Great Kiwi Pubs: Waihau Bay Lodge, East Cape

In this extract from The Great Kiwi Pub Crawl, Jono Corfe and Ned Bartlett look at the history of Waihau Bay Lodge, East Cape

Waihau Bay Lodge on the East Cape. Picture / Supplied

Orete Point Rd, Waihau Bay, East Cape
Est. 1850s

Driving to Waihau Bay, there’s a sense of being about as far away from anywhere as it’s possible to get. The feeling of isolation in this part of the world is intensified by the total lack of any other traffic on the road as you cruise around East Cape from Gisborne. It’s hard to believe there can be a successful pub here. Hell, it’s hard to believe there are any businesses at all around here. But then you hit the bay and you know you’resomewhere special.

First there’s a weird sense of recognition, like you know this place. And most Kiwis do, kind of, for Waihau Bay was the setting of Taika Waititi’s 2010 blockbuster movie Boy. Waititi, who both starred in and directed the film, grew up around these parts. He reckons he was inspired by ‘true and imagined memories’ when writing the film. In real life, life in the bay revolves around the general store and the pub, which sit happily alongside each other.

Waihau Bay Lodge was built in the 1850s just on the other side of the road from the town’s famous wooden wharf. The hotel’s close proximity to the wharf is not a coincidence. Until the 1930s the road around the cape was sketchy at best and non-existent at worst. The main access to the area was by sea. A regular steamship service plied the route between Auckland and Napier, stopping in along the coast at various spots, including Waihau Bay.

READ When in Gisborne

When the East Coast road was built in the 1930s, sea freight dropped off but the bay became a magnet for travellers wanting to explore the newly opened-up region of the East Cape. Waihau Bay became the perfect stopping point for local tourists keen to make the trek around to Gisborne. Work at the lodge continued well into the 1960s and in 1967 accommodation was opened up to house the workers constructing roads in the area. But the opening of the road didn’t mark the end of the importance of the sea for the bay, or for the bar.

It’s hard to forget the scene in Boy where the kids complain at having to eat crayfish again. It’s hard to imagine an overabundance of the delicacy ever being a problem, but the tasty crustaceans are a staple in the bay, so much so that there’s an enormous specimen in a glass display case in the bar of the lodge, leaving visitors under no illusion as to their nearby presence.

The importance of the fishing industry for the local economy cannot be overstated. Not far offshore is some of the best deep-sea fishing to be had in this country. As such, you’ll always be able to hook up with a charter boat operator at the hotel. Willing punters can expect to catch everything from kingfish and kahawai to big game fish like tuna and marlin.

Picture / Supplied

The week of the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council Nationals in late February sees the bay come alive with local and visiting fishing crews. Boats fill the harbour and the main strip of the bay becomes the bustling hub of this otherwise quiet town. Each day, there’ll be upwards of 100 boats launched, all in search of the all-conquering quarry. While a prizewinner might not be guaranteed, what is for certain is that there’ll be plenty of wild yarns told over a post-fishing pint at the pub. Some yarns could even go on to become part of the furniture in the bar, like the fishing memorabilia that lines the walls.

It’s easy to imagine the kind of banter that resulted in the striking of a fishing plaque that proudly hangs in the bar, hotly contested by the lodge and a pub in Rotorua. Alongside it sits a copy of a poem called A Toast to the Coast by Len Dain, a local character who was regarded as the Poet Laureate of the East Coast.

There’s not many left who remember the ways of the coast as it was in the good old days when flat-bottomed scows risked the rocky bays with stones and mail, loading wool and maize . . .

Len’s version of the good old days on the coast may have passed with changing times and an economy that has seen many of the area’s young people move away to chase employment and opportunity, but one thing remains the same: the role of the pub as community hub and meeting place. There’s always someone to chat to in the bar but if you want to see it really humming, Thursday night is the night. That’s the night of the local pool and darts competition and, among all the laughter, it’s quite a serious business.

• This extract is printed with permission from The Great Kiwi Pub Crawl by Jono Corfe and Ned Bartlett. Published by Random House NZ, $60.

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