Three harbours

The Herekino, Whangape and the Hokianaga

Gnarly old man Macrocarpa bent down on his crutches, cowering and a cussin’ over me in the early morning gloom of November in Northland. It was cool and windy as I lay there waiting. Not wanting to be the first to find my feet this particular morning.

We needed to saddle up and head back south, retracing our path through the Herekino gorge, with little choices we needed to break that one golden rules of all Clueless trails; ‘to never go the same way twice and never turn back’. But today we had good reason.

I watched on as the others rallied, getting to their work. Raising an assortment of steam and sizzle for coffee, breakfast sausage and savoury bits. But not me. I wasn’t hungry. I was still full with reminiscences of last night’s shark and tatties up around the corner of Foreshore and Takahe at ‘Bidz’ (the Ahipara) takeaways. Nonchalantly strolling up to the drive-by only to be cussed at by the sweaty fry cook to ‘order inside’, then counter-commanded to ‘get outside’ once in. We all huddled with the rest of the mob for safety, eagerly waiting our turn to have our number called before scarpering off for a safe zone to quaff down the kai.

We got underway, just as the first squall of the day blew through.

The pub at Herekino

With showers at our back. Each in our own way made it back through the gorge to the intersection where Rangikohu road meets the main drag – just before it turns back east toward Awaroa and the Broadwood general store. But we weren’t going back that way (well not if we could help it). We were off to find Lindsay and the Herekino tavern.

I’d spoken with Lindsay some days prior about how our Clueless rabble could cross the Whangape. He’d said to “take our chances” and stop by on the way through and ‘see what he could do with the cuzzies”. So we slowly road up under the now quiet crush of a gravel road. We passed on the above the pub’s low weatherboard to the chainlink, and there was where we found him. Lindsay was staggering out of the seeping smoke of a remnant fire, carrying a fistful of empty’s, clearly still suffering from yesterday’s swill. He stopped and squinted up at our rabble through his haze, as we stared back down at him. After the longest of pauses, he yells ”I remember you”.

Lindsay and the Herekino tavern

I squeezed on through the chainlink and into the Tavern. Its dark mustard-high windowed walls were well-cured and seeping with decades of nicotine oil and tall stories. This was a local – a Clueless kind of place. I followed Lindsay around as he tirelessly pursued a cell phone signal. He was desperately trying to raise Mane, his Cuzzie with a boat at the place on the water. He relayed how ‘fucking munted’ his boat was, but that he’s all good to take us across the narrows to Pawarenga, so long as we can help to ‘steer it’. “Just get there and ask around, everyone knows Mane.”

Never go the same way twice, they say… we were committed. We left Lindsay with a promise of eventual return and headed on up the gravel to the Whangape.  

Crossing the Whangape

Whangape was once home to the Ngāti Ruānui, who after fleeing and burning their pa at Pawarenga became known as the Te Aupōuri. Like many inner harbours of the northland region, Whangape became a prominent colonial timber port in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Exporting Kauri to ports elsewhere. Few remnants of those times now remain. 

We entered this quiet backwater in the cool grey drizzle. “Now where is Mane…?” We noticed a couple working on an old tinny at Te Kotahitanga Marae. Sure enough, it was him and his nephew. They’d been busy welding a steel iron onto the outboard engine to act as a tiller. Mane smiled at me… “she’ll be right”.

Crammed aboard the tinny

Now the tinny wasn’t what you call ‘big’ and there were two of them, six of us plus six of everything else. I looked at Horse, he looked at Glenn, Glenn looked at everyone else and collectively we all knew we couldn’t turn back. Clueless, we waded out into thigh-deep water and ‘hurled’ everything including ourselves in the back. Stern deep, Mane put on the power and yelled to his nephew “left full rudder”. With weight on, we had all the grace of a plough turning fresh sod, but we slowly made passage. 

Mane recounts stories from his youth of swimming horses bareback across that hazardous narrow channel linking the inner harbour to the sea. Whangape Harbour is still, deep and dark. Tannins of lost memory – what these hills must have looked like crowned in Kauri. And as nature returns, distant chapels (Holy Trinity, Mehopa and Saint Gabriels) now dot the headlands like ivory lighthouses guiding weary souls to safe passage. 

Our headland was Taiao Marae on the southern shore of the harbour as we settled in its shallows, unloaded and bid our grateful goodbyes to Mane and the munted tiny. 

Pangaru pie stop

St Gabriel’s Church sits atop a small hill next to the remnants of Te Aupouri pa, at the head of Pawarenga road. We make our way east from there, along the quiet gravels into the mists of a fresh squall, before climbing to join Runaruna road. 

We climbed up and up through the sealing of low cloud into rain. Traversing around the Panguru ranges, chasing growing rivulets, ruts and muck before descending at pace down into the valleys. One by one our shambles of Clueless riders rolled up to the Whakapapa Toa convince store at old Pangaru. 

Birthplace to Dame Whina Cooper, there is a memorial to her outside Waipuna Marae. A depiction of her walking a dusty road at Te Hāpua, holding her granddaughter Irenee’s hand as they set off south on their great hikoi to Parliament in 1975. ‘Not another acre of Maori land’ became a battle cry for Maori and led to the great cultural renaissance and birthed what Aotearoa has become today – a bicultural nation endeavouring to live up to its treaty principles and obligations. It seemed apt that it all began there, Pangaru and its wild remoteness. The very edge of our world.

After gorging ourselves on pies, fries and even better lies, we remounted our sodden bikes and continued on south, on our pilgrimage north of the Hoki’. With stiffening muscles, we pushed on. Way beyond Waihou and up over the crest of the aptly named Windy hill roads where there, beneath us lay that amble tide of Hokianga. From the dunes at the harbour entrance in the west to the upper reaches and Rawene in the east. Directly over the harbour lay Pakanae. Quiet, unassuming Pakanae. The place Kupe chose to settle for its fertile river flats as the ground to plant Kumara for his eventual return to Hawaiiki. His being the first of the many waves of peoples that followed. Northland and especially this place is everyone’s true colonial heartland.

We had made it directly south to the coast, to Rangi point and the low tidal sands to the tip of Kawehitiki to await the last of our water-born rides. Re-crossing the mighty Hoki’ to make landfall at the head of the Opononi Hotel. Our day was all but done, just one more task lay before us… “Another pint of the black stuff please barman?”

Northland green

Koke’ to Ahipara

Sour scratch, that Koke cat sure was a mean old sour scratch.

There it was, stopped mid scritch and glaring at us from the sunny centreline with its angry and inconvenient squint. Bitterly refusing to give ground until we got within its whiskers, it then turning abruptly tail up, and sauntered back down the road towards town. All spit and hiss, it was fussing like somehow we’d just ruined its entire day, but it was barely nine that morning.

Breakfast company in Kohukohu.

Koke’ or Kohukohu is a sleepy settlement on the deep inland banks of the Hokianga harbour. It’s one of New Zealand earliest European settlements and once a thriving town and heart of the country’s early sawmills and shipwrights. They cut more than six million feet of timber a year in this one place alone. On this day we had come for coffee and treats at the Koke café before exploring some of the inland lanes for a little hidden heritage.

We left sour scratch to its scritchin’ and traced the harbour south to the white spire of Our Lady of the Assumption, Shining like a beacon to God’s faithful on the the hill beyond Motukaraka. Then we drew down to the dusty coastal trail on our way to Paponga road.

Crossing the Paponga

“Oi’ You can’t go that way!”

With a roar around the seal he hurled the battered white SL Kingswood on an under-inflated, no brake, u-turn back up the trail towards us. As his pillion pooch-hound, held his footing and surfed that old Holden bench seat like a pro.

Viv’ came to a wheezing stop in the soft gravel. He was all coarse curl and stubble held back with a pair of shop bought silver wrap-arounds. He was already talking before the dust settled. Convinced, ”absolutely convinced in fact” that the Paponga was completely impassable by car let alone bike. We looked on in silence trying to find a pause, but he just kept going. “I was born in Kohe… I know that place and this… Northland is mean bro… you know the best place to catch a kingi with a kina and a cork screw… anyone of yous fullahs got a durry…?”

This continued unabated until a van and trailer carrying an oversized load of last weekends marque descended in a dust cloud down from the Paponga. The driver saluting as he passed with a ‘hang-loose’ hand gesture. We all just stared back in silence – even Viv’.

Needless to say we rode over the Paponga to Broadwood.

There is never just the one trip to Broadwood general store. First it’s a pie, then it’s a coke, and finally a double scoop of extra green mint chocolate goodness. Which we took our time over, sitting out front on the steps, next to the all-weather peanut slab sold here sign.

A late model silver BMW three series pulled up in the rough. It was pimped out with all the tintings and doosh doosh base beats.

We watched as a barefoot twenty something got out. He had flared faded stubbies and a souvenir ‘Snapper bonanza’ singlet on. He gingerly high stepped his way across the hot mid-day gravel seal to the shade of the Broadwood general store. Five minutes later he returned with his own double scoop of extra green mint chocolate goodness.

Life sure is sweet and green is clearly good business up here.

Onward to Ahipara

One by one we saddled up and drifted on. A shambles of scattered riders, all coddiwompling* west towards the wilds, passing through Awaroa and the upper reaches of Whangape to Herekino and harbour.

It was a shave close to two as we turned north. An azure blue pearl of northern high cloud over the lush valley floor as we gazed beyond Orowhano into the Herekino valley gorge. It was a landcape of memory to me, reminiscent of similar I’d once been drawn to – Tlacoapa, Guerrero and another life.

We rode up into that gorge under a lazy northland sun, before grazing the white line through the bends in flight to Roma and Nga Marae o te Rawara below. This was Horse’s turangawaewae and he was coming home.

We had made it to Ahipara.

*coddiwompling: To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination.

The mission

From Paihia to Kohukohu

“What do you mean they don’t serve beer?” Expectation always precedes disappointment. And there was nothing for it, I needed a boat!

That was the story at trail-end after the first of four Clueless days on the Hokianga. I’d managed to recruit a few riders for this misadventure. There is always the incorruptible Horse (Dean Ogilvie), but the posse was joined by others. The Sarg’ (Glenn Martin), Craig Richardson, Diz (Dhiren) and Pete O’Kane. A mix of freshmen and veterans… Wheelmen all.

Within minutes of the trailhead we were grappling with fresh gravels through Opua forest west towards the Hokianga. Those were old well weathered trails. The desire lines and trading routes of Ngapuhi. Those were the very same trails that later served as the passage for missionaries, this time trading the word of god.

We journeyed the mission at Te Waimate, the battle pa of Ohaewai, the lake at Omapere and onward to the hot pies of Okaihau. Before dropping down into the warm Utakura river valley onward to Horeke and our first real glimpse of the old Hokianga. Our destination was the Horeke hotel… the oldest surviving public house in New Zealand. The only issue was it wasn’t!

It has become a boutique hotel for the day-rider and urban glampers. Definitely not the kind of place six blokes can casually roll up to unannounced for a feed of fish and a pint of the black stuff.

As expectation turned to disappointment, disappointment turned to desperation. And in an audacious act of cluelessness, I convinced our ferryman to send a rescue mission.

So we waited. Sitting in the tailings of late golden sun. While faint in the distance we could hear that rythmic slow chug of the Ranui. Oily waters slapping at its shallow draft as it slew its way upriver past the Mangungu Mission house and ever closer to our salvation.

Within the hour we were holed up with locals at the Kohu Kohu tavern. Quenching our thirsts and looking back westward down the trail. I was lost in that ideal. Daydreaming how this quiet resting harbour must have once been… crowned in kauri with it’s waters flush with flounder and mullet. That reminded me… It was time for supper.