Whakatane, New Zealand

By: JOHN WILLIS, Photography by: JOHN WILLIS, SUPPLIED

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  • Trade-A-Boat

New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty provides an abundance of marine life, friendly locals and ample opportunities to throw a line in the water.

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This truly is a prehistoric location, shaped by a dynamic volcanic history where the Indian Ocean collides with the South Pacific and Antarctic, to create rich and fertile waters. The Māori travelled to Aotearoa/New Zealand long before white man arrived; creating a civilisation that thrived primarily on its natural habitat’s ability to provide and give life to its people.

Whakatāne is a town of 35,000 people in the eastern Bay of Plenty region, in the North Island of New Zealand. It is known for its great climate, long stretches of coastline and boating lifestyle. I must admit, I felt a bit like Frodo Baggins on a great adventure in middle earth as we completed the four-hour drive from Auckland airport. Whakatāne is a beautiful township where the namesake river meets the ocean at the precipice of a coastal headland, to the often treacherous and narrow river mouth entry.Thankfully, it was friendly like everything else in NZ, for our visit.

Surtees boats evolved in this land before time. They recently invited me to attend their 13th Annual Fishing Competition in the beautiful coastal township of Whakatāne.

We had a wonderful weekend, with the locals greeting us with open arms. They attracted over 60 Surtees boats and 200 contestants, displaying the love for this highly successful brand.

It took a bit to get my bearings as there aren’t many comparable Aussie temperate destinations where the coast runs almost east/west. Immediately to sea is the impressive Moutohorā (Whale Island), and to the east, the scattered reef and rocky outcrops of Rurima Island (commonly "the Ruhrs"), while nearly 50 km to the north, the active volcano and popular tourist destination of Whakaari, or White Island. Next stop eastward is South America.

THE BAY OF PLENTY

The Bay of Plenty is an angler’s and seafood lover’s paradise. However, if you don’t have your sea legs or a suitable vessel for oceanic exploits, then don’t despair, there’s also a large charter fleet for fishing, diving or tours to White Island. Plus, there are tonnes of beach, rock and estuary options that shouldn’t be underrated as kahawai, snapper and even kingfish are real targets for land-based fishos. You will find pipi and mussels on the coastal fringes, flounder in the estuaries, whitebait at the river mouths and large schools of kahawai chasing them with the snapper, and often kingies not far behind. Forms of recreational netting and long lining are both legal in this rich marine environment and whitebaiting and shellfish gathering produce tasty and nutritious seafood delights for the non-seafarers.

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The diving opportunities are sensational when the water is clear. It was a bit murky on our last trip due to the huge amount of runoff from rainfall fed to sea by ten major and a number of minor rivers, in the Bay of Plenty. Yet when it clears it’s a diver’s paradise, particularly around the volcanic reefs of the islands and shoreline. Who can resist a delicious crayfish plucked from its craggy ledge, and spearo’s have some terrific encounters with the plethora of fish; particularly doing battle with the huge kingies that can grow to 40kg.

WHAKAARI/WHITE ISLAND

White Island has been spewing its sulphurous cloud since its first eruption and formation over 150,000 years ago. Sulphur mining was attempted but was temporarily abandoned in 1914, after an eruption and following lahar (lava) flow killing all of the workers. It resumed again shortly afterward but proved uneconomic and ceased permanently in the 1930s.

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Whakaari is New Zealand’s most well-known active marine volcano, attracting scientists and volcanologists worldwide, as well as many tourists brought to the island mainly via the charter fleet from Whakatāne. There have been many eruptions and volcanic activity from lahar flows, ash and sulphur belches and tremors, throughout recorded history. The last major activity being in 2013, which spewed mainly steam, yet the activity remains a constant reminder to visiting tourists of the awesome power of nature.

There are volcanic formations all around Whakatāne, creating a primeval and ancient feel to a simply gorgeous landscape.

THE SWEETWATER

When you leave the coastal plain and enter the mountains you will yet again feel like Frodo on an intrepid venture through the Misty Mountains, or perhaps Fanghorn Forest. The steep, ancient hills are smattered with tree fern gully’s leading to pristine freshwater rivers, lakes and streams. There lay the legendary strongholds of the famous NZ trout and salmon fishery. Simply driving through the winding mountain roads gives you glimpses of magnificent streams with deep gentle pools followed by tumbling rapids where every fly flicker and lure caster salivates at all the opportunities.

There’s many hidden treasures in the mountain fishery; including bushwalking, farm stay, chalet and camping options, and even helicopter guided tours, depending on your style and budget. The region has a large number of guides and I suggest that it would be a good idea to maximise your time in this flicker’s wonderland. Sea-run trout can be caught in season, in all of the lower reaches of the rivers, for those less adventurous or mobile.

WHAKATANE

From the shopkeepers to council workers, cleaners to historic residents and everyone in between, we never saw a sad face in Whakatāne, nor were we met with anything but a friendly society.

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We stayed at the White Island Rendezvous Motel which is almost directly opposite the marvelous waterfront Whakatāne Sports Fishing Club on the edge of the Whakatāne River — only around 1 km from the mouth and 500 metres from the multi-lane boat ramp and facilities. You needn’t actually leave this area for a great holiday, with fishing, boating, safe swimming, bird watching, bike riding, picnic and playgrounds all within a short stroll. There is a thriving retail community just loaded with cafés, restaurants and all modern facilities providing a well-rounded retail experience in the nearby CBD. Perhaps visit the motel café for brekky/lunch, or wander across the road for sumptuous "fush and chups", including wonderful deep fried mussels. The Fisherman’s Club is a terrific venue and offers a full menu for lunch and dinner, 7 days per week.

Whakatāne is one of the sunniest towns in New Zealand. It basks in more than 2000 sunshine hours every year. It permanently attracts holiday makers, especially in the hot summer months, that coincide with great fishing/diving and boating opportunities. Whakatāne, and indeed the Bay of Plenty, has a reputation for blue skies, mild temperatures and light winds due to the unique topography and being shaded by the nearby mountains, and produces less rainfall than New Zealand averages. The shelter of the east/west coastline provides calmer seas on average, and the warm ocean currents of the east coast range from around 14°C in August, up to 20-21°C during February.

Whakatāne also has dolphin and seal tours, whale watching, massive waterfalls, a variety of music and entertainment festivals, and mountain biking.

ANCESTORAL HISTORY

Mataatua Wharenui is a fully carved Mārae (meeting house) that travelled the world for over a century, before returning home to its people: the Ngāti Awa Māori tribe of the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Here you can experience a genuine insight into the Māori history and culture. It was originally built in the 1870s as a symbol of "unity, renewed strength and resilience and to celebrate our ancestors".

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The 16 kilometre Nga Tapuwae o Toi or the "Footprints of Toi" walkway leads to historically significant pa sites (fortified villages), native forest, sea and forest bird colonies, iconic flora and fauna features and magnificent coastal views outdone only by rural vistas leading to the mountains beyond. The walkway is accessible to most people, regardless of fitness level, because it can be undertaken in sections or as a 16 km round trip.

Muriwai’s Cave is one of the most sacred and historically significant sites in the Whakatāne region. The cave at one time, could accommodate up to sixty, and it was once extended some 122 metres into the hillside. It is located in a central position in the township and has been dedicated to Muriwai’s memory and remains to this day a special place.

The Lady on the Rock is a bronze statue atop Turuturu Rock at the mouth of the Whakatāne River and commemorates the bravery of Wairaka.

According to Wikipedia, "The Mataatua waka first arrived at Whakatāne after making a perilous voyage from Ngāti Awa’s ancestral homeland of Hawaiki 700 years ago. Hawaiki is the legendary Pacific homeland of the Māori people, from which they are supposed to have travelled to New Zealand and to where their spirits are believed to return after death. The men left the women alone in the canoe while they went ashore. When the canoe started to drift back to sea, Wairaka defying the tapu (taboo) that forbade women to handle a canoe, seized the paddle and brought the waka back to shore crying, ‘Kia Whakatāne au i ahau’ – I will act the part of a man." This cry is the origin of the town’s name and the statue acts as a fitting greeting to seafaring travellers – like me!

I’m sure I saw elf’s in the forest and Gandalf on a mountain top! 

Check out the full feature in issue #504 of Trade-A-Boat magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest boating news, reviews and travel inspiration.

 


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