AS we emerged from the tunnel of giant pohutukawa trees on to the coast, there before us were the twin carved pillars of the Pathway to the Sunrise, Te Ara Ki Te Tairawhiti, glowing in the evening sun, with the waters of the Bay of Plenty sparkling beyond.
The carvings, designed by Graham Hayward and made by Opotiki master carver Heke Collier, are the perfect gateway to this part of the Eastern Bay of Plenty, with its superb little bays surrounded by wild, bush-clad hills, its turbulent history and its still-strong Maori component.
Partly that's because the pillars, standing on a headland at the end of beautiful Waiotahi Beach, provide an eye-catching frame for the coastline you can see stretching out to Te Kaha, Waihau Bay, Cape Runaway and beyond. But it's also because the carvings illustrate the story of that turbulent history.
One pillar tells of the arrival of Maori, depicting the legend of the brothers Tarawa and Tawharanui, who sailed from Hawaiki with their two pet tanahanaha fish, which they released into a small spring nearby that became known as Opotiki-mai-tawhiti - two pets from afar - and ultimately provided a name for today's township.
Usually, when tourists visit this part of the world, it's the bays they want to see - the amazing seascapes offered up as the Pacific Coast Highway winds its way out towards East Cape, then continues south to Gisborne, Wairoa and the gentler attractions of Hawke Bay.The other - with its colourful depiction of a blond, uniformed soldier and a lovely wahine - illustrates the eventual development of a multiracial, multicultural race of New Zealanders under the guidance of the Treaty of Waitangi, as symbolised by a kotuku flying above.
But our emphasis was on seeing some of the superb carvings, like this one, which can be found throughout the region.
Our quest began on the top floor of the excellent Opotiki Museum, where you can see - but not photograph - some wonderful old carvings from Tanewhirinaki meeting house, built at Waioeka pa in 1886, salvaged when it collapsed in the 1920s and recently returned from Auckland Museum where they had been stored.
Tanewhirinaki was the eldest son of Muriwai, ancestress of the local Whakatohea people, and the fully carved meeting house built in his honour was the only one of its kind in the area, with 138 carvings in total.
Just down the street from the museum, at the main intersection in the centre of town, is a more modern carving which depicts the development of the district - with the arrival of sailing ships bringing the modern farming and horticulture on which the local economy is now based.
At the other end of the main street are two more carved pillars, one showing a bird, the other a pikopiko or fern frond - at one time major food sources for Whakatohea.
Next we made a trip a few kilometres out of Opotiki to Hukutaia Domain, which preserves a 4.5ha remnant of what the forest once looked like, with vast old puriri trees and some almost equally impressive tawa presiding over a lush undergrowth of ferns, vines, mosses and fungi.
At the heart of the reserve is the biggest puriri of all, Taketakerau, once used by the Upokorehe hapu to store the bones of important people. The bones were removed about a century ago when a storm damaged the tree, but we were able to marvel at the huge cavities in which they were stored and admire the two weather-beaten carved guardians which still preside over the site.
We then headed down the coastal highway, past Omarumutu, with its superbly carved War Memorial Hall, and across the tribal boundary to Torere, home of Ngaitai, where I wanted to see Holy Trinity Memorial Church, built in the 1950s and reputed to be beautifully decorated with carved rafters, tukutuku panels and stained glass.
Unfortunately, the only entrance to the church seemed to be via the local marae, where there was a meeting taking place, so - having admired church and marae from afar - we drove up the hill to Torere School, which has a gloriously carved gateway that made the drive well worthwhile.
Continuing up the coast, we went through lovely Hawai Bay, the boundary with Te Whanau-a-Apanui, crossed the mighty Motu River and carried on to Omaio. The marae there, sitting on an amazing coastal site, has another superbly carved gateway. So good, in fact, that we got a coffee from the local store and sipped it while we admired the work.
Unfortunately, with only a weekend to look around, that was as far as we could go. Further round the cape there's much more to see, including the meeting house at Te Kaha, the lovely Raukokore Church and, across the boundary into Ngati Porou territory, some magnificent marae ... but that's another story.
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