, where the ferry and other tourist boats are situated – it’s a peaceful and picturesque town – but one woman laughed about that and said just wait until summer, when the population metamorphoses and one person becomes five.
You can take a short ride across the neck of Whitianga Harbour to find yourself on the other side of this extensive inlet. The inlet actually becomes Mercury Bay on the ocean side of the neck, or Te Whanganui a Hei which is an earlier name. If you take the ferry you can climb Whitianga Rock and then catch a shuttle to Cathedral Caves, but we decided to drive ourselves around the long way, on the road that edges the inlet. This way, we could visit the Waiau Kauri Grove as well as the other sights we wanted to see.
Here we are on the foreshore in Whitianga. There was a group of fifth wheelers, part of the NZMCA, who were staying here together and helping out with some local native coastal planting.
Out there, we could see a high-heel shoe shaped rock, which I’ll come back to soon.
Whitianga township and Whitianga Rock lie at the end of the beach.
We spent a couple of hours going around the Mercury Bay Museum. They were in the process of re-setting it and were apologetic about it, but it didn’t bother us; all the interesting information was still there to be read. There was a lot of both Māori and Pākehā history – at some point I guess more cultures will be represented as our population grows into more and more of a cultural melting pot. I saw examples of pink kauri gum; apparently this was only ever found in a small area of kauri trees near Whitianga.
The preserved stamper battery from nearby Moewai Goldmine sits outside the museum. The notice tells us that the mine was not profitable and closed after one year of operation in 1909.
This is only the second pohutukawa we’ve seen with flowers on – these trees usually flower in summer. The first was a row of about four small ones, in Northland, which looked as though they had just been bought from a nursery and immediately planted out.
Our first stop on a long day of sightseeing was to the Waiau Kauri Grove, where we had our first glimpse of kauri trees – it was great to still be seeing them even though we’re slowly heading south. The man we were recently parked next to at Fantail DoC camp said he’s growing one successfully at his home in New Plymouth. This walk takes you to both old and young kauri. The ones in the photo above are young at around 200 years old. The oldest we will see is about 600 years of age. This area was mined for its wood, but is now a reserve to preserve the remaining kauri.
The usual boardwalks were in place to keep us off the vulnerable root systems of the kauri tree.
Siamese twins – two seeds that sprouted separately then grew together.
On we drove, for about 40 kilometres until we reached Whitianga Rock.
Whitianga Rock, of course, is right across from Whitianga. So close by ferry, but so far away by road! We watched the ferry cross the neck – better to be a little yellow ferry than a little yellow bus if you’re on the water!
We took the Whitianga Rock Walk to the top of this small jutting piece of land. It was used as a Pā site for about 400 years, from the 1300’s until being abandoned in 1740.
Signs of middens along the track.
Oh, yay, here’s a sign to tell us all about it!
Who got the gnarly job of carving these out, I wonder!
The views of Whitianga township from the top were stunning.
From Whitianga Rock, we drove back the way we had come in and stopped at a viewpoint for Mercury Bay.
The high heel shoe-shaped rock – on zoom – was once an unbroken sea arch which held a Māori fortification on top. We saw a picture of it as it once was, painted by Endeavour artist Sydney Parkinson in 1769 – you can google this picture on Te Ara Encyclopaedia (online).
Onwards to Shakespeare Cliffs Reserve, which overlooks Cooks Bay. Here we found several information boards describing the journeys of two of the world’s greatest navigators, Kupe and Cook. It was fascinating to read about some of the different navigational aids and tricks each used to find their respective paths through the waves to new land. We heard about some of these tricks back at Waitangi, when our tour guide said the early sailors and explorers would place food on their waka, and if birds came and pecked it away they would know land was close and would watch where the birds flew. They would also watch particular rising stars, wind and wave directions, feel the currents, watch for floating seaweed, go fishing from the vessel (more fish in shallower waters), see where distant clouds lay, and watch the migratory patterns of birds and whales. Cook came with technology and used a sextant and chronometer to aid his way.
At the viewing platform.
A commemoration of James Cook of the Endeavour who took readings from Cooks Bay for the transit of Mercury in 1769. Of course, while Cook was already an amazing sailor and navigator, he wasn’t made captain until his third and last voyage to New Zealand; for now he was Lieutenant James Cook.
Some of these island were occupied by early Māori inhabitants who used them to try and grow the vegetables they brought from their islands of origin – coconuts, breadfruit, kumara, bananas, hue or gourds, taro and yams amongst others – there’s heaps of info about this on Te Ara (New Zealand’s online encyclopeadia). The reason they used these islands was to try and avoid the frosts that hit the mainland in winter – the islands were much less likely to be hit being small, low and surrounded by water. Although it was difficult to grow the vegetables and fruit in this colder climate, they had enough success on Great Mercury Island – Ahuahu – that the local iwi could eat from it, and they were able to share with iwi in the wider region too.
There’s a small yacht out there; we watched as it tacked its way into Cooks Bay, then turned and headed back out again. It must have been relishing the strong breeze!
In Cooks Bay, looking back to the Shakespeare Cliff Reserve where we’ve just been.
Dotterals here, too!
The township at Cooks Beach.
Though I was told the monument to Captain Cook was down due to erosion, I figured this it might really be down due to its opening statement! While the Endeavour is one of the sailing vessels that landed at this site, another vessel, Te Arawa, captained by Hei, also has its landing site close by. Te Arawa landed in the 1300’s, 400 years after the arrival of Kupe. (Toi is known to have landed his waka near Whitianga 200 years after Kupe, so no doubt there are others too).

Our day is only half done at this point, but this blog seems long enough so I’ll finish it in the next write-up. We bought our second only pies for lunch at a shop in Cooks Beach – another absolute fizzer. We’d be happy with filled rolls, but they don’t seem to make them up here lol – I know, we’re just in small places, and to top it off it’s the middle of winter so there aren’t enough tourists to keep all the cafes open. I should stop being so lazy and make our sandwiches in the morning before we leave!

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