Carry on camping: Gisborne

It was Matt’s turn to pick a camping destination for our Christmas vacay so, of course, he picked one of New Zealand’s top surf towns, Gisborne.

We booked five nights at Tatapouri Motor Camp between Christmas and New Years Eve. At just over six hours drive from Auckland, it was the furthest spot we had explored on the north island.

The journey

We set off around noon on Boxing Day with a car packed with all the essentials – Lola, a tent, the surfboards and leftover Christmas dinner.

The route took us through Matamata (home of the Hobbiton movie set), past Tauranga and along the coast through Whakatane, Ohopi and Opotiki, before turning inland through winding gold mining country and dense Kiwi bush.

We had a rest stop in Ohope to grab some milkshakes and let Lola cool off in the sea before the final leg of our journey.

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After what seemed like hours curving our way through native bush, we finally made it to the coast and arrived to find the sun setting over endless wineries with perfectly parallel rows of grape bearing vines.

First impressions

The “city” of Gisborne (or Gizzy as it’s otherwise known) is more the size of a town, containing neat, tidy houses with preened front gardens, sitting alongside more weathered and characterful homes. The streets are lined with palm trees and the clock tower overlooks the main shopping area on Gladstone Road.

We carried on past Gisborne along the East Coast, gaping at the impressive views as we rounded one corner after the other to find panoramic views of the many beautiful beaches that make up the East Cape, dotted with surfers and paddle boarders, and even some kayakers.

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We arrived at the campgrounds to a cool wind and clear skies, and quickly set up our tent just before the sun went down. We had a full view of the sea from our tent, and behind us were rolling green hills with wandering cows.

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The campgrounds

Tatapouri was $36 a night for beachfront camping and the site was conveniently located just ten minutes drive from the centre of town.

The site manager told us that the camp was very busy owing to the season but there was still heaps of space. The facilities were pretty good – hot showers, a kitchen with gas hobs, fridge/freezers, kettles, toasters and a recycling station. The fridges were a bit of a fight for a shelf but overall we didn’t have any complaints and I’d happily stay there again if we were down in Gizzy.

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Lola had to stay on a leash around the camp grounds as it was high season but she could run wild on the beach.

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As it was late and getting dark by the time we had set up, we got a fish and chip supper before passing out under a blanket of stars.

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Day 2

We woke up early to birdsong and beaming sunshine. There was a bench and table overlooking the ocean in front of our tent – the perfect spot for breakfast!

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After grabbing a coffee in town we set up the beach tent on nearby Makorori Beach, known for it’s excellent surf. The sea was pretty crowded with skilled surfers so I sat this one out, took the opportunity to take some snaps, and hung out with Lola whilst Matt ran off to catch some waves.

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Wind-related disaster 1: The wind picked up and soon we were all covered in an even coating of sand (poor Lola got quite a bit in the face!) so we decided to pack up and head off to a less gritty location.

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As we fought with the wind to fold down our beach shelter, disaster one struck us – a huge mastiff looking dog came over to chase (and intimidate) Lola but also had the urge to piss all over the tarpaulin of our tent (approx. three times – yuck). We attempted to shoo him away but he was a big brute and ignored us completely.

Finally his (irresponsible) owner called him from the other side of the beach – probably when she saw us trying to push him away from our tent. Needless to say we haven’t used the beach tent since.

Somewhat irritated, we headed over to the I-SITE to grab some maps, got some food and booze for the BBQ and spent the late afternoon unwinding back at our camp. The breeze kicked up the smells of suntan lotioned skin and salty sea air.

Camping is one of my favourite ways to achieve mindfulness. Phone data switched off, sleeping amongst nature, losing myself in a good book (currently The Goldfinch), and generally living a peaceful, simple existence.

We took an early evening hike up Makorori Headland to check out the views whilst the weather was good. A short, steep climb starts at the carpark at the bottom of the hill at the northern end of Wainui Beach. You walk through native bush before reaching the peak which offers Instagram-worthy views along the East Cape.

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After our walk we feasted on BBQ’d mushrooms, kumara, corn on the cob and marshmallows.

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Wind-related disaster 2: Matt went to take some photos of the night sky whilst I washed up our stuff in the kitchen. Unbeknownst to us, the wind had knocked over our fire and set light to one of our camping chairs. Luckily, our neighbour had spotted the fire and intervened to stop it burning down our entire camp. Lesson learnt: always guard the fire.

Day 3

I woke up to Lola nudging my sleeping bag so I quickly jumped out of bed to take her out for a wee. Still half asleep I looked at my watch to see it was 5.30am – just in time to catch the sunrise at 5.45am! I woke Matt up from his slumber and we set the camera up over the beach. The East Cape has the honour of seeing the first sunrise everyday so it was well worth waking up for this one.

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The sky was already glowing orange and pink, lighting up the campsite in a surreal light, making it look almost like a movie set with its Dr Suess trees, almost too perfect Hobbit hills and pristine blue sky. The birdsong was sending Lola into a hunting frenzy.

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It’s amazing to see how fast our planet is rotating when you watch the speed in which the sun rises up from the ocean, turning it metallic grey and glistening.

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Getting out of the city and discovering new places reminds me of our first year in New Zealand, when everything was so incredibly magical and unreal. Almost two years on and we still feel like we’re on holiday half the time.

After breakfast we set off for Rere Falls, about 30 minutes drive from the city centre and set amongst farmland. We got there early so it was quiet when we arrived and it didn’t take long for Lola to jump into the cool pebbled stream for some relief from the hot sun. There are picnic tables and toilets by the falls so you could easily spend an afternoon here, but we disappeared just as the groups of twenty somethings (here for the local NYE festival) arrived.

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Just around the corner from the falls is the Rere Rock Slide, where you can launch yourself down a slippery sloping rock on a body board/rubber ring/any other device you can sit on. We had a quick look to see what all the hype was about, but as it wasn’t dog-friendly we didn’t hang around for long. It was pretty busy (for NZ standards anyway) and there were queues of tourists waiting to ride the slide so we set off back to Gisborne for an afternoon at the beach.

The waves were small but surfable at Makorori Beach, and we had the ocean to ourselves so Matt gave me a surf lesson. One of my NY resolutions is to learn to surf and it was heaps of fun practising in smaller waves as it meant little effort was required to paddle out. Matt watched me from his board and gave me techniques on where I was going wrong.

After an hour or so we went and got Lola and carried her in the water to body surf the waves but judging by the speed in which she swam out she definitely prefers calm lake waters.

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That evening there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and with little light pollution it felt like we could see all the stars and planets in our solar system. The milky way was just overhead with its rich glow of stars and there were constellations mapping out the night sky. I followed a satellite moving above us until it disappeared from view. Nights like this are why we go camping.

Day 4

The morning was overcast and the surf forecast was predicted to be the best of the week so we got to the beach early. Everyone had the same idea and the ocean was full of surfers. Somewhat hesitant, I decided to have a go anyway and found an empty spot so I didn’t get in anyone’s way.

The ocean floor was rocky and paddling out was tiring as I kept getting sucked under and knocked off my board by breaking waves and white wash. After drinking about a gallon of sea water and not making much progress I decided the conditions were a bit too treacherous for a learner and body boarded back to shore, frustrated that I couldn’t get much practise in. The sea is a cruel mistress.

The air was warm but the cloud cover gave some much needed respite from the sun’s burning rays. I kicked back on the beach, where Lola jumped all over me licking my wet salty face, wrote my trip memoirs and lost myself in the world of Theodore Decker.

Matt got me a fisheye lens for my phone for Christmas so I tested it out on my favourite subject.

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Matt returned weary but happy after catching the biggest wave of his surfing career. We headed into town to pick up a few bits when a local dog owner spotted Lola and told us that dogs were prohibited from the main shopping stretch, and we would be slammed with a $150 fine if we got caught.

We hurried back to the car and drove a few blocks down to stop for lunch at PBC Cafe, which has a huge garden so Lola could sit with us. It was busy and took a while for our food to arrive, but it was tasty and the portions were huge. The weather was worsening so we headed to the Sunshine Brewery for a few pints. They have outside covered benches where Lola could hang with us whilst we sampled the local craft beers from their taproom.

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Feeling merry we picked up some food for dinner, and skipped out of the supermarket, armed with a bottle of Riesling to carry on the party back at our camp.

Wind-related disaster 3: We drove back to Tatapouri to be greeted by a tent apocalypse. The winds had picked up and were blowing gales throughout the campsite. Our tent had snapped and ripped so that the sleeping area had basically collapsed. Me and Lola took shelter in the porch while Matt surveyed the damage.

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The wind was relentless and another pole snapped. It was 5.20pm and we needed to make an executive decision: sleep in the porch; find dog friendly accommodation; or make the six hour drive back to Auckland before it got any later. We went with the latter and quickly threw everything into the car, downloaded some podcasts, armed ourselves with caffeine and hit the road, pretty gutted that we had to cut our holiday short.

The only silver lining was that we travelled home during the golden hour when everything looked even more enchanting than usual, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset to end the trip.

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