Lesley and Alex Stone venture all the way up the creek to the market town of Matakana.

Kawau has been a famous Hauraki Island cruising destination for more than a hundred years. The little port at Sandspit is kinda famous too. But not many cruising boaties have taken the jaunt up the creek to Matakana.

Sandspit can be a tricky anchorage, with a strong tidal stream, and the wide expanse of Buckletons Bay, to the east of the yacht moorings, is deceptively shallow. We had found a safe guest mooring at Sandspit – kindly loaned to us for the day.

There really are two sandspits at Sandspit. The main one, where the road ends at the wharf, and which has parking, a café and a Coastguard station. This sandspit runs across the estuary mouth, leaving a narrow outlet. Hence the swift tidal race. But further out, towards Kawau, and opposite Buckletons Bay is another sandspit that runs parallel to the channel.

Mark Wooller’s painting, Sandspit.

So to get up to Matakana we took our 3m inflatable dinghy with a 4hp motor – but in the late 1800s and early 1900s SS Kotiti, a steamer of the Northern Steamship Company, regularly plied this route.

In 1879, a wooden wharf was built to help load the steamship. A concrete wharf came in the 1920s. Before both, the original landing place was on the opposite side of the river.

But back to the beginning of our Up the Creek miniadventure. Don’t be fooled by the experienced and uber-casual captains of the Kawau Island ferry boat, who dock at Sandspit Wharf with nonchalant ease. Beware – when the tide’s in full flow, docking here can be very tricky and the scheduled ferries (five times daily) must take precedence.

SS Kotiti at Matakana Wharf and with SS Orewa at Matakana.

There are other safe options to park your boat: for a beachable boat, there are the extensive mudflats to the west of the Sandspit wharf, towards the famous shorefront caravan park. Catamarans often park there.

The small Sandspit Marina just inside the estuary offers guest berths for launches and keelboats. It has 131 berths ranging in size from 12 to 18m. The marina is in the left-hand offshoot of the inner estuary, and apart from the access channel where the tide can be a factor, there’s no real current for skippers to contend with once inside. This arm of the estuary is fed by the Glen Eden River.

The entrance to the estuary remains limited to a draft of 1.5m at low tide. Like the steamers of yore, you can go right up to Matakana in a motorboat of reasonable size. But you’ll have to time your trip well to catch the tide. And beyond that, especially if the tide is getting low, you’ll need to be vigilant. In fact, that’s what the name Matakana means: to be wary, watchful, on the lookout.

The 131-berth Sandspit Marina is tucked out of the tidal flow.

This refers to the experiences of Ngāti Raupo, the original iwi inhabiting this rohe. Matakana is such a resource-rich place, it needed a constant lookout, endless defending. But Ngāti Raupo ultimately lost out with the Crown land acquisitions, which began in 1841.

The boat skipper heading upstream needs to be wary too. Immediately inland from the wharf, the estuary splits: left to the marina, and straight, veering right, along a channel lined with yachts at pile moorings. This looks like an enticing avenue, and indeed it continues for quite some way, to become Hayward’s Creek. But to make Matakana village, you need to steer to port away from this line of moored boats – and just at the right moment. There’s shallow water either side. Viewing this on Google Maps, with the ‘Satellite’ setting for aerial photos enabled, makes the channels all clear to see.

Phil Morris, the owner/operator of Matakana River Tours saw us right. On the phone he told us to follow the Navionics carefully. We didn’t listen well enough, so had to make a wee detour back to align correctly. No matter: Lesley got some fine photos of well-preserved heritage boats among the moorings, and some intriguing racing yachts too.

Matakana River Tours has since changed hands. It’s now owned by James Groenhart, who runs the business alongside Oyster Farm Tours on the Mahurangi Harbour. www.matakanarivertours.co.nz  www.oysterfarmtours.co.nz

Although people were concerned silting might be a problem with the marina’s development, dredging has been minimal.

Phil also emailed me: “One of the main reasons I started my venture was to showcase these places that are often overlooked.”

He followed up with useful local knowledge: “The river at high tide has around 8-10 feet (2.4–3.0m) depending on the tide. In the early days steamships of 70 feet (21m) would come up and some pretty big boats still do, however it is mainly trailer boats under 6m. Not many yachts as there are power lines crossing, with a 10m height restriction, about a mile up from Sandspit.

“Once at the wharf there is room to tie up on the concrete section. I ask that people keep the stairs clear for myself and other boats loading. Once disembarked most people tie up to the bank. In a trailer boat you usually have about two hours either side of the high tide.

“At five knots it takes 25 minutes to reach Matakana from Sandspit. The five-knot rule is strictly enforced!” Roger – got that.

Lees Boatbuilders on Sandspit Estuary.

The slow-boat method is just fine with us. There are birds to spot – like a banded rail, right there in the mangroves while Lesley reaches for her camera. Too late. Or a solitary spoonbill that maintains a royal distance.

Matakana’s a desirable weekend destination for Aucklanders these days. But its history of winemaking goes back to the late 19th century when Croatian and Dalmatian settlers found perfect fruit-growing conditions. The earliest wines produced were peach-based. They seem to be almost mythical now. Some older locals do remember a wine called Lemora made from oranges and lemons. “They were all like turps in those days,” local identity Barry Jones recalls.

Matakana wines began making a better name for themselves in the 1970s with reds such as Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage and the lesser-known Sangiovese. Whites grown there include Pinot Gris, Viognier and Chardonnay.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Potter at work, Morris & James; Matakana Wharf; Matakana Market above the weir; Morris & James.

Success comes at a cost: Matakana has been noticed by Lonely Planet, which is a double-edged thing. “Around 15 years ago, Matakana was a nondescript rural village with a handful of heritage buildings and an old-fashioned country pub,” says the guide. “Now the locals watch bemused as Auckland’s chattering classes idle away the hours in stylish wine bars and cafes.” Ouch.

Strange to say, one of the contemporary attractions of Matakana village are the public dunnies. But, where does one go to get the lowdown on public toilets? Why to Magnificent Facilities, of course, “a blog about anxiety and toilets” by Lucy Belle Gable(!)

She writes with authority. “Like Kawakawa before them, this teensy hamlet decided to let some arty nut-jobs grasp the reigns and hoped they would shit out a winner… But unlike the Hundertwasser loos, the Matakana facilities are actually attractive.”

Matakana Creek at the slipway – end of the journey for Alex and Lesley.

There’s quite a back story to these whare paku. “Matakana bathrooms took seven years to complete and were the outcome of a design competition won by a local guy, 17-year-old Steffan de Haan in his first year at Elam Art School in Auckland.” His dad Mike, a local ceramic artist of repute also entered – but his son stole the prize.

The near-legendary Barry Jones built boats at Matakana between 1978 and 1997. Barry says he built boats in “haybarns – wherever I could find space in the district.”

He built 65 boats and launched almost all of them right there at the Matakana wharf. The biggest were a 45-foot launch, and a keeler with a 6-foot (1.83m) draft. On one special occasion, he launched two Lidgard 34s on the same day.

The best launching in Barry’s memory is the day they launched a 42-foot Pelin launch. They were, shall we say ‘detained’, and the tide fell – but the boat “kept floating all night in a hole between the wharf and the launching ramp, while we partied on.”

Now the partying is of a more gentle and civilised kind, aboard Phil Morris’ Matakana River Tours. He does a onehour discovery cruise leaving from the Matakana Wharf.

Kites drawing by Titiri, Matakana, 1818.

“We turn around,” he says “where the green of the upper fresh meets the vibrant blue water of Sandspit Basin.” He can accommodate up to 40 people on his custom-built riverboat named Kotiti. He does even more leisurely cruises that may involve kayak outings too. It’s almost illegal, I reckon, to rush on the Matakana River. Lesley agrees.

Kotiti, meaning to go astray or get side-tracked, was also the name of a small steamer that serviced Matakana and other local ports as part of the Northern Steamship Company fleet. That first SS Kotiti was built by R. Logan snr in Auckland: 58.20 gross tons, 71.4 feet long and draft 6.4 feet. Her inaugural voyage to Matakana was on Monday June 13, 1898.

Kotiti’s early sailings were the only practical means of getting to Auckland. The trip usually took around six hours, but once took two days when she grounded and was rescued by her sister ship SS Kapanui. She could carry up to 30 passengers, but the run was mainly for fresh produce bound for Turners and Growers markets in Auckland: potatoes, corn, watermelons and cucumbers.

Kauri timber logging was big here too. By 1853 John Heydyn had established a sawmill at the falls on the Matakana River. This was also a centre for flax harvesting.

Matakana River entrance.

The rest of Matakana’s history traces a curious trajectory. The first public building, the Presbyterian school and church, opened in 1864. In the same year, George Manners opened a small brickworks. It went bust. His primary competitor, Frederick Chell was also a bricklayer. No middleman.

By 1881, Matakana had about 150 people and most of the surrounding forests had been logged. Fruit-growing then became the main thing. Matakana Dairy Factory opened in December 1902; that building now houses a market. A shark oil factory opened in 1905 opposite Sandspit Wharf and was there until 1921.

What else? There’s the famous Morris & James pottery. Soon after returning to Godzone in 1977, Ant Morris and his wife Sue James bought the now-famous Tongue Farm Road property. “A bit of a shocker,” it was, “gorse ridden, strewn with rubbish and home to an alarming population of rats.” And lots of clay. He was clear that he was an artisan, a journeyman, “Never an artist!”

Ant saw the pottery safely through boom and bust, and fire and tragedy, always “challenging straight-line thinking.”

There’s no straight line home for us, though, as we thread the fast-falling river and its lazy bends back to Sandspit. But this short journey provides rich reward for my yearning to always explore up a creek. BNZ