As I pulled out of the side road onto the main road that follows the Taranaki coast, my car sputtered and limped forward, failing to gather speed. As if I hadn’t already guessed, a warning light on the car’s dashboard flashed on, alerting me to engine troubles. I was thankfully able to pull off the road quickly, but I was effectively in the middle of nowhere. My car had been acting up since the drive north from Christchurch several days before, but as much as its temperamental behaviour had been so intermittent, its unpredictability had failed to hide the fact that it was now getting worse.
I’d left Lake Mangamahoe earlier that day to skirt past New Plymouth and drive round the coast of the Taranaki Bight. State Highway 45 feels like a country road, passing through villages intermittently dispersed among reams of green fields and trees. Grabbing some coffee and lunch at Oakura, I cut down to the black sandy beach there for a brief spell of fresh air before heading on. I’d seen a lot of photographs of a pretty lighthouse framed by Mt Taranaki and I knew it was somewhere along this road. With the mountain remaining hidden for my entire visit, I wasn’t going to get the classic view but I was still keen to take advantage of being in the area. But having plugged the turnoff into my route finder, the app decided not to work as I drove, and I was left having to guess where I was going.
I came across a sign for a lighthouse, and turned down the road. My car decided to stutter a little as I drove, but when I reached the end of the road I discovered this wasn’t the lighthouse I was after. Once back on the state highway, some way further round I happened upon the correct turn-off and finally found the pretty white lighthouse I’d seen in so many photographs. I just had to imagine how it would look on a sunnier day with the mountain visible.
It was on the return from this side road that my car decided it had had enough and now I was parked at the side of the road trying to work out what to do. I’d planned on spending the rest of the day leisurely exploring the coastal villages, doing some coastal walks and generally just taking my time. But now I needed a mechanic, and I was at the mercy of opening hours and a big enough settlement to have one. I still couldn’t use the search function on my phone’s map but Opunake was the next decent-sized settlement that was on route, so I crawled out of the verge and limped my way there.
I was exceptionally grateful to not only find a mechanic but to have him agree to look at my car without notice and quite late on in the afternoon. Frustratingly though, when he took it out for a test drive, the car drove perfectly and when he plugged his computer into the car’s software, no error came up. With no apparent problem to fix, there was nothing for it but to keep going. But between going to the wrong lighthouse and the trip to the mechanic, I’d lost a bit of time, so pushed on to Hawera, sacrificing any other stops I’d planned on route.
In the middle of Hawera is an old water tower and I’d been really keen to climb up it. However I’d missed the opening hours by the time I got there, making this place more of a snack stop than anything else. Feeling a little defeated with how the day had turned out, I knew there was still a good bit of a drive to go till I could stop for the night. I had a boat to catch at Paraparaumu on the Kapiti Coast the next morning, and I’d already picked out a place to stay part-way on route. As this was September 2020, at a time when closed borders meant no international visitors, I hadn’t bothered to book the accommodation but it was a large holiday park so there wasn’t really much need.
At least that’s what I thought. It was a long drive from Hawera to Whanganui, and from there, it was straight on to Bulls. The sun was lowering as I approached the town, but when I reached the holiday park at the far end, there was a no vacancy sign. I hadn’t considered that this was the intersection between State Highway 1 (the main highway north-to-south) and State Highway 3 (the main east-west trunk route), so there would be plenty of passing trade to fill the park up. Although I’ve spent far less time in the North Island than I have the South Island, I’ve still driven this route on many occasions, so I had an idea of where I could try and find a place to stay. So I continued south as the sun set, eventually finding myself driving in darkness.
I pulled off the highway at Foxton Beach, a place I’d stayed in some years ago. I simply followed the road sides in the dark which thankfully pointed towards a motel that had a vacancy. It wasn’t the cheapest place, but it did the job, and although unplanned, I did at least have a shorter drive to make the next morning to catch my boat. Thankfully the local takeaway shop was open, so I could grab a late dinner before hunkering down for the night.
I awoke early to pack my things and ready myself to leave. Checking the forecast, it didn’t look that flash and I knew the boat trip was weather-dependent. So it came as no surprise when the phone call came to say the trip was cancelled. I was initially quite disappointed. The planned trip had been one I’d wanted to do for years, and the logistics of getting there made it quite the mission from Christchurch, but I was relieved to be told that I should still make the journey to the Kapiti Coast as the boat may still be able to leave in the afternoon.
With the morning to spare, and having got up so early, I had some time to read while it rained outside. After a while, it eased to a drizzle and I was able to go for a walk. I went around the estuary and towards the beach, spotting a sacred kingfisher, a bird that’s quite shy and one that I don’t seem to see quite so much of down south. As check-out time grew closer, I reloaded my car and got back on the road.
It was overcast when I pulled into Paraparaumu. I’d been here a few times before so the familiarity made it a much more cheerful place to be despite the weather. There was a bit of wind about but although there were patches of rain puddles around the place, it was no longer raining. I turned up at the check-in location for the boat trip to get confirmation that the afternoon sailing was indeed going ahead. I was relieved. There was a bit of time to kill ahead of the launch so I walked to the vast expanse of Paraparaumu beach and there, staring seaward, I was faced with my destination for the night, Kapiti Island, just across the water.
The island is the symbol for the region’s ice cream export, and the namesake of the entire coastal region. But for me, the draw was the fact that it is one of a handful of predator-proof islands where not only are bird re-introductions happening, but that is also open to the public. As a conservation-enthusiast and a lover of New Zealand’s unique bird life, this place had been on my radar for a long time. As I wandered along the bare strip of sand, staring out at it, I was eager to get out there. My walk took me behind the beach to Waikanae Estuary Scenic Reserve, before finally it was time to head to the meeting point at the boat club. The previous day had been full of frustrations from access issues to failed views and car trouble to accommodation fulfillment, but ahead lay a couple of days that would go beyond all my expectations.