Our beaches: Paradise time forgot - Mokau

In the fifth of a six-part journey around our most beloved beach destinations, reporter Jamie Morton and photographer Alan Gibson visit west coast fishing village Mokau.

Newcomer Harley Whalley casts into the surf at Mokau as the sun goes down over the tiny west coast settlement. It took only 60 seconds for him to land a kahawai. Photo / Alan Gibson
Newcomer Harley Whalley casts into the surf at Mokau as the sun goes down over the tiny west coast settlement. It took only 60 seconds for him to land a kahawai. Photo / Alan Gibson

Neil and Dawn Colman slowed down when they moved to Mokau. Almost stopped, they joke. Over the quiet, colder months, little moves here in their sleepy little fishing village except for the eternal gush of traffic, rolling across the Mokau Bridge with a dull thrum.

The odd fishing boat winds around the Mokau Bar and sets off into the wild, grey west coast surf for a guaranteed catch.

Walk down to its black sand beach, strewn with driftwood, and you'll usually find at least one surfcaster landing another kahawai.

The sun sinks slowly and lazily behind the Tasman Sea, colouring the distant slopes of Mt Taranaki, from here but a faint pink castle suspended in the clouds.

Above the beach, streets are lined with baches and old weatherboard holiday homes, a flax bush or pohutukawa tree often marking section boundaries.

The still of twilight might be interrupted only by a pheasant noisily darting from long grass or the burble of a quad bike towing a dinghy home.

Mokau's main street speaks of a New Zealand that New Zealand somehow forgot. "Real New Zealand," Mrs Colman calls it.

Though a busy State Highway 3 thoroughfare, there are just two cafes, a museum and an antiquated little butchery whose owner was told off when he suggested giving it a different paint job.

As if needed, a sea mine that washed up in 1942 remains as a reminder of peace.

When summer arrives, baches unoccupied for most of the year begin to blink alive one by one at night.

The carpark at the Awakino Hotel, just down the highway, is suddenly full with utes and boat trailers.

When the whitebaiting season arrives, hundreds flock to the makeshift timber stands and old steel sheds that line the Mokau River.

But at this time of year on the river, the only activity is the buzz of cicadas and the sound of brown water gently lapping against its bush-covered banks.

Sit here a while and you might hear the slowly approaching chug of the two river boats that take tourists up the Mokau.

The 99-year-old MV Cygnet, operated by Mokau River Cruises, was what lured the Colmans away from their jobs in south Taranaki to a new life in Mokau six years ago.

What remains the second oldest passenger boat of its type still operating in New Zealand today, the Cygnet was once a lifeline for those who lead a harsh and isolated existence up the river among high and rough country.

The other old vessel still working the rivers, the MV Glen Royal, is run by local identity and historian Ian Whittaker.

The face of the local Tainui Historical Society Museum, Mr Whittaker has counted 86 different vessels that have run the river, most of them merchant vessels at the time of Mokau's booming days as a coal centre.

One boat, the Manukau, carted coal down the river more than 1100 times.

Although coal was first discovered by Europeans in the river in 1841, it took 40 years for the industry to take off, he said.

The Mokau's far-reaching tides claimed several casualties - one company lost two steamers within a year.

And in 1915, a slip caused by months of rainfall sent debris into the river, closing the last of its five mine sites.

For nearly a century, the mines have been hidden away beneath the hills, but Mr Whittaker bet that you could still drive a vehicle through their myriad galleries today.

One estimate has it that the hills still hold almost 100 million tonnes of coal, and recent years have raised the possibility of an industrial revival.

A second era of Mokau mining would close a full circle for Cliff Black, now in his early 90s and probably Mokau's oldest born-and-bred local.

He was raised in a hardy farming family, saw the war from one of the RAF bombers that sank the German battleship Tirpitz, and came back to farm again.

Retirement is a house perched above the river and a handful of animals to care for.

"I can just sit here and watch the world go by now," he said, looking down on a river he can remember teeming with traffic.

"But everything's changed here in the last 40 years ... more people, more baches."

This year, plans were lodged to transform a popular campground into a series of three-storey units and a restaurant.

Mokau has a permanent population of around 400, but many houses were now being sold as baches or holiday homes.

Some owners were trying to sell in the face of coastal erosion that has been hammering Mokau over recent decades.

In the 1990s, the Waikato Regional Council tried to arrange a buy-out option for affected property owners.

Some would have been happy to sell up at a fair price, but then it became clear that no one wanted to buy them out.

Blame has been layed squarely at the feet of planners of a Government-driven subdivision.

It couldn't have been built at a worse time, says coastal scientist Dr Jim Dahm, who was serving with the council at the time.

A natural erosion period wiped a few sections out within a couple of years and the situation has grown progressively worse over time.

A lack of help left landowners in a desperate fight against the tide, using whatever methods they could afford.

This has only brought them into conflict with management agencies over consent requirements and adverse effects.

Dr Dahm still sees buyouts by authorities as the best way out. "I don't think it is right or sensible to leave people alone in this kind of difficult situation."

If erosion problems brought stress, Mokau locals could always go fishing.

The ocean fishing is touted to be the best in the country and local boaties are forever catching huge snapper.

And from the beach, Mokau newcomer Harley Whalley needs just 60 seconds to land a kahawai.

Whitebait numbers are thought to be slowly diminishing on the river, prompting calls for temporary bans, but you can still buy some of the biggest fritters in the country.

A sign outside the Awakino Hotel promises the best whitebait fritters in the west.

"Some people scrimp because they try to get their money's worth out of it, but we always said we'd have the best," co-owner Margaret Bell said.

"Now we go out of our way to make good fritters, and everyone comes back for them."

Large steel rings, crafted for the job by a resourceful local, mould fritters as wide as dinner plates.

They're enjoyed by tourists from all over the world, some foreign customers horrifying local patrons with splashes of tomato sauce.

Yet Mrs Bell, an Australian who thinks of good seafood as prawns and crayfish, can't see what the fuss is about.

"It's egg and little bloody baitfish ... what's the big deal?

"But my attitude is, if you're going to eat these revolting little things, then let's make a decent meal out of it."

Mokau Butchery owner Graham Putt makes a point of hanging his meat long enough to give it the tenderness you won't get in the city and personally curing his bacon.

Locally cut manuka gives his smoked meat an authentic Mokau flavour.

"We do a hell of a lot of trade with the travelling public ... it's straight out of the shop, with no queues," he said.

"It's a great lifestyle here, but we didn't come to make millions.

"You don't come here for something like that."

He enjoys his ocean fishing and hunting, like Mokau Motels owner Murray Reed down the road.

Mr Reed and wife Laurel knew they'd found paradise as soon as they came here.

The Colmans certainly don't plan on going anywhere.

For Mr Colman, a quad bike ride to fetch the paper often ends up as a beach-combing safari, and there's plenty of time to make a new batch of his award-winning home brew.

"Mokau is just like one of those sleepy little villages in the movies," Mrs Colman said.

"People stop to chat because they've got the time and there are colourful characters everywhere."

"Visitors come here to fish, swim, play, cook barbecues and have bonfires on the beach - you can still do that here.

"People ask me, how do we cope with living in such a small isolated area?

"Well, there's no way Neil and I would want to live back in South Taranaki or New Plymouth, until we can't possibly live in Mokau. It's a great place."


Mokau

Location: Mokau lies at the mouth of the Mokau River on the North Taranaki Bight on State Highway 3 between New Plymouth (an hour's drive south) and Hamilton (two hours away). The journey from Auckland takes just under 3 hours.

People: Only around 400 people live permanently in Mokau, but the local population swells to several thousand over the summer. Although the town lies within the Waitomo District, most locals would say Mokau belongs to Taranaki.

Famous for: Its world-class fishing, whitebaiting, historic river and black sand. June Opie, whose father was once the bridge gatekeeper, became perhaps Mokau's best-known identity when the late writer penned her best-selling book on her struggle with polio, Over My Dead Body.

Special features:

Mokau mine: A sea mine that washed ashore in 1942 during World War II was defused, painted and now stands as a monument to peace on Mokau's main street. For generations, the mine was thought to be German, but in recent years it's been suggested that the wartime relic came from a New Zealand or an Australian ship.

Mokau River: The winding river, tidal for a large distance upstream, was once busy with steamers serving a booming coal industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but now it's a destination for whitebaiters. Hundreds of whitebait stands line its banks. Two boats, one of them celebrating its centenary in March, take cruises up the river.

Tainui anchor stone: Some voyagers on board the Tainui waka landed at Mokau. The canoe's anchor stone is now embedded in concrete just north of the site, at Maniaroa Marae.


The series

Monday: Waimarama

Tuesday: Wainui

Wednesday: Whitianga

Yesterday: Raglan

Today: Mokau

Tomorrow: Mt Maunganui

- NZ Herald

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