Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty: Beautiful Beaches & Art Enclave
New Zealand is in the process of completing a bike path (mountain biking is big here) that will run from the top of the North Island all the way down to the end of the South Island (NZ is comparable lengthwise to driving from Maine to Florida). It is no wonder why the tourism industry has overtaken dairy as New Zealand’s largest export earner. Every where there is public access to beaches, walking/hiking trails, and most them free with bathroom facilities that are plentiful, clean, and spacious. Kiwis Love the outdoors
Whakatane is no different with great sunny weather, extensive beaches, fantastic fishing, and a great arts and culture scene, which culminates with the popular Summer Arts Festival. A national art competition of painting and drawing mediums is held at the end of January, and in February there is Shakespeare in the Park under the stars at the Riverbank Amphitheater, and the Fresh Market Jazz in the Park at the Whakatane Gardens. I was lucky to be there to see the annual stone carving symposium, where artists set up on the riverbank in town and have a week to complete a sculpture typically done in sandstone, which is then entered in a show where it can be purchased. I got to meet sculptor Trevor Nathan and later visited his outdoor sculpture garden.
This area is the perfect place for Val, from Mt. Vernon, Maine, who along with her husband Gerry, have made NZ their home six months of the year since about 1989. Val and Gerry are artists who create intricate, hand- carved moose bone jewelry under the name Maine Bone Carving . It was Val who first took up traditional Maori bone carving from a local artist, and then Gerry, also a stone sculptor, followed suit. Val is a vivacious, quick-witted woman who sports a constant twinkle in her eyes. She had to have been one of those naughty kids growing up who always encouraged you to try something daring! Introduced by a mutual friend back in Maine, I was scheduled to meet up with Val on my travels, but upon arriving in Auckland, I discovered she had suffered a foot injury, and Gerry was still in Maine until mid February. Fortunately, she was on the mend when I arrived with the help of her long-time Kiwi friends Jenny and Malcolm, who, as luck would have it, invited me after to their lake house in Rotorua.
Located in what’s called the Bay of Plenty, Whakatane is on a major fault line and is one of the most seismically active areas in New Zealand. I found that out firsthand Sunday night. At around 10 pm, Val and I were deep in conversation when there was a sudden knock on the door. It was a neighbor who asked if we had just heard the earthquake. We looked at each other both thinking what earthquake? when there was a sudden rumble then a loud bang! Val let out a scream and we all jumped, stunned and saucer-eyed. We decided to leave the house for the street and met another neighbor lingering outside. There continued to be several more tremors, and suddenly I remembered the big earthquake in Christchurch in 2011 that registered a 6.3 on the Richter scale. Lucky me. I later went to bed that night–still staying in my room on the second floor–and heard one final shake and rumble. The next morning it was reported that there had been 18 tremors/earthquakes, with the largest registering a 3.4. The bang we heard was probably the chimney separating from then hitting the house. I wanted the full Kiwi experience. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for!
I had hit the road running since my arrival in New Zealand, so it was nice to relax and visit local landmarks, hike a little, and go to the beach. Whakatane was a Maori settlement that spanned hundreds of years, and many of the important historic sites can still be visited. Val and Gerry are lucky to have a beautiful beach a short walk from their home that stretches for several miles. The day I went there were only a handful of solitary souls–and this was their summer/school vacation season. Maybe it’s because water is accessible everywhere here.
My visit wouldn’t be complete without a day hike, and a particularly beautiful one is the Nga Tapuwai o Toi Track (forget Luminosity brain games; try pronouncing these Maori words), a stunning coastal walkway between Whakatane and Ohope. We checked the tides because there is one section that can only be crossed when the tide is low. Val dropped me off and planned to pick me up at Ohope Beach three hours later where the track ended.
As I waved goodbye, I turned and noticed what neither of us had noticed before: a sign that read that the track had been closed due to rough seas. And Val had no cell phone. And I was a little panicky. And I wondered what the hell I was going to do. Ah, one of those moments when your physical body registers a slight tremor –of a different kind. I was thrown out of my comfort zone but didn’t relish staying there for too long. I had to look discomfort and uncertainty in the face and stare them down, and on some level, I knew it would be OK.
So, I started down the path and met up with two teenagers who gave me directions to Ohope Beach a few miles away. As I resigned myself to a long walk on a desolate road in the hot sun, a lone car drove up the dirt road. I waved it over, and inside was a young mother and her son who were probably wondering what I was doing. When I explained my predicament, and, without a moments hesitation, she offered to drive me down to Ohope Beach. An angel perhaps? I do remember invoking the protection of these divine beings at the onset of this trip. My St. Christopher medal, given to me by friends Chris and Julie is always in my bag, and my sister Gigi and devout Catholic mom have sent a guardian angel to travel with me.
I did meet Val later in the day, but not without another minor wrinkle in the plan. But don’t bad experiences often turn into good stories? I think it was Frederich Neitzche who believed bad experiences are required for us to experience the good; we grow stronger for having them. He was probably right… and since traveling can have its mine-field moments, I’m sure I’ll be stepping on a few more along the way.