It can be an epic journey there, and it’s a relatively short creek – complete with surprises. The adventure is well worth it, on both counts. With the good company of old shipmates – even better.

Port Charles. For this Up the Creek adventure you’ll need a boat and crew staunch enough to brave the often formidable Colville Channel between the Coromandel Peninsula and Aotea Great Barrier Island (unless you’re coming from the south – from Tauranga or Whitianga); a small dinghy or kayak; and walking shoes – or fold-up bicycles (every cruising boat should have them, I reckon).

Port Charles is seldom – if ever – mentioned in the cruising destinations of New Zealand. Which makes it all the more rewarding to visit. With a few cautions: it would not be a viable anchorage in any wind coming from the north, or northeast quarter. And the upper parts of the bay are quite shallow. But there are anchoring spots just by the public wharf on the southwest side of the bay, and in Carey Bay just opposite by a long shallow slipway, and semi-sheltered by a reef and a mussel farm just outside of that. Or at Sandy Bay, just over the headland from the Port Charles Wharf. But to repeat: not in anything that looks like a northerly.

We were there on the long weekend. With fresh sou’westers forecast. Very, as it turned out on our return. But that comes later in our story.

After leaving the more-than 100 boats anchored in Chamberlin’s Bay at the north end of Ponui Island , just east of Waiheke (it was Easter, after all), we found ourselves – after traversing the Ruthe Passage between Ponui and Rotoroa Islands – in splendid isolation. The only sail in the entire Hauraki Gulf. With the brisk wind pushing us straight down to Port Jackson.

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At first the creek offers a placid and inviting paddle on a kayak. Water for small dinghies at high tide.
Classic Kiwi holiday landscape: bach like a barn, boat tractor on the beach.

Rounding up, we were treated to a fast flat-water fetch, with Skyborne (our 12m Schionning sailing catamaran) and her humans revelling in the breeze and spectacular views.

At Port Charles, we were one of only two yachts anchored there. And we each enjoyed the dramatic landscape surrounding us, with Mt Moehau, the highest point in the Coromandel Peninsula looming over us. Spectacular rock spires. Miles and miles of regenerating bush, home to kiwi. And, flightless ourselves now once at anchor, we slowed right down to enjoy the authentic Kiwi cruising experience. This was truly off the beaten track.

Port Charles settlement is pretty remote by road too – more than an hour by car from Coromandel town, over the mountain ridge on a wiggly road, with the last part turning to gravel. Not to be rushed. A true getaway by car, too.

Political cartoon from 1912
Government steamer Tutanekai lays the telephone cable to Great Barrier Island.

That road was only completed in 1928. A New Zealand Herald article of the time talks about its official opening when the Minister of Public works Hon. K S Williams, travelled the road for the first time, taking a good few hours – half a day in fact – from ‘early morning and arriving shortly after noon.’ We’re told that ‘On arrival at Port Charles, the party was welcomed by Mr E A Florance, and was entertained to an open-air luncheon cooked in native fashion. After a sports programme the assembly went to the end of the road, where Mrs Beatson cut a ribbon across the road, over which she later drove in company with the Minister.’

To help make the place more accessible, the flat area at the head of the beach served as an aircraft runway and landing strip, back in the day.

A Hauraki Plains Gazette article of 27 January 1933 on the visit of another MP, concludes with this delicious wee detail: “People who were on Athenree Beach yesterday quickly learned of the force of the wind created by the propellers of the Southern Cross. To taxi, the big ‘plane the engines have to be sped up considerably, and those standing behind it as it moved away found the wind sufficient to blow their hats away, to blow sand and water into their faces, and crabs against their legs.’ It is not recorded whether the crabs survived the ordeal.

Coffee this way.
Dramatic rock flutes on the NE heads.

More aircraft news, from NZPA, 1 April 1950. And no, this was not an April Fool’s joke.

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‘The pilot of the Auckland Aero Club’s Tiger Moth which crash-landed and overturned in shallow water at Port Charles on January 8, Terence John Wilson Dutton, aged 22, appeared in the Magistrates Courts today charged with failing to exercise due care and flying at such a low altitude he caused unnecessary danger…

Pleading guilty to both charges, Dutton said he had been grounded for life, and would have to pay $341, the cost of repairing the aeroplane.

Then the kicker. The reason, that explains all: ‘Sub-inspector M E Lines said Dutton had a girlfriend at Port Charles.’ Aha!

Best hot chocolate at Tangairo Kiwi Retreat.

It’s not recorded whether the girlfriend stayed with him after all this.

The te reo Māori name for the bay is Te Tangi Aronui o Kahumatamomoe – the reflective tears of Kahumatamomoe, shed after he buried his father there, the captain of the original Te Arawa waka moana (voyaging canoe).

Port Charles was visited and named – after who, we don’t rightly know – by Captain Cook on his first voyage in 1769-70.

Port Charles is among the very many once-were coastal ports that dot the New Zealand shores. They all have a story of heyday (associated with resource extraction that couldn’t last) turning to halcyon days now (as in laid-back bach territory). And in between these two ends of the tale, there’s always much local history.

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Lesley welcomes Up-the-Creekers back
Greg steers us home.

This is best delved into with the book, A History of Port Charles by Drs Mark and Elizabeth Goodwin. It’s in the National Library and also available online from Lulu. They are Locals who escaped the world of research science, for what appears to be pursuing their own interests.

Of the spousal authors team, Mark Goodwin is also honey bee scientist. He’s also produced a photographic guide to the Birds of Port Charles, and more arcane monograph, The New Zealand History of Toxic Honey. The blurb: ‘As well as descriptions of the poisoning incidents, the history includes a description of the efforts of beekeepers, beekeeping advisors, doctors, and scientists who took 80 years to identify the source of the poison, and regulators who attempted to eliminate the problem. The last reported poisonings occurred as recently as 2008 when 22 people were poisoned after consuming toxic honey from the Coromandel Peninsula.’

The book covers the older settler history of the bay, especially the immense amount of kauri logging that took place here.

The cable comes ashore in 1908
Scow Winnie loading sheep.

In 1865, one Robert Cashmore acquired the timber on the Tangiaronui block and started building a sawmill when a dispute occurred with local Māori owners. The build was temporarily halted.

Charles J.W. Kensington took over the mill but went bankrupt in December 1866. By 1875 Pollard & Co were the owners, then George Holdship who also established The Auckland Timber Co. Ltd. in December 1877. G. Holdship were agents for the mill in 1874.

The Auckland Timber Co. Ltd. sold out to The Kauri Timber Co, which closed the mill in 1889. Machinery was removed in 1890. This was impressive, and included a vertical breakingdown bench and circular saw breast bench driven by a 20hp steam engine.

The mill processed 50,000 feet of timber every week, and employed 50 men in the mill and in the surrounding bush.

The wharf was built soon after 1910. They paid £200 for it in 1915, then a further same amount was requested to build the approach road.

A schoolhouse was established on the beach in 1907, later moved to Sandy Bay in the 1940s.

The post office there was interesting. It opened 1 April 1893, and closed 15 October 1953. In between it operated a Great Barrier Pigeongram service from 1900, sending flimsies (lovely word!). The small notes on lightweight paper attached to the birds’ legs until a telephone cable was laid from Great Barrier Island in 1908, coming ashore at Port Charles. In the 1920s there was a trial airmail service via seaplane. But there are no surviving airmail covers or stamps known to still exist.

Lest we think of Port Charles and the remote Coromandel townships and farms isolated only by 2023 Cyclone Gabrielle, here’s a reminder this has been happening for a while. The Press on 19 April 1971 reported in a headline that ‘Coromandel floods isolate settlement’.

Kiwi sculpture half hidden.
Seagulls cleaning the tinnie.

Going on to say, ‘The only contact with the outside world, Mr J Smith who runs a marine radio at Port Charles, today spoke to Auckland Radio. But, apart from emphasising that ‘We’re Ok,’ he gave little information…’

It was left to the intrepid reporter to add the colour: ‘From the air this afternoon, the road winding down to the Port Charles from the Coromandel ranges looked like the Ho Chi Min Trail.’

But we digress. As you do in the laid-back atmosphere of Port Charles. Greg and I had an Up the Creek to do. Lesley and Fleur opted to stay on anchor watch. Laid back.

The creek is called Tangiaro Stream. Stream being the operative word. For it is modest, though beautiful, and extends merely a small-boat-navigable kilometre inland, before rendering itself to shallow shingle bed, and riffling wee rapids.

Bloke and his mate on the wharf
Bloke in sand boat on the beach

A good variety of birds. We saw gulls and shags of different species, tōrea pango oystercatchers, tūturiwhatu NZ dotterels and a moho pererū banded rail, usually secretive, but this one unconcernedly foraging on the creek bank right by us.

With Greg in the rubber dinghy snapping pictures, and me in the kayak, I felt we were overqualified. Greg is the head of school of journalism at Auckland University of Technology. But no matter, he was having great fun finding the best photo angles from the tiny dinghy.

Mark Twain would be proud of Greg and me, I thought, as we did our Huck and Tom thaing. Only with higher-level philosophising, I’ll avow. For I reckon we fixed the world while about it.

Forest guardian carving at the spa at the Tangairo Kiwi Retreat
Alex grinds, Skyborne sliding along at 12 knots in a flat-water fetch.

The anchor watch crew text to remind us that we forgot to take water bottles. (There’s surprisingly good cell phone reception throughout the bay). Greg sends a SMS picture back that says: ‘Not far to the coffee shop!’

Now’s where it gets interesting. For the boating adventure turns into a stroll (or a flat bike ride) on a classic Kiwi country road alongside the creek. One-lane bridges – including one with a built-in relaxing bench seat. Local blokes in utes, or on tractors with grandchildren also aboard. Coromandel laptops. Slowing to nod hello.

A pair of the biggest, most placid Hereford bulls observing us with scant interest. I bet he’s called ‘Big Boy’, says Greg with a nod to the big bloke. Who says nothing in return.

Visitors’ cars going a bit faster. No nods, no slow.

The colourful ‘Welcome to Port Charles’ sign suggests we slow down. In Shanks Pony mode, I’m already well in compliance.

Skyborne in the bay with The Pinnacles behind.

Surprise! At an interp sign outlining the local conservation efforts by the Moehau Environment Group (MEG), and the kiwi listening post nearby, we find a groovy Corten steel statue of a giant kiwi. It’s placed demurely in the shade. It needs walking speed to see it.

MEG and the community do good work. They have made a significant improvement in the quality of the surrounding bush habitat through pest control, with a healthy recovering kiwi population. They’ve also been able to re-introduce pāteke brown teal, and toutouwai North Island robins.

The big benefit of this Up the Creek is to come upon, just next to the rural fire brigade, the Tangiaro Kiwi Retreat, a very stylish lodge. Where Kylie Strongman behind the counter will see you right with the most impressive hot chocolate in the history of hot chocolates. And some darn fine loaded wedges too.

Alex greets the locals – no rush

Local craft beer Stony Bay is brewed right on the premises. Greg and I caught up on local news – professional interest and a shared passion – by reading the Coromandel community newspapers. It was good to see a stack of Boating NZ magazines in their lounge too.

And their spa pools and massage rooms tucked away by the creek in a mystic grove look like my kinda place. Attended to by an impressive kauri carving by Paora Matenga of Tane and Tangaroa that has real presence, real mana.

Back down the creek was equally relaxed.

But leaving the bay to head home to Waiheke, Coastguard nowcasting had 40 knots in the Colville Channel from the SW. Bang on the nose for us. Err…Two reefs in advance. With Lesley expertly calling tacks into the shore to get out of the biggest waves, Skyborne excelled in the conditions, doing 10 knots and more to windward. We were outta there in no time. When we got out of the hectic stuff, Greg and Lesley plotted a more comfortable course to Man O’ War Bay. While I lay down and had a cuppa tea.

Shag takes off
Underwater lichen colours.

We arrived after dark. And still had to get through the Skyborne saloon tradition of a few after-dinner rounds of Bananagram. Naturally Greg nailed us all in the word game. Fleur, Lesley and I acceded gracefully (we think).

We communed with dolphins that visited us in phosphorescent haloes on our night sail home. At Port Charles we paid our respects to a wide variety of sea- and shorebirds. We yarned with locals on the wharf and the beach. Kids on a fine pōhutukawa tree swing. We reminisced about 70s bach architecture – A-frames and all. And at the Tangiaro Kiwi Retreat, I think we found the centre of the universe.

A splendid, classic Kiwi Up the Creek adventure in all! BNZ

Locals hurrying home with fish.