This is an Up the Creek adventure that can be approached in both directions: either by car, downstream from a skyline of magnificent views, or upstream by dinghy from your boat moored in the bay. We did both and can’t decide which was our favourite. You choose.

For a start, the ‘in the bay’ option comes with a caution. Okains Bay is the fourth bay eastwards around the indented coast of Banks Peninsula from Lyttelton, so an easy day-sail from there. But, unlike all other Banks Peninsula anchorages, this is a wide, NE-facing bay, so frequently exposed to an epic Pacific Ocean swell. Not always safe to overnight – certainly we were too cautious to but spent daylight hours there while on a cruise from Akaroa back to Lyttelton.

Previously, from Akaroa, we had borrowed a shipmate’s car and got there over the hill. Following the Opara River down from Highway 75 and Summit Road, we came to the ultimate New Zealand waterside destination. An historic town. Check. A unique museum. Check. A creek, brimful with stories. A beach and a quiet country campsite. A sky full of stars. And for people fascinated with interesting old boats – you’ll think you’ve arrived in heaven. Tick all these boxes.

A strip-plank double-ended surfboat of Greek design awaiting restoration.

Once anchored in Okains Bay, it’s a trip in your dinghy to cross the sandbar and enter the estuary at the western end of the beach. Used to be you could get a coastal sailing ship in here – but, Canterbury style, the earth has since moved. Massively. More on that later. Then it’s a 3.5km tootle up the creek, going under a low bridge – two if you want to get to the old church.

You can also approach Okains Bay and the Opara River overland. By slow and very scenic road from Christchurch or Lyttelton via Highway 75, about 85km or an hour and 30 minutes. Or by an even slower and more scenic road via Governor’s Bay, Teddington, Diamond Harbour, Pūrau, Port Levy, Pigeon Bay and Little Akaloa. For this route, given the frequent stops you’ll need for photoshoots, think in terms of a whole day’s journey.

Either way, you’ll be richly rewarded. For at Okains Bay is New Zealand’s most remarkable country museum. You can’t miss it from your dinghy, for there’s a boathouse on your left (southern) bank housing two huge waka. Just past the railway tracks used for slipping the waka on their cradles, there’s a landing stage to tie up to.

You’ve arrived. And here’s where you’ll learn that Okains Bay Museum is unique also for its extraordinary collection of watercraft. A fleet of waka to rival that of Te Papa’s, including Kahukākā – an original, restored waka tētē (a fishing boat) from the 1870s, and Kōtukumairangi a full-size replica waka tāngata (a people-mover) built in the 1990s, both in that boatshed on the estuary’s edge.

An old whaler’s boat being restored behind the scenes at the museum.

The old waka tētē has an epic story. Built in 1870 in the Waitōtara Valley, north of Whanganui, it had a motor installed in 1915 and plied coastal routes as a trading vessel. It was admired for tracking straight and true – which is odd, for a close look at the hull now reveals it’s not entirely symmetrical. After the Second World War, Kahukākā languished unloved on the riverbank at Kaiwhaiki. A 3m tree even grew in her hull. Boatshed blokes may be interested in some epic stats about her restoration in the 1970s: “Over 1,250 feet of half-inch dowel was inserted along the hull to tie the whole canoe together, and gallons of low-density Epifill epoxy filler used to both glue and gel sections together.” As was then fashionable in the museum world, carved rauawa (top boards), tauihu (bow figurehead), and taurapa (sternpost) were added to re-style the waka as a ‘war canoe’.

Then, “A 1941 Ford truck, last used to take its owner to the  Wairewa Urupā had been stripped and cut in two, with another chassis welded in the centre. This was used to carry the waka.” (From an information panel in the waka shed.)

Be there on Waitangi Day, as we were, and you’ll be privileged to see the new waka going out with a full crew of fit, young Ngāi Tahu paddlers. (Apparently the old waka leaks too much.) Just across the road at the museum is another shed filled with many other smaller waka – the everyday fishing waka tētē or those used for trading or local travel or by kids back in the day.

The museum entrance and the punt Kate, named after Kate Sheppard.

All this beyond the expected country museum exhibits like old buildings (including an entire sports pavilion!), a working blacksmith shop, horse and cart tack, agricultural implements and machines, vintage vehicles of every kind, an old-style print shop, period fashion and culinary stuff aplenty.

Other drawcards are the pātaka (raised storehouse) and whare whakairo (carved house), both rarely seen in a rural museum setting.

This is all the legacy of one remarkable man, Murray Thacker, who devoted his life to the collection at Okains Bay Museum. He was interested in taonga Māori from throughout New Zealand and could speak some te reo Māori. But his collection grew ever wider due to his policy of taking any donations – especially those the established museums couldn’t be bothered with. Or which were in the too-much-hassle basket. This included the complete historic Akaroa Rugby Pavilion, slated for demolition, which Murray and his mates in typical fashion dismantled, moved over the hills, and re-assembled themselves. There’s a book that should be written about him. I’ve put my hand up for that project. (See sidebar.)

The blacksmith with his roaring furnace really hogged Lesley’s lens

But perhaps the most remarkable element to the Okains Bay Museum is the collection of boats of significant Pākehā heritage; and going back more than 150 years. There’s the second Sumner lifeboat called Aid, one of two propelled by oars, of course. There are whalers and fine clinker dinghies aplenty. There are antique rowing shells, lapstrake built from tōtara. A replica Waimakariri dory built by Rick from 14×1-inch kauri planks. An early, if not the first, Avon River punt named after Kate Sheppard. Most intriguingly, an example of the double-ended surfboats of Greek design (!) that loaded and unloaded the first ships arriving at Port Nicholson, now Wellington, in the 1830s and 1840s. And which were also used as fishing boats by the immigrant fishermen at Island Bay.

Here’s where local knowledge counts. If you’re interested in these European-heritage boats, ask for a look-see behind the scenes, for almost all of them are undergoing conservation work as part of a multi-year plan devised by nautical historian Peter McCurdy. We were fortunate to be introduced to Rick Flatman, who is overseeing this work. Wendy Riley, the manager of the museum, noted our interest in the waka, and offered the extra treat. “You need to talk to Rick.” And so, we did – me for hours, blokes’ heaven yarning about old boats, while Lesley was engrossed with the fertile photo safari the museum offers on all fronts. The blacksmith with his roaring furnace really caught her eye and hogged her lens.

Back to the boats: In 2016, Rick was asked to look at the restoration of the museum’s whalers. Now he’s full-time, totally committed to the entire collection. It’s an obsession with him: “Without boats, mate, we’re nothing. Boats are the beginning of evolution.”

As for the Sumner lifeboat, “She’s going to float again, come hell or high water.” Interestingly, in Peter’s comprehensive conservation plan, he advises that several of the boats are beyond floating again; and the goal for those is more museum-type conservation. But yes, the Sumner lifeboat will float again.

Part of the museum’s collection of old waka

More arcane stuff: Rick showed us the code engraved in the stemhead of a whaler identifying its builder and boatyard.

That hell and high water Rick spoke about has come to Okains Bay in the past. What is now the shallow estuary with a sandbar entrance, was once a wide river deep enough for coastal trading ships to enter and tie up at a wharf.

After Captain William Clifford set up as a shipwright in Okains Bay in 1849, trading schooners and scows built there ran a litany of lovely names: Catherine Anne, Gypsy, Julia Anne, Maiden City. Timber was sent under sail to Lyttelton aboard the Catherine, Lilly, Deveron, and Minnie, which was wrecked right there. Some of the farmers in the district invested in bigger ships built further afield: Maid of the Mill, Alert, Jannett, Backwell and Sea Devil. Then there were the yachts built in the valley: Margaret, (a 20-ton ketch, 1865), Eagle (double-ended ketch, 1856) and Catherine (1874).


Back then, Okains Bay was exporting milled timber and grass seeds and honey and dairy produce, including its famous cheese. An earthquake and three-metre tsunami in 1868 buggered up the bed of the river; it’s now decidedly tidal and dries out almost completely at low tide, so you’ll have to time your dinghy trip just right.

The 27-ton schooner Maiden City ran aground in 1875. That was the end of the river being used.

After the estuary changed, the ships docked at a succession of three wharves, the first built in 1875 – but these were each destroyed by the big waves that can enter the bay. The Pier Hotel disappeared too. After the third wharf which stretched into deeper water was built in 1912, the bigger steamers Monica and John Anderson were able to service the bay.

Okains Bay’s replica waka.

The demise of New Zealand’s coastal shipping in the middle of the 1900s – a result of the ever-improving road and rail network – means that those jetties now only exist in the faded memories of historical photographs.

But to spend time in Okains Bay is to live in both the realm of history and the here-and-now.

For the township includes a precinct of 19th century buildings, clustered in a main street that authentically takes you back in time.

There’s the Okains Bay Library (1860), St John the Evangelist Church (1863), the old school (1872), the Okains Bay Store (1873), and the seed store (1880 – 1908?). All of these are New Zealand heritage buildings, recognised by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

The Okains Bay Store is the real deal. It’s one of the earliest store-and-dwelling complexes on Banks Peninsula and has been operating almost continuously since being built by John Robinson. His brother William managed the store and added a post office to the building in 1892. The property was purchased by Murray Thacker in 1972 and he transferred it to the museum in 2010. The store is open most days for snacks, drinks and ice creams. It was gifted by the Museum to the Okains Bay Enhancement Society in 2021.

Opened in May 1860, the Okains Bay Library was the first public Library on Banks Peninsula. It was part of Henry Torlesse’s work, as Vicar. His mission: to provide an alternative to the drunkenness and other lawless activities that prevailed there in the early days of Pākehā settlement. He bought land from a local cow-cockie John Fluerty and, with the help of Arthur Tucson, 220 books were collected within a year with another 500 on order from England.

The seed store is one of the few remaining cocksfoot seed sheds on Banks Peninsula. Cocksfoot grass seed production was a major industry on the peninsula from the late 19th until the early 20th century with the seed being sold both nationally and internationally. The Okains Bay seed store was built sometime between 1880 and 1908. It also became the local blokes’ meeting place and had a pool table inside. Wendy from the museum tells me, “The Okains Bay seed store was used in a film shoot and the sign that says ‘Okains Bay Garage’ was never removed so it often gets mistaken for being something it isn’t.”

Some of the waka paddles and one of the museum’s old waka in its shed, showing its fine bow carving.

If you’re wondering where the name comes from, its genesis in uncertain. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand says it was named by one Captain Hamilton, “who, while passing in his vessel, happened to be reading a book written by Okain (O’Kane), an Irish naturalist.”

From before those times, the Māori history of the area is well known: it is the rohe of Te Rūnanga o Koukourarata whose marae, Tūtehuarewa, is based at nearby Koukourarata (Port Levy). Okains has been a place of Māori occupation and activity by Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu for many generations.

The groves of karaka trees at Kawatea (Little Okains Bay) to the east of the main beach attracted the Ngāi Tahu rangatira Moki while leading his expeditionary force south in the great waka Makawhiua in the 18th century. Now, Ōkeina is the Māori
transliteration of the name ‘Okains Bay’.

If country walking is your thing, Wendy has more local advice. “Aside from the easy Millennium Bridge Loop by the river, there is a great walk to Little Okains Bay Kawatea that starts from the back of the cattle yard near the beach end and takes the walker up a steep but short track, from Okains and down into Kawatea, where there is a strong chance you’ll be the only one there!

“The adventurous can try taking the track from the hillside of the car park which takes you past the remains of the jetties, but they will have to negotiate the tide and some jagged rocks to get all the way to Kawatea. It is a dramatic walk even if you don’t make it all the way as the ocean crashes into the rocks on the left.” Good luck!

Okains Bay – a destination off the beaten track that ticks a bundle of the best kind of boxes. And an Up the Creek with the best back stories, and more old boats than you can shake a stick at. Right on! BNZ


Okains Bay Museum began as the private collection of Murray Thacker, the great-grandson of the earliest Pākehā to settle in Okains Bay. At age nine, Murray acquired his first taonga Māori – a small toki pounamu gifted to him by neighbour Fred Waldron. While still a teenager, he bought Waldron’s entire collection, which had been fossicked from Stony Bay and Pānau in the 1930s and 1940s. Murray’s great uncle, Christopher Bodkin (‘Old CB’) Thacker, was also a collector of Māori ‘curios’, including taonga personally fossicked from Okains. Murray inherited some of these and also fossicked himself before it became unlawful.

Murray went to Christchurch Boys High, then trained as a blacksmith. He came back to Okains to manage his own farm which became a successful Hereford stud.

The Museum began as a private collection in his own home. He bought the old cheese factory and then spent the next nine years setting up the museum. He was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal shortly after gifting the Museum collection in 1977.

In 2009 he was awarded the A C Rhodes History Medal by the Canterbury History Foundation. “The result of his work is one of the country’s outstanding local museums.”

He died in 2017, but his legacy lives on.