Joanna Mathers puts herself back in the saddle to see the sights of an ancient Maori settlement.

It's taken 20 years, but I'm finally back in the saddle.

My mount, a chestnut Arab called Gaia, is carefully treading along the harbour through soft black sand. Up ahead, my guide Craig Taylor (atop a 16.3hh standardbred called Big Boy) and his sons Tokomaru and Tainui (both on frisky geldings) are making the pace. The scenery is breathtaking, the weather wild; I feel like I'm in a New Zealand art film.

It's a winter weekend, and I'm trekking along Kawhia Harbour. I've always loved riding, and wanted to check out this part of the country, and it seemed the perfect opportunity to do both.

My friend and I had arrived in Kawhia the day before. The drive from Auckland was easy, although the road to Kawhia did have some hair-raising twists and turns. We arrived at Kawhia Beachside S-cape and were shown to our rooms by co-owner Bronwyn. The adjoining cabins on the harbour's edge were an ideal base for our group's weekend adventure.


We wanted to meet some locals, so were thrilled when Bronwyn told us of a happening that night.

"The Arty Tarts are having drinks," she said.

Curious, we made our way to town.

Arty Tarts turned out to be an art collective run by Heather Sherman and Jan Bennett. It provides creative types with a local outlet for displaying their work; and the group was marking its fifth anniversary.

We were warmly welcomed, and lingered a while before heading off for dinner at the cosy-looking Blue Chook Cafe right next door.

The eatery was packed with locals (always a good sign); and we enjoyed a glass of wine and some tasty food, before heading back to our digs.

Next morning, I'm woken by Bronwyn knocking on the door. "There's a seal outside," she says. And sure enough, less than 10m away, there s/he is. Neck arched, breast forward, its stretching looks almost yogic. Young and old gather with cameras and phones to capture the moment - this is nature at its best.

We decide to head over the hill to check out Aotea. This tiny settlement - population less than 50 - on the banks of the Aotea Harbour, has beautiful views to Mt Karioi near Raglan.

I'm so entrance by Aotea that I turn up late for my horse trek. Fortunately, patient Craig is still there; he helps me clamber aboard Gaia (mounting was easier when I was 15) and we're off.

Craig is a descendent of Te Rauparaha, and his family has had a presence in this part of Aotearoa for hundreds of years.

As we pass by Maketu Marae, he points out the burial point of the Tainui waka that landed here around 800 years ago.

Gaia is a real lady, and safely carries me along the harbour to a wild West Coast beach. The untamed beauty is breathtaking, and I'm sore but sad when the two hours is up.

"Our customers go away saying it was the best experience they've had for a long while," says Craig. I have to agree.

We end the day with dinner at the Kawhia Boating and Angling Club. It's packed after a fishing competition; we sit near the window and soak up the view.

Club secretary Linda tells me that on New Year's Eve visitors and locals gather on the balcony to watch the annual fireworks display over the harbour, said to be spectacular.

I'm loath to leave my comfy bed the next morning; but it is time to head home.

We have one more stop before Auckland, however: The Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park.

Our favourite bird is a great spotted kiwi called Atu - she's busily hunting for bugs in the leaf litter.

There are plenty of other native birds here too - from cheeky weka to solemn ruru - and it's an ideal spot to get up close.

It's a wonderful end to a wild west weekend.

Where to stay: Kawhia Beachside S-cape and Harbourview Cottages offer motel and camping accommodation throughout the year.

There are also holiday homes available to rent in the area (see

Where to eat: The Blue Chook Cafe and Bar is a warm and welcoming spot to have a bite to eat. 136 Jervois St, Kawhia, ph (07) 871 0778.

The Kawhia Boating and Angling Club is open weekends in winter, and every day in summer for meals and drinks. 124 Omiti St, Kawhia, ph (07) 871 0842.

What to do: Kawhia Horse Treks throughout the Kawhia and Aotea region, and further afield. See or

The Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park is a good stop off on your way to or from Kawhia and Aotea.

Joanna Mathers was a guest of Kawhia Horse Treks and Kawhia Beachside S-cape.