North Island Road Trip: Hawkes Bay and River Valley

Having made our way around the beautifully secluded East Cape, we enjoyed a night dining in Gisborne before heading to the wonderful Hawkes Bay area for the next few days. Full of vineyards, wonderful scenery and quaint towns we were looking forward to finding out what was on offer here.

Hawkes Bay

On a particularly wet day we headed off from Gisborne out to the Rere Falls and rockslide. On sunny summer days the rockslide is usually packed with people sliding the 30m torrents on inflatables and bodyboards to the pool below. However, with the river and rain, in full flow there was no rock sliding to be done on our visit. This did make the Rere Falls a spectacular sight as the water thundered over the precipice to the swollen plunge pool though.

Wet from rain rather than waterfalls we continued on our way to Napier, passing through forest, over winding and misty hills, and crossing incredibly deep gorges as we went. In Napier the weather was even worse so we decided to come back on a brighter day, after a visit to the National Aquarium of New Zealand we checked in at our wonderful little Airbnb, Tom’s Cottages in Tuki Tuki, where we were staying over Christmas.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the weather to pick up and we were able to head out and explore this beautiful region of New Zealand. First on our agenda was to hike Te Mata peak which we could see from the cottage. There are a number of different trails to choose from but we decided on the 7km Rongokako Trail, to see the peak and surrounding area. The trail begins by heading up to Te Mata Peak at the top of which there are incredible 360° views of the hills, rivers, valleys full of vineyards, and even back to Napier on the coast.

The peak itself is a craggy hill that falls away on one side creating spectacular cliffs that lead the eye back toward the sea, a really beautiful place to visit. Continuing on the trail we navigated the ridge into relative seclusion, zig-zagging down through grassy fields into the redwood forests below. The trail becomes a little tricky to follow in the trees and after some misdirection we eventually found our way to the eucalyptus groves, which were full of birdsong, signalling the end of the loop. A highly recommended, scenic short walk and beautiful start to our day (if you’re feeling lazy you can even drive to the peak).

After a speedy refuel in Havelock North, very much retirement area but with some great restaurants, we made our way to Maraetotara Falls. The falls were a little walk from the road but viewing them was a little tricky as they are out in a big pool with the viewing area at the side. Here there were swimmers and people jumping from a rope swing despite the currently murky waters. Further down the same road we arrived at the endless sands of Ocean Beach, backed by stunning cliffs and hills, making it feel very remote despite the short drive to civilisation.

As mentioned earlier the Hawke’s Bay area is full of vineyards and we were lucky enough one evening to enjoy a slap-up meal at the gorgeous Craggy Range Winery. Sat in the valley looking up at the Te Mata ridge, the winery has beautifully kept grounds, pond, and seemingly endless rows of vines. The restaurant is atmospheric and relaxing, and the food and wine delicious, making for a truly special last evening in the region.

Before moving on we revisited a now dry Napier, the city was destroyed in 1931 by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. When rebuilding they developed it in the Art Deco fashion of the time, making it quite unique in New Zealand. There are still many buildings that retain this old-world charm, the more modern Marine Parade is also a lovely place to stroll along the beach through gardens and attractions. At the recommendation of our Airbnb host we made a stop at Mister D’s a modern little restaurant that serves incredible fresh doughnuts with a plastic syringe of filling so you can fill it yourself. Quite fun and novel, plus the cinnamon doughnut with vanilla custard was more than scrumptious.

Driving inland away from the east coast we took the Heritage Trail road which winds over undulating valleys and hills. Surrounded by glorious views of the bobbly volcanic hills, and in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we arrived at the isolated but idyllic River Valley Lodge campsite. We spent an evening off the grid, enjoying the river side camping and small waterfall opposite our tent. The evening was spent in the lodge enjoying a hearty roast dinner before the next day’s adventures…

The Rangitikei River is one of New Zealand’s longest, offering some spectacular white-water rafting with up to grade 5 rapids. We couldn’t wait to get going and after suiting up, safety and paddling briefings, we were soon on our way in a two-hour journey downstream. The route is split into three sections, we began the first with easy grade 1-3 rapids gradually increasing in excitement and soakings! We were even able to hop out of the boat to float down a small rapid before clambering back in and got a good soaking in a rapid called ‘storm’ right at the end of the section.

The second part of the route is the scenic part, very mellow with pretty waterfalls tumbling down into the gorge, hawk flying overhead, native flora and time to listen to Maori legends of the area from our raft guide. It was beautiful drifting along in the sunshine but we were a little apprehensive of what was about to come next!

For the third and final section it was all action in the grade 4 and 5 rapids! After the rain earlier in the week the river was running a little higher than usual, making these features especially exciting. Features like ‘slalom’ where we were bumped side to side, as we plunged over little drops and around rocks. The ‘dog leg’, where we paddled through drops, lurching around the raft and trying not to hit the gorge face at the other end. The pièce de résistance was a waterfall with a 4 metre drop, tipping over the edge we all sat in the bottom of the boat and braced ourselves for the drop, disappearing completely in the bow wave of water at the bottom and re-emerging with a splutter, miraculously all still in the raft! Awesome fun! The final bit of paddling brought us right back to the lodge.

Still buzzing from our watery adrenaline rush we made our way out of the hills, the grassy countryside flattened out as we reached the West where we will begin heading North along the coast. At Castlecliff we ambled along the black sand beach of this little seaside town, before ending the day with a much deserved beer and BBQ at our campsite. 

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