Ōhope, in eastern Bay of Plenty, is a beachside town set on an approximately 11 kilometre sandy spit. It’s separated from the larger town of Whakatāne by six kilometres and a large hill, a drive of about ten minutes. But why drive when you can walk?
The 17.4km Nga Tapuwae o Toi Trail, meaning ‘in the footsteps of Toi’, will take you in a loop there and back. The trail, named after Toi te Huatahi, an ancestor of the Ngāti Awa tribe, passes through land he once occupied.
Trail maps are available at the Whakatāne i-SITE, but there are signboards en route. The trail takes 4 – 6 hours, or around 8 hours if checking out the historical sights of Whakatāne. Part of the trail, at Ōtarawairere Bay, is inaccessible at high tide, be there no later than 2 hours before.
From Ōhope to Whakatāne
I set off from Ōhope, walking the loop in a clockwise direction, from Ōhope Scenic Reserve. A red carved gateway marks the trail start where information boards tell of its meaning and of Ngāti Awa, who once occupied this area.
There’s also information on the Whakatāne Kiwi Project, involved in the conservation of kiwi and set up after eight kiwi were found in the area in 1999. The population now numbers over 300. Guided night tours run normally from April to June to view kiwi, while a downloadable map is available on the project’s website for a self-guided walk on the 2km Fairbrother Loop Walk. The map marks glow worm, kiwi, spider and wētā locations.
Nga Tapuwae o Toi Trail is uphill from the reserve via the left-hand side of the Fairbrother Loop Track, home to New Zealand’s largest pōhutukawa forest. You’ll be serenaded by tūī and rewarded with peeks of the Pacific Ocean where Moutohorā/Whale Island and distant Whakaari/White Island, an active volcano usually with a plume of white smoke above it, lie.
The trail crosses gravelled Burma Road, and it’s onwards and upwards through native bush, to then traverse a path through farmland before re-entering dense forest. A murky brown swamp surprised me, and is apparently home to mallard ducks and fernbird, with robin also frequenting the area. There are some steep spots traversing Mokorua Bush Reserve, as well as flattish, stream-side walking. An area signposted ‘Bird Walk’ is particularly melodious with birdsong. Steep stairs deliver walkers down to Gorge Road, the main road from Ōhope, and around the corner Commerce Street leads to Pōhaturoa Rock and central Whakatāne.
The town has a rich Māori history and several historical sites worth visiting. The sacred, towering Pōhaturoa Rock was used by Ngāti Awa for birth and death rituals and tribal leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi near its western side on 16th June 1840. The archway in the rock is all that remains of a sacred cave.
Mataatua Wharenui, the Māori ancestral house of the Ngāti Awa people is a 650m walk away on Muriwai Drive, running parallel with Whakatāne River. The meeting house travelled the world; to Sydney in 1879, then Melbourne, London, and Dunedin before being returned to Whakatāne in 2011. Its Visitor Centre offers one hour tours welcoming guests onto the marae with a pōwhiri before they enter the meeting house with its carved depictions of Ngāti Awa ancestors. A digital light show tells their ancient stories. A longer tour, which finishes with a ceremonial feast and must be booked 24 hours in advance, also teaches men the purpose and meaning of the haka (war dance), and women the poi (swinging ball dance).
The peaceful riverside walkway, towards the river mouth, leads to a replica of the Mataatua waka (canoe), one of seven which brought Polynesians to New Zealand around 700 years ago. Heavily carved down the sides and with a large figurehead, it’s quite magnificent.
Opposite, over Muriwai Road, is Te Ana o Muriwai. This hillside cave was one of three landmarks Toroa, captain of the Mataatua waka, was told to look out for by his father. It once went 122 metres into the hillside and was apparently dwelt in by Toroa’s sister, Muriwai. Today, it’s only around 10 metres long with a carved gateway at its entrance.
Five-hundred metres to the east, at the river mouth, a figure set on a rock can be seen. The Lady on the Rock statue commemorates Toroa’s daughter, Wairaka. Defying rules forbidding women to row waka, she brought the drifting canoe back to shore after the men had gone ashore following the voyage from Hawaiki.
Backtracking, the 22-metre Te Wairere Falls, another of the landmarks Toroa was told to look for, can be found just minutes from the town centre wending a narrow trail down steep rock in a tranquil, shaded spot.
Whakatāne to Ōhope
Behind Pōhaturoa Rock, on Canning Place, the Nga Tapuwae o Toi Trail takes walkers up the world’s first vertigraph. Affixed to stair fronts, a series of horizontal panels depict the area’s flora and fauna from sea to skies. There’s plenty of time to study it as you puff your way up 43 stairs!
Two ancient pā sites on either side of Hillcrest Road, give differing views over Whakatāne and the coastline. Re-entering the bush, the trail leads to the top of Te Wairere Falls and further along a short side track brings walkers to Kapu-Te-Rangi Pā, Toi’s pā, one of New Zealand’s oldest. A pou, ceremonial pole, marks the site with panoramic views from White Island to distant Mount Tarawera.
With frequent scenes of white sandy coastline and patchwork-blue ocean, it’s pretty much uphill through bush to Kōhī Point with sightings above the river mouth of a distant Lady on the Rock. Spectacular views continue. Rock cliffs meet aquamarine water nestled in rocky bays. Far-off Ōhope comes into sight, its white sands stretching into the distance.
The trail finally descends, reaching Ōtarawairere Bay, a pretty, secluded, white-shelled beach shaded by pōhutukawa. It continues at the end of the bay with a final ascent to a lookout over Ōhope and its beach, which will return walkers to their starting point.