© NZPocketGuide.com
© NZPocketGuide.com

Eastland Roadie #3: Waioeka Gorge and the Gisborne Steam Train

© NZPocketGuide.com

278 Days on the Road

If you have not figured out from the last two posts, Eastland is a fantastic place for road trips. If New Zealand itself didn’t have enough to explore then travelling the North Island on the east side will only bombard you with more options. We have made the most of the “long way round” the east coast on the Pacific Coast Highway in Eastland Roadie #1 and Eastland Roadie #2. For our final Eastland road trip we are heading back to Gisborne via an inland road through the Waioeka Gorge – possibly the most underrated route in New Zealand!

The Waioeka Gorge Journey

The journey starts in Opotiki, a wee town that lies on the border of Eastland and the Bay of Plenty. After doing some work and getting some breakfast in our accommodation, The Royal Opotiki Backpackers, we hit the road early knowing that: first, we will want to stop often while travelling through the Waioeka Gorge, and second, we need to get to Gisborne for a vintage steam train trip leaving at 1pm.

We leave Opotiki on State Highway 2, which starts off at the straightest road known to man (a little exaggerated?). Initially, we are surrounded by flat pastoral land but up ahead, we can see the wildness of the Waioeka Gorge begin. Mountains thick with forest lie at the end of this straight, and we just can’t wait!

Entering the mountains

Sure enough, the scenery abruptly changes to dramatic wilderness. Mountains tower over us making us bend in weird positions under the windscreen to get a better perspective for how high they go. From roadside to mountaintop, thick native forest grows where ever the hell it can (which is pretty much everywhere).

A gorge of Maori history (and sand flies)

A sign with pillars made up from the pebbles from the gorge’s riverbed (we are guessing) welcomes us to the Waioeka Gorge journey! This is the first reason to stop out of many. Information panels point out the various points of interest worth stopping for along the Waioeka Gorge, as well as a short Maori history of the area pointing out all the pa sites (fortified villages) that would have surrounded the area we are standing in. Nowadays, it is not the Maori warriors that would come to get us, but an influx of sand flies landing on Laura’s exposed legs for a feed. That swiftly gets us back in the car and moving on – probably the best thing about sand flies.

Riverside stops along the Waioeka Gorge

The further down the gorge we go, the better views we get of the river below. Eventually, we are enticed to walk down alongside it on its pebbled banks making us feel even smaller in this grand landscape than we had felt in the car. After about 20 minutes, the sand flies come back to tell us to move on.

Signposts along the road clearly indicate “official” stops along the way, usually leading to a picnic shelter and some information panels about the gorge. We learn about the history of the gorge, from Maori settlers to farming to regenerating bush. After stopping for far too long at a bridge overlooking a rockier part of the river gorge, then again at a staircase leading down to a swimming hole with clear water and fantails dancing above the surface to eat the bugs, we realise that we are really starting to run out of time. We hit the road again for our last leg to Gisborne.

Cruising through the beginning of the Waioeka Gorge

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Back to gisborne!

After about an hour of driving out of the Waioeka Gorge Scenic Reserve, hitting the same dramatic mountains but covered in grass for farming that gradually more and more tame, we hit the flat city of Gisborne once again! Just when you thought we had done everything here, with checking out an art cinema, surfing, visiting a museum, wine-tasting, going to a nearby arboretum, natural rockslide and waterfall, exploring Gisborne by tandem bike, then cider-tasting, mini golf and wine-tasting again, and finally feeding wild stingray and staying in a marae, it turns out that we’ve found one last thing to do in Gisborne.

We rock up to the Gisborne Railway Station, a wooden building with painted signs looking as vintage as they come. Seen a couple of railway tracks away is the steaming Gisborne City Vintage Railway getting prepared for a journey through Gisborne. Our trip back to Gisborne just happened to coincide with the one day of the month that this trip operates, so why the hell not?!

All aboard the Hogwarts Express!

The Wa165 locomotive, built in 1897, chugs alongside the railway platform blowing great clouds of steam from all orifices. We feel like Ron and Hermione about to board the Hogwarts Express (and we have ditched Harry Potter somewhere)! We hop on board for a unique journey through Gisborne.

A trip through the airport (?!)

The train leaves the station, crossing roads with people jumping out of their cars to take photos of this rare and unusual sight. It’s weird what a train does to people. No other mode of transport gets pedestrians on the street waving quite like a steam train. Robin, somehow, has managed to waggle his way into the locomotive itself, getting the full smokey, hot and shaky experience of these machines. Meanwhile, Laura has a pretty relaxing and smoother ride in the carriages, looking out of the window as the city goes by and we are suddenly travelling across an airstrip?! Yes, this railway line does indeed cross right through Gisborne Airport and right through a landing strip.

Then we mostly travel through farmland seeing all sorts of cows, horses and sheep reacting differently to the huge steaming monster that is travelling right past their paddock.

A gnarly bridge crossing

The train, that has been travelling at about 25-30km/h, slows down to 10km/h for the trip across the 329m-long Waipaoa River Bridge. We see where the river meets the sea perhaps only a kilometre in the distance as we travel over this seemingly never-ending bridge making all sorts of noises. It’s definitely the most exciting part of the journey, but also the most terrifying to people more used to modern modes of transport…

Once we arrive in a place called Muriwai, with a closer look at the white cliffs of Young Nicks Head which are ever seen from Gisborne on a clear day, the train stops. While the locomotive is being placed onto the other side of the carriages to pull us back toward the city, people are grabbing camping chairs provided and making themselves comfortable on the side of the railway line. Then it’s back to Gisborne, Robin deciding the comfort of the carriages are more his style for the return journey.

Back through Waioeka Gorge to Opotiki

Just as we enjoyed the Waioeka Gorge, we have it to enjoy all over again on the way back to Opotiki. This time, it’s under the relentless heavy rain, which actually makes the gorge appear in a whole new light – perhaps making it look all the more epic.

“Did we come this way before?” Robin asks, “I don’t recognise it.”

On that note, join us tomorrow where we are back in Opotiki to do some jet boating! See you then!

Front-row seats to the steam show!

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