The south coast village of Ngawi

KATHERINE ROBINSON
Last updated 05:00 19/02/2011

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It's an awesome place," says Jimmy Maguire, Ngawi's youngest commercial fisherman. He's right. Awe is precisely what you feel when you drive to Ngawi.

To take the coast road on the eastern edge of Palliser Bay is to witness a war of attrition between land and sea, and by the look of the fractured cliffs, the sea is winning. Past the Putangirua Pinnacles, around the corner from the North Island's largest seal colony, Ngawi is tucked under a cliff in a horseshoe bay.

You know you are there when you round the corner and see 30 or so bulldozers and trailers camped on the beach. This is the kind of serious kit you need to launch sea-going boats into Cook Strait.

To an outside eye, the launch looks risky  the pebbly beach shelves steeply, and the tractors are dwarfed by the boat and trailer. The largest is 109 feet (33 metres) long.

he boats float away once in deep water, but to get them there all but the largest bulldozers are half-swept by surf. On their return, the fishing boats ride the waves, thumping back into the trailer.

It's safer than it looks, says Jimmy.

"We're lucky. It's not somewhere like Westport where you have to cross a river bar," he says. There's no narrow channel or hidden rocks and not much need to second-guess the weather. Cook Strait, deep water and any brewing southerlies are around the corner.

"It does get very rough, but we are literally on our fishing grounds," he says.

At 21, Jimmy is skipper of the Tinky. "I've been coming out here since I was seven. We used to stay with Curla Gray, the guy I'm working for at the moment.

"I started crewing for him two years ago and now I'm running his other boat."

Ngawi has more tractors and bulldozers per capita than anywhere else, but Curla owns what must be the most photographed one in the country, if not the world  the proudly purple Tinky Winky. Painted by Jimmy's mother, artist Sally Maguire, the tractor's a compulsory photo stop for passing tourists. "I see photos of it everywhere," says Jimmy.

"I even saw a photo of it somewhere in Australia."

Brought up on the Kapiti coast, he has become used to Ngawi's isolation. On weekly shopping trips to Carterton or Masterton, less than an hour's drive away, he finds both towns too busy.

Weekend golf at Ngawi's nine-hole course and Saturday nights at the community hall provide him with enough entertainment.

In any case, a crayfisherman's day starts early.

Boats are launched about 6am and are back just after noon, so the live catch can be packed in ice and loaded on the truck bound for Wellington and export. Life is a rhythm of setting and resetting craypots  or waiting it out onshore when the weather turns sour.

The quota system, allocating each fisherman a set catch, means that like other fishermen, Jimmy can only take as much as his quota allows.

He fishes over the summer months or when the price of crayfish is high, then looks for work elsewhere for the rest of the year.

Jimmy's one of about a dozen commercial fishermen who work out of Ngawi, but one of the few to live there. Most commute from other Wairarapa towns. Weekenders and tourists hugely outnumber Ngawi's 30 or so permanent residents.

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"Over summer, all the baches are full and there are tents on every lawn," says George 'Frog' Hayes, president of Ngawi's recreational fishing club.

George, who owns a bach a few kilometres around the coast, has been coming to Ngawi all his life.

As a child in the 1950s, he would stay at his grandmother's bach, one of the original eight in the bay. Like many of the older baches, it is still in the family.

He can remember the hillside, now covered in houses, when it was bare and grassy enough for him to skid down in a homemade sled.

Before the crayfishing boom, farming, rather than fishing, was the focus  George's grandfather worked at Ngawi sheep station.

The coastal road was a gravel track and there were no bridges. Any storm would swell the rivers and streams, making them impassable, so the little settlement was frequently cut off from the rest of the world.

"You were either stuck there or you couldn't get there," he says.

There was no electric power. "It was like camping. We used to run generators and when you ran out of petrol you went to bed. We'd bath the kids outside, heating the water in the sunshine," says George.

He is philosophical about the influx of newcomers  bach owners and weekenders from 'over the hill'  providing they don't want to alter the place too much.

"People come and see it's quite unique and they usually don't want to change it," he says.

These days, he thinks, life is sweet in Ngawi.

"There's a tarsealed road. We have telephones and television. It's just that there is no town nearby."

Ex-South Wairarapa councillor Diane Phelps came to Ngawi with her husband, Wayne, 30 years ago during the village's heyday as a crayfish processing centre. "In those days, there were about 130 people here and the school bus would be full of kids off to school in Pirinoa," she says. While the men fished, many of the women worked packing crayfish for export in the small factory. "There were a lot of women here living out their husband's dream," she says.

"It can be rugged for women. It's a place where you need an outside interest or to be able to come and go as you please."

The stark, angular beauty of the landscape divides people sharply into those who either love it or hate it.

"I've had some friends come over from the Kapiti coast and they've said, 'You'll have to catch smoke in a wheelbarrow before I come back'," she says.

The need for a tarsealed coast road prompted her to represent the district at the local council, but the improved infrastructure had unexpected results.

"There have been huge changes," she says. "It used to be if a car went past, you would look out the window and say, 'Who's that?' Now there has been a huge influx of tourists."

Visitors pass through the village after lunch at the pub in Lake Ferry (there's no shop at Ngawi) or a walk to the Putangirua Pinnacles (aka the Valley of the Dead), calling in at the seal colony before an assault on the 258 steps up to Cape Palliser Lighthouse.

Most, but not all, visitors are welcome. George talks of poachers ruthlessly stripping the paua beds.

Diane is concerned about summertime's freedom campers.

"There is very little public land for them to camp here. Most is privately owned or belongs to local iwi," she says.

You don't have to look very hard to see stone walls and middens, including one found right on Ngawi's beachfront, dating back to the coast's earliest settlers.

Maori farmed and fished on the coast about 800 years ago, only to mysteriously disappear 200 years later.

Legend has it that Kupe rested here and left his sail, a giant triangular slab of rock, to dry just above the seal colony.

Other monuments along the coast  plaques, graves and an anchor  recall later settlers who died in shipwrecks on this treacherous coast.

There is a melancholy in the landscape that can snag the heart, and if it does, it won't let you go too easily.

Diane notes that in Ngawi's transformation from workday to weekend fishing village, "what we're seeing is those children of the commercial fishermen in the 1970s and 1980s  they are the ones who are coming back and buying the baches".

- The Dominion Post

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