Alex and Lesley Stone and old shipmate Tony Hards venture up the Whangateau Estuary and Omaha River

For this Up the Creek adventure you’ll need a small boat and a large appetite – for tricky navigation, old boats and boatyards, absorbing history, and craft beers in equal measure. An Up the Creek with a brewery as a destination. What’s not to like? But wait – there’s a catch. Read on.

To get there, it’s a 36-nautical-mile trip north of Auckland or Waiheke (where we left from), past Kawau Island, the Tawharanui Peninsula, and then into the deep Omaha Bay and the harbour mouth at the northern end of Omaha surf beach.

Here’s where your navigation test starts, with the chartplotter warning not to enter the sometimes shoaling, fastcurrent-flowing Whangateau Harbour entrance without local knowledge. So time it for slack or incoming tide, and be sure to keep to the deepest water if you have a deep draught boat.

Once inside the harbour mouth, the wide estuary welcomes you. But it’s deceptive, for most of it is very shallow. There are moorings and a limited anchoring space just behind Ti Point on the right of the harbour entrance, with a public jetty there too. Straight ahead is a tidal channel leading to the Whangateau Traditional Boatyard. To the left is a line of moorings in a channel leading southwards just behind the Omaha sandspit. We noticed these boats tugging fiercely at their mooring chains in a brisk current, their mooring buoys bobbing with the strain.


The Whangateau is of note because it’s a relatively small catchment area – 4,190ha in extent, with the furthest point inland only 4km from the sea. It’s well defined by the commanding mountain Tamahunga (440m high), the surrounding ridgelines, and the magnificent estuary.

The southern arm of the harbour is defined by the broad Waikokopu Creek (‘whitebait water’). That’s the one tugging at the moorings, with help from the Omaha River channel too. Whangateau in te reo Māori means ‘the bay of strong currents.’ The steep northern hillsides are covered with native bush and smaller pockets of pine plantations. The lower hillsides are mostly open pasture, while rich organic peat soil of the flats supports horticulture.

Ngāti Manuhiri are the mana whenua of the Whangateau region. The marae is at Leigh (but it’s actually called Omaha), and the iwi’s influence also extends to Hauturu Little Barrier Island.

There are moorings and limited anchorages behind Ti Point.

The marae at Leigh is the only one on the east coast between Orewa and Whangarei, an indication of the loss of cultural ‘footprint’ for the various iwi. Several impressive pou whenua in the beach settlement at Omaha mark the presence of Ngāti Manuhiri.

Locals will tell you of carefree picnics on the beach at Omaha Spit – up to the 1960s, it was still a wild and private place, accessible only by boat from the northern sides of the harbour. Like so many lovely places, the secret was hard to keep.

In the 1970s a major residential development was proposed for Omaha Beach, set to introduce a completely new community to the Whangateau Harbour. First a causeway was built, creating a direct link between Point Wells and Omaha Beach, and bisecting a large section of the harbour. A new wave of ‘settlers’ appeared in the holiday home resort. Driving through the new settlement, you’ll notice two distinct phases of development reflected in the architecture. The northern part of the spit was developed in the late 1970s; the southern end was consented in 2000, and houses here are arrestingly contemporary in design. There’s now a flash golf course too. That the fancy baches area was chosen as the set for a film about a strangely-abandoned futuristic town perhaps says something… Anyway, we were after simpler pleasures; and headed past a busy boat ramp and up the marked channel of the Omaha River to the much-photographed Big Omaha Wharf.

Darroch’s shipbuilding yard in 1908, and the shipbuilding team in 1901.


The building of the wharf at Big Omaha in 1880 marked a significant point in settler history, allowing passengers and freight to be transferred to and from boats with ease, and creating a focal point for the wider community.

At first this wharf was called ‘Parapara’ – the name of the pā on the hill above (perhaps a variant of its true name Pourau Pauru, ‘a place of rites’).

In 1915 Jack Walden’s shop was built next to the wharf, and from 1926, Big Tree petrol was dispensed from here. It was the only petrol station between Whangarei and Warkworth!

The back of the building jutted out over the water, so stores could be loaded directly in the store. Ina Shaw, Jack Walden’s daughter, remembers “I used to love looking at the water through the shop floor timbers”.

The Big Omaha wharf was repaired and extended 12 years later, and an entirely new concrete wharf constructed in 1924/5. At this stage, a timber extension of the wharf projected a further 6m out over the water.

Until the 1930s the wharf was a vital part of the transport system between the Whangateau, Auckland, and the rest of the North Island – the buzzing centre of the community, with scows (and later, coastal steamers) coming and going all the time.

With Omaha surf beach in the background, a fishing boat heads out of Whangateau’s harbour mouth. You can see the strength of the current here too.

Previously, there had been a significant shipbuilding in the Whangateau. Thanks to the Meiklejohn family, who saw the potential of the sheltered harbour and the wooded hills, this area became a major boatbuilding hub at the turn of the 19th century. They were an energetic bunch – six of patriarch James Strange Mieklejohn and his wife Catherine Mustard’s seven sons were with them – and they established two shipyards in the Whangateau. One up the Omaha River, near the crossing of the present Quintal Road, and another in Birdsall Creek, just north of the Big Omaha Wharf.


The Meiklejohns built 21 ships, including the brigantine Omaha, a topsail schooner Eunice, and several hard-working scows for the coastal trade. The scows were developed by James Meiklejohn and his son Septimus for local conditions, being wide, strong, and flat-bottomed, capable of carrying great loads of timber, and being loaded on sandflats when the tide was out.

Just north of the Big Omaha Wharf was Darroch’s Yard, which kept operating on this site from 1883 to 1921, and 38 scows were built – mostly smaller (40-80 tons) than those built by the Meiklejohns. Māori were employed in the shipyards – the supervisors found them especially skilled in adzing the curved frames.

You can visit Darroch’s site, and see remnants of the quayside, and an information board explaining more. It’s just a short walk from Big Omaha Wharf.

Back in the day, Alex wrote the info for the signs about the old Darroch’s Shipyard. This is where the scow Jane Gifford was built.
The Quintal Road bridge close to the Sawmill Brewery.

The scows were the lifeblood of the harbour. Overland travel in the late 1800s and early 1900s was difficult because of often impassable roads. It’s hard for us to appreciate now, but the Whangteau was more connected to Auckland by the sea in those days – the harbour mouth was its font door and the sea its main road.

But first we had to moor our 12m cat Skyborne. There’s a little basin just past the wharf, and mindful of swinging in the narrow channel when the tide turned, we set anchors fore and aft. And lifted our rudders all set for our venture further Up the Creek on the rubber dinghy in the morning with the incoming tide. Good call – as low tide gave us just over a metre of water there.

Lesley joined us via car to bring her camera up that fine creek too. Three folk in a small blow-up boat.

The first sight was a huge pōhutukawa tree, overhanging the water with a flock of funky spoonbills waking up after sleeping late. And on the other side of the tree, nesting shags. Three fledglings, grown as big as their parents but still not flying, were tight for space in the single nest. Which led to comparisons with us three people in our wee dinghy.

Onwards! Up past the Point Wells Flats, once famous for gum digging, then raising chickens and growing cucumbers (!). The channel was easy to find just by staying in the visibly moving water.

The famous boutique Sawmill Brewery
Skyborne at Big Omaha Wharf, anchored fore and aft, with rudders raised because of the limited water here at low tide

The mountain Tamahunga brooding down on us set to mind the story of during the Land Wars in the 1860s, when some Tainui warriors who had been taken prisoner at Rangiriri were exiled from the Waikato and incarcerated on an old ship hulk near Kawau Island.

With the help of local Ngāti Wai chief Te Kiri, they escaped in eight whaleboats supplied by local Māori, and made a campsite on the upper slopes of Tamahunga – and for months unsettled the Pākehā settlers in the area by making (quite polite, actually) raids for food and supplies.

This from the Meiklejohn family history: “Mrs John Meiklejohn, with four small children, was in a three-roomed shack at the Lower Yard when 50 of the Waikato [Māori], who had escaped from Kawau, stalked up to her door. Luckily, they only asked for a drink of water and went away.”

But for the Tainui warriors, their fight was not with the Whangateau people. By the end of the affair, none of the local settlers was injured, as the escapees slowly slipped away, returning to their homes in the Waikato.

Built in 1896 the Whangateau Community Hall is the oldest in the Auckland Region. It has a flash new flag, though.

We were also seeking sustenance to be sure; and made it up to the bridge over the creek at Quintal Road, a mere hundred yards from the famed Smoko Room at the Sawmill Brewery. But we were agonizingly thwarted by fences and private property at the bridge. No place to scramble up to the road. Arggh! So near and yet so…

The best option would be to unload your folding bikes (every cruising boat should have them) and cycle the three kilometres from Big Omaha Wharf. Or maybe staunch kayakers could get there up a tributary creek at high tide. If they were thirsty enough and prepared to get muddy.

Other land-based adventures around Whangateau include hiking up the Tamahunga Trail, or rock-climbing at a cliff face at Ti Point. There’s plenty for shore parties to do. I was impressed with the pissoir at the Whangateau Community Hall (built in 1898), which had a window at head height so you wouldn’t miss a second of the rugby action on the fields beyond.

Sunday was devoted to chillin’ elsewhere in the lovely Whangateau Estuary. First some tricky manoeuvring raising our bow and stern anchors in not much water to move down to Ti Point, then laid-back kite flying, then a fine lunch followed by an afternoon tiki tour around other arms of the harbour. We took in the historic hall (with its very fine flag), a traditional boatyard full of more-than-interesting old boats, flash homes and basic baches side-by-side on the waterfront, all the while passing over eagle rays flying silently beneath us in the clearest of water.

The harbour still hasn’t recovered from a crash in the once-abundant cockles population. This pic also shows the extent of the sand flats.

The sandbanks of the Whangateau have long been known as a prolific habitat for cockles. One estimate put the cockle population of the harbour at 600 million! So it seemed there would always be a sustainable cockles population, for locals and visitors alike, as long as we all held to the limit of 50 cockles per person per day. That would also leave enough for wading birds, octopus, the eleven-armed starfish, and eagle rays that feed on them.

That was before a massive, and inexplicable, die-off of cockles in February-May 2009. It was the locals who first alerted scientists and fisheries officials to the problem. A pre-school teacher driving along the coastal road thought something smelled strange… Soon, 80% of the Whangateau’s cockles were dead, mostly the bigger ones.

Why? Like many examples of species crash, this one had three major contributing factors. It was a triple hit. First, the summer of 2008-9 was unusually hot, with unusually high (and low) tides. This left cockles baking on the sand flats longer than normal. There were also indications of attack by parasites (species unknown), and a bacterial infection (from a bacterium normally present in seawater, but now the cockles were susceptible to it in their weakened state).

Whangateau’s Traditional Boatyard is in the northern arms of the harbour, in Coxhead Creek.

After much discussion, MAF-initiated rāhui closure began in March 2010. Once the closure was in effect, early indications were that the young cockles that survived were growing and reproducing normally again. But the harbour is still closed, and it will take years for cockle-gathering to be back to what it was.

Sunday evening is when the weather became interesting for us. One usually reliable forecast promised a 10 to 15-knot easterly to get us home to Waiheke Island. The mirror image of our trip north, and equally perfect in prospect. Another forecast, used more often by windsurfers, who are naturally more keen on more wind, offered a possible 20 to 30-knot easterly. Ummm… That wind blew up in the night, and we knew we’d be facing something of a seaway to beat out of Omaha Bay and get around Takatu Point. With the breeze approaching that more optimistic (for windsurfers) forecast, that leg became something of a stern challenge. The champagne quality of the spray became decidedly chilled. As did the rain squalls. Still, it was fine sailing of the yeknow-ye’re-alive type. And a test for seamanship skills.

But here’s the curious thing: both passages, in such different conditions, took us exactly the same time: four hours each way. Which for me is something of poetic symmetry. That two days in the Gulf can be so much the same as the other – and yet at the same time so very different in core conditions. And all pivoting around a memorable Up the Creek adventure.