Alex and Lesley Stone take a jaunt into the rich and tumultuous history of Coromandel.

Our modest cruising adventure was to the Coromandel and the inordinately lovely archipelagos of the Motukawao Group, along the peninsula’s western coastline between the towns of Coromandel and Colville.

Just the naming of these places indicates a richness of history – perhaps, even, a confusion as to the telling of the stories thereof. Why, for instance, was Motukahaua re-named Happy Jack’s Island? Or why are the Ngamotukaraka also known as the Three Kings Islands?


There are times, also, when imaginative history fails and becomes as banal and prosaic as Bush Island (for Motukaramarama); Double Island (for Motuwi); Rabbit Island (for Moturua); Goat Island (for Motuoruhi); Shag Rock (for Motuokino). And just plain Cow and Calf Islands.

There’s mystery too, in the extraordinary rock formation at Tawhiti Point at the northern heads to the Coromandel (Waiau) Harbour. It looks like a winged victory but bears no name that I can find. I’d really like to know.

Te Patukirikiri are the tangata whenua of Coromandel. And it is said they first named the point Poroporo, after a New Zealand shrub with poisonous fruit, and also the same name for breadfruit in Polynesia. Te Patukirikiri were named after a famous victory on a beach on the island, where their only weapons (patu) to hand were rocks and stones (kirikiri).

Advertisement


This veritable nest of names is an intro to the Up the Creek mini-adventure that is getting up into the centre of Coromandel town.

First we had to anchor the boat – and, a bit like in the old days when ships would park ‘in the roads’ outside of a shallow-harbour town – we found a spot just off the white sand beach of Wyuna Bay, an arm of the bigger MacGregor Bay among some moored keelboats which indicated enough draft for all tides. Through the binoculars, we could see a few fishing boats and yachts tied up at the Coromandel wharf – leaning drunkenly. Yes, you hit the mud at low tide.

The early 1980s were the commercial fishing fleet’s apex (about 25 boats) when Coromandel wharf was landing the second-largest catch of snapper in New Zealand. The introduction of the Quota Management System quashed that – mostly.


So it’s something of a dinghy trip for us to get up the creek to Coromandel town, along a well-marked and curving channel. There’s a good few other dinghies making the same trip with us, and we all beach just by the bridge.

The channel will accommodate a launch, keelboat or trailer sailer at high tide – as evidenced by the haul-out facility just by a road bridge over the creek. We saw a 30-foot keeler being hauled out. With a dinghy/tinnie you’ve got about two hours either side of high tide to come and go. I imagine the bigger boats have to hit the tide just right.


Like tidal locals everywhere, the boaties of Coromandel town will have this all figured out to the finest degree. There’s an imposing fishing club building up the creek, just opposite the haul-out area.

And it’s a very worthwhile jaunt. For the creek brings you to the very centre of the delightful town, with a pull-out spot right opposite the mini central park. It’s appropriate that at the heart of Coromandel town, there is a ship – in a bottle. It’s a monument that’s a funky re-imagining of history (artists do that) by local, but Irish-born ceramicist and multi-media artist Rebekah Pearson.


The ship and its over-size, thick-glass bottle look like something from a fantasy tale. Which is entirely apposite, too, as the history of the town – and the whole eponymous peninsula – reads as a tale of high hopes, often dashed. And high hopes arising again.

The ship is the HMS Coromandel. She first visited the region in 1820 to collect kauri trees for Royal Navy spars. Local Māori, apparently, were enthusiastic supporters of the enterprise – there was good money to be made. Also with the trading of flax and pigs – mainly for muskets in those early days.

But the Coromandel wasn’t the first ship in these waters. The Te Arawa canoe – an oceanic voyaging waka – arrived from Polynesia in the 13th century. And then came Captain James Cook and the Endeavour crew in 1769. Others followed – the Fancy under Capt’n Dell in 1795, and the Dromedary just before the Coromandel in 1820.

Coromandel town was formed in the (extremely) high spirits that surrounded the first discovery of alluvial gold on the peninsula in 1842, right here in the Whangarahi Stream. Previously, the locality was named Kapanga. A more substantial gold discovery was made in nearby Driving Creek by Charles Ring in 1852.
But thereafter the gold rush diverted to Thames with its more complicated underground operations – mining hard quartz seams.

It’s just a short walk up to the School of Mines Museum, with its unconventional and absorbing mix of small-town museum items. And this time, with some quirky extra features. Like the inanimate bloke sleeping in the jailhouse re-creation, who gave Lesley a fright. Or the great collection of rocks and minerals from the School of Mines – which the building once was.

Advertisement


Or the stiff, staring mannequins of the Coromandel Silver Band, all arrayed in their bright red woollen jackets, their now tarnished instruments cradled in immobile hands. I thought it a pity that those jackets and horns now have no regular owners. That no fingers fly over those valves anymore.

There’s lots to learn here. And, as with all small museums, there are booklets with their own peculiar takes on history. I couldn’t resist the photocopied one titled The Town That Never Was. Turns out, a large mid-section of Whanganui Island was going to be the town called Coromandel.

An ambitious plan was drawn up for this in 1857. But town-planning was obviously in a rudimentary phase in those days. The sections were all way too steep, and besides, there wasn’t a perennial source of fresh water on the island, at least not big enough for a town.

Lots were surveyed, over-optimistically certainly, as if the island was as flat as its paper map. A map was drawn up by Charles Heaphy VC – “artist, draughtsman, surveyor, soldier and explorer.” It was about as accurate as some of his fanciful landscapes.


The sections were advertised and sold in England and elsewhere in New Zealand for £5 each. The book lists 18 English citizens who fell for the scam. Almost all of the allotments, the book tells us, “eventually became registered as Abandoned Land and reverted to the crown.”

This was after the island had been the domain of a larger-than-life figure, one William Webster, a ship’s carpenter originally from Maine in the USA. He married a Māori woman, a relative of the rangatira Te Horeta, and for a good while was a most powerful personage in the Hauraki Gulf.

Advertisement

The booklet says that “With his trading activities, ‘Wepiha, King of the Waiau’ commanded a great influence over a large area of the Hauraki Gulf, and none who depended on its treasures dared to transgress on Webster’s overall status as the keepr of the grove.” He bought the entire island from Māori in 1836, in a package worth £260, and which included muskets. (He later had to give a whole lot of land back, when the deal was scrutinised by the Colonial Government).

A pivotal figure in New Zealand’s colonial history – John Logan Campbell – visited our man Webster, and described him as a “big, rotund, jovial personality with plenty of brains and know-how, not unlike the proverbial John Bull characterisation of old.”

The museum booklet is less complimentary: “In setting up his wharehoko [trading post] Webster gathered around him a motley crowd of tradesmen, convict escapees, drifters and such-like, whom he employed in various activities to further his holdings.” For quite a while, his place was the only post office in the Hauraki Gulf.


The most charming element of the Coromandel Museum is the room devoted to Marjorie Ruby Moore (née Preece, the flyer tells us), who “came to the Coromandel with her family in 1925. She became a well-known local identity and farmer’s wife. Over her lifetime she put together an eclectic collection of family, domestic and farming memorabilia which she housed in her shed on her property as a private museum.”

That entire collection was bequeathed to the museum after her death in 2007. The loveliest thing is a hand-made book by her daughter, singing her mum’s praises.

We again encounter the work of Rebekah Pearson, the ship-in-a-bottle artist, at the museum. Her quirky wee map is added to our merchandise as we exit through the gift shop (the desk at the front, manned by gracious local volunteer ladies).

The tide is beckoning, and the walk back down the main street to the creek is a bit more purposeful than before. Still, it’s just the thing for the land-felled yachtie.

Lesley photographs the dramatic red pou carvings outside the old Court House, composing them artfully with the Pākehā war memorial behind. We note that one of the carvings was done by Paki Harrison, a tohunga whakairo (master carver) who we had previously met at Kennedy Bay marae, opposite on the peninsula. We are charmed by the ceramic self-portrait tiles of the local kids at the park. Buskers and street stalls slow us up, in the most delightful way.


We bump unto two old shipmates. Tony tells me about a dolphin that scratched its back on the forefoot of his yacht coming here, for five minutes at least. He has the phone footage to prove it. Steve recommends the craft beers in the well-frequented pub right behind him. He heads straight back in. Instead, we opt for the almond croissants at the 4 Square.

A quick yarn with the locals who have hauled out a keeler, a wave to a puku-bound bloke watching the TV in his launch in the mangroves, and we’re back down the creek again along with the other dinghies.

A Saturday stroll in Coromandel town is a fine Up the Creek outing. And one that’s deservedly popular. BNZ