Motueka – NZ Today – Part One


It’s been three weeks since I first sat down to write this story on Motueka and each start has got half-way through the first sentence before I hit the “delete” button & today’s equivalent of ripping the sheet of paper out of the typewriter, screwing it up and hurling it into an overflowing waste-paper basket. I don’t know what it is about this story that I am finding so difficult to start & except maybe that there are so many facets to it, that I don’t know where to start.

Motueka is sort of halfway. It’s not just another rural town. But neither is it a fully-developed tourist destination. It’s what people used to call a Mugwump. A bird that sits on a fence with its face (mug) on one side and it’s behind (wump) on the other. You can see that in the fact that even in the height of summer when nearby Kaiteriteri is cubic humanity that few shops open on Sunday. You can see that in the under-funded Motueka I-site which is located in a “temporary” prefab in the corner of a carpark & and has been for a decade.

Motueka is part of the huge Tasman District that encompasses most of the North-west corner of the top of the South Island, down as far as Murchison and there’s an awful lot of remoteness in there & in fact, vast tracts of it. But Motueka’s not the “capital”. The Tasman District seat of power is in Richmond.

But Richmond, Stoke and Nelson have grown and overflowed their original boundaries so that now one merges with the other and that makes Motueka the moral capital in the eyes of some.  Let me say this right at (almost) the start & I like Motueka. It’s a place I could quite easily live in. It’s a nice size, there don’t seem to be any major social issues (there’s little graffiti anyway which is usually an indicator), the pace of life is easy and the weather is among the best in the country. I’m not alone in thinking that Motueka is OK.

The Goodman brothers, Pat (Sir Patrick) and Mike, having parlayed their way from a modest start in Motueka as bakers, into one of the largest food processing conglomerates in Australasia (Goodman Fielder Watties), are still content to manage their several fortunes from their hometown instead of Hawaii, Monaco or Bahrain. They could live anywhere in the world they wanted.
And Motueka is still very much the home base for Talleys & one of the biggest food processors in the country and a company that is alone responsible for about 10% of our export earnings that come from the primary produce sector.
I spent an hour with Peter Talley. A good bloke.

In 1964 Talleys was just a fishing boat, a fish processing plant on the Motueka wharf and three people. Peter Talley took over the running of the company from his father with the aim of getting out of the business. Today Talleys have a fleet of fishing boats, a string freezing works, an icecream plant and grow and process vegetables as well as some other stand-alone enterprises. The staff is over 5,000.

Not all of those work at the Talley’s plant in Motueka of course, but Peter Talley says moving the company has never entered his head and replacing the stability and quality of the local workforce would be a major issue if that thought did ever arise.  Getting to Motueka for this visit was a complicated affair that included flying to Christchurch from Auckland on a Saturday morning, picking up a new Nissan 350Z sports car and heading south to Palmerston, an hour’s drive North of Dunedin for a night at the Dansey’s Pass Hotel in Central Otago. That, of course, is another story. On the Sunday, we headed back up to Christchurch and then on to Motueka.

There are two main ways to get to Motueka from Christchurch & up the Kaikoura Coast to Blenheim, over the hill to Nelson and then a 30 minute drive, either via the inland Moutere Highway to Motueka, or across the causeway on the estuary. This used to be a narrow, twisting road around the bays of the estuary but in the late 1960s they constructed the causeway. The other route from Christchurch is cutting diagonally across the top of the South Island, through the Southern Alps, via the Lewis Pass and you enter Motueka from rear, via a lovely drive down the Motueka Valley.

While we are in the mood for Loving the Road, this is an awe-inspiring drive. We left Christchurch late in the afternoon, or early in the evening, dependent on your interpretation of such matters and finally ran of out puff at Maruia Springs Hotel slap bang in the middle of the mountains.

It was starting to snow so, we called in and I was surprised to find that this NZ icon that I’ve driven by so many times, has been owned by a Japanese family for about ten years. There’s a hint of Japanese flavour to the place, especially in the restaurant.
The place was run down, scruffy and undeveloped when the family took it over and they have certainly upgraded it, as and when the finances have allowed. It’s expensive but immaculately clean and the food was sensational. So are the surrounding mountains.
There was snow all around when we left the next morning and pressed on in our gorgeous sports car for Murchison and then Motueka.

After four days in Motueka my return to Christchurch was also via the Lewis, but leaving at 4am and this made the drive through the mist and snow clad mountains even more dramatic.   Motueka is a long, low town built on the flat foreshore of Tasman Bay. If you’re coming from Nelson across the causeway it seems to take forever to reach the town centre. The town seems to sprawl. At the junction where the Motueka Valley Road meets the main road there’s a tall finger of a clock painted bright blue. It’s out of place and should be in the rather featureless town centre. The clock was apparently donated by Rothmans and has always been one shade of blue, or another. As you drive around Motueka and the surrounding area you notice that so many names are the same & and the vast majority are European. Drummond, Hurley, Inglis & these are just some of the names of families that have been here for a long, long time.
Although this region has one of the kindest climates in the country, Maori involvement here is surprisingly small. Te Rauparaha, the Genghis Khan of Maoridom, swept through here with his scorched earth policies and after genociding the area, installed his own people, but they were comparatively few in number and the numbers of the original Maori were never duplicated. After Te Rauparaha there was no attempt by the other major South Island tribe, Nga Taihu, to move in either.  However, while not strong numerically, the local iwi, the Wakatu, are still very influential, particularly in terms of land ownership. I had been convinced of Motueka as a destination feature by Radio Pacific listeners and the jungle telegraph worked & in the week before my arrival I received a flood of emails and phone calls telling me of the things to see and do, places to stay and invitations of all sorts.

One invitation I was very keen to accept was from Nick Drummond who, as part of his other businesses and farms, operates a tourist cabin high on the slopes of Mount Campbell that hovers behind the town like a dark, brooding, benevolent giant. Access is by foot, or 4WD only and the view is gob-smacking. It’s apparently very well-appointed and there’s an optional outdoors bath. I was very, very tempted, but there wasn’t the time.
I did get to see the source of the Riwaka River & it just emerges from the side of the Takaka Hill a 30 minutes drive and short walk from the centre of Motueka and really a very special place & even on a crisp and frosty mid-winter morning. Motueka is both a remarkable and an unremarkable town. Apart from the Goodmans and the Talleys, it’s also the birthplace of the modern National Party and where Kiwi Keith Holyoake originated from. It’s also the home town of world motorcross champion Josh Coppins and the Coppins name is to be found around town.
The closest the centre of the town has to a “feature” is the old brick school which is now a seasonal museum and a cafe. If you are looking for something that is iconic about Motueka you can leave the town centre and head towards Tasman Bay and the old stone wharf that has been unused for decades and is now a park. Adjacent is a real life “shipwreck” & it’s the steel-hulled Janie Seddon the original “Talley’s Fishing” coal-fired trawler that has been there, slowly rusting back into Mother Earth for the past 40 or 50 years.

Read…Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Story and photographs by Allan Dick. Previously published in NZ TODAY. To subscribe phone 0800 611 911 or e-mail