New Plymouth - Len Lye & Rhododendrons

A week on the western side of the North Island of New Zealand will put you in touch with forgotten places, startling architecture, stunning flora and original New Zealand.

Taumaranui is the start point of the ‘Forgotten Highway’ or SH 43 which runs through to Stratford in Taranaki. About 160kms of tortuous, uneven and in parts gravel road. Many slips and washouts have obviously not been restored in timely fashion, resulting in 1 way sections, some presenting a drop to the valley floor of many tens of metres. Definitely not a road to be travelled at night, or with a caravan. Average speed is in the low 30s therefore allow 5 hours plus. But it is rewarding with many scenic panoramas, and at the Taumaranui end Lauren's beautiful lavender garden and café for a relaxing rest before the drive ahead. An excellent long black as well. Quite a bit further, Whangamomona, Capitol of ‘The Republic’ is a highlight.

Our time in the Taranaki, apart from 1 seriously wet and windy day, is as good or better than we expect.  Accommodation at AhuAhu Villas is superb, right above the beach and facing northwest. Beach walks, relaxing on the expansive lawns and generally being lazy all come easily here. We have 4 nights – bliss. You could describe the villas as rustic but they are finer than that, eclectic, being carefully crafted from recycled materials, reminiscent of the nearby Tasman Sea resulting in a charming, easy living space. Nuala and David have created a unique holiday experience for lucky visitors.  Wi-Fi works extremely well too!

From the elevated position of AhuAhu, the view north west across the black sand Oakura beach looks all the way back to New Plymouth Port with it’s unmissable prominent headland. Changing weather produces remarkable cloud formations as well as dawn and sunset vistas.

This time of the year – early November, is prime rhododendron show time and we can’t wait to get out to Pukeiti Gardens. It’s a longish drive, finally along a windy narrow bush sided road, at places one way. We had done this before, years ago, but had forgetten the slow twisty road. Suddenly the road ahead widens out and we arrive. The gardens are on our right and a brand new much needed car park, slightly elevated is to the left. The car park, although still being formed and rolled is 75% in use and nearly full already. As we have our four legged pal with us, who unfortunately is not allowed into the gardens we find a shady parking spot. The bush surrounded car park provides plenty of these so no problems. We leave her with plenty of water, treats and Bark (Bach) on the CD player. She hardly looks up from her comfy bed.

On entering the park, which amazingly has free entry courtesy of the Pukeiti Trust now operated by the local Council, we are met by a volunteer guide. He offers us a map and explains the various walks, time taken to complete each and where the best rhodos live. Very useful. Before starting the red walk we turn left and enjoy a long black and muffin in the garden café. Floor to ceiling windows give a great view out over the gardens. Investment in the development and maintenance of the park is obvious in every direction with large new growing houses to our left and the immaculate condition of the many gardened acres being a credit to the hard working horticulturalists. No words are adequate to describe the colour and diversity of the many Rhododendron varieties in the garden. Our image gallery can give some idea but a timely visit is really the only way. Tammy is sound asleep on our return with ‘Bark’ still  running quietly in the background.

We are seeking a late lunch now which we find at Monica’s, attached to the ultra-modern, architecturally stylish Len Lye Centre. We are 1 of 3 occupied tables and enjoy sharing 4 side dishes, with a glass of pinot noir of course. Tammy is not so impressed being left with ‘Bark’ again but we ‘promise her’ a beach walk later. After lunch, Vinyl Countdown – across the road from Len Lye, is a treasure trove of new and second hand LPs and long forgotten tapes. I do like my LPs and find a BBC edition of the 1950s Goon Shows. The records have hardly been played and are in excellent condition. A must have, 7 LPs for $35.00! Back to Oakura and AhuAhu to fulfil the beach walk promise. We are a bit worried about the black sand being too hot for small paws but it is quite late in the day so it is only pleasantly warm. She does enjoy it running about to the end of her extendable lead until suddenly she has had enough, sits down and refuses to move. Quite right too as it is bang on 5:30 – dinnertime. After her dinner a play on the expansive lawns that front the villa, with her favourite toy, a simple tennis ball, rounds out her evening nicely.

Rain is expected and sure enough, mid-evening it is pouring on the roof. Not just any old rain, but good solid Taranaki rain. We feel very snug in bed.

Next morning dawns wet and windy. No worry for us as we have plenty of indoor ideas. No need to rush off so a leisurely morning is most welcome. We are visiting the Len Lye Centre itself today, a long anticipated treat. The building housing the centre is central New Plymouth and designed by well-known architect, Andrew Patterson. The reflective effect of a mirror stainless steel exterior, moulded to resemble a heavy flowing curtain, is remarkable. The interior is colonnaded concrete. That Lye possessed an intensely active, versatile brain is undoubted and clearly demonstrated by the works on display.  An example is his work with 35mm film, where he did not make images but scraped the celluloid so light was not recorded, but could shine through creating random flashing shapes when projected. Photograms are another example of his work with film, where an actual camera was not employed. Lye’s Fountains constructed of stainless steel rods are eye-catching to the point of mesmerisation, slowly rotating, waving amongst each other but never seeming to touch.

The rain is easing off so a comfort stop for Tammy before we drive out to the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge spanning The Waiwhakaiho River at Bell Block. Walking to here from the Port, along the harbourside boardwalk is also possible however be prepared for a walk of several kms albeit flat. It wouldn’t be the best choice today, battling strong wind and intermittent rain. The Bridge is an engaging structure elegantly shaped as whale vertebrae, or maybe a breaking wave.  Lots of hopeful white baiters are netting in the river. None seem overly excited. There is a pleasant park in this area which on a better day would be great picnic spot.

Lunch is calling which we plan at Okurukuru Vineyard a way back on the western edge of New Plymouth. The Vineyard and restaurant occupy a spectacular site directly overlooking the coast with uninterrupted sea views. Taranaki is an unlikely spot to plan a vineyard with its well-known high rainfall but I have to say Okurukuru’s Pinotage is extremely palatable and in discussion with the restaurant manager later, I discover grape varieties to suit the area are a work in progress with several reds showing good promise in recent trials. Our lunch is perfect and Okurukuru has our absolute recommendation.

The day is still very changeable with a nasty cold wind and  regular rain squalls. Wonderful conditions to visit the historic Cape Egmont Lighthouse, the original at, of course, Pungarehu Road Cape Egmont, with a replica constructed in 2000 at Baylys Road, a few kms to the east. The original was built in England and shipped to New Zealand in kitset form.  It’s wild  on the coast today and any vessel close in would be pleased to see the warning  light alerting to treacherous conditions.

About 45kms back to Oakura from Cape Egmont and the rain is slowly easing as we drive north. Back at AhuAhu the rain has blown out to sea for the moment but the wind is still quite strong. Tammy  doesn’t mind the idea of a beach walk but the reality once on the beach is wet sand and wind in her face resulting in instant mutiny. A pickup is the only way forward and I am sure I can see a smile twitching over her face. The rain stays off with predictions for tomorrow much improved.

Our last full day dawns bright with much lighter winds, suiting our plan of walking a stretch of the city boardwalk and enjoying a famous New Plymouth icon  - Pukekura Park which boasts an English style tea house and a couple of pretty lakes. It is large, being over 50 hectares with lots of cool forest walks and glades.  The inter-linked plant houses, both cool and hot, which are part of the park, are the ‘piece de resistance’. Perfectly maintained they display a wildly colourful profusion of begonias, orchids, exotic clematis and many other rare shrubs and climbers.

You may have heard of New Plymouth’s ‘Wind Wand’ – a Len Lye construction which arches out over the boardwalk from the bottom of Queen Street. Called a kinetic sculpture it is 45 metres high and designed to flex in the wind. The 12km Coastal walkway or boardwalk is very well done and a great length for walking or cycling.  With no warning bells to ring on the cycles, we have to watch Tammy carefully as she is bit of a random walker, given to checking interesting smells as the fancy takes her and easily stepping into the path of a cycle. There are plenty of seats for resting and taking in the lovely fresh sea air. The many hundreds of tonnes of concrete for the walkway and the huge round boulders for the seawall must have presented a transportation dilemma to its constructors.  We walk about 4kms from the Wind Wand and back again, in good time for a late lunch at Salt Restaurant., the Waterfront Hotel’s main restaurant, with commanding views past the Wind Wand and straight out to sea. We stayed at the Hotel quite a few years ago, when it was first built and were impressed then, so are pleased to see all is good at Salt. Shady parking in the Hotel car park suits Tammy perfectly.  

Late afternoon back at AhuAhu and a last beach walk which Tammy happily agrees to, having been cooped up in the California. We are away up the coast tomorrow for our next 2 nights at Aotea Beach, just over the hill from Kawhia. Quite a day ahead. Not so far in kilometres but the road is slow, especially the coast road after Awakino.  Crazily the speed signs say 100 kph,  however, the reality is 35kph, and it’s an all-day drive.

Saying our goodbyes to Nuala and David around 9:30 on a magnificent blue sky morning, we are north of New Plymouth by 10:15 and looking for our usual morning coffee. We find it at Urenui  where the Mud Bay Café, just off the main road makes a great long black and homemade caramel slice. We sit on the deck, in the sun with Tammy who is thinking ‘this is the life’ as a couple of other customers stop by to say hello.

Tongaporutu is very ‘old New Zealand’ with a row of original baches ranged along the river. A kilometre or two further on we turn left down Pilot Road and are rewarded with a clear stunning view back to snow-capped  Egmont.

A secluded spot for a picnic lunch is next on the agenda; however Mokau’s  offerings are not  quite right.  A little further on we arrive at Awakino and the perfect venue is in Iredale Quay alongside the Awakino River. To call this riverside a ‘quay’ is a little grandiose, but it is charming, intimate, private and secluded, suiting us admirably. Roof up, coffee on and Tammy out for a walk – all is good. Short white baiting jetties jut from the riverbank every 20 or 30 metres on both sides. It makes you wonder if enough whitebait comes down the river to keep every hopeful netter happy. We wish we could spend longer as it is hard to imagine a more beautifully scenic place, but the road ahead beckons and the route becomes serious, turning left onto Manganui Road from SH3. At first, it’s not too bad, then as we trend inland the road becomes hilly with many 20kph blind bends. We have time ahead, and that is the secret – leave plenty of time, as rushing this drive firstly denies the pleasure of the spectacular scenery and more seriously invites a catastrophic crash. A photo gem appears after the first few bends in the form of a Marshall Sons & Co of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire steam traction engine or I should say its hulk, most likely dating from late 19th or very early 20th centuries, this one will never run again.

Waikawau Beach is unforgettable with sole access being the 200 odd metre long hand dug tunnel to the beach under the hill.  Originally hewn in the early 20th century for stock access, it leads us to Waikawau beach which is stunningly beautiful and guarded by a sinister face carved into the sandstone cliff to the left of the tunnel beachside. We can’t stay too long because of the distance ahead, but for us Waikawau Beach is indelibly memorised as one of New Zealand’s best beauty spots.

The elevated view of Marokopa and out to sea as we wind down the hill above, is also a gem with the Marokopa River meandering sinuously to the coast. After Marokopa the route turns inland with not much to remark on until we start working our way around the southern edge of Kawhia Harbour. We are thoroughly over the drive by now and the last 50kms or so to our house at Aotea Beach seem to take forever. Ruru Whare at Aotea Beach is very welcoming , comfortable and modern. A separate dwelling, it is located privately from the main house where Peter and Annette live. Tammy is fascinated by the black and white goat grazing in a nearby paddock.

The setting of Ruru Whare is serene and peaceful, elevated on a small knoll, looking over to Potahi Point, the opposite Head of Aotea Harbour. These small harbours, Aotea and Kawhia are very picturesque, especially at full tide as they are very shallow around the fringes leaving many sand and mudflats when the tide ebbs. A navigable channel remains. There is not a lot at Aotea itself, only holiday baches, mostly very neat and tidy. Kawhia is the ‘big smoke’ with fuel, a hotel, general store and, of course, the famous Annie’s Café. Famous for very good reason. White bait fritters and excellent coffee plus much more, that is if you can pass on the whitebait fritters!  We have 2 nights, so plenty of time to enjoy Annie’s and explore round about.

We are in Main Street Kawhia late morning just in time to see the most prodigious seafood catch being shared out on the grass at the Omimiti Reserve near the foreshore.  10s of large snapper, a few gurnard and what looked like a substantial kingfish. The waters around Kawhia must be great fishing. After watching this for  a while we take the short walk to the north end of town which takes you to where the Tainui Canoe finally rested, after first arriving on the East Coast in the 14th century, being hauled overland to the Manukau Harbour, then navigating south to Kawhia. The spot is marked with a large splendidly carved stone under some ancient Pohutukawa where it is said the Tainui tied up.

A drive up and over the hill to the ocean beach opening to the Tasman is a worthwhile 20 minutes. After the car-park a steep sand dune climb is ahead and the soft moving black sand taxes the legs and raises the heart rate. The view from the top of the hill of the wide beach stretching away to the north until disappearing in the sea-mist - to the south the beach gives way to the Kawhia Harbour entrance. A morning coffee at Annie’s is next and after this revival we take SH 31 inland towards Otorohanga where just to the north of this very active rural township we are visiting Tammy’s birth mother, Faith, who lives with 15 or so other wonderful little dachshunds of all ages and their human Mum Jane Usmar. What a reunion – Faith and Tammy eye each other suspiciously, Patsy and Biddy make peace with the strangers, with the rest of the gang looking on through the window. After a happy  hour with Jane and pals we point the California north. 1370kms after leaving Mt Eden a week ago we are back home. 

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