A larger-than-life old seadog shows Pamela Wade Taranaki's jolly side.

He's been fishing with Tom Cruise, but really he has more in common with Johnny Depp: there's the hoop earring and the gold tooth, plus he's in the habit of addressing people as "me hearties".

Even more remarkable, though, is that Dave Chadfield carries off this shameless caricature with total conviction, and all the laughing that goes on aboard his boat is entirely thanks to his company motto: "We'll do anything to make you smile."

It's a measure of how seriously he takes this aim, that he's gone to the trouble of hauling an old hand-mower to the forbiddingly rocky island of Moturoa, wrestling it ashore to wedge it on the cliff, all so that he can make a pun about "the last real moa in New Zealand". You've got to admire that sort of dedication.

I'm along on a Happy Chaddy cruise, out from New Plymouth's harbour. We've slid rather excitingly down the ramp into the water in his blue and orange English lifeboat, and made a circuit of Moturoa, one of the Sugarloaf Islands that are remnants of a volcanic cone that sank beneath the sea 1.3 million years ago "on a Sunday evening, about 6.30pm".


The eclectic decoration of the ticket office, a glorious mish-mash of model ships and sharks, photos and penguin CCTV, chronometers and a coffin (Chaddy's own, fitted with a porthole, oars and riding lights) sets the tone for the cruise commentary that includes history, biology, politics, family stories, songs and, of course, jokes.

Five years ago, his mate Nigel Ogle thought it was yet another joke when Chaddy pointed to a cave on Moturoa and said someone used to live there, but it was true: the equally colourful Dicky Barrett used the inhospitable island as a base for hunting southern right whales in the 1820s.

That was all the prompting Ogle needed. Back at his museum, where a private passion for local history and intricate modelling is available to the public, he started work on his Disneyland-like ride, his Whalers and Traders exhibit.

In a dark cave with rocks by Weta Workshop, I step into a boat that takes me along a river and back 180 years through a Maori village, a barter of flax for muskets, a battle at a pa where cannons fire across the bow. Water drips, moreporks and seagulls call, people laugh and shout, there are glow-worms and a wild pig, ferns and trees.

It's a masterpiece, but then so is everything else inside this old cheese factory near Hawera. Ogle's wonderfully detailed dioramas give realistic depth to dramatic episodes from Taranaki history, and the full-size snippets of pioneer life each includes a visual joke, drawing me into a moment that's long gone.

There's more passion and commitment around the mountain at Purangi. I'm delivered by helicopter, flying over the harbour and south down the coast above the long black beaches and their long white lines of rolling surf, then turning inland over neat, green farmland and the 13,000ha that are the preserve of the East Taranaki Environment Trust and its precious focus, the kiwi.

Bob and Karen Schumacher are full of enthusiasm for their new guided walk through the Otunahe Scenic Reserve, where the trust is working hard to control predators to boost the survival rate of the kiwi from a shocking five per cent to a possible 80 per cent.

They hope that their kiwi population will reach 1000 over the next five years. The Schumachers' answer to the kiwis' inconvenient day-time invisibility is to use a radio transmitter to connect with Maru sleeping in his burrow on two eggs. We listen intently, and then hear a series of clicks, proof that their work is getting results.


It's satisfying; but what's actually exciting is the ride on the back of Bob's grunty ute that book-ends our walk into the steep valley with its huge 1000 year-old rimu trees.

It's less the precipitous climb up the dirt track, more the three-point turn on the knife-edge ridge at the top, and the switchback route to the bottom again, backing to the edge of a sheer drop on the zigzag, that get the heart racing.

All this passion, humour and excitement, and a fabulous mountain, too.

Where to stay: Try The Mountain House, Caniwi Lodge & Chalets or Oakura Beach Holiday Park.

What to do:

Take a Happy Chaddy cruise.

Join Heliview for a flight over the area.

See kiwi with the East Taranaki Environment Trust.

Visit Tawhiti Museum.

Getting around: See witherscoachlines.co.nz.

Further information: See taranaki.info.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Venture Taranaki.