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Whitebait, beautiful nikau palms, seclusion and jam and cream scones on a cute little river boat cruising the historical Mokau River. What a fabulous way to spend the best part of a day.

The mouth of the Mokau River. Not so good for swimming but great for fishing.

About an hour’s drive north of New Plymouth, you come to Mokau, a little settlement that most people simply drive through on their way to somewhere bigger. It is however, worth stopping at the cafe to try the whitebait fritters, and to take a wander along the beach. If time and planning permit, then a riverboat trip is a must.

Mokau is an area rich in history. In pre European times the river marked the boundary between the Tainui and Taranaki Maori tribes. There was plenty of action between the local Ngati Tama and Ngati Maniapoto tribes, the smaller Ngati Tama generally coming off victorious until the day the Ngati Maniapoto pulled out the muskets and cleared the beach,dealing to their rivals once and for all.

The children and I recently had an opportunity to cruise the river. We were visiting my father, ‘grandad’, for the school holidays and we managed to muscle our way into his Grey Power travel club outing!!  I think one of the conditions of membership is that you have to be over 50 so we were out by about 70 years. Not to worry, the pace was ‘leisurely’ and everyone was very friendly.

getting ready to board the boat

Our cruising boat, the M.V Glen Royal is an ex Bay of Islands cream-run boat now owned and operated by the Whittaker family. Ian Whittaker was our knowledgeable tour guide and Margaret and Belinda kept maritime operations running smoothly, while at the same time, managing to whip up an enormous batch of rustic scones on the barbecue (that was interesting to watch). Smothered in jam and cream, they made the perfect morning tea.

It was hard to imagine while drifting down the tranquil river, that millions of years ago, massive glaciers were at work carving out the valley. And if it weren’t for the photos the Whittakers showed us, it would be hard to imagine that around 100 years ago, the river supported a major coal mining industry, supplying coal and metal for roads not just to NZ but Australia as well. There is talk that mining may yet be seen again in this area, much to the locals concern.

By contrast, the main industry dotting the shoreline now are the whitebaiter’s huts.

Whitebaiter’s hut

These highly individualised huts stand sentry over valuable fishing spots. While permits are free and easily obtained, these spots are fiercely guarded and can remain with the same family for generations. However, as harder times have befallen some recently, a number of prime spots have been sold for up to $20,000.

Whitebait season is short- from the 15th August to the 30th November. But during this time, keen fishermen and women line the banks of the river hoping to take home enough of the delicacy for fritters for dinner.

It’s a fascinating trip and I’d highly recommend it – whatever your age!

A bend in the river

Our river cruiser