It can be hard to come home after time spent overseas. You’ve been, you’ve seen and you’ve had experiences that have changed the way you see the world. It’s scary to feel like you might be backsliding or wandering a bit aimless after your adventures. You also don’t want to sound like a preachy douchebag to all of your friends just because you think you’ve found yourself after 3 months of wearing fisherman pants, blacking out at a full moon party and riding an elephant. Pashing a white dude with dreads and getting a bamboo tattoo does not an intrepid traveller make.
I’m from a provincial service town in the Wairarapa based in the lower North Island of New Zealand. It doesn’t sound that sexy and to be honest, it’s not, but it doesn’t need to be because it has so much else going for it. It was a common refrain from us in our teenage years that Masterton was ‘lame’. It was lambasted on a national television show as a town you would send someone to as punishment. What these haters fail to see are the hidden gems in this little valley behind the Rimutaka Ranges.
It’s a valley that is located so close to the beach, the river and the mountains that you can do all three in a day. A town small enough that people know your family and look out for your wellbeing, (it also means that every teenage misdemeanour is quickly spread via the Mother’s Mafia).
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend 2 months in this glorious part of the world and I want to share its highlights with you in the hope that you might decide to run the gauntlet of the Rimutaka Hill road and visit instead of bypassing us for Palmerston, which is in fact the true arse end of New Zealand.
So What is there to do in the Wairarapa if you’re visiting like a local?
1. If you’re hungry and it’s Friday your first stop should be Bolly’s or Norfolk Road Pizza, officially known as the Watermill Bakery. You know somewhere is good if they don’t advertise, have no website, are located at the end of a gravel road, and are full every Friday. You have to ring them on a landline (+64 06 370 1129) to order the number of bases you will want for the evening and tell them what time you will be coming. From 5pm onward you head out to Blake’s Road at the base of the Tararua Ranges where you will find a log cabin centred around a pizza oven. They only take cash and they don’t sell drinks so you will need to take your own or help yourself to a glass of water from the tap. Kids are free to roam, play in the creek or muck about with new friends while the adults share large tables, a beer and a chat. The pizza is delicious and the surroundings are so laid back they’re horizontal, this is the perfect setting for a super chilled evening.
2. The Tararua Ranges that sit behind the log cabin are another attraction for those that are keen on the outdoors and want to go bush. There is a range of walks, well maintained tracks and tidy huts for those that want to wander with a knapsack on their back. Mount Holdsworth is the highest peak and about a 4 hour walk to the top. Powell Hut sits just below the apex to house you for the night, or if the moon is full you could do a midnight jaunt around to Jumbo Hut as we have previously done. You will need to pay hut fees if you stay which is generally run on an honesty box system. I heartily encourage you to be honest or may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits and may your arms be too short to scratch. Mitre Hut and Totara Flats are some of my other favourites, you can wade the river from Totara Flats to investigate Sayer’s Hut, a solid wooden slab hut with the entire mountain range drawn on the windowsill in permanent marker. Remember to take layers of woollen clothing, extra food and your wits, the weather can always catch you out. Over-prepare so Search and Rescue don’t have to come and save you or you might want up on a Hunt for the Wilderpeople style adventure.
3. If the coast is more your thing then definitely head to Castlepoint for a visit, they have one of the oldest surviving lighthouses in the country, a grouse surf break at ‘The Gap’, a shop and a pub. If you want something a bit more rugged you can’t go past Glenburn Station. Cell phones don’t work out here (quelle horreur) and it’s entirely possible that you won’t meet a single other vehicle on the road out there. I have spent my childhood holidaying at this beach, collecting paua, crayfish, and blue cod and building bonfires on the beach. Diving with the seal colony that lives on Kahu Rock is always spectacular, on a good day you just can’t beat Glenburn. There is no shop here so you have to be self sufficient, all that is required is wine, books and cards to truly unwind and let go of that nagging urge to check who liked the wordplay in your Instagram caption.
4. If you’re a vino fan then the Harvest Festival is the best wine event in the region. Toast Martinborough may be the most well known, but having been to both, my firm favourite is Harvest. Set by the river in the scenic venue of The Cliffs, this festival brings all of the vineyards and restaurants to one site along with a line up of great bands. Not having to travel between vineyards means you can scamper off the dance floor for a refill and an arancini ball and head back into the fray without missing a beat. The crowd here dance with the wild abandon of someone who has taken powerful muscle relaxants and is trying to stay upright. Usually happening in early March I cannot recommend this event highly enough, book your tickets early and bribe someone into being your sober driver because this is one you don’t want to miss.
5. With land, sea, food and drink covered what else is left? Well the air of course…if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush or just a great present for someone you love then look no further than Greytown Soaring Centre. The club operates just out of Greytown in South Wairarapa and runs accompanied glider flights over Jury Hill. Jacked up by my fabulous Father, my Sister and I both had the opportunity to have a go at this slightly terrifying sport. Gliders don’t operate under power like a plane does, they use the thermals rising from land formations to gain height and then ‘glide’ down, a bit like a bird. I was a bit nervous about this because you are sitting in what feels like a paper plane but it was so magical I fully intend to go back in the summer and do my solo pilot training. My raving glinty-eyed look when I came down was so convincing that even my Mother, who is afraid of heights, had a go. I’m happy to report that she loved it.
So those are just 5 things you could do when you come to visit the Wairarapa Valley. There are plenty of other special spots but I can’t tell you them all or you would ruin it for the locals! There is every chance that I will be exiled for telling you about Bolly’s pizza. All I can say is, come and discover it for yourself, come and explore this magical valley, just an hour away from Wellington and Palmerston North, and infinitely better if I do say so myself.