David Whitley ignores his SatNav to head down a back road that contains all that is good about the west of the North Island
Marokopa is a one shop town, and that shop closes when the owner is doing the school bus run. Beyond the pretty-but-functional wooden houses, the beach guides the remnants of the Marokopa river out to the Tasman Sea. The sand is a moody, volcanic black; the spit of dunes opposite largely off-limits. The parts that aren’t ancient Maori burial ground are reserved for nesting penguins and endangered seabirds.
Marokopa encapsulates New Zealand’s wild west coast. It’s unheralded, it’s evocative and it thrills with its raw, unpolished beauty. But it’s also the start of the road that nobody goes down.
Few people go west beyond Waitomo, the North Island’s well-drilled tourist village of cave adventures. Getting out of Waitomo is usually a case of doubling back and rejoining State Highway 3. Refuse to retrace your steps and you enter a world almost entirely uncovered by tourist information pamphlets.
The collapsed cave splendour of the Mangapohue Natural Bridge gets brief mention. The seemingly endless cascading tiers of the heart flutter-inducing Marokopa Falls get the criminal undersell treatment. And the rest is territory to be a pioneer in.
GPS systems and Google Maps won’t send you west because a significant chunk of the 58.5km Mangatoa Road between Marokopa and Awakino is unsealed. But it’s perfectly manageable in a conventional vehicle, and it takes in some of the North Island’s most magical scenery. Hobbity hills commandeered by ambling sheep give way to soaring coastal views, dense unlogged forest and wheel-clutching zig-zag descents. It’s the sort of road that turns driving from chore to unbridled joy.
A right turn at Waikawau leads through terraced green hills and the sort of dreamy pastureland that’s probably home to cherubs as well as cows. But the road stops before a narrow tunnel topped with an almost Gothic arch. The tunnel was cut through the limestone and made just wide enough to transport cattle through – it was easier to take them along the beach than up and down the hills.
That beach, however, feels like a cherished discovery. A brooding capturer of lonely headlands at low tide; an intimate cove at high tide.
Arriving Waikawau beach feels like uncovering a treasured secret, but for overpowering majesty, Pukearuhe further south is the king. Again, the sand is a deep, sparkling black. But it’s set against transcendent white cliffs. As long as the tide is not fully in, it’s possible to walk for hours, crunching shells underfoot and looking up at the chalky walls.
It may be the road that no-one goes down, but it’s a road to wonderful nowheres. It’s a New Zealand of Heathcliff-style brooding romance; a drive into the unknown for those who want their own special piece of the country to themselves.