Drawn to the seaside charms of Mapua

DROPPING A LINE: Danny Hajdu, of Town & Country Vets, and Jo and Tim Leyland, of Tapawera, hold some representative "pannie" snapper they caught at Mapua this month.
DROPPING A LINE: Danny Hajdu, of Town & Country Vets, and Jo and Tim Leyland, of Tapawera, hold some representative "pannie" snapper they caught at Mapua this month.

Mapua Wharf is a rather special place. With coastal vistas, surging currents, salt air, summer sun and brightly coloured seagulls it is a very accessible coastal jewel.

As a kid I always loved fishing off the wharf for spotties and sprats and lately with summer crowds and hot weather kicking in, it's been a great place to hang out and enjoy yet again.

First known as the "Western Entrance" by early settlers, the Mapua Channel is the western gateway to the ecologically significant Waimea Inlet. Important to early Maori, archaeological evidence showed significant usage around modern day Grossi Point.

Interestingly, the ravages of North Island Maori armed with muskets and led by warrior chieftain Te Rauparaha meant early European settlers encountered relatively few local Maori when they arrived. The first land in Mapua was reputedly bought in 1854 by Captain James Cross, an early maritime pioneer of the western entrance, and cost just £60 for a generous 166 acres.

There are some well-crafted interpretative display boards on the Mapua Wharf that outline the history of the wharf. It was first operating about the 1870s as a simple jetty to facilitate the transport of flax bales and manuka stakes harvested around the edges of the estuary.

Soon, the flax industry was eclipsed by the burgeoning apple industry and the wharf expanded and was commercially operative until about 1965, after which modern roading systems and trucking resulted in the economic demise of the wharf. Allegedly the wharf was almost demolished in the 1980s but lobbying by the Mapua Boat Club led to the redevelopment as it exists today.

The Mapua Boat Club, of which I'm a proud member, is a great local organisation with some lively characters headed by President Annette Walker. Annette always reminds me that "we're long-lost cuzzies", sharing a common ancestor. Captain John Walker was my great-great-grandfather and by all accounts a very capable man at sea.

At the family St Arnaud Lakehouse hangs an old black and white image of Walker's cutter The Supply, a sailing ship of 26 tonnes that he successfully sailed from Nelson and through the Buller River Bar, near modern-day Westport. Delivering explorers and surveyors John and James Rochfort ashore in September 1859, they went on to discover the rich coal seams of the Denniston Plateau.

Walker was also a pioneering mariner within Tasman Bay, including Mapua. At the Boat Club Museum on the wharf there are many old photos of the paddle steamer Lady Barkly built in 1868, being 43 tons, 91ft long and of wooden construction.

In a 1957 newspaper clipping it is recorded that, "Over a period of 57 years, some 20 captains sailed in command of the ‘Barkly'. Captain John Walker was the first master."

Another clipping said: "So appeared the Lady Barkly when in 1868, under the command of Captain John Walker, she made her maiden trip in the Blind Bay trade with which she was to be long and favourably associated."

Walker regularly operated from Nelson, along the western shores of Tasman Bay, including Mapua, to Tarakohe, Waitapu, and Collingwood in Golden Bay. Items of Captain Walker's sailing equipment, even his pistol, are on permanent display at the Nelson Provincial Museum. It's an emotional moment every time I look into that glass cabinet and feel a jolt of pride at having a genetic link to a small slice of Nelson history.

Perhaps the darkest mark against the Mapua Wharf area is its history as one of New Zealand's most contaminated sites because of agricultural pesticide residues in the soils from a defunct factory.

Between 1932 and 1988 a cocktail of chemicals was used to produce orchard pesticides such as DDT, dieldrin, 2,4-D, and paraquat. Fortunately measures were later successfully taken to prevent the leaching of chemicals into the adjoining Waimea Estuary by local government and the Ministry for the Environment. Nowadays the remediated site has been developed as the Mapua Waterfront Park for the visiting public to enjoy.

Mapua is a great place to go snapper fishing too. Out into Tasman Bay by boat, the world is your oyster with plenty of snapper, kahawai, gurnard, flounder, paddle-crab and rig for everyone.

On our last trip out fishing we enjoyed modest snapper success but people must have been impressed watching my guests carrying their catch off the wharf. Someone at the Jellyfish Cafe even asked me if I was "the snapper man". Snapper come into the estuary too, and one angler I talked with had managed a few "pannies" fishing off the wharf itself in recent days.

The Mapua Bar can be a treacherous place and always demands care when entering or exiting the Mapua Channel. Access is weather and tide dependent, with big tidal variations and strong currents running.

The "bar" can cut up rough at any time but the worst time is during a strong northerly wind and swell, with a strong outgoing tide which can produce big standing waves that can make navigation exciting, to say the least. Be especially careful near low tide, as the bar can be very shallow.

The new channel markers give a good guide to the channel but they aren't perfect and recently I hit rocks on the edge of the channel, fortunately at low speed, taking a couple of chunks out of my aluminium propeller.

Back home, I managed to file the prop edges back square with a metal file but it reminded me of the time I was fishing the world famous grayling river Idjsostrommen in the mid-1990s with my Swedish friend Leif Milling. Leif was gunning his Rolls-Royce through a field of long grass en route to the river when we hit an immovable rock which stopped the car dead in its tracks. A sombre-faced Leif turned to me and said: "I have not met that rock before."

Across the channel from the new floating wharf pontoons is Rabbit Island. Motoroa or Rabbit Island is the largest of a group of sandy islands lying in the Waimea Estuary, and along the seaward side there is more than 8km of safe sandy swimming beach.

You can drive to the region's largest picnic area, but accessing the island via the Mapua Ferry is an exciting new option. The tidal channels around the islands between Mapua and Monaco are also a lot of fun to explore. Many people now enjoy riding their bikes between the two coastal settlements but I especially enjoy doing the Waimea Crossing in my boat.

The Mapua area has developed into a flourishing settlement in its own right, with a vibrant commercial area around the wharf. Mapua continues to grow in popularity for summer visitors and is home to people from throughout the world.

Holiday locations like the Mapua Leisure Park have always been well known to Canterbury holidaymakers but the wharf area hosts wonderfully diverse arts and crafts, restaurants, bars, cafes, and even the Golden Beer brewery.

Just recently I enjoyed a wharf-side lunch of fish and chips from The Smokehouse, washed down with a marvellous real fruit icecream from Hamish's Ice Creams & Cafe. As I watched, Nicky McBride of Wheelie Fantastic Cycle Hire ably helped cyclists keen to test Tasman's Great Taste Trail, while Andrew Schwass of the Mapua Ferry shuttled walkers and bikers across the channel with panache.

Perhaps the highlight of my wharf experience was being invited to share a latte with the vivacious and charming Vivienne Fox, proprietor of The Apple Shed Cafe, who is a passionate long-time advocate of Mapua Wharf and its development potential.

May Mapua Wharf continue to draw visitors with historic charm and seaside magic for generations to come.