Te Kaha and East Cape Lighthouse, New Zealand

Story by staff writer JM Merchant. Photos Copyright © Joanna Abram.

Leaving Rangitukia, the little green Kiwi Experience bus returned to State Highway 35 for the last leg of our East As adventure around New Zealand’s East Cape.

After a short time, we veered off the main road and continued towards the most eastern point of New Zealand, East Cape Lighthouse. Despite the lighthouse being quite a tourist draw, the roads are dusty and bumpy and you feel like you’re heading off the beaten track.

When we reached the lighthouse car park, Walter warned us that it was a long walk. He pointed us in the right direction and settled down with his newspaper.

He wasn’t kidding. “A long walk” turned out to mean 765 steps, most of them pretty steep, and boy was I feeling the burn by the time I got to the top. But as with all the uphill tramps (hikes) that I took in New Zealand, the view was well worth it.

View from East Cape Lighthouse, New Zealand

Left: The top few steps | Right: The view from the top

East Island

East Island

The East Cape Lighthouse was originally built on East Island in 1900, a little way off the coast, but a succession of earthquakes saw the cliffs starting to crumble into the sea. So in 1922 the 14-metre high cast-iron tower was relocated to its current position on the mainland, 154 metres above sea level.

East Cape Lighthouse, New Zealand

Left: East Cape Lighthouse | Right: Looking inland from the lighthouse

After tripping back down the 765 steps, we headed back to SH35 and on to our final night’s stopover, Te Kaha. For a good portion of the journey myself and the token Aussie, Cassi, were having the great Marmite vs. Vegemite debate, and how best to prepare a Vegemite/Marmite sandwich.

I can tell you for certain that there IS a taste difference between Vegemite and Marmite, and Vegemite is vile!

(Editor’s note: Having lived in Australia for 25 years I must weigh in on this debate. I love my staff writer—and I especially love Jo for bringing New Zealand to this blog—but her taste buds are mixed up. It’s Marmite that’s vile. Vegemite is more-ish!)

We arrived at the Homestead Lodge around mid-afternoon and were greeted by the lodge dog and a German man who helps the O’Brien family run the lodge whenever they’re busy at their nearby kiwifruit orchard.

The homestead, Te Kaha

The homestead

The homestead dog, Te Kaha

The homestead dog

With 20 plus beds, the dorm room we were shown to was by far the biggest I saw my entire time in New Zealand.

For once there was no squabbling about who got the bottom bunk. The novelty of the top bunk wore off very quickly on this trip. Hostel beds are notoriously squeaky, you risk disturbing people climbing up and down from a top bunk, the ladder rungs are tough on your feet after a hard day’s tramping—and quite difficult to navigate after a couple of drinks!

We dumped our bags and quickly changed into our swim gear to go explore the coast out back of the house.

The garden backs onto the edge of a lava rock cliff, into which the family have had steps built allowing easy access down to the beach. The black rocks stretch off into the water and they provided us with some great tide pools to explore. As the tide came in, our challenge was to see who could get the furthest out without getting into the water. Eventually we just gave up and went for a swim.

The hot tub (see feature photo) was a nice way to relax after our playtime, although it wasn’t a particularly hot tub when we used it. Still, the view was awesome as the sun was starting to set.

Sunset at Te Kaha

Out back of the homestead as the sun begins to set

The combination of the early morning start in Rangitukia, the climb up to the lighthouse, the long drive and the swim resulted in eight very tired backpackers. Making the most of being in a different country with amazing culture and scenery to explore we . . . crashed out on the sofas watching Top Gear on the O’Brien’s mahoosive TV, some of us dozing off as the sunlight began to fade.

We couldn’t crash for long, though. It was the last day of the golden kiwifruit harvest so there was to be a big barbecue for all the families that had helped on the land over the season. Being guests of the house, we were invited.

The barbecue area, Te Kaha

The barbecue area

When the O’Brien family returned they welcomed us into Te Whanau a Apanui, the local Maori tribe, and we received the hongi over sizzling burgers and sausages. The hongi is the traditional Maori welcome: with a hand on each other’s shoulders you press noses together, allowing your breath, or ha, to exchange and blend.

A little Maori fact for you that still amuses me. A lot of Maori families have Irish or Scottish names. So don’t be surprised to meet a big bad Maori warrior whose name turns out to be Paul O’Connor!

The food at the barbecue was good and plentiful. But being so tired we didn’t have much energy to mingle and soon shuffled off to our dorm.

The next day we had a lazy start. After breakfast we reloaded the little green bus for the last time.

But we weren’t allowed to leave yet, without giving the O’Brien family a song. I’ve been trying for a week to think of what song we sang, but I simply can’t remember. All I know is that the family were impressed. They then borrowed our guitar and bid us farewell with a traditional Maori song.

In a way the song was also a farewell to each other. Getting back on the bus marked our last couple of hours together as we drove back to Rotorua. Some of us would stay there the night before moving on to more adventures, while the rest would board the big green bus at the hostel to go on to Taupo.

Some good friends were made in those three days, more of whom I wish I’d stayed in touch with.


Also in this series by JM Merchant:

Sunrise at Rangitukia


Cape Reinga and the Awesome Bus


Guest blogger JM Merchant

JM Merchant

JM Merchant (or Jo Abram to most) lives in the North End of London, although she aspires to the West End. An occasionally employed sound engineer and stage manager, most of her time is currently spent reading pirate tales as she works on her first novel. She blogs and posts short stories at Am I A Writer Yet? and tweets as @JMMerchant86.



  1. Wow, Jo, this is all so wonderful. I love lighthouses and this seems like the prefect place to visit when I get to travel to New Zealand *fingers crossed it’ll be soon enough*

    • I’m with Estrella – crossing my fingers it will be soon enough!!

      Brian and I had a burning desire to visit EnZed. We had Kiwi stuff displayed all over the house and talked about going there all the time. But then the dream got buried by long-term financial yucks. 🙁

      BUT . . . today something’s happening (a career step for Brian) that rekindles my hope to get there in the foreseeable future. Jo, thanks for keeping the flame burning for us by writing about NZ here on MT. 🙂

    • Thank you so much ladies, I’m glad you’re still enjoying the posts.

      I’m with you both, I want to get back so badly and I really hope you all manage to get over there soon.

  2. My life goal is to travel and the first place I am going to go is New Zealand!!! I LOVE your photos thanks so much for posting them! Some day I will get to new zealand! 🙂

    • Hiya,
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I hope you manage to get out and see the world, and of course I can’t recommend New Zealand highly enough!
      Keep checking back though, I’ve got plenty more posts and photos to come 🙂

  3. Jo! I love these pictures!.. NZ sounds like a beautiful place. I am with everyone else in the effort to get to experience it first hand, but being able to see it through your wonderful words and photos help us endure until our times come.
    Thanks you. I enjoyed this.

    • Well Betsy, at this rate I think we need to start considering an MT staff trip to NZ, most of us seem to want to go. What say you Milli? 🙂

      So glad you’re enjoying the photo’s, one of my later drivers dubbed me Jojo-Dora (the Explorer) for having the camera in my hand the whole time. I came back with 10gb of photo’s, so still plenty more to come.


  4. It looks like you had a WONDERFUL time and your photos are stunning (as always). I love the vegemite / marmite debate. Not having tried, either, I’d have to refrain from an opinion, but being a foodie, I’m awfully curious!

    • I do believe we get both marmite and vegemite in the the store down the road so might have to send you a sample of each for the foodies tie-breaker opinion 😉

      Thanks for reading again Ann 🙂

  5. Just a lovely post — stories and photos, Jo! Always bittersweet to end a trip like that, isn’t it?

    As for vegemite/marmite debate, I find both bleeeeecccchhh! 😉

    • There’s a reason that Marmite’s main sales pitch is “love it or hate it” 🙂

      The East As excursion really was wonderful, especially as it was a chance to experience a much more traditional New Zealand in a much smaller group; this route takes groups of 4-10, the majority of other routes with Kiwi Experience are with the full size coaches, though these can be quite sparsely populated at times.

      Glad you’re still enjoying the photos 🙂

  6. Back when I was about 18 or 19, I had a British roommate who suggested I taste Vegemite because it was so incredible. She ate A LOT of it so I thought, “Why not?” I put a huge spoonful into my mouth and promptly spit it out, then ran downstairs to get something (anything) to get the taste out. Needless to say, I am so far past 18 and have never felt the need to compare which one is more vile. I have my own cooking to spit out, thank you very much! 🙂

    I loved the part where you mention that big Maori warriors are named Paul O’Brien — so fun. And I hear ya about a jacuzzi not being too hot. I live in a planned community and they used to keep the hot tub really hot at about 120 degrees or so. It was so hot that one had to stick body parts in slowly and goose bumps would travel up the legs to the top of one’s head. Getting into our old hot tub took patience and perseverance which I always had plenty of because it felt oh so good. When I go to friends’ homes who have hot tubs, I ask them what the temperature is and if they say, “101 or 104,” I cannot be bothered to get in — that’s not even my bath water temp!

    A special greeting from California this a.m. for you — Ha! Great well-written piece and the pictures are amazing! Looks somewhat like the beaches in northern California, so maybe I’ll save a few dollars and drive up there and imagine myself in New Zealand!

    • Glad you enjoyed the read Cathie 🙂 And a gloomy attempting-to-be-spring UK greeting to you, sorry it’s the best I can offer.

      I’d certainly never recommend sticking even half a teaspoon full of marmite in your mouth at once, that would make even me gag. No, the best way to enjoy marmite is thinly spread on toast when the butter is just starting to melt, it goes all creamy and delicious that way. Then you lick the remainder off the knife and it sure as hell wakes you up! 😀

      • I would give exactly the same advice – only for Vegemite. Never take it by the teaspoonful: even born-and-bred Vegemite lovers would heave doing it that way.

        Yes, my Marmite-loving debate opponent is correct: scrape it thinly on hot buttered toast. And enjoy. (Only use Vegemite not Marmite. Makes all the difference. ;))

  7. New Zealand is on my bucket list. I am so happy to see it’s worthy of being there. The photo of the dog was so cute. The thought of a warrior named O’Connor made me giggle.

    • Hi Kim

      Oh it’s more than worthy of being on your bucket list, it’s on mine and I’ve already been there 😀

      So glad you enjoyed the post. And it’s a good thing the Maori warriors know how to laugh about they’re unexpected names too 🙂