When you’re a kid, the perfect holiday mix includes plenty of sand and sea, ice creams as big as your head, BBQ bangers and toasted marshmallows, and a good dose of exciting yet educational local activities organised by Mum and Dad, who are eager to inspire and create those never-to-be-forgotten ‘first time’ experiences.
In those golden summers past, there was plenty of time for littlies to build sandcastles and splash to their hearts’ content in clear, sheltered waters. Memories were made: learning to row around the estuary, catching the first fat sprat, and burying Dad in the sand. Then later, foraging for pipi and tuatua, surfcasting for snapper and spearing flounder with whittled sticks, while watching the golden glow of the incoming tide sweeping its way up the harbour, slowly reclaiming the sand. One by one, the stars would come out to play, and then the March crickets, providing a chattering backdrop for a midnight glowworm hunt.
When the chance comes up to take a road trip, it feels natural to pack up the kids with their buckets and spades and head south on State Highway 3 to Te Kuiti, the self-proclaimed Shearing Capital of the World. Passing the turn-off for Waitomo, we promise ‘a big surprise’ on the way home, then drive on through the parched hills of the King Country to the dramatic North Taranaki coast.
Here a steady swell rolls in to meet the estuary at Awakino, where multi-coloured baches in various states of repair line up along the riverbank like barnacles at the watermark. Whitebaiters’ ramshackle huts follow the milk-coffee river as far as the eye can see, and surfcasters line the beach. We stop to say gidday to a couple just returned from a kayaking trip upriver, and the kids need no prompting to head off on an exploration of the riverbank, soon becoming closely acquainted with a series of simple rope swings dangling from the branches of a row of ancient pohutukawa trees.
Nearby, an extended family occupying a cluster of baches wanders across the way, jandals sticking in the hot tar of the road, lugging all the makings of a pot-luck picnic.
A sign hidden amongst flax outside a local house offers Awakino honey, and there’s fresh snapper and gurnard, scones, jam and cream up for grabs at the Awakino Hotel, which we make a mental note to head back for later, but a picnic has already been promised, so we drive on to Awakino Heads, where crusty baches with gardens of succulents peek from between bushes at surf crashing relentlessly against glittering black sands. Gulls squawk overhead and the beach stretches north like a bitumen highway, lost in a haze of salt, before reaching its destination. Certainly a thrilling prospect for anyone with a 4wd.
It doesn’t take long to find our own special spot. We spread our picnic blanket above the beach on a grassy knoll of kikuyu and marram grass, and the kids hit the beach, where they lose no time in covering themselves from head to toe in the renowned fine black sand of this coastline. It’s the product of eroded rock, rich in iron ore, which was spewed from Mt Taranaki and the mountains of the Central Plateau back in New Zealand’s younger years.
Back into the car we pile, wet togs thrown in an untidy heap into the boot locker along with myriad shells, a dried-out dead sea-biscuit, and a rather dubious-smelling collection of highly coveted, ‘no Mummy, I’m afraid we can’t live without them’ crabs’ claws.
Onward then to the seaside village of Mokau, the largest settlement on the North Taranaki coast, which offers all the best elements of a long Kiwi summer: sheltered swimming, ocean beach surfing, sandcastles and sailing, water skiing and estuary rowing, shellfish and fish galore.
Just inside the harbour at Te Nau Nau Bay, families gather in its gentle embrace. A ribbon of freshwater cascades down a cliff-face, a giant sea cave provides excitement at high tide, while low tide provides access to massive boulders, the largest of all being ‘The Flowerpot’, so dubbed by the locals after a pot of flowers was once placed at its highest point.
“Oh that’s long gone,” says a granny, minding her grandchildren – all nine of them – down at the beach as they run in and out of the water, building a fine moat between their castle and the sea.
Ahead, the Mokau River passes beneath the Mokau Bridge before cutting a swathe inland through hill country. The MV Cygnet, the original Mokau cream boat, provides passage upriver on an informative tour past the sacred island burial site of Little Tawa, and on past station after station, which are interspersed with dense virgin forest and nikau groves. A grand total of 323 registered whitebaiting stands line the river banks, some tumbledown, others bordering on grandiose as these huts go, all the way to what is known as the Golden Mile, where these fish spawn.
In days of old, the Cygnet collected cream from the stations all along here, and transported it back to town, along with locals who were ill or had other business to take care of. Old-timers reckon the farmers upriver would set their watches by the arrival of the cream boat.
We kip down for a couple of nights in the Mokau Motel, which perches high on a bluff overlooking the estuary and the Flowerpot, and is occasionally graced with glimpses of the sombre, Zen-like presence of Mt Taranaki on the southern horizon. A clean and tidy Mom-and-Pop operation run by the hospitable Reed family, the motel provides a great base for exploration, and puts us at the heart of the action where we can make the most of every precious second in this memory-making settlement.
Days are punctuated by swims at the beach, huge rolled ice creams from the Whitebait Inn, and sun-soaked and delicious piping-hot fresh fish-and-chip dinners, but we find plenty of time to visit local attractions. There’s the Tainui Museum, with its fascinating collection of old photos, including those from the old cream-collecting days; a ride upriver aboard the MV Cygnet; an amble along the Whitecliffs Walkway; and a morning’s adventure in Tongaporutu – first, a look around the iconic Kiwi baches along the river, and then a hike out to the Two Sisters, giant columns of rock rising from the black sand, reached only at low tide. In a cautionary tale that captures the imaginations of our wide-eyed kids, we hear how there were once three sisters, but the third one was very wicked and bits of her began to fall off, crumbling away until there was just half of her left, and the two good sisters stand watch over her remains till this day.
To reach the sisters we eschew the slippery rocks in favour of the immensely satisfying feeling of squelching through knee-deep mud at low tide. On we go through a distinctive geological landmark, a collapsed cave archway, collecting shells and poking in rock pools, to emerge on the beach and headlands, which are home to the sisters themselves. Nearby is Elephant Rock, and it’s this that holds our attention longest with its column-like legs, caves and form reminiscent of a mammoth.
All too soon it’s time to return home. By now, the boot locker is a veritable treasure chest, a gleaming and fishy-smelling assortment of hoarded West Coast bounty: finely polished and ochre-tinted Mokau riverstones, a strange mix of various seaweed seeds and oddly-shaped pieces of driftwood, shells of every shape and description, spiralling worm casts bleached sheet-white by the sun, and this trip’s undisputed favourite find – you’ve guessed it – an ever-increasing and extremely comprehensive collection of crabs claws.
As we leave Awakino on a baking hot sunny day, the stench becomes overpowering, and there’s a unanimous decision to consign the claws to a fitting burial site on the river’s mudbanks, where they will soon be reclaimed by the incoming tide. With the windows open to the fresh sea breeze, we head back on the road, following SH3 through the Arorangi and Mangaotaki Gorge Scenic Reserves to Piopio, where sweet treats await at the Piopio Berry Farm. Here, freshly made berry-filled ice creams are on offer, and huge punnets of late-ripening strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.
Deeper in karst country, we hang a left into the small village of Waitomo to visit the caves that put this town on the map. Joining a group, we follow our guide and wander through the upper levels, then take the stairs down to the 46-foot-high ‘cathedral’, where stalactites, stalagmites and other cave decorations adorn the cave floor, ceiling and walls. Then comes the highlight: an awe-inspiring boat ride through enormous caverns lit by the subterranean brilliance of a million glow-worms.
A boat-load of tourists, two happy parents, and another iconic Kiwi experience imprinted on two small minds for a lifetime. We proudly take our place in the chain of families as we pass on our heritage to the next generation. These are the moments of summers past, memories of the perfect family holiday.