Alex and Lesley Stone and whanau venture up the Maitai Creek, to the very centre of New Zealand.

Our Up the Creek adventure starts at Ruby’s shiny silver coffee cart, a new Nelson institution. Established two years to the day before our outing, Ruby and her crew have proved to be a real anti-Covid success story. The locals frequent her place on the edge of the Nelson Marina. Bean bags on the lawn, free plums, and terrific pastries – the cinnamon brioches a standout.

The Maitai Creek, which heads inland through the centre of Nelson city, lies just to the east of the marina breakwater and Ruby’s cart. It’s to take us to the centre of New Zealand. Well, sort of. A monument on a hill claims this fame, we’re told, though our party immediately debates exactly what constitutes this definition. We’ll see.

The locals I ask about our Up the Creek journey seem bemused at first. With good reason, as all is revealed later. This Up the Creek comes with a distinct tidal caution. On the day we head up, there’s a king tide of 4.7m (!) – well above the Nelson average of an impressive 4m tide.

So, the creek at first appears wide and inviting. You could easily get up in an outboard boat, with this high incoming tide. Two of us opt to paddle the kayaks from our base at Nelson Marina; the other three members of our whanau travel on foot along the lovely riverside walk, with Lesley keeping the camera dry. Initially, the boat people have to paddle out in the opposite direction beyond the commercial fishing docks, round the mole to starboard, to reach the creek on the other side.

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First stop past Ruby’s is where Saltwater Creek joins from the west. A commanding corten steel sculpture of a waka taua sternpost overlooks this spot, attended by a serious anchor stone carved from argillite.

Entering Matai
Creek at high tide.

Just there is a floating dock for visiting motorboats, adding to our sense of security. We’re on the right track!

In fact, this Up the Creek becomes something of a sculpture extravaganza, with us marvelling at what Nelson city must have invested in all these artworks. Just up from the waka work, is a magnificent Phil Price piece, one of those fluid, organic, endlessly moving-in-the-wind forms of superlative engineering and seductive aesthetics. Just beyond, again, is a lovely female form, a serene Papatuanuku figure cradling a takahē in her lap, and artfully placed, half-hidden (I imagine at the sculptor’s request) in a bed of flax bushes.

From the river here, we see native plantings right down to the water’s edge, and tūīs feeding on the nectar. Hold on! One’s not a tūī – it’s a European starling. My scientist daughter Zoë, paddling the other kayak, tells me that British ornithologists are studying this, as starlings are not nectar-feeders in Europe. Maybe they have learned from the tūī. I’m tempted to say “Yeah, right”, but there it is, right in front of me.

Pulled up on the bank beside ‘Taurapa,’ a corten steel waka taua scuplture.
More street art under the Matai Creek brdge.

A couple are sitting at a riverside restaurant opposite, next to an unemployed giant chess set. “I’ll open,” I call across to them, “Pawn to king four.” They don’t get it. A mural of a dog looking out the window seems to be laughing at both of us.

Under some bridges, where we duck our heads to avoid bonking them (the big tide, remember), and we spot what looks very much like lunch. A riverside café in a lovely leafy setting. I glide the kayak in, identify a rock to step out onto. But my foot misses the rock, and I’m up to my neck in the water while the patrons suppress giggles at my very visible loss of cool. The maître d’ suggests we sit at the outside table. Fair enough. I choose the sunny spot to dry out.

Maitai Creek scupture detail

Lunch over, and onwards! The slack tide makes for easy paddling in deep, green water. The banks of the river reciprocate with more green and then some. An old couple moseys past holding hands. A woman chases her roller-skating daughter. Another is reading on a memorial bench in an arbor under a drooping tree.

More art: a nautical-theme sculpture in the form of a reef knot. Officially unveiled by the prince of tying himself in knots, Andrew, the Duke of York. Good symbolism that, if unintended by the sculptor. Then a grouse street graffiti mural under the next bridge. And a little way further up, a strange sculpture that looks like potatoes on sticks, only it’s meant to be river boulders on stainless steel poles, said in the blurb to represent the spirituality of the river. Okay…

Matai Creek walkway
Cycle-friendly riverside Matai cafe.

I reckon the gardens of riverside homes here are more impressive. Sprays of glorious colour. At the next bridge we encounter an interpretive sign all about eeling in the early days of the Maitai Creek, and in the pioneer days of Nelson. A photo shows a bunch of men and boys, most with my surname and serious sideburns, holding up giant eels and the hooked poles they used to catch them from under the riverbanks. Another sculpture, that we first mistook for bicycle racks, but on second thinking, it turns out to be an abstraction of a hinanga eel net. The sign tells us the Pākehā settlers of Nelson initially had a great fondness for eating eels, but that fell away. Probably a good thing, for those giant longfin eels are very rare now.

Oops! The creek suddenly is barred by a demure wee rapid. A couple doing DIY on their home offer to let us put the kayaks in their garage till we get back.

Nelson Marina

We’re getting closer to the centre of New Zealand they say, “Not far now.”

Sure enough, at the next bridge over the Maitai, we’re pointed left, past an impressive old heritage home flying the Laser-Eye Kiwi flag (nice touch that), and just beyond to a quiet cricket oval. With a wonky boundary that loops around huge old trees on the edges. I reckon the batsmen must know to aim for them to achieve a cut-price four runs.

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And another sign proclaiming that this was where the very first rugby game in New Zealand was played, way back in 1870. College versus Town, 18 men per side. It transpires that the bloke who organized the game, Charles Munro, played for the Town team, and was the referee. No prizes for guessing who won.

More Stone whanau members making their way upstream.

A zig-zag and fairly steep path at the far end of the green takes us up to the monument that marks the centre of New Zealand. We’re game, although not as much as the women in heavy Victorian dresses shown making the same promenade back in the day, in a picture in another interp sign.

As if to complete the time travel illusion, we encounter two fellows in bow ties running down the path at full tilt. No explanation given. Late for a wedding, perhaps?

We get to the monument, which is kind of ordinary. A raised spike pointing straight down to a brass stud in the deck. The exact middle of New Zealand? Well, not really. The blurb tells us this is the datum point for the settler surveyors of the Nelson region, which was the first area in Aotearoa to receive this treatment. Ergo, the centre of New Zealand. “Well, sort of,” is the consensus in our party. All the other visitors there don’t appear to mind.

Civic art:
‘Pohutukawa’ by Chris Finlayson.
Civic art: Family Tree’ by Chris price.

No matter, the views are splendid – all the way acrossTasman Bay, and the Boulder Bank, and Nelson city, and our boat down there (a long way down there) in the marina. And inland up green valleys. We all touch the brass stud, shiny from all the other people doing the same. Mission accomplished. The ultimate Up the Creek.

But on the way back, my lack of navigational foresight becomes apparent. What was the deep green Maitai River is now mostly rocks, with a channel just wide enough for the kayaks going downstream. Where I fell in so ignominiously by the café is now high and dry. So, the lesson is: you need to get the tide-timing just right for this Maitai Up the Creek. Still, it’s a very worthwhile wee boating adventure, with a whole bunch of terrific side stories. Good on you, Nelson. BNZ

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Valley view.