Hanging out in Hokianga

Four green plastic chairs had taken to the silt-laden water, launched by a ferocious wind from the long verandah of the Horeke Tavern. In the Hokianga it had been, as one local described it, “a hell of a night”.


Tucked away in a backwater of the great harbour’s Waihou arm, Horeke is New Zealand’s second-oldest settlement. The pub, built around 1830, is arguably the oldest hotel in the country.

My husband Bill and I had chosen that time of year to explore this historic part of the Hokianga Harbour. We wanted to get a feel for its solitude and its moody winter weather. We couldn’t have known it was going to be so bad-tempered. In Horeke, three was a crowd, not counting the ghosts that surely haunt the old hotel building, which saw so much of the nation’s early history.

The entranceway of the historic Horeke Tavern as it is today

The hotel was closed, which was not surprising, but the man who materialised as we peered in through the windows was mortal. “Come in,” he said. “I didn’t hear you knock.” Peter Maddren and his wife Laurel have owned, renovated and run this remote establishment for the past 25 years.

It’s a commendable feat that is topped by Peter’s formidable knowledge of the area’s history. He took us through the building, which has been hacked, patched and added to over the years. In the lounge bar, he pointed out the original cottage where the pit-sawn planks of kauri are held in place by hand-beaten nails.

The Horeke Tavern has survived many alterations and additions

He also indicated the musket ball embedded in the magnificent bar he’d fashioned from the trunk of an old blue gum tree. In the summer, the hotel is lively and well-patronised because it is the endpoint of the increasingly popular Twin Coast Cycle Way, which crosses the island from Opua.

The accommodation, the home-cooked meals, the bike hire and the welcoming atmosphere, are highly recommended. I will have to go back for those. In the meantime, it was Peter’s tales of the area’s history that held my attention. He told me that the first European to live in these parts was a man from Sydney, who jumped ship and then integrated with local Māori.

History has it he apparently shared their feasts of human flesh, for which he was dubbed ‘Cannibal Jack’. There are a lot of firsts in Horeke, including New Zealand’s first postal service, when the cost of sending a letter from the Hokianga to Russell was an exorbitant one shilling.

The first Frenchman on the scene was Baron Charles de Thierry, who attempted to buy a vast area of land to establish a kind of Utopia on a ‘South Sea island’. His grandiose dream was never realised. By the late 1820s, Horeke was reverberating to hammer blows and the screech of circular saws in New Zealand’s first ship-building yard.

At about the same time, the Wesleyan missionary, John Hobbs, opened a mission at Mangungu, a couple of kilometres away. I became increasingly intrigued as Peter recounted the colourful stories of the past. His account of the arrival of Captain William Hobson in the Hokianga on 12 February 1840 is powerfully evocative.

The Mangungu Mission cemetery is a beautiful final resting place

Hobson was ferried past the hotel, surrounded by a flotilla of waka, to the mission and the largest signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. I looked out over the harbour and called on my imagination to visualise the historical scene. It was six days after the signing at Waitangi.

The governor and his entourage had walked for three days from the east coast to the upper reach of the Hokianga, where they continued the journey by boat. Their endurance was remarkable. We’d driven through Okaihau and then plunged down a squirming road to get to Horeke and had witnessed the steep terrain they’d had to negotiate.

The Horeke tavern is also part of the Park Over Property (POP) scheme. We spent the night parked by the water’s edge. The only sounds were from the sloppy little waves licking through the mangroves. Next morning, we drove to the Mangungu Mission House (1839), another of Northland’s oldest buildings and perhaps its most elegant.

A flash of sunlight polishes the walls of the oldest hotel building in New Zealand

It was also in hibernation for winter, so we didn’t see the table on which the treaty was signed by no less than 70 rangatira, or chieftains. (Some of whom later regretted their decision.) In 1856, the occupier, missionary Reverend John Hobbs, moved to Auckland, taking with him the mission house, which was shipped piece by piece to Onehunga.

In 1972, it was returned to its original place on one of the most beautiful historical sites in the country. I walked through the old cemetery, where gravestones from the 1830s have survived. Most of the young occupants died by drowning. In the small timber chapel on the site, a cheerful Ngāpuhi man, who’d lived in Horeke all his life, told me of a plan to turn the church into a café. But it had been vigorously resisted.

The chapel at the Mangungu Mission was moved from Kohukohu

As we left, he called out: “You fellas take care on those roads, eh?” He was probably referring to the Horeke-Taheke road, which twists like an eel through swamps and kānuka forest to join the road to Opononi. Given the drenching weather, we heeded his advice.

That night in the campground at Opononi, the owner told us, perhaps hopefully, that it was for sale. We didn’t feel tempted. The road to Rawene, on the lip of the Hokianga Harbour, follows a mangrove-clogged inlet. The village has been spruced up since I was last there.

There was quite a buzz about the place. There are two cafes. The old courthouse, now the library, has had a coat of paint and The Wedge, a building on a corner named for its shape, has been similarly brightly coloured. It now houses a shop and museum called Simply Fun, where renowned puzzle designer, Louis Toorenburg, displays and sells thousands of mind-taxing puzzles from around the world.

Sunset over the Hokianga between storms

Crossing the harbour from Rawene to Kohukohu, however, is far less onerous than a brain teaser. The ferry leaves every hour, sliding quietly across the historic sheet of water which, 150 years ago, would have been jammed with kauri logs wrenched from the surrounding hills and towed down the harbour to the Kohukohu sawmills.

Once, about 50 locally built launches crisscrossed the Hokianga a week, conveying cream, timber, passengers, livestock and freight to the communities on either side. By the 1950s, improved roads had put an end to water transport. Today’s vehicular ferry is a flat, wooden barge that conveys three cars at a time, nudged along by a small tug.

Although the modern version, the Kohu Ra Tuarua, is powered by four Schottel jet engines and can take 24 vehicles per crossing, it is sometimes still referred to as ‘the barge’.
At that time of year, Kohukohu was in a coma. Flowers needed dead-heading, the campground was closed, and although the one coffee shop seemed to be open, no one was there to serve us.

We drove east and stayed at a delightful POP site on a lifestyle block near Mangamuka. Next morning, as we turned the motorhome towards home, the sky was bright blue, and sunshine was flickering through the trees. The Hokianga’s good humour had been restored.

Happy campers

The Cruise 4 motorhome parked outside the Mangungu Mission House

For this winter journey, Wilderness kindly let Bill and me a Cruise 4 motorhome, which is also known as a Bürstner Lyseo T7000. I was delighted. I had wanted to road-test a Lyseo for some time. It got the thumbs up for comfort, layout and the attention to detail in its design.

A permanent, expandable bed, as well as a double drop-down bed over the cab in a seven-metre motorhome, meant there were a few compromises in the rest of the space. Nonetheless, the layout worked well. The trick in a smaller space is to make sure daily routines are in place for ablutions, dressing, cooking and so on, and that every item is put away in the right spot.

Wilderness encourages anyone who is thinking of buying a motorhome to hire one and take it away for a week or so. The idea is to have a clear understanding of what features they need before making any decisions.

For more information on the Bürstner Lyseo T7000, visit wilderness.co.nz

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