Off the Grid at the East Cape

Whenever Tyler and I mentioned to a Kiwi we were heading to the East Cape for a couple days, they would nod their head in approval and be very enthusiastic about us exploring that part of their backyard. The East Cape is sort of a right of passage for New Zealand residents, kind of like driving the 1 through Big Sur for Californians, and is a very “Kiwi” thing to do over summer. So Tyler and I packed up Mary (our tent), and some surfboards and headed towards Gisborne to start the East Cape loop.

East Cape Map

After making a quick stop in Gisborne to have lunch and check the surf (it was flat), we continued driving, making some various pit stops along the way. When you start the drive into the East Cape from Gisborne you immediately start seeing less cars, more cows and sheep, and the start of many dirt roads. We filled up our gas tank and got groceries in Gisborne, which turned out to be a good move, since there was few and far between places to get gas and snacks. Actually the first thing I saw along the road that was very “East Cape” was a caution sign for “children on horseback” followed by two girls, barefoot, riding ponies through main street… basically my childhood dream. All the guide books say that the Eats Cape “is a unique and special corner of NZ. It’s a quiet place, where everyone seems to know everyone, their community ties built on rural enterprise and a shared passion for the ocean. Horse-back riding, tractors on the beach, fresh fish for dinner – it’s all part of daily life here”. That couldn’t be more spot on as community, love of the ocean, peaceful towns, and roaming horses seemed to be the main theme as soon as you leave the Gisborn outskirts. We actually went through a tiny town on the way to Waipiro Bay that warranted the comment by me that it was a “one horse town”, and sure enough as we rounded the corner there was the one horse standing on the side of the road, alone, and looking very happy.

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The East Cape is also one location in New Zealand where there are several different freedom camping grounds right on the ocean, as long as you have a self contained camper. We did not (Lucy is great but not fancy) so we made a brief stop at Waipiro Bay, and then ended up driving all the way to Te Araroa and camping for the night at the Te Araroa Holiday Park. This worked out well for several reasons. It was close to the Lighthouse on the East Cape which we wanted to drive to the next morning. It also happened to be a cow pasture away from the only beach in the whole cape that had waves that night. After setting up camp, we grabbed our surfboards and walked across the pasture (avoiding cow paddies) and was able to score 2 (very occasionally 3) foot peelers with our long boards. Best part is we were the only people on the beach and in the water for miles. With the East Cape as our backdrop we had the best time surfing tiny waves all to ourselves.
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The next morning we made the trek out to the East Cape Lighthouse. This is seriously one of the most beautiful ocean roads I have ever been on. A 30 minute dirt road drive that hugs the coast the whole time and gives you wrap around views of the whole East Cape. Horses and cows hang out on the beach and on the road, we had a little calf that decided to stand in the middle of the road and not move for a couple minutes, which was fine by me. Tyler kept his eyes peeled for waves as we drove but unfortunately it was a little too blown out for us to stop and make the paddle out.
East Cape Dirt Road New Zealand
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When we got to the lighthouse, we parked the car and took the 700 steps up to the top where the lighthouse stands today. The lighthouse was cool, but the views are really whats worth the hike.
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eAST cAPE lIGHTHOUSEVIEWWe had planned on moving up the coast for the rest of the day to find more waves but we met a Ozzie guy at a lookout point that told us there was not a single wave to be found the way we were going. That was enough to turn around and go back the beach we surfed last night to get one more little session in before we continued driving, he actually ended up joining us and surfing a little peak just down the beach.

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Wild East New Zealand
After the quick surf and some lunch we drove up the coast scouting our next camp site. We ended up at my new favorite camp site in New Zealand so far, Waihau Bay. Holy crap is this beach beautiful, and you can camp any where you want, either directly on the beach or in the grass beyond.The trees overlooking the beach have rope swings sets up on them, and man made bonfire rings were already set up for (finally!) a bonfire once the sun set. Tyler and I went on a hike along the beach and found a lagoon in the next small beach over that seriously had a pirates of the Caribbean feel (pirates of New Zealand?), complete with a seal skull placed in the cave that just screamed “tourists ye be warned”. I named the cove mermaid lagoon, it just seemed directly out of a movie set and looked like a mermaid might pop up at any second. Unfortunately the only bummer about this site was that the sand flys also loved this camping spot so I got quite a few bug bites over night.
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Unfortunately the next day, we had to book it back to the Mount as we both had to work in the afternoon, and were not able to make any last stops on the way back to Opotiki. The last leg of the drive has a very Hawaii meets Big Sur type of feel, and has some pretty impressive views from the highway. One of the last towns on the way out is actually named Hawai, which is fitting due to the very laid back and tropical feel to the last hour of the road.

The East Cape has not seen the last of us as we both want to go back and explore some more of the numerous empty beaches. It really is a special part of New Zealand and I can see why Kiwi’s put it on a pedestal.

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