Hokianga, harbour of dreams
The Hokianga is a harbour steeped in history. Maori call it “the nest of the northern tribes” because it was here that their great voyaging ancestor, Kupe, made landfall from Hawaiki, and here that his descendants settled. Hokianga has been a nest for Europeans, too. Over the past two centuries, sawmillers, shipbuilders, missionaries, traders, farmers, fishers, hippies and artisans have found a home along its sheltering shores. To trace the waves of Hokianga settlement, veteran journalist Mark Scott and photographer Arno Gasteiger hit the road while former editor Kennedy Warne took the sea route, navigating the harbour by kayak.
Hot grey sky is sweating drops of rain as I push my kayak into a stream at the head of the harbour, near Rangiahua. A flood has been through recently, leaving the shallow waterway strewn with uprooted poplars and willows, but soon enough I’m through the obstacle course and into the river proper, gliding past white-baiting stands and duckshooting blinds tucked under trees and behind screens of vegetation. Startled geese take wing, honking their displeasure, while ducklings race in front of me, going hell for leather, eventually tiring and diving out of sight.
Trees give way to reeds and rushes as harbour salt starts to exert its influence. I scoop a handful of water and drink, but it still tastes fresh, the outgoing tide offering no resistance to the forest-fed river. A kilometre on, the reeds bow out and I’m among mangroves, the saltwater specialists. Now the water tastes brackish, the harbour pushing back against its feeder streams.
On early maps the Hokianga is called a river, not a harbour. And so it was—a river carving its way to the sea through mountainous terrain until around 12,000 years ago, when oceans gorged on ice melt rose, flooded the valley and formed the country’s fourth-largest harbour. This is the road I’m taking: the river road, paddling in the wake of history.
I have been eyeing the heavy cumulus overhead, hoping I might dodge the weather bullet, but it hits me fair and square and drenches me all the way to Horeke, the northernmost settlement on the harbour.
I beach the kayak, peel off a layer of wet clothing and seek the shelter of the tavern. It’s Friday afternoon, but there are only three at the bar. I apologise for dripping onto the timber floor, but Ken Maddren says to think nothing of it and pulls me a pint.
Ken’s son Peter and his wife, Laurel, have owned and run the pub for 14 years. It has given them an income and a quiet rural setting in which to raise their family, but changing social habits and licensing laws—the sale of alcohol in supermarkets, people drinking at home—mean pubs are no longer the communal watering holes, or the commercial ventures, they once were. Horeke’s tavern is now open only three days out of seven.
Ken tells me a pub has stood on this site since the 1820s, when Horeke rang to the sound of shipwrights’ hammers and crosscut saws. “In those days the pub would only have stocked rum and grog off the ships,” he says. But its existence would have been essential. The Australian-owned shipbuilding company would have lost its workers if it couldn’t keep their thirsts slaked.
It is nearly slack water when I don my clammy gear, tip the water out of the kayak and slide it back into the channel. The wind has died and the air is cool after the rain. Mangungu, with its cluster of Wesleyan mission buildings, passes to port, and I feel again the tug of history’s tide. On February 12, 1840, a thousand Maori gathered here for a signing of the treaty—a larger turnout than six days earlier at Waitangi. Eight hours of korero preceded the signing. Some chiefs, politically seasoned by a decade of trade in timber, flax, potatoes and muskets, were suspicious of British motives. They had seen the treatment meted out to Aborigines across the Tasman and were not impressed. “How do the Pakeha behave to the blacks of Port Jackson?” asked Makoare Te Taonui. “They treat them like dogs.”
Te Taonui was a shrewd businessman as well as one of Hokianga’s most influential chiefs. He faced the dilemma all Maori faced at the time: how to embrace the realities of the new world breaking upon them without losing the mana of the old. Te Taonui recognised that land ownership was the key. “We are not willing to give up our land,” he told Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson. “The land is like a parent to us. We obtain all things from it. The land is our chieftainship. We will not give it up.”
The Queen did not want the land, Hobson assured Te Taonui, only the sovereignty. But in the end Maori lost both.
Across the water, house lights in Kohukohu are flickering on as I approach Motiti Island. Before setting out I had scouted the upper harbour for campsites on Google Earth, the traveller’s companion. The pickings were slim. In the northern reaches of the Hokianga almost every metre of foreshore is crowded with silt-trapping mangroves, and broad mudflats block access at low tide.
The most promising spot had been tiny Motiti, a slip of an island off Kohukohu, where the harbour divides into its two brawny estuarine arms, Mangamuka and Waihou. Now that I am alongside it I see that the fringe of white on the satellite photo is not a sandy beach but oyster beds whose clumps of jagged shell form a daunting barricade.
A corrugated-iron structure at one end of the island suggests Motiti is privately owned, but with fading light and few options I take a chance and look for a place to go ashore. Around the back of the island a patch of oysters has been cleared, so I ground on the gravelly beach and hoist the kayak up past the high-tide line.
A few steps through wet paspalum bring me to a rough four-walled shelter. I shine a torch inside and see a message spraypainted on the iron: “This whare was built for all of us.” It feels like a Hokianga welcome.
The building is a spartan affair, but tidy and dry. I broil fish on a gas cooker, hang wet gear from nails in the rafters and spread out my bedroll. The night is cold and I sleep fitfully, startled awake at intervals by the shrill cries of feuding oystercatchers, then roused in the early dawn by the clarinet rorting of a pheasant. I brew coffee and poke around the island. It is hard to believe that there was once a thriving village here. A painting by the globetrotting artist Augustus Earle, whose ship ran aground on a nearby sandbar in 1827, shows a fortified pa bristling with food and ammunition storehouses on stilts. In the 1830s there was even a schoolhouse.
Two centuries of hungry tides have eaten Motiti back to a sliver of land so narrow that for most of its length it is just a grassy spine between two receding shores. In another hundred years it will probably have disappeared.
Tendrils of mist cling to the hillside above Kohukohu as I set off up-harbour. A century ago this stretch of water would have been choked with kauri logs. Flushed out of the hills by bush dams and towed in huge rafts across the harbour, they were corralled offshore in booms until they could be put through the Kohu kohu mills. It must have been a sight: nimble men with pikes dancing on the rolling logs, manoeuvring them into the booms and driving them towards the sawblades.
At a jetty beside the Rawene–Kohukohu car ferry ramp, three white-gumbooted fishermen are wheeling bins of ice to their boat. I drift in close and call up to one of them: “Bit of a risky name for a boat, isn’t it—Roulette?”
“I named her that because fishing’s always a gamble,” Malcolm Pinkney calls back with a chuckle.
His son, Craig—“back from Aussie to annoy us,” says Malcolm—is heading out across the bar for a few days of gill-netting.
“Dogs. We can’t make any money off snapper.”
“That can’t be right. Snapper sells for $30 a kilo in Auckland.”
“The fisherman gets $6.70 a kilogram. Minus $5 for the quota, and you’re left with $1.70. That’s not a good enough return, so we stick with spotty dogs.” Dogfish, or “dogs”, are a bottom-dwelling shark often tossed back by recreational fishermen, but likely to turn up with your chips as lemonfish. I mention that I’m keen to head across the bar too, if the conditions are right. Craig appraises my pencil-thin craft and reckons it wouldn’t be a good idea.
“I feel I owe it to Kupe to follow in his wake,” I say.
“Yeah, but he had a bigger boat.”
A south-west wind has sprung up, and the river road is covered with judder bars. By the time I pass a few more headlands I am slamming into a 20-knot buster. Ngapuhi from this side of Maui’s fish refer to the Bay of Islands as “the girls’ paddling sea”—a mocking reference to the generally calm conditions found on the east coast—and consider the violently changeable Hokianga to be men’s territory. Tell that to the girls who train off Opononi in waka ama, the fibreglass outrigger canoes that have become the most popular watercraft among young Maori.
There are no waka ama out today, though. Just my waka Kevlar making for the shelter of the mangrove channel that leads up to Motuti marae. I am hoping to find Father Henare Tate, a Catholic priest I met 19 years earlier while working on the special issue of New Zealand Geographic on Maoridom. “Pa Tate,” as everyone calls him, subsequently served as vicar for Maori in Auckland, but retired in 2008 and returned to his land and his people in north Hokianga.
The Motuti River twists like an eel through the mangroves. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of the dark green roofs of the marae buildings through the palisade of branches, but then the sly river takes me in the opposite direction. After half an hour I wedge the kayak between two mangrove trunks and walk up to the marae. I’m in luck. Not only is Pa there, but just about the whole community as well. The marae’s annual general meeting is being held and I’ve turned up right on lunchtime.
The wharekai buzzes with chatter from whanau of all ages. A little girl tugs on my sleeve and points to a hot dixie that looms above her like a grain silo. She has a taste for boil-up, and wants everything that’s going: mutton, chunks of marrow, some type of wilted greens I can’t recognise. I pile her plate and then sit down next to Pa. It seems a vibrant group, rich in human potential. I ask Pa how elders like him identify and foster future leaders from the pool of young people in a hapu. “How do you go about finding the next Whina Cooper?” I ask.
Dame Whina, the grand old lady of the north, “Te Whaea o te Motu”—mother of the nation—as she was dubbed, casts a long shadow in the Hokianga.
She was foundation president of the Maori Women’s Welfare League and a powerful force for the betterment of Maori during her long life, and her mana hereabouts was unmatched for much of the 20th century. How do such leaders arise?
Pa speaks about the critical importance of cultural knowledge. It is one of the reasons he has returned to Motuti: to pass on his knowledge to the young. “The Dame,” as he calls her—she was his great-aunt, and his most important mentor—was steeped in whakapapa. She knew people’s lineages better than they did themselves. And not only that, she perceived the family traits that work their way in various permutations through the generations.
“She could recognise momo—the physical, moral and psychological characteristics that equip a person for their role in life,” Pa says. “She could say, ‘You do this’ and ‘You go over there and do that,’ and her intuition was usually right.” Like the coach of a rugby team, she had the ability to deploy her players to maximum advantage.
From childhood, Whina had been taught her people’s knowledge base—chants, waiata, prayers, tikanga—by her father, Heremia Te Wake, a rangatira of considerable mana. It was a foundation she built on throughout her life until she died at the age of 98. That was the decisive factor, says Pa, for Whina, for anyone—converting knowledge into conviction and conviction into action. It was the source of her authority.
In a recent book on the Hokianga, Pa Tate quotes a waiata that issues a challenge to keep the knowledge alive:
Hokianga, call your children together. They are the descendants and remnants of their ancestors, scattered to the four winds. Tell them who they are.
He points to a young man with an elaborate tribal motif tattooed on his shoulder. “He needs to shift that here [Pa taps his chest]. Then he’ll have something of real value. On the arm, not so useful. There it’s only skin deep.”
The tide is half out by the time I return to the Motuti jetty. The ebb carries me down-river and back into the full blast of the wind. I punch across to the sheltered headland of Te Karaka and call it a day.
I had wanted to visit this little outpost anyway, where Dame Whina was born. As a child, she caught sprats off the beach using scrim wall-lining as a net, frying up the fish for breakfast. At night, her father blew out the candle and listened to her recite her tribal genealogy, all the way back to Kupe, correcting her if she stumbled over a hard-to-pronounce ancestor. She fell asleep with the names of the tupuna echoing in her mind.
Later, as a young wife and mother, she returned to Te Karaka. Again she lived in a nikau whare, cooked over an open fire, washed the family’s clothes in a creek and dug kauri gum to supplement her husband’s wages as a bushman. Those years of hardship developed the vein of tenacity that became strikingly evident to the nation when, at the age of 80, the arthritic kuia led a march from Te Hapua to Wellington to protest against the continuing seizure of Maori land. Hers was a life whose quality—whose ihi—inspires awe.
I pitch my tent on a grass strip next to the Te Karaka mangroves and listen to the pistol-crack of snapping shrimps as the tide recedes, past the broken posts of an abandoned oyster farm, until it has exposed a good half-kilometre of mudflat. Around midnight I wake to grunts and scraping sounds as a boat is pushed into the water at high tide—people heading out to set their nets.
Morning dawns foggy, a real Hokianga peasouper. I keep peering in the direction of the sun, and when at last I can just make out its glowing disc I decide to go. A man out walking his dogs helps me lug the kayak across the mudflat to the water, and I paddle off in the direction of Opononi.
Out in midwater the fog rolls away and the harbour sparkles in the spring light. Here is the “spacious sheet of water” flanked by majestic hills described by Augustus Earle. Many of these hills had their tops levelled off long ago, branded forever as military pa. There are more pa sites in the Hokianga than you can shake a taiaha at.
Surf is breaking on each side of the harbour heads as I paddle towards the open sea. In Ngapuhi tradition the heads are two taniwha set by Kupe to guard the harbour: Araiteuru on the south side, standing at the end of a rocky promontory, and Nuia on the north, marking the start of the dunes. There is little swell, but the kayak is snatched at by tidal rips and boils, the fingers of the taniwha. I think of lines from Moby-Dick:
These are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath…this velvet paw conceals a remorseless fang.
The fang of the Hokianga—its notorious bar—lies a few kilometres beyond the heads. Ngapuhi call it the “canoe-eater”. In 1827, Earle described it “enveloped in breakers and foam, bidding defiance and threatening destruction to all large ships which may attempt the passage”.
One of Earle’s shipmates, a sailor by the name of John Martin, stayed behind in the Hokianga, becoming the first European settler in Omapere and the harbour’s first pilot. In the 1830s he set up a signal station above South Head to guide ships across the bar. In a curious reversal of landlubber conventions, a red flag meant “proceed—there is no danger”. Blue (a flag known in nautical parlance as “Blue Peter”) meant “keep to sea—bar not fit to take”.
John Martin’s son, George, followed in his father’s wake, though his career had an inauspicious start. While taking out his first vessel, the pilot boat, towed alongside, swamped and broke adrift. George had no choice but to carry on to Sydney and catch another ship back.
I beach my craft on a sandy spit near North Head and walk towards the dunes. Dotterels skitter across the driftwood-strewn flats like wind-up toys. They appear to be ventriloquists.
Their peeping calls seem to be coming from one direction, but when I look, the birds themselves are somewhere else. Oystercatchers pace about, heads down, like philosophers debating some arcane truth. Suddenly their harangue intensifies in urgency and pitch. I look where I’m walking and see, just metres away, two beautifully speckled grey eggs in a scrape in the sand. I move away quickly into the vegetation at the foot of the dunes—harestail, flax, lupin, spinifex and sedge. Although from a distance the dunes appear to be mostly sand, there are dozens of vegetated hollows, and in a few places tall stands of teatree provide cover to regenerating broadleaf forest.
Middens of compacted shell and charcoal exposed by the shifting grains recall the days when these dunelands were inhabited by Kupe’s descendant Nukutawhiti and his people. Archaeologists say that although the dunes themselves were formed 20,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, until the 15th century they were covered in forest. The arrival of Maori led to the burning of the forest, which “woke” the dunes, changing them from consolidated substrates to active landscape features constantly being reshaped by the elements.
On the tops of the dunes, scouring wind and rain have sculpted the sand into huge, fantastic shapes, like discarded movie props. In places, the oxidation of iron in the sand has produced dark, metallic coatings of limonite that look as if they have been forged by lightning. The air is filled with seabird cries—gulls aggressively protecting their rookeries, white-fronted terns wheeling above their favoured roosts.
At the highest point, a 202 m peak called Rangitira, the cement-grey claystone that underlies the dunes breaks through the golden blanket of sand. Weathering has smashed the soft rock into rough chips that spill down the dunes. From the shoulder of the hill I look down into a swampy lake said by some to be the spring where Kupe sacrificed his son before departing for Hawaiki. The harbour is named after Kupe’s last words: “Farewell, the wellspring of the world of light. I am leaving now and will not return hence—e kore ano e hoki anga nui mai.”
Climbing the track towards the top, I glance up to see a pair of hostile eyes glaring at me from a carved totem on the summit. Unsure of my status here—is this place tapu?—I retreat, bounding down the warm dunes to the speck of red that is my kayak far below.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and in the Opononi tavern line-dancers wearing sequined cowboy hats sashay through their moves while a country-rock band belts out Harper Valley PTA. Across the road, the water taxi is doing steady business taking tourists to the dunes to go sandboarding.
Downtown Opononi hasn’t changed much from when we used to visit as children on summer holidays. The smell of sticky asphalt, ice creams from the general store, the famous boy on-a-dolphin statue, with its wistful inscription: “Opo the dolphin, who came in from the open sea and lived along this shore, becoming so tame that children could ride upon her back.” This was the summer of 1955–1956, Opononi’s golden summer. It ended in tragedy with the discovery of Opo wedged in the rocks, a victim of gelignite fishing, so the story goes.
In the evening I paddle to a bay near Omapere and see a spry figure with a driftwood staff picking his way across the rocks. Retired geography teacher, antiquarian, rockhound and beachcomber Lloyd Walker has been living at the head of the harbour with his wife, Jacqui, for the past 20 years and has been studying the changing landscape for as long. We stash my kayak out of sight of acquisitive eyes and take an overgrown track up the hillside to their home, set among 9000 native trees that Lloyd has planted.
Jacqui clears a collection of rocks and artefacts off the outside table so we can eat. Bits of obsidian, a carved anchor stone, a rust-riddled cleaver from some long-gone butchery—all picked up on Lloyd’s beach rambles. He hands me a piece of bright orange brick whose edges have been rumbled to smoothness by the tide. “Made by Hobart convicts and brought here as ship’s ballast,” he says. “You find them everywhere.”
Geography is about the interaction of nature and culture, Lloyd tells me. A place like Hokianga, with its thick seams of human history and its diversity of landscapes, is an ideal location for such a study. One constant source of interest—because of its very inconstancy—is sand. Sand moves in and out of the harbour like the tides, but on a timescale of months and years. At the moment it’s on the ebb. More and more rock scars are showing through the sand on North Head. The beach where I came ashore has lost most of its sand cover, says Lloyd. “Opononi Area School used to hold its annual cross-country along the beach, up the hill to the old signal station and back down the road. They can’t do it now. The kids would be hopping across rocks.” He shows me a photograph of the popular aviator Fred Ladd with his aeroplane on the beach at Opononi. There hasn’t been enough sand to land there for years.
Lloyd suspects a number of factors are involved. Pine forests planted on the northern dunes have undoubtedly blocked the movement of sand by wind. Dams on the Waikato River have reduced the amount of sediment reaching the Tasman Sea, from there to be distributed northward by wave action and littoral drift. Perhaps there has been an increased prevalence of offshore winds. Perhaps tidal flushing has declined due to the prolifertion of mangroves around the harbour. There are many possibilities.
Lloyd tries to pass on his enthusiasm for these matters to the children at the local school, but says they’re “more interested in waka ama and kapa haka than the dynamics of their harbour”. It’s symptomatic, he believes, of the growing gap between human existence and natural processes, “for which we are all the poorer”.
A fresh westerly has been buffeting my tent all night long. The forecast was for the wind to ease by morning, but as I pack my gear it shows no signs of abating. To stay or to go? I walk half a dozen times to the shore to study the conditions. The sea is frothy with whitecaps. I get a knot in my stomach just looking at it. The only good thing is that the wind is in the same direction as the incoming tide; the waves would be steeper if the tide were going out.
Ngapuhi have a saying: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. I consult my inner dog and believe I hear an affirmative woof, but as I wrestle my kayak out into the chop I’m thinking more of Clint Eastwood’s question: “Do I feel lucky?”
For a narrow, lightweight kayak like mine, seas coming from dead astern are the scariest to paddle in. As the craft surfs down a wave, the rudder lifts out of the water and the hull skews sideways. If it slides too far, you end up broadside to the sea and in danger of being flipped.
For the first 30 minutes I battle to not let wind and waves accelerate me into the red zone. Around the point at Onoke the gusts lose some of their clout and I can give the kayak its head. I watch the prow hissing down the faces and think of the generations of Hokianga paddlers who have felt this same exhilaration, riding the green rodeo.
The greatest surfer of all may have been Kupe’s descendant Nukutawhiti, the Ngapuhi ancestor. In one version of the story, he surfed his waka on a single wave all the way from Hawaiki. “Great wave, long wave, wave like a mountain range,” runs the waiata. Nukutawhiti’s waka is said to be hidden in a limestone cleft under the dunes of North Head.
At Matawhera Point, where sheep have come down to the shore to feed at the water’s edge, I turn north, towards the white spire of Our Lady of the Assumption, gleaming like a beacon on the hill behind Motukaraka. The Gothic-style church is being spruced up for its centenary in 2010. I slide the door latch and step into the cool solemnity of the interior, where the lingering scents of wine, incense and cut flowers sweeten the air. The timbers creak in the wind. It must be an experience to attend Mass here during a storm. You would wonder if the whole building was about to be plucked heavenward— “assumed”, as it were.
Across the road from the church I walk up a flower-bordered driveway to a house and tap on the open ranchslider. Bob Marriner looks up from the jigsaw puzzle he has spread out on at the dining table and invites me in. While his wife, Barbara, puts the kettle on and warms some scones in the microwave, Bob tells me how, a decade ago, they bought a camper and started touring the north, looking for a place to spend their twilight years. Barbara was from the Hokianga, and her whanau owned land here, “but I didn’t see myself living in a place like Motukaraka”, Bob tells me, pronouncing it motor-cracker.
Then, realising how much the place meant to his wife—how it was her turangawaewae—he changed his mind. “I started building the house, but I didn’t tell Barbara that. She thought I was building an implement shed or something. I put in the piles, and then I put in the floor, and one day she looked at it and said, ‘You’re building me a house, aren’t you?’ And here we are.”
We eat scones and fruitcake and sip hot tea and watch the play of light on the harbour—the universal pastime on the Hokianga. The water is shades of green and khaki today, but when the rivers discharge a fresh load of topsoil after heavy rain, or when spring tides stir up the bottom sediment, the whole upper harbour turns to liquid mud, Bob says.
I mention references I’ve read about the harbour being as clear as a mountain lake, back in the days when kauri grew down to the water’s edge. So completely were the giant trees eliminated from the hills surrounding the Hokianga that in a week of crisscrossing the harbour, I haven’t seen a single mature specimen.
“There were 11 timber mills just between here and Kohukohu,” says Bob—about two per kilometre. The largest of them, in Kohukohu itself, cut six million feet of timber a year and was built on a reclamation consisting entirely of compacted sawdust. It was forced to close in 1909 because of fears that the continued dumping of sawdust into the sea would clog the main channel.
It was the end of the golden timber by then, anyway—a matter of regret for many locals, who lamented how the vegetation had been decimated. Regret there may have been, but it didn’t stop the next wave of settlers, the farmers, from torching what remained of the forests, leaving the land impoverished and allowing the topsoil to slide into the sea. That burden of sediment has reduced the power of the harbour markedly. It is said that in the early days the force of a spring tide racing through The Narrows sounded like a waterfall. Circulation in the varicose upper harbour is now too sluggish to suggest such a comparison.
Hokianga mud is legendary. When I visit the Pinkneys, Craig tells me that mud-sliding at low tide was the equivalent of skateboarding when he was a kid. “You couldn’t do it today,” he says. “The harbour has been invaded by Pacific oysters.” Another memory from childhood: the Rawene ferry drifted off course and hit a mudbank and was stuck for hours until the tide turned. Craig and his mates slugged through the mud to bring drinks to the passengers. One large woman, frustrated with the delay, climbed down the ferry’s ladder to follow them to shore, but sank into the mud and couldn’t move. “They had to use the hydraulic ramp to lift her out.”
The tide is nearly full when I paddle between the derelict piles of the old Kohukohu wharf and haul out at the boat ramp. The former mill town now busies itself with tourism and the arts—though, in truth, Kohukohu can scarcely be thought of as “busy”.
I stroll through the grid of narrow streets, where colonial cottages are shaded by oaks, willows, Norfolk pines and Phoenix palms. English flower gardens grace homes with Pacific colour schemes—mauve window frames in eggshell-blue sashes, lime frames in purple sashes, a flamingo-pink front door. Laden lemon trees stand beside copses of banana palms.
I see a man hand-cranking an unresponsive engine on his lawn and introduce myself. My mechanical expertise is swiftly revealed when I offer the opinion that there doesn’t seem to be any spark. “Well, there wouldn’t be,” replies Jim Morrow. “It’s a diesel.”
I’m on more familiar territory when, chatting on Jim’s front porch, I notice three violins in his sitting room. “You wouldn’t be a fiddle player?” I ask. Indeed he is, and since I am, too, we spend a pleasant half hour playing duets that Jim ferrets out from amongst his sheet music.
Jim was part of the 1970s hippy wave [see sidebar p80]. He and his wife rented a house for a dollar a week, and he worked as a potter. “This was in the pre-Warehouse days, when you could make a living selling cheap mugs and bowls. There were three or four of us selling our stuff at the co-op in Rawene.”
In some respects, Kohukohu in 2009 is a long way from the era of Whole Earth Catalogs, mung beans and spiritual enlightenment. On the Kohukohu website there’s not much real estate on offer for less than $300,000. The town has become gentrified, the hippies of Jim’s generation largely replaced by “urbanites and international yuppies”, he says. “It’s an older demographic now. Fewer families.”
But lifestyle is still a drawcard. Advertisements on the library noticeboard offer yoga classes, mind–body workshops and cello lessons. It’s not sawdust you smell in the air, but freshly ground coffee beans.
I meet Jim’s ex-wife, Marg, a photographer, at the community art gallery on the waterfront. An exhibition of her recent images shares gallery space with works by the 2008 graduates of Northland Polytechnic’s applied arts course, taught across the water at Rawene.
Several of the students’ paintings render Hokianga’s epiphanal light—the stabbing whiteness of midday, the flickering reflections of night. In a corner of the gallery a group of carved figures—tall and thin like wooden Giacomettis—lean together as if in quiet korero. Their easy communality is as characteristic of the harbour as the light is. Marg says it comes from a “commitment to place”, a value she learned from the Maori community. She’s been here 32 years. “That’s unheard of these days,” she says. “People don’t stay in one place any more.”
Commitment breeds community. Wally Hicks, a relocated Aucklander and co-owner of the art gallery, tells me he has never been so deeply involved in a community as he has been during his nine years in Kohukohu. The gallery is only the most recent expression.
“If you’re sick in the night, it’s your neighbour wearing a St John’s uniform who makes the house call,” he says. “I find that really healthy.”
On my way back up the Waihou River to Rangiahua the harbour is glassy. Only the swirl and splash of mullet ripple its surface. Across the water, near Ivydale, a flounder fisherman readies his nets for a shot. Mangugnu slumbers in its memories, and Horeke looks deserted. Apart from the blatter of a farm bike on a distant paddock, the harbour is profoundly quiet and still.
I glide past Marmon’s Point, where tall eucalpyts are in full pink bloom. John “Cannibal Jack” Marmon, Hokianga’s first European settler, is buried here. A Sydneysider who jumped ship in the 1820s, he married a chief’s daughter and lived up the Waihou for close to 60 years.
Marmon was one of the first “pakeha Maori” —Europeans who enjoyed the protection of local chiefs, lived as one of the tribe, joined war parties in intertribal skirmishes and raids and, in Marmon’s case, took part in the resulting “cannibal feasts”—hence his nickname. (On one occasion, when a fellow settler refused a basket of cooked human flesh, Marmon is said to have remarked: “You have no idea how good it tastes.”)
It was at just this time of year, November, that Baron Charles de Thierry and his family made their way up this river to try to salvage something from the collapse of a grandiose dream. The idealistic baron, scion of French aristocrats, sought to establish a South Seas kingdom for “all who may prefer wealth to poverty, honour to degradation, liberty to slavery, happiness to misery”.
He had the rhetoric, but not the acumen to achieve his goals. The would-be “Sovereign Chief of New Zealand” arrived in 1837 with 60 settlers from Sydney, ready to claim 40,000 acres of prime Hokianga land that had been bought on his behalf by the missionary Thomas Kendall. But chiefs from whom the land had been bought repudiated the deal. Some said the payment—36 axes was simply a deposit; others, a gift. Worse, his subjects deserted him, lured away by better terms from another Hokianga settler.
Instead of establishing himself as the benign monarch of a utopian empire, de Thierry scratched out a living for a few years in frustration and disillusionment, then left.
He ended his days in Auckland, tuning pianos and trying to raise money for a new method of processing flax. A humble plinth on State Highway One, where it bends west to skirt the upper harbour, indicates the spot where the baron’s dream sputtered and died.
In her biography of Kendall, Judith Binney refers to the baron as a man “whose entity had been created by the illusion that naivety was a virtue and that dreams were the stuff of life”. If following dreams is an illusion, it is one shared by a good number of Hokianga’s residents. It seems to be the nature of the place that dreams are planted here, flourish for a while, and are then replaced with the next wave of hopefuls.
People don’t end up here by default; they come because they aspire to be part of this particular landscape, this community, this history. Like Kupe, they are dreamers seeking the world of light.