Exploring a portion of the Nor’west aspect of Golden Bay

Whanganui Inlet mud flats with the tide out
Whanganui Inlet mud flats with the tide out

How far would you go for a half decent cup of coffee?

It seems to be our habit of arriving at a great destination in the midst of a storm, and this trip was no exception! Leaving Linkwater and the Marlborough Sounds behind we crossed the pine tree covered hills, in driving rain, to reach Nelson. After visiting a friend, eating guacamole with corn chips and drinking tea, we drove over the Takaka Hill and down into the town where we enjoyed a late lunch at our favorite restaurant in Golden Bay – ‘The Dangerous Kitchen’. It was getting late in the afternoon when we took to the road again with the goal of arriving at our accommodation before dark. As the car window wipers struggled to contain the rain, we crossed bridges where the rivers were now rushing wildly below. We arrived at dusk at the ‘Innlet Backpackers and Cottages’ and were greeted by Cory wielding large umbrellas for our use to get to our little ‘Opua’ cottage by the stream.

The grass was soggy with rain and by the time we got our bags and boxes of food items into the cottage our feet were soaking wet. We settled in and over dinner discussed our plan for exploring the Whanganui Inlet the next day. The weather forecast was good and we felt optimistic that this journey was coming together as we had planned.

Exploring ‘The Inlet’

The morning dawned bright, nice and warm, although not quite clear of rain filled clouds. On a previous trip we had visited other tourist sites in the area, such as Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach; but this morning, a few kilometers up the main road towards Farewell Spit we turned left towards the Whanganui Inlet.

Farewell Spit and important landmarks

On the short drive across this narrow stretch of road we knew we were in the remote regions when first we ran out of sealed road. Moments later, we were impressed by the tidal lowlands of the Whanganui Inlet as the view opened out to a great expanse of water and the headlands across the bay of the largest sea inlet in the Southern Hemisphere.

Exactly where is it?

Geographically, the Whanganui Inlet is a ‘drowned river valley’ at the most northern end of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It is 13km long and averages 2.5km wide. The very south position of the Westhaven Marine reserve, also known as Te Tai Tapu, covers 536ha and is located 19km south-west of Farewell Spit. The whole area consists of salt marshes and sandflats which include causeways, channels, and the Wairoa River.

…lets continue exploring

Originally the area had been covered in Podocarp forest, much of which is now gone. We drove over the causeways, marveling at the manmade structures set among the beauty of the area, with water filling the marshy mudflats on either side. As we moved closer to the marine reserve, the views across the waterway opened out and to reveal the breach in the two headlands where the sea enters the inlet; and at this distance, the white foam of the waves could just be seen outside the harbor entrance.

A short side sojourn

We took a narrow and rocky side road up a hill to the start of the Kaituna track and Knuckle hill. The view from here was limited and, unbeknownst to us at the time, the following day would find us walking on the other end of the Kaituna track, but more about that later.

Beyond the Inlet and Westhaven Marine Reserve

After a while we left the marshlands and waterways and were soon traveling through farmland and native bush on the narrow road, heading towards Mangarakau, a tiny settlement with a great history. We arrived at our destination – ‘The Nugget Cafe’.

‘The Nugget Cafe’

Sitting back from the road on a little hillock is a cute rustic wooden building that has a warm invitation just by the ‘look and feel’ of it. We walked into a cherry ‘hello’ from the local identity Mandy, chef and storyteller, co-owner with her husband Rod. Mandy sat down with us after she made coffee, heated home baked filo vegetable pie, and prepared muffins for us and other local folk who frequent the cafe.

Coffee conversation with Mandy at the ‘Nugget Cafe’

We had a great ‘chin-wag’ with Mandy and found out a bit about the history of the area and the story of how she and Rod came to be living in this remote rural part of the country. They met in Greece—Mandy, from California and Rod Tomlinson from South Africa—and lived in many places overseas before they eventually found their way, with their children, to New Zealand, and never left. They lived in various parts of the country before settling in the valley 35 years ago. Mandy was the ‘single teacher’ at the local Mangarakau School for five years, where the 45 students undertook the New Zealand correspondence school curriculum. Mandy’s role was that of supervising and supporting their education, helping them with their history, science, math and other subjects, ensuring they “got it, got the idea”. The school is now closed but the buildings are used as an accommodation venue called ‘The Outpost’.

Opening the cafe

Along with a few other people, they bought some land near the school. One day Mandy commented that the people in the cars passing by would probably like to stop for a ‘cup-a-tea’; so she went out and bought a coffee machine, one that needed to be plumbed in, and it sat in the house for two years. Mandy said she had always been in hospitality and so she and Rob set out to build the cafe which opened on Boxing Day 1999 complete with the pre-purchased coffee machine! Their open season runs from Labor weekend in late October until ANZAC weekend in late April. From Labor weekend to Christmas they are only open at weekends and Christmas is the ‘busy season’.

There is a lot of accommodation in the area ranging from the Westhaven Resort, Te Hapu Cottages, Twin Waters Lodge, and a variety of B&B and backpackers.

History and Industry

The conversation flowed into the history and industry of the area over the past 150-180 years when European whalers, sealers, and explorers perceived the area to be good for such industries. Coal mining (1866-1970) and sealing occurred all around the mouth of the inlet and gold mining ‘up the back’ at Sandhills creek. Gold was first discovered in Slaty Creek, south of the Wetland, by the local indigenous Māori. From 1862, quite a bit of gold was taken out of these mines but, once the World Wars came and went, the mines were abandoned and not reestablished. The road goes on down to the Anatori River and to get to the next town on the West Coast, Karamea, you have to drive ‘the long way round’ or, if you are a hiker (tramper in New Zealand speak), you can walk one of the tracks either commercial or wild depending on your level of ability and fitness.

The ‘tent town’

There used to be a big public works division (PWD) camp at Rokopi Strait—a ‘tent town’ on poles that served the community of families as the roads and causeways were built.

The families served the three schools in the area at Paturau, Rokopi, and Mangarakau. Meat, milk, fish and other items were delivered to the small shop and they even had ‘ice cream days’! In the early mining days the camps were just men but, as the area got established, the number of women and children grew.

Winter & visitors in the valley

Mandy said that winter in the area is dark and dreary yet quite nice, and the cafe enjoys special events one of which is the annual curry event where they can have up to 15 different types of curry comprised of meat, fish, or vegetarian. Dignitaries pop in from time to time and that morning the ‘Anti 1080 poison’ guru Bill Wallace had been there. Craig Potton, photographer, is a frequent visitor when on his surfing ventures and was one of the first visitors when the cafe opened in 1999. Surfers need to know where to go and what they are doing on these West Coast beaches and the main surfing area is down past Sandhills.

Helicopters and health

‘Accidents happen’, Mandy said, and the area is getting busier with travelers looking for ‘the end of the road’ experience. With a wink at me she added ‘especially with a lot more online information’. Some travelers are not good drivers, especially on the windy unsealed roads. They come for a look, come for the destination, without knowledge of what the road will be like nor the driving conditions required. When accidents occur, or people get sick, they often need to be helicoptered out due to the remoteness of the area. At the same time, remoteness brings a rich uniqueness to this part of the world where there is no regular first aid training or first response. Mandy used to do first aid training in the days when she was teaching but has not kept that up in a long while.

Special stories of Mandy’s time in the Mangarakau area

I asked Mandy what her ‘special story’ is from her time here, while Rod continued to potter around in the cafe and chat with the locals out on the veranda. Mandy thought for a minute and grinned as she recounted the time the local swamp was on fire, one of three times that she recalls, and she kept the coffee, tea and food up to the firefighters who had come from ‘every which way’ to put it out. As dusk fell, the helicopters dropped the last buckets of water on the fire to get it under control but they needed to keep a close overnight eye on it to ensure new fires did not break out. They ‘hunkered down’ in the cafe for the night. Mandy shared that they used to regularly ‘control burn’ the swamp.

Tides, boats and wetlands

The Inlet is shallow and tidal and only barges and small schooners came into the inner harbor in the days of the sealing, flax mills (1911-1916), saw mills (1904-1966), and coal mining. Flax was a big industry at that time and there were two mills, one here at Mangarakau and one further on ‘down the line’. Flax was used to make rope, carpet, sacks (for transporting goods), weaving and clothing. Kahikatea (wood) for ‘butter boxes’—Rimu, Matai, and Miro—were milled for construction and mining but sadly the area was stripped bare. Repeated burning of the wetland and swamps added to this destruction; however, damage was not permanent. Much of the area has seen natural regeneration of the forest and the robust aquatic ecosystem was left surprisingly intact. We enjoyed looking at some old photos and books written on the area but soon it was time to go and we thanked Mandy and Rob and set off for the beach.

On to Paturau Beach

The short drive from ‘The Nugget Cafe’ to Paturau beach was green and peaceful and the rocky hills towered over the valley as we drove by the Paturau River. In the distance, were the native bush covered hills of the Kahurangi National Park. We spent some time on the beach admiring the waves and hills, and just being there. Soon we were driving back past ‘the Nugget Cafe’ and on towards the Inlet.

Back to the mudflats of the Inlet

In the short time we had been away from this waterway, it had all but drained completely and all that was left were the mudflats. This scene had its own beauty and we stopped at the Mangarakau Kohi wharf, broken and abandoned sticking out of the mud at this low tide.

We slowly drove back along the edge of the inlet enjoying the views and the nature of the area before driving back to our Innlet cottage and resting for the night.

The other side of the mountain & the Kaituna Track

The Kaituna Track from the Aorere Valley entrance

The following day, just as we were about to set out to the start of the Heaphy Track, the commercial walking track that takes hikers and bikers to Karamea further down the West Coast, Cory suggested we might enjoy the Kaituna track better. He gave us some information and directions as to where to find the start of it.

We came to the car park having driven through beautiful rural farmland with sweeping hills all around.

Once on the track, which runs beside the Kaituna River, the native bush, beautiful with birdsong and the sound of the river babbling along beside us, the Nikau Palms growing lavishly along either side of the track, and the beauty of the sights and sounds is rather indescribable.

The gold workings of the Kaituna Valley

Soon we came to a fork in the track where steps led down beside a side stream. We wandered down and found an amazing labyrinth of stone walls now overgrown with vegetation and green with moss. There is a silence that would not have been there in the gold working days—this is the area of the first goldmine in New Zealand (1856).

The entrance to the abondoned mine is a small black hole in the rock wall with a ‘danger’ sign in front of it and a track running down to the river for the water runoff.

We stepped onto the track again and into a clearing where there was picnic table just perfect for lunch. We sat on the same side of the table to share our lunch and on the first bite of our sandwich I leant back to take a photo just at the same time Manfred was putting on his jacket and also leaned slightly backwards. The table lifted up and we were dumped unceremoniously on our backsides with our lunch flying all about. We laughed as we picked ourselves up and found our cheese, bread and teacups! The only casualty was my camera which is now not working properly.

Walking in the native forest

We took the fairytale looking little stone step track (the subject of my photo during our lunch stop) back up to join the main track and carried on up the valley. At a particularly nice grove of Nikau Palms we decided we had gone far enough and made our way back to the car the way we had come, minus the side trip to the gold mine setting.

We then drove down the Aorere Valley towards the Heaphy Track but not to the end of the road. We found an iconic little shop on a corner called Langfords Store—serving the community since 1928—where we had coffee, scones, jam and cream while checking out the books in the back shed.

Back to the ‘Innlet’ cabin – onto the ‘Dangerous Kitchen’

Following a short visit to Collingwood, the main town at this end of the Bay, we drove back to our little cottage, had a nice dinner and settled in for our last night. The following morning we packed our belongings, left the cottage, and made our way back to Takaka and the ‘Dangerous Kitchen’, this time for some of their famous pizza.

We then drove back over the Takaka Hill to meet some friends for meditation and Thai in Motueka on the first leg of our journey home.

#whanganuiintet #thewestcoast #thenuggetcafe #langfordsstore #thedangerouskitchen #traveltheworld #newzealand #seetheworld #ruralnewzealand #goldenbaynz #westhavenwetlands #paturaubeach #innletbackpackers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.