We packed up in the rain at Waikanae Beach Camp, and departed from Gisborne – which is known as the Chardonnay Capital. Gisborne is one of New Zealand's biggest grape growing regions, and has 2000 hectares of vineyards, much of them planted in the chardonnay grape. We must have seen quite a number of them as we drove past vineyard after vineyard on the way out of town.
Following SH2 our journey took us through the Waioeka Gorge. The road wound through steep sided hills, covered in low tendrils of mist, while the rain continued to fall. Swish, swish went the wipers, as we drove around the never ending corners. Trapped as we were behind a heavily loaded stock truck, we breathed a sigh of relief when the driver finally came across somewhere to pull off the road. As did all the cars following us, no doubt – hope they realised it wasn’t the caravan who was holding all the traffic up.
Our group had decided to stop somewhere in the gorge for lunch, and there were two possibilities. Unfortunately, we didn’t confirm which one we would stop at and that caused a little hiccough in our lunch plans. Our two caravans pulled into the Manganuku DOC (Department of Conservation) camp and ate our lunches, expecting D & D to join us. Manganuku means “shifting stream” and the Maori story was explained on one of the information boards. “Long ago the Omaukora and Manganuku streams flowed in the same valley. After a time of flooding in to each other, quarrels and arguments started, and then fights. Manganuku had enough and decided to leave, and shifted to it’s present site”.
Walking down to the campsite we saw the historic Manganuku Bridge. It is one of the few “Howe Truss” hardwood bridges remaining in New Zealand and was originally part of the Waioeka Gorge road. The Danger sign warned us not to walk under the bridge due to structural damage.
When Derek and Dot failed to join us for lunch, we realised that they must have travelled ahead of us through the gorge, and stopped at the number two option. (There was no cell-phone coverage in the gorge). And sure enough – there they were, just a few kms along the road at the site of a memorial plaque which was unveiled in December 1962 when the Waioeka Gorge Highway was officially opened. It was sad to see the monument defaced with bright pink nail polish.
In 1959 work began in converting the original gravel road to a sealed two lane highway. Several camps were built for the workers at points along the gorge and the dangerous work of rock blasting and working on the steep and unstable land began. Rock falls were common and the three men who lost their lives while building the roads were commemorated at this site. The official opening in 1962 drew a crowd of 400 and the local newspaper reported - “The occasion marked the end of one of the most rugged road reconstructions jobs done in New Zealand. Carving a full width highway through the 25 miles of unstable, near vertical gorge which follows the tortuous path of the Waioeka River”.
After we continued on our trip after lunch, we came across a notice declaring the half way point through the gorge. It certainly was a slow trip and could not be taken lightly, negotiating one corner after another, while all the time marvelling at the ruggedly beautiful scenery. Rock falls still happen, and we saw many instances where this has happened leaving scars on the hillside. Motorists driving through the gorge these days would probably not give a thought to the years of hard work and perseverance in constructing the road.
Once out of the gorge, we soon reached Opotiki, stopping for the night at a POP on the outskirts of town.