Conor White, 10, shows off a bait-fish he caught at Tolaga Bay while his dad, Mike (right) and Geoff Meade prepare a longline.
Conor White, 10, shows off a bait-fish he caught at Tolaga Bay while his dad, Mike (right) and Geoff Meade prepare a longline. Alan Gibson

Timeless secrets bathed in beauty

A GENTLE breeze is picking up at Tolaga Bay, whipping up white sand and carrying the distant whine of a young boy's miniature motorcycle tearing past a family out casting a longline.

Two young mates enjoying an afternoon's fishing can barely be made out at the tip of the Tolaga Bay wharf, New Zealand's longest, jutting out 600m into the blue.

Halfway along, where kids dive off and haul themselves back up an old steel ladder, nearby cliffs pocked with caverns can be more closely admired.

When you arrive at the end, after a 10-minute stroll, the whine of that little motorbike has faded into nothingness, and only the wind and lapping water remain to entertain the ears.

Early European traders found flax a hot commodity here in the 1830s, about 60 years after Captain James Cook set foot.

On the day the wharf was opened, November 22, 1929, four women had their legs crushed while dangling them over a rail wagon passing a row of ships tied to bollards.

Here in Tolaga Bay, where the Waiau and Mangaheia rivers butt heads and stumble into the Pacific, history and beauty also dance together.

A 40km drive up State Highway 35 takes you to a similar picture at Tokomaru Bay, where the wharf once served a freezing works that opened at Waima in 1911.

The old works, set against hills and facing the breathtaking vista of the bay and across to Mawhai Point, were in what one historian described as probably "the most spectacular setting for a freezing works in New Zealand".

In its day, 5000 people called this paradise home. It used to have a cordial factory and a movie theatre, and it is said 400 ships used to visit each year before World War I.

Today, 60 years after the works closed forever, the local population has shrunk to less than 500.

The factory is now largely a series of concrete shells, in places overgrown and reduced to walls and masonry extending high over a riverbed.

Graffiti sprawled across the run-down facade of one warehouse is signed: "DEDICATED TO DA PEOPLE OF EAST COAST."

It has its charms though, and Bill Gould and his wife, Marlene Kipa, have seized upon this to create unique boutique accommodation.

Bill, a former fisherman, came to Tokomaru Bay in 1983 and "never got out of the place".

It took him years to clear a section of the old works to make a home for himself and Marlene, before they refurbished a pair of old caravans into cabins and called it The Ruins.

Marlene, an ex-Aucklander, loads our bellies with crayfish, custard and cake before we head down the road to enjoy another of Tokomaru Bay's gems - the coast's Te Puka Tavern.

The old tavern was reduced to rubble by Cyclone Bola, but the new pub was opened a stone's throw away.

Sitting on the verandah that wraps around the tavern, you can while away an afternoon, sipping on the house brew as you gaze across the bay to the glowing headlands beyond.

Managers Peter and Carolyn Kipling-Arthur took over running the place just a fortnight after arriving.

"I looked at the view and thought, yeah, I could handle this - so pretty much after we arrived, we took it," Carolyn said.

"This place is a bit like Brigadoon ... nothing changes, and it's like it was 100 years ago, apart from the fact they haven't got the freezing works."

Peter calls Tokomaru Bay, like the rest of the coast, "a quiet secret".

The newest addition to the tavern - a group of top-end rooms overlooking the bay - may begin to change that when word gets out.

The nearby Te Puia Springs Hotel, famed for majestic hot pools which once pulled tourists from afar in its salad days, has also been revamped by Knox and Marilyn Toheriri.

Buying the business two years ago was a home-coming for Knox, a former taxi driver, who swapped Waipiro Bay for Wellington half a century ago.

"I came back for a funeral and saw it on the market, it didn't worry me, and then I came back for another funeral and it was still on the market ... so I thought I must be in the right place," he said.

The hot pools, which local children would sneak into, have long since closed. In their place is a small, private, thermal pool, where $5 will give you half an hour simmering in temperatures of up to 43C.

I dry off, throw a towel on the car seat, and we head back to the tavern for a beer and another look at that bay.

As dusk descends, colouring the water a gentle mauve, I ponder the words of a song written long ago by Peter Awatere, who once worked in the chambers of the Tokomaru Bay works, and understand.

"And if there's going to be a life hereafter, no matter where I'd be or where I'd roam; I would ask my God to rest my bones in Waima, it is my heaven, my dear old home sweet home."

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