Whakatāne is the ideal place to get away from the hustle and bustle and enjoy nature at its best.
Whakatāne is the hub of the Eastern Bay of Plenty, and gateway to one of New Zealand’s best off-the-beaten track road trips. If you love nothing better than a real escape – a journey of discovery – the eastern bay is for you.
Explore an ancient wonderland
Many New Zealanders don’t realise that the Whakatāne District stretches 90km south of the coast to Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park and Te Urewera. It’s a fascinating part of the country, steeped in history and where locals will immerse you in their deep connection as tangata whenua.
There are many places to stop on the journey to this natural wonderland. Heading south from Whakatāne takes you past Lake Matahina, created in 1967 when the Matahina hydro-electric dam was built. Travel a bit further and stop for a picnic on the shore of Lake Aniwhenua – great for a quick swim during the warmer months, or any time for the brave. Throw in a line too, as these inland waters offer some of the best fly-fishing conditions in the country. If you prefer a slow pace, break the trip with an overnight stop at Kohutapu Lodge. You’ll be welcomed with open arms and plenty of heartwarming kai.
Set off the next day with a guided Whirinaki Forest Footsteps walking tour – the best way to experience this immense ancient forest, with stories of the past coming to life as you walk among giants.
Or, if you prefer to go it alone, you’ll find plenty of options for a day of exploring. The Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne mountain bike trail is perfect for beginner and intermediate riders, with a 16km (2-4 hour) loop. Or walk the Waterfall Loop Track or Arohaki Lagoon Trail. Whether on bike or foot, take in 1000-year-old towering kahikatea, tōtara, matai, rimu, miro and tawa, and spot some of the 51 endangered species, including whio (blue duck), one of the many rare birds who call Whirinaki home. Whirinaki Te-Pua-a Tāne Conservation Park is valued as a taonga (treasure) containing the living children of Tāne Mahuta, the Māori god of the forest. Local iwi Ngāti Whare is the active kaitiaki (guardian) of the park, working with the Department of Conservation to protect the natural, cultural and historic resources for the benefit and well-being of future generations of Aotearoa and visitors. This Jurassic-like place is an experience you’ll remember forever.
The heart of Te Urewera
Remote, rugged and immense, Te Urewera is a historic hinterland of vast forests and pristine lakes that will quench the nature-lust of any outdoor enthusiast. Here your journey enters the heartland of New Zealand’s largest wilderness area, where you feel a spiritual connection with the land and its indigenous people. Te Urewera is especially unique, as it was given its own legislative act as part of the Crown settlement with Ngāi Tūhoe, in acknowledgement of the very real and dense connection and history between the people and the place.
Ruatāhuna is the heart of Te Urewera – homeland of the Tūhoe tribe and the perfect place to stop for a night. If you’re not travelling in a motorhome, the chalet accommodation at the Te Tii complex is a great choice, and the mouthwatering breakfast menu at Mou Mou Kai cafe is unmissable. Sit in the morning sunshine and natter to the locals as you plan the next adventure.
For a small, remote place, Ruatāhuna has a surprising number of excellent visitor experiences. Te Urewera Treks will have you immersed in a new appreciation for the world around you as you become one with nature. And international award-winning Manawa Honey will take you on their journey to producing the best-tasting honey in the world. Te Urewera is a wonderland for honey bees, with forests filled with diverse flora, from the lower reaches of river valleys to the summits of the mountain ranges.
Once you immerse yourself into the heart of Te Urewera, you’ll likely want to extend your stay. Carry on to Lake Waikareimoana or try hunting, mountain biking, kayaking, hiking and more in this breathtaking and untouched part of the world.
Must-do side trip: Moutohorā Island
While stocking up on supplies before your journey, take time to book a trip to Moutohorā Island – 9km offshore from Whakatāne.
Moutohorā (Whale) Island is accessible by guided tour only. The 143-hectare remnant volcano is one of Aotearoa’s best-kept secrets. This predator-free island is home to a number of rare and endangered plants, birds and reptiles. You can spot dolphins, little blue penguins, curious seals and native birds. Tīeke/saddleback, kākāriki/red-crowned parakeet, bellbirds, tūī and grey warbler flourish – many are endangered or seldom seen on the New Zealand mainland. A visit to the island includes a stop at Sulphur Bay, where geothermal springs come up through the sand, creating your own hot pool – just like Hot Water Beach but without the crowds.