Wellington to Wairoa: On the road delights

tim on a rock small.jpg

EVERY great journey deserves an anthem.
The Love Boat?
Come Fly With Me?
But what about a Kiwi road trip in a clapped-out Fiat?
Spotify suggests Highway to Hell.
But the throaty ACDC belching ominously from the subwoofer seems a touch demonic.
Then Crowded House’s Road to Nowhere shuffles on.
I may have lost a wiper and a couple of hubcaps as I dodged tumbling bolts of limestone heading in from Palmy, but I am going somewhere.  
Wellington to Woodville to Wairoa.

It’s supposed to be a leisurely drive north-east, starting from the capital.
After a couple of lazy days in Welly, I’ll tiptoe through the rain-sodden Manawatu Gorge and head inland along the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail.
Then on to Wairoa and the legend of the golden fish and chips.    
But for now, an ex tropical cyclone has come to play.
Shades of Debbie blown in by cyclonic winds have the capital in a tizzy, and somewhere over the rainbow a storm is brewing.
It’s grim.  
But I remain optimistic.
There’s “nowt can’t be remedied by galoshes and a sou’wester,” granny always said when great scudding clouds threatened my childhood adventures.
But this odyssey calls for gumboots or waders … or a submarine.
“Wellington boots in wellington,” I quip.
The story is practically writing itself.
Then the rain turns horizontal and wind speeds top 200km/h and my smugness - along with much of the surrounding topsoil – is washed away by Ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie’s deluge.
Wellington’s compact but usually bustling CBD with its soaring verticality of business and commerce is almost deserted.
As I slosh through ankle-deep puddles towards a patisserie wafting nostril twitching loveliness, I notice a few panicky Wellintonians scurrying home, battling an invisible, blustery foe doffing hats and flipping brollies.    
I’m off.

...the beauty of a real adventure is making less obvious choices

I decide to forgo the Wellington leg of the trip.
I ‘plan B’ and drive/sail to my lodgings in Plimmerton.
I hunker down for the night, wake early, dodge the razor and head off.
According to the weather forecast, apparently there’s a tiny piece of blue sky somewhere north and I am determined to find it.
It’s slow going at first, skirting slips and earthworks from the storm.
I’m heading for Woodville but thirsty Fiat begs to stop in Featherston.
There’s a smorgasbord of drivers filling up at the pumps.
Nothing unites travellers like four Michelins and the faint whiff of gasoline.
From teenage rite-of-passage road trips and tourists chasing music festivals, to the ubiquitous grey nomads in their motor homes – and every car, caravan and travellator in between, the ‘choose your own adventure’ flexibility and charm of a New Zealand driving holiday is universal.  
A taciturn grease monkey hammers violently at my solitary wiper.
He seems surprised when it falls off, then shoos me toward the nearby Everest Café.  
Despite the roll-neck weather I perch outside to soak up the picture of the world autumn has daubed with umber and vermillion.  


A hedgehog, fat as butter, totters along the pavement.

A hedgehog, fat as butter, totters along the pavement.
(We are in classic pinot territory.)
Or simply disorientated by the storm?
I offer it a saucer of milk.
I sip my latte in silence, delighting in the restorative properties of the bracing arctic southerlies, which recharge me for another stint behind the wheel.
My prickly friend seems rejuvenated too, and wanders off.  
Mr Feather’s Den: Oddities & Delights is an unexpected treasure.
The Addams Family would shop here.
So would The Munsters.
A cluster of taxidermied mice catch my attention.

Ballet mouse.jpg

Give me a stuffed rodent in a full ballerina skirt and I’m on board.

Give me a stuffed rodent in a full ballerina skirt and I’m on board.
But Mermouse and Patrick the sporran-clad Highlander, winsomely framed in a mildewed hutch are not without their vaguely fragrant charms.
I wonder if the adjacent fromagerie, ‘C’est Cheese’, was established to feed these little neighbours.  
Not surprisingly, for an establishment that stocks more than 100 varieties of cheese, on entering, the heady aroma socks you in the sniffer like a sledgehammer.
It steals your breath and obliterates all retail constraint.
Despite the overpowering odour of gym socks I spend up big.
I’m in love with the Kingsmeade Sunset Blue from Masterton, and the apple mustard jelly, and the rye wafers and the teeny tiny, toasted brioche…
My credit card groans as I enter my pin so I take the hint and leave Featherston without returning next door to purchase grim reaper mouse or elaborately bevelled Frida Kahlo mirror … or Mildred the stuffed chicken.


Just begun and half-finished pieces fill the airy space – everything covered in a layer of dust, like the art time forgot.

I trundle off in my leaky, cheese-filled car (with no wipers) past thickly stoned cottages and civic buildings.
Early settlers in the area flexed their muscular Christianity building many handsome churches hewn from local stone and the ones here are no exception.  
By the time I arrive in Woodville I am high on Blue Vein - its vapours still lashing at my nostrils as I pour out of the car.  
But sobriety is quickly restored by the beguiling vista of antique stores that titillate travellers on arrival.  
From German pickelhaubes to stuffed bunny heads with antlers, Woodville has it all … and a little too much.  
Hidden among factory-made goods of the most ordinary kind I discover a refreshingly arty headpiece - a trans-seasonal hybrid deerstalker/baseball cap.  
I try it on.
I pay the shop assistant and am about to flatten down my hat hair when she leans across the counter and does it for me.
“Don’t fret over your coiffe,” she whispers – all breathy like Diana Doors.
And slips a dog-eared copy of De Profundis in with my hat.
Vaguely confused, I’m assured by the barista at the cafe next door it’s quite normal.
And harmless.
“It’s a Woodville thing.”    
I’m not entirely sure what this means.
But if it’s free books and a head massage, I’m down with that.
After several hours of oohing and aahing over the Aladdin’s cave of treats on offer in Woodville I spot a studio tucked away down an alley.
Sidestreet Gallery is symphony of artistic delights.
Some are familiar: acrylics, charcoals, chalks; sculptures and even a cabinet of curiosities containing a Leopard seal skull.
And the less familiar: road kill art – the outline of a starling corpse – a crime scene in miniature.  
Artist Nick White assures me it’s a fragrant, rather unpleasant exercise.
And I do not doubt.
It still is.  
The caprice continues beyond the gallery into the rear workshop, which Nick allows me to explore.
Just begun and half-finished pieces fill the airy space – everything covered in a layer of dust, like the art time forgot.
Very little seems complete.
I am undecided whether Nick is a dreamer or a perfectionist or both, but his art is heaven and I leave Woodville with my head in the clouds.
I am Napier bound.
On arriving, I am once again hostage to the weather - and the spangled music of the Dixie Chicks.
It seems all of New Zealand has come to hear them yodel and duel their banjos and there is no room at the inn.  
I contemplate a bicycle tour of the art deco heart of New Zealand but the tour manager warns of a cyclone.
Another one.
And again I’m chasing rainbows - with Cyclone Cook hot on my heels.  
In wet weather, the Napier to Wairoa stretch of road can be a punishing duty of concentration.
All the more so today with nerves shopworn from retail exhaustion.  
But when I finally arrive in Wairoa 90 minutes later, it’s worth it.
Every hairpin, every slip, every passing lane and logging truck - worth it.  
Wairoa greets me in her Sunday best.
Cloudless skies and delicate autumnal sunshine dance off the copper dome of the recently refurbished lighthouse.
In a rare victory of common sense, Wairoa’s iconic lighthouse dodged the scrap heap after retiring from Portland Island off Mahia Peninsula.
It was upcycled to its present location on a reserve at the heart of the town.
The museum has been spruced too and the heritage colours complement the colonial architecture gracing Marine Parade – the town’s main drag.
Great ranks of handsome Norfolk Pines garnish the riverbank and the meandering walkway, which is popular with walkers, runners and cyclists. It extends several kilometres to the mouth of the river, the lookout at Pilot’s Hill and beyond to Wakamahia Beach.
Along the way you’ll find brass plaques noting historical points of interest. Once a busy port town, the bustle of river trade has long since faded, but parts of the huge wharf remain.  
A born shopper, it’s impossible to argue with my braids of DNA, so I head straight for the second-hand shops.
At Robinson’s Trading, packed to the rafters with goodies, my eye catches a tarnished butter knife, heavy with a hundred years of grime. Later, after a polish, the hallmarks of early-Victorian, Birmingham solid silver are revealed.
Further down the road there’s D&D Second-hand Furniture, a maze for retail rummaging. There are blonde oak and rimu treasures by the score and a petite cocktail cabinet (now stuffed with cheese) nestles in my passenger seat and joins my adventure.  
It’s well past the tourist season, but still the motorhomes come, and jostle for a prime position overlooking the mighty Wairoa River.
Only a year ago Wairoa was named a motorhome friendly town, an elite club governed by the NZTA, and the town has become a Mecca for road trippers and campers alike.
Freedom camping sites around the town welcome visitors and as I approach a grinning backpacker he shoos me away, “don’t tell anyone, they’ll all want to come here.”
At the far end of Marine Parade is the Gaiety Theatre complex, another gem saved from the wrecking ball by a group of local entrepreneurs.
There’s the cinema, the Saloon and the Eastend Café and Bar. Coffee is their creed but dining here is a treat for the taste buds.
The café sparkles brightest at brunchtime. Light meals and local fare served up with a chic, modern verve are a delight for the palette.
You can’t leave without popping into Bloom’n loco next door, a florist and giftwares outlet, packed with treasures and trinkets.
It’s the sort of place you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for, without ever knowing you were looking.
Wairoa is conveniently walkable and as I saunter back down Marine Parade I begin to get a feel for its rich history and proud cultural heritage.
Once upon a time guidebooks described Wairoa as little more than a petrol stop and place for pies.
And while Osler’s Bakery still serves up sublime pastry goods, there is so much more to this little town: Rocket Lab, a film school in the making, a world class recording studio and mountain bike bike track to name a few.  
The Long River Gallery houses a delightful collection of locally made artworks, much of it influenced by the driftwood for which the region is famous.
I pop in for a nosey and naturally want to buy everything but my credit card growls a warning from my hip pocket.
I leave and cross the bridge to North Clyde, to the gold at the end of my final rainbow.  
The fish and chips here are legendary, and there are two to choose from: The Ponderosa Fish and Chip Shop and Tui Takeaways.
Never one to pass up a taste test, I sample both as I laze on the river bank.
Both deliver the Midas crunch for which I’ve been longing.
Discovering Wairoa has been a delightful surprise.
The sort of thing that gives travelling a good name.
I could have ended my adventure in Napier.
Many people do.
But the beauty of a real adventure is making less obvious choices.