When I first saw the kids down by the seals, it seemed such a nice family outing: a bunch of young folk jumping around the rocks all excited and exploring, an older person, possibly a parent, videoing a peaceful summer excursion. But then I noticed the boys had what seemed to be sticks in their hands, flourished in the manner of taiaha. Seals wriggled in retreat over the rocks. The adult filmed the boys’ amusement. I had always wondered how those episodes start where seals are tormented, or beaten to death. What dark things go on.
I used the phone at a local fisherman’s house to call the police, who drove 40 minutes from the nearest settlement. After a review of the video, they were pretty sure the boys hadn’t hit any seals, so they let them off with a warning.
That evening at Ngawi’s regular gathering spot, it didn’t take long for the stage whispers to start up.
“Didja hear. Some idiot called the cops about a seal. Me, I woulda given those kids a medal,” said a local. “Too right!” agreed his drinking buddy. “Best thing for bloody seals is a bullet in the head.”
Since I had already spent a few evenings bending the elbow in the company of these fishermen, I jumped straight in. “That’s how you buggers earn a living, hassling wildlife every damned day. Only difference is you don’t torment the fish for fun.”
I should have known calling in the rozzers wouldn’t sit well. People come to Ngawi to get away from busy-bodying, clipboard-thrusting official interference. It was what attracted me here in the first place. Following my interest in isolated corners of New Zealand, I’d driven through Ngawi a few times while off-roading around Cape Palliser. It had stuck in my mind—this huddle of houses cast up on a rocky shore, dug into a cliff. It was the kind of place that you might expect to find on the Chathams, but not on the mainland.
Here, from the crooked tail of the North Island, there is a clear run to Antarctica. Get the nose of your boat pointed right and in no more than a few days the snowy peaks of the Admiralty Range would be emerging from the horizon. And in return, powerful, crystal-blue swells fetch up direct from the Southern Ocean and slam hard against this coast.
Ngawi, just shy of Cape Palliser, is a good two-hour drive from Wellington. It was little more than a few sweet fishing shacks perched precariously between sea and cliff-face until the 1960s, when an invasion of Fibrolite and ranchslider homes—notable for their staggering lack of pretence—were plonked down in this wild place, bald as badgers.
These were homes for fishermen and their families, not bach-vernacular designer retreats. Yet, despite the influx of holiday houses, Ngawi, at its core, remains a tight-knit fishing community.
To ease my way aboard, I introduced myself on the first day to a clubroom full of folk celebrating a day’s golfing tournament. I thought it would be a straightforward way to let the whole village know who I was.
I’d barely started when out of the crowd a bull of a bloke ran at me, screaming, the veins bulging in his neck, eyes popping in their sockets. As he pounded the floor with his feet, and his chest with his fists, I was glad to see from the roomful of grizzled roosters that this was an old joke. An old test.
Turned out he was a village identity, the haka man, delivering a challenge for the newcomer. With red face and shaved skull, he was giving me his signature wero, one which I learned later he’s been known to perform wearing little more than a moko made of Marmite.
I was able to reply with a much tamer Auckland version, which somehow seemed to pass muster. I was grabbed by the elbow and hauled through to a table groaning with fresh seafood—crayfish, paua, mussels, fish of every kind. And gourmet bratwurst.
The Ngawegian feast made a unique scene: a room full of blokes going hammer and tong, with tall tales and yabber and backslapping—yelping at one another like cattle dogs at opposite ends of a long paddock. More than a few had hearing aids, with antennas protruding from their ears. And the teeth! A line-up of braying false teeth, brash as the grille of a 1955 Plymouth. Indeed, I soon came to identify a particular Ngawi guffaw—a resonant, adenoidal honk of the kind that only the wearers of false teeth or those who snore, or both, can truly deliver.
As folk drifted off from the clubrooms, I was invited to another gathering, which most nights during the coming week would prove to be a regular fixture. I don’t have any memory of the first evening except for failing to keep pace with the shattering quantities of rum and Coke. Haka man seemed to have hollow legs.
It didn’t take long to figure out that Ngawi is a place that knows how to let its hair down. What’s left of it.
At dawn, I was woken by the roar of a bulldozer crashing through my hangover. It was haka man—fresh as you please—at the levers of a behemoth dozer right outside my ranchslider, launching his boat. I’d chosen this bach off the internet for its proximity to the bulldozers and the fishing boats. I figured I’d be closer to the action. I wasn’t wrong.
In the 1920s, the bay was an overnight anchorage for fishing boats from Wellington, but it wasn’t until locals hit upon the idea of using bulldozers to haul their boats safely out of the water that Ngawi took off as a permanent settlement.
Now, dozens of dozers with rusted trailers line the steeply sloping beach. With some boats the size of small trawlers, the bulldozers need to be correspondingly large. Looking at this ragtag row, I could imagine a small horde of officials itching to write out a ticket-book of infraction notices. But they wouldn’t dare. This colourful line-up of bulldozers and boats has become a valued tourist attraction.
With the exception of rental baches and a summer take-away cart run by another village identity—a man of few words and fewer teeth who, with reluctance, will flip you a burger—Ngawi has little in the way of organised tourist facilities. The glad-handing required isn’t exactly in the village DNA. Unless you head for the hills.
At Kawakawa Station, a few minutes south, Sarah and Duncan Furniss offer trekking that’s the nearest you will get to South Island high-country hiking in the North Island.
Up the river at Kawakawa—so named because Kupe’s daughter made a lei of kawakawa here—is a valley with twice the rainfall of the barren lands of the coast. A world of fat-breasted pigeons, tui and gullies golden with kowhai. Following a track that loops higher in the hills, hikers return to mustering huts on river flats where they are treated to grilled paua and crayfish. With corrugated fireplaces, make-do wooden stools and lovely crooked verandahs, these huts overlook a parkland of river flat. They are the genuine item. You can almost hear the hobnail boots on the floor, smell the Dubbin. Through the window manuka blossom falls like snow.
Duncan Furniss speaks of his concern that musterers’ huts like these in the South Island are being targeted by DOC for demolition. He tells me that at Ocean Beach, just across Palliser Bay, another long-standing community of quiet little shacks tucked among the dunes is also destined for destruction. “Don’t they understand this is our heritage, that these places speak about our history?” he says. “They add to the land.”
It’s shacks like these that provide a link back to early Pakeha settlement which saw whalers operating out of Te Kopi, a few miles west of Ngawi, until an earthquake destroyed the harbour in 1855, and the station was deserted. For a hundred years, the coast remained more or less uninhabited, save a handful of cottages.
Access from Wellington at this time was around the coast. An early traveller, Charles Carter, recorded his experience at the Lake Ferry Inn in 1853—still the nearest public house to Ngawi.
“The ferry house was made with old boards, timber from ship wrecks and had a thatched roof. It was a cross between a Maori whare and rudely built labourers’ cottage. It was kept by an Englishman who had an intelligent, good-looking Maori wife who played the bustling cheerful hostess remarkably well. I watched her preparing eel pie for supper, first placing potatoes over the bottom of a huge camp oven. Next she placed lumps of rancid pork fat over and between the potatoes, upon which she fixed a monstrous eel. This luscious Anglo-Maori compound steamed, fried and spluttered. Going to bed on beer and dry bread I was awoken by the host quelling a brawl which, by means of his fistic and vocal powers, he had soon quelled.”
Until a few decades ago, access remained extremely difficult. With no bridges and very few roads, travel was about judging tides and the state of the rivers. The walls in the Ngawi clubrooms feature photos of Morris Oxfords up to their windshields in fast-flowing rivers, or bogged to their axles on shingle beaches, about to be claimed by the incoming tide.
Locals would rope their cars together to get through the trickier sections, and in heavy rain those needing to return would have to pack up in the middle of the night to beat the swelling rivers.
It was common enough to be stranded, unable to get out by land or sea—stuck in a scattering of corrugated-iron shacks, rawboned against the wind, having a lively old time on home brew.
Even today, driving over the Rimutakas in rough weather can be an experience of Homeric proportions. The road simply disappears into the swirling mist and rain like a goat track into the heavens.
It doesn’t take long to realise that nothing much happens in Ngawi, but only if you measure time in minutes. In the space of an hour it’s a railway station. There on my deck, with a morning cup of tea in my hand, I settled in to watch the parade.
A grandad and grandson puttered past on a quad bike. A fisherman disappeared headfirst into some cavity of a bulldozer, as though he was extracting the innards of a beached whale. My pensioner neighbour leaped astride his misfiring trail-bike and blatted off, all shorts and sandshoes and foolish grin. Another two elderly bikers towed golfing trolleys, their dogs running alongside. And then the grandson and grandad returned with an outboard lashed to the quad.
Here in Ngawi the old boys have sorted out the hard life. Fixing things, playing golf, hauling in a crayfish or a fish or two and—when you tire of that—throwing down a brew. Blokes and boys lost in a daily round of the important things.
Ngawi is a place whose very purpose seems to be about expressing a deep conviviality. The feasts and constant movement of people and events seem unending—a spit roast at the gun club, a fishing club function, more golf. And a prize-giving for the fishing contest where every bashful place-getter was greeted with rousing cheers and foot-stamping applause. Especially the young ones—little princesses tickled pink to get the third-place trophy for the under-12 tarakihi section.
Most nights here at Ngawi seem to be spent in the company of a similar happy din. I started wondering about that old totem of rural Kiwi identity—the idea we are a laconic breed, people of few words and bottled emotions. Nobody here seemed to have heard of it. They were too busy gabbing. Could it be that the man-alone image of the tortured, silent Kiwi male was simply a literary invention of tortured, silent Kiwi writers?
And while it’s easy to dismiss the nightly drink-up as a bunch of blokes on the booze chewing the fat about the same old things, an identical gathering of males guzzling mind-altering liquids in an Amazonian hut or Borneo longhouse would be regarded as a sacred bonding ritual, deserving of reverential anthropological study.
Certainly at Ngawi there was an intriguing variety of narratives. At one table, the expected hard-tack fables of storm and danger: “Coming out the northern passage at the Manukau Heads, we’re all sittin’ there in the wheelhouse and me mate’s jaw suddenly dropped into his lap. Bulldog’s jaw dropped too. And then I saw what they had seen—and my jaw dropped. Yup, a wall of water just came slamming in over the bow. I don’t care what they say, never take the northern passage over the bar.”
From another table came talk about the horrors of Magnamail addiction—someone wanting to get his wife to quit falling for the mail-order temptation. From another quarter I caught the news that a well-packed fridge is more efficient and cheaper to run than an empty one—if you want to save your fridge a lot of work, keep it stocked with bottled water, or beer.
And then there’s some Jack tar telling me the fisherman’s biggest problem with weather forecasts is not the dangers of the sea, but how to judge your drinking the night before. “Many’s the time we’ve all had a heavy night based on a shitty forecast for the next day—really knocking it back sure in the knowledge we wouldn’t be putting to sea. Only come the morning and the weather is all clear and the skipper’s dragging us out of bed!”
Then for a few nights, as I may have mentioned already, the conversation turned to seals. And I have to say I started to see their point, in part. Seals may be wonderful to watch at a distance, bodysurfing weightless through the waves or threading through kelp and current, but the problem—quite apart from the four kilos of fish they each eat daily—is that they occupy land, and they stink.
South of Ngawi, some 4000 fur seals have moved in, leaving a stench that combines the worst of dog urine and fish guts. At some of the shacks out at the cape the smell is utterly overpowering. It’s difficult to envisage the elegant eco-conscious folk of Oriental Bay or St Heliers happily welcoming the same kind of invasion.
And yet the seals are simply reclaiming their former territory. Excavation of midden sites indicate that New Zealand fur seals were a major food source for Maori, who wiped out most of the seal population on the North Island before the arrival of Europeans. The abundant supply of conveniently slow-moving protein—and warm clothing—must have been as important as moa, and probably more useful.
It’s one of the reasons Palliser Bay remained an important centre of Maori settlement. The very name Ngawi the howl of the wind—suggests there must have been some other compelling reason to stay here.
Ngawi may have been important to Maori, but few outsiders have heard of it. If you have, it’s likely due to the saga of the three half-witted teenagers who in 2006 hit the village in a mini crime wave.
Garth Gadsby told me the story. “They pinched a truck, trashed a house and then disappeared. But when they came back in the night a week later, we were ready for them. We all went down the bottom of the village and set up a roadblock.”
The boys managed to dodge the blockade, and the locals followed in hot pursuit. The lads might have thought they’d show a clean pair of heels to this Dad’s Army of pursuers, but they had picked the wrong town, and the wrong man—Gadsby was both a stock-car champion and trophy-winning skeet shooter.
“We chased ’em right up the arse with the spotlight. And then I stuck my shotgun out the window.”
In court, Gadsby was irked by the prosecutor’s suggestion he’d fired the shotgun recklessly. “Reckless! When I stuck that shotgun out the window, I knew exactly what I was aiming at. I was aiming for the tyres. There was never any danger of them being shot.”
The shotgun blasts turned the miscreant teenagers back to the village, which—hemmed in as it is by unscalable cliffs on the one side and raw surf pounding into rocks on the other—was hardly a promising escape option. Not with a riled gang of shotgun-toting locals blocking the only retreat.
With dawn about to break and the village folk—minus only the flaming torches—hunting them down, the boys took off out the back. “We knew there was no way out up that gully,” recalled Gadsby, “knew they’d end up being bluffed out, blocked in, because that gully just ends in a cliff. When daylight started to come through, they realised that too. Realised they were rats in a trap!”
As Gadsby tells the story for the thousandth time, with undiminished relish, I have to admit to feeling some sympathy for these dim-witted kids and their self-inflicted nightmare.
Sure enough, with dawn came the realisation they were caught between a rock and a hard place. “By then we’d sent our boys up the ridges either side of the gully so they could work themselves into positions above them. And once we could see where they were we started pelting them with rocks and boulders.”
It was only when the police turned up that the boys surrendered, and never have three ne’er-do-wells on the lam fallen so gratefully into the arms of the law. Eventually Gadsby, now owner of a tee shirt proclaiming himself Sheriff of Ngawi, also attracted police attention. He copped a $3000 fine, the loss of his firearms licence and the right to shoot skeet, even under supervision. It appears he didn’t display enough contrition—or, indeed, any. “I had to go Wellington for the trial. If I had a jury of my peers over here they would have thrown the case out,” he recalls.
But the most wounding punishment of all for this unofficial sheriff—bringer of frontier justice to the lawless, and brandisher of firearms in defence of the townsfolk—was when a favourite destination, the United States, refused him a visa. Gadsby is alive to the irony.
Many in Ngawi are well travelled. When you are flush with the crayfish dollar, there is not a lot of point hanging around in the off-season. Take Keith Banks. One minute he was talking diesel engines and crayfish pots, and the next his favourite cafes in New York, or expounding on the markets in Fez, Morocco.
“It was great talking to the fishermen in Portugal. Although we had no language, there was so much in common. I really appreciated that they took the time. Now, when tourists drop by I don’t keep my head down and avoid them like I used to. I take my time to talk.”
I joined Banks to pull some pots. I wish there was some kind of seafaring tale to relate, but I have to say that winning a living from the pots is very often no more challenging than pulling cash out of an ATM. A quota—a commercial licence to fish—can return half a million dollars a season. Even the dogs are onto a winner. In Banks’ work shed a terrier waited patiently for crayfish snacks, a streak of bliss crossing her features as she crunched through the bright orange shell into the sweetness of the succulent flesh.
One of the last remaining heritage shacks, tucked in above the churning surf for near on a century, is owned by Pat and David Saville. There’s a view of surf and rocky headland from every window. And behind the shack, the raw rock of Palliser, with shale tumbling down the crags of an utterly inhospitable cliff face—a sort of Arthur’s Pass by the sea.
“We come here for days on end and just sit and watch the sea, the mountains,” he says.
High above the kelp and jagged rocks I spy a cockleshell dinghy and ask Saville if he ever gets to use it. “If you wake up and don’t hear any surf, you’ve got a chance, but even if the weather’s okay, you have to be careful. If your engine dies and the northwester picks up, there’s no rowing against it. You’re gone.”
The attraction here is about more than the fishing. Maori named the area Matakitaki, which means to look upon with admiration. Indeed, sitting here, lost in the same view, the mountains of the South Island frosted with snow, it’s not difficult to imagine the sheer wonder of this place for a people encountering mountains and snow for the first time. For those early voyagers the view from Ngawi—across the charging, vital skies of Cook Strait— must have seemed like the other side of the moon.
Being here in Palliser Bay is still extraordinary.
Beyond, cliffs of crumbling shale hills lie like fresh-baked loaves of bread, golden brown against an opalescent ocean. The heavy gutted swell rolls in from the deep and, slapped by the wind, crashes against the rocks on the far side of the bay. The lacey fringe of spume washes along shiny black shingle beaches, as if scalloped by pinking shears.
As my last night settles, I see the wisp of an airliner contrail caught by the sun now below the horizon, the plane itself a sliver of molten metal, tiny in a purple sky. I feel a sense of dread at the prospect of returning to the outside world, having to leave this wild place and its people who have cultivated here a powerful sense of kindness and freedom that I will miss deeply.