Californian visitor, Levi Gage, tries the rockslide at Rere, west of Gisborne, a little known spot for adrenalin junkies.
Californian visitor, Levi Gage, tries the rockslide at Rere, west of Gisborne, a little known spot for adrenalin junkies. Alan Gibson

Thrilling slides and nature's bites

WHEN you pull into the carpark at Rere, about 50km northwest of Gisborne, there's a council sign advising thrill-seekers to pad themselves before rushing down the Wharekopae River's natural rock slide.

I somehow missed it.

It had been a long, stuffy journey up the coast from Hawkes Bay and by the time we arrived, zooming 60m on a slippery rock face with just a wetsuit to screen your backside seemed a plum idea.

We arrived to find a group of tourists who had spent the afternoon on the slide, but none warned not to negotiate it without the safety of a boogie board.

I launched myself down the slope and gathered speed at a terrifying rate.

The first few seconds were brilliant - a hydro-slide like no other - before a blunt drop into a watery groove kicked my tailbone like a steel-capped boot, making for a miserable splash into the pool below.

Chris Gage, a surfing-mad Californian fireman visiting with his wife and two children, shared in my pain after having made the same mistake.

"I'm not feeling too good ... I wish I was 8 years old again because then I'd feel much better."

We were content to stand back and let his young son Levi enjoy the action.

The Gages resolved to take the detour to the slide during their quest to surf Gisborne's world-class Wainui Beach after seeing Rere on the surf flick Drive Thru New Zealand.

"It's really beautiful here ... it's definitely exceeded all of our expectations," Chris said of the coast.

We carry on north through rolling, golden hills that slip into the blue Pacific, and find it hard to disagree.

At Gisborne, a taxi driver collects us from our motel and radios through: "Two going to Smash."

"Smash" is what locals call Smash Palace - dubbed by wowed tourists as the country's best watering hole - crowned by a large DC3 aircraft suspended above the garden bar, two speakers artfully placed in its landing gear compartments.

The bar has changed hands four times since winemaker Phil Parker founded it in industrial Gisborne 21 years ago and named it after the Kiwi film.

Owner Gus Heuser pours me a cold handle of the local nectar, Gisborne Gold, as I try to take in the strange jungle of kiwiana around us.

Afterward, he's good enough to drop us at the motel on his way home.

Our next stop, 20 minutes up the coast at Tatapouri, was one I wasn't so sure about.

The roadside sign, "Wild Stingray Feeding", outside Dive Tatapouri - the same outfit that can get you face-to-snout with a shark in an underwater cage - spelled out why.

Owner Dean Savage has carved out his dream here, where a large dining room opens out on to an oceanfront landing with a fire smoking away and a ponga hut off to the side that I later learned was a registered marae.

Over the past 20 years, the operation changed from kina processing to angling tours before Dean's resident rays on the reef out front inspired a new idea.

A life-long diver and in-demand underwater photographer, Dean never had a phobia about stingrays because "they were always in the water".

"Around 2002, 2003, we went through a period of getting to understand the animals and our confidence grew more as we handled more and they started getting used to us," he said. "You really get to understand their peculiarities."

Our guide, Shaun Hovell, had been out to set the burley pot before lining us up in our waders for the short walk out to their feeding spot.

A few kingfish were already waiting when a short-tail stingray glided up and began rubbing up against Shaun's leg like a hungry housecat.

"We haven't given them names, because if you did they'd be 'Snuggles' or 'Cuddles', which is no name for a big bad stingray," he said, slipping it a bit of bait. "It's kind of like feeding a horse - they like to be patted, too."

After summoning enough courage, I lowered my hand into the water, waited for the ray to swim over my hand and released it as it glided over.

Another eagle ray joined us - along with a cheeky octopus who kept trying to flog Shaun's bamboo pole - before we return to base for a feed of freshly caught crayfish.

We thank Dean and Shaun for a humbling, unforgettable experience and press on, three minutes up the road, to Tatapouri's camping area, a holiday hotspot that was good enough for Moko the dolphin to visit two years ago.

Campers in this seaside tented village will tell you summer here is equal parts tradition and religion, their proof being a makeshift bar and stool, or a beachside lounge complete with a rug and coffee table.

"We're from Gisborne, but why go further up the coast - we've got a beautiful spot here and the kids love it, it's magic," Debbie Thurston tells us from the campervan she shares with 11-year-old daughter Michaela.

"When I go back when summer's over, no one tends to come near me because I can be a right b****."

Matt Cash, who we find halfway through carving a creation from a beach rock, has been coming here since he was a "camp baby", as Ms Thurston would have put it.

"It's amazing how many people keep coming back ... the other day I was wandering down the road and I looked at a campervan I somehow remembered from my childhood," he says. "I asked if they knew my father Ivan, and it turned out her husband was the first guy who ever gave me crayfish ... and I remember that distinctly, it was beautiful."

Matt now takes his own son along, passing on an East Coast institution he calls "hard-luck camping".

"What's hard luck camping? Any biscuits left Dad? Nup, hard luck. Got a dry towel? Nup, hard luck. That's hard luck camping."

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