Cruising Kawhia Harbour

Cruising Kawhia Harbour, Denise Irvine goes back to the days of Te Rauparaha and his warriors and the early missionaries. There are no cafes at remote Te Maika or Te Waitere, where we're headed on our Kawhia Harbour cruise.

So before the trip, we load up with lunch at Annie's Cafe in Kawhia township. We arrive well before our 2pm sailing, peruse Annie's menu, and decide on whitebait fritters and a snapper sandwich.

lady kawhiaThe sandwich is generous, fresh and tasty, but my husband's fritters-big, eggy pancakes packed with white­bait - look even better, so there is some bargaining along with the eating before we finally totter to the wharf to catch the Lady Kawhia.

Skipper Geoff Miller and deck-hand Kerry Miller (not related) welcome us aboard, and give us the drill on the 2 hour return trip, first to Te Maika settlement and then on to Te Waitere at the southern reach of the harbour.

A local historian often travels on the Lady Kawhia cruises to provide background, but today Kerry is doubling as deckie and guide.

Kerry says modestly that he's been around the area for a long time, and has picked up lots of local stories.

His enthusiasm for the harbour is as big as his welcoming grin. "No worries,"he says, when we say we'd like to know more about the historv of the area. But first, there's a little history of our commodious kauri vessel, which skipper Geoff describes affectionately as a "beautiful old girl'.

Built in 1949, the smartly painted Lady Kawhia is a former Auckland ferry which was shipped south last year when the town's King Country Tourism founder Bevan Taylor added her to the list of eco-cultural attractions his team offers in the area.

Bevan says when he and Kawhia identity Bill Rewi drove the boat down from Manukau, they were fittingly escorted by dolphins "who led us all the way down the coast".

Since then, the Lady Kawhia's been making stately progress around the harbour on a range of history tours and ferry services. Today, Kerry circulates among the passengers, answering questions, pointing and waving as he shows off the landmarks.

He describes the harbour as a "raw, rough diamond". "It's not until you get out on the water and see it that you say 'wow'.

Our group includes a couple from Northland, a family from Kihikihi, two visitors from Switzerland and a Kawhia woman who grew up in Te Maika and is popping over to visit her family.

She'll have coffee with them while we go on to Te Waitere, then we'll pick her up on the way back.

We chug out from the township past Maketu Marae, neat and tidy on the northern shore. Maketu is famous as the burial place of the great Tainui waka, which entered .Kawhia Harbour in the 14th century.

The pull of history is as strong today as it was when I first visited Maketu as a child, and I silently watch the marae and its ancient landmarks until it recedes in the distance.

Our first stop is Te Maika, the harbour's rugged south head. Te Maika is Maori land, under the guardian-ship of Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu; the headland has no electricity and is accessible only by boat or rough 4WD track from the Taharoa settlement.

It is a freeze-frame of how holiday settlements once were, the foreshore ringed by a collection of simple fibro and wooden holiday baches, with a handful of other homes dotted up' on the hills.

Te Maika is a long way from the nearest cafe, although the local woman on the boat mentions that if you buy fish and chips in Kawhia just before sailing, and get them triple-wrapped in newspaper they'll stay hot for the 25-30 minute trip.

But that tip aside, there are no shops, no malls, no cars, no roads, and these days no permanent residents. Just the quiet, the untamed land, the ancient Maori connections, and stunning landscapes.

Author' James McNeish lived here during the 1970s and early 1980s in a house previously owned by his aunt.

He wrote about the small community in two engaging books - As For the Godwits, and An Albatross Too Many, changing Te Maika's name to Te Kuaka (godwit) and chronicling the mixed blessings of being in such an isolated place.

In An Albatross Too Many, McNeish describes the wrench of finally leaving the headland, and adds: "But the worst part of being here - the isolation - is in fact the best part, for I have gained a commodity that is even more precious...time.

Time to think and read and forget the pavement and the crowd. Te Kuaka has given me back the use of my legs, besides eight books and plays and much else."

We drop off the local woman, as well as the Swiss couple who want to have a look around, and the mother and son from Kihikihi who plan to fish at the jetty, then Geoff turns the boat towards Te Waitere and our group, even smaller now, heads into the blue of the spacious harbour.

Kerry entertains us with stories of the early pakeha traders on the harbour, and also Te Rauparaha, the famous Ngati Toa leader who made Te Maika his stronghold until about 1820.

He points to the bush-clad Totara Point where Te Rauparaha built his pa before he and his warriors were finally bested by a huge contingent from Waikato, chased out of Te Maika to Te Arawi, further down the coast near Albatross Point, before he finally exited to Kapiti.

Kerry reminds us that the defiant Te Rauparaha is believed to have composed the Ka Mate Ka Mate version of the haka.

Near the village of Te Waitere, we come upon "Lemon Point", where Wesleyan missionary the Rev John Whiteley and his wife established a mission station in about 1835, and planted an orchard which included a lemon tree.

Amazingly, the lemon tree still stands, still bears fruit, and Kerry says it's believed to be the oldest lemon tree in New Zealand.

"It's pretty shrivelled and sick-looking fruit, though," he adds. Then he muses that perhaps the ultimate Kawhia meal might be a lemon from Te Waitere tree squeezed over fish caught on the harbour. "It would be like a vintage wine."

The boat pulls in close by the wharf so we can see the small settlement, a handful of houses on the hill, and view the wiry lemon tree which is ringed by a brown wooden fence.

Then we turn our nose back to Te Maika, identifying more landmarks such as Te Motu Island and beautiful bush-clad Umuroa Scenic Reserve, across from Te Waitere, plus a flock of black swans feeding in the distance.

Kerry toots a vintage pump-action air horn, and the little knot of Te Maika passengers - the Kihikihi youngster excitedly holding a fish - assembles on the jetty.

We pick them up and turn for Kawhia. A cross the water, my own little piece of local history slides into view, my grandparents' old farm at Oparau on the inner harbour, fringing a small bay that we find marked on an 1854 Royal Navy Survey map aboard the Lady Kawhia.

I watch the farm for a while, the source of a hundred family stories and memories, then turn my attention to the approaching township, and the prospect of tea and cakes at Annie's.

The harbour is rich with Maori and pioneering pakeha history, but the best thing about it is its natural beauty, its wildlife, its undeveloped shores' and ancient geological features.

You stand on the boat and wherever your eye alights there is forest, cliffs and farmland, save for a few pockets of settlement.

There are no beach-side apartments here, no giant sub-divisions with houses that look more like Santa Fe than New Zealand. Just the silence and the natural assets.

Kerry says that sometimes when he's out on the harbour he tries to imagine what it must have been like in early Maori times with all the smoke from cooking fires around the harbour edges, and other trappings of that era.

No, matter how many times I come down here (to Te Waitere), I never get tired of it he says. And waving his hands at the vast expanse of water, he asks of no one in particular, "who would ever want to spoil this."