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There are people in town who are passionate about what Motueka has to offer visitors. The day I arrived Mark Chapman (Chapman is another of the long-established families in the area) was across the front page of one of the two local newspapers telling that the area attracts 100,000 visitors a year and brings millions of dollars into the place. Despite the potential, you get the distinct impression that the majority are quite happy with the way things are and there is no pressure for any real change.
The town is attractive, clean and, as I said, "unremarkable". There are several good cafes and we quickly identified the Red Beret as our semi-official breakfast spot. Motuekans are particularly proud of the fact they have a very good Indian restaurant. There are actually two, but one if for sale and we dined at the other. Moteuka also has a very, very good fish and chip shop & but you have to know where it is to find it. Motueka is really the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park and while it's not a tourist town in the usual sense (it could be though) there's plethora of outdoor sports shops that obviously serve the park visitors.
But the area around Motueka is also a quite delightful place to take a leisurely drive around. The Motueka Valley is wonderful and you can head out to historic Moutere while Kaiteriteri and Marahau are only 20 minutes away. If you want the big(ger) smoke, Nelson with it's focus on arts is just 35 minutes away. One thing that really surprised me was that there doesn't seem to be any attempt to try and recapture the tobacco days of the area. It may well be that the museum has a display but that's not what I'm talking about. The countryside is literally littered with decaying drying kilns. They are everywhere and they are quite distinctive. Somewhere I just feel that there should be a restored collection of the buildings that were a part of this quite specialised industry that no longer exists. Hops is another crop that is quite specific to this region and it remains relatively healthy and important. But while New Zealanders love a good brew, beer consumption is also dropping as we discover more and more about wine.
However hops remain a very distinctive crop here & the hop vines are attractive in the paddocks but the whole hop growing and processing industry is now focused on fewer, but larger operators than in the past. The same would have happened with tobacco had it not been phased out. One of the largest hop growers in the region is Robert Inglis (yes, of that family) who founded Air Nelson, sold that to Air New Zealand and more latterly operated Origin Pacific. No visit to Motueka can be complete without visiting Port Mapua. It's more trendy, chic and fashionable than Motueka and is virtually a much smaller edition of Nelson, at least in its feel. The old Apple and Pear Marketing Board had a cold store adjacent to the wharf here that was originally used to hold fruit that was going to be shipped from the small and very tidal port. When shipping ceased, the board maintained the cool store for a while but sold it in recent years and it's being transformed into a block of lifestyle shops. But there are already lifestyle shops here aplenty. The wharf complex is now a mix of cafes, restaurants and gift shops.
One of the most unique is Touch the Sea which is a gift shop combined with a small, but high quality aquarium. Although I didn't really have the time, I spent half an hour in here touching baby sharks, star fish and was morbidly fascinated by a tankful of very large eels. This was a genuine hard-yakker working port until a decade or two ago and from here was shipped huge amounts of some of the minerals that are abundant in the area. This is a region rich in limestone, marble and minerals.
The council has just spent millions of dollars cleaning up the topsoil of the yard adjacent to the wharf where this activity used to take place. The job is almost complete and is sure to be in high demand & and expensive. Port Mapua, or Mapua, is a place on the move. One of the problems though is water. Mapua doesn't have any, but Motueka does. In fact only 25% of Motuekans are on a town water supply & the rest have artesian bores. The council has plans to pipe Motuekan water to Mapua & but the Motuekans don't want that.
This is a major issue for these people and won't go away. But there is another issue involving Motueka and that's centred on the airport. This is a busy airport with a sealed strip as well as grass runways. There are sight-seeing operations based here, but the major use is for sky-diving and learning to fly. New Zealand's only full time pilot college is based on the airport grounds. The sealed strip is also used four days a year by the local drag-racing club and this is the biggest show in town on the day. Some of the drag meeting draw crowds of up to 6,000 spectators. But not all of the operators on the airfield are happy about losing four days a year and they're putting pressure on the council to rescind the use of the strip for drag racing.
That seems odd when pressure is on to curb the public road behaviour of young people in their cars and events like organised drag racing are seen as a way of letting these people have fun in their machines in a controlled situation. This entire corner of the South Island has a reputation for the arts and for alternative living. Nelson has gone upmarket and "over the hill" at Takaka has now become the major refuge for the gypsies, the artists, the caravan and bus dweller and the environmentalists. But Motueka still has its share as well. Up the Motueka River is the Riverside Community which was founded back in the war years by what is thought to have been the earliest version of the ban-the-bombers. Today the community has grown and flourishes. But just about every valley around Motueka has its small community of people living an alternative lifestyle.
One night in Motueka I met Bill Ayres. Bill and his wife Anabelle are "artists". Bill is a hard case. The night I met him he was wearing an oilskin coat, his right hand was heavily bandaged following surgery to ease tightening tendons while his left hand is a claw with only limited use of the fingers. He cut the hand off, clean as a whistle, with a handsaw. The story of that incident alone is worthy of a book. His amputated hand sat for two hours on a bag of frozen peas while the local ambulance got lost trying to find where he was and finally a second ambulance had to be sent from Nelson. "At first they thought my hand was a goner, but in came a second opinion and they reattached it. I'm glad they did."
Bill once owned a major deer farm, and flew helicopters but he lost everything in a major crash, moved to Motueka, started a rubbish bin hire service, did some carpentry on the side (which is how he lost his hand), but eventually settled on a career of making works of art out of corrugated iron. He operates from one of the former fruit packing sheds in the small cut-off bays along the causeway and each morning he goes to the rubbish recycling depot to see what he can pick up in the way of materials.
Without any doubt Bill Ayres is an artistic genius & like a true artist he's not a part of the fashionable artistic clique but his works are in high demand and have been bought by overseas customers, often at tens of thousands of dollars each. Commissions for these bigger works are inconsistent, so to keep his family with food on the table, he makes smaller works which he sells at various craft fares around the region.
But the area has many people like Bill Ayres. Some are totally out of left field, others, like Bill, are more mainstream & but that's relative of course. I didn't see it, but I understand that on the foreshore near Mapua is the rusting frame of a large cigar shaped object which a local, who lived in an adjacent single roomed hut with no amenities, was building. It's the reinforcing steel frame of a what was planned to be a ferrous cement submarine which the builder planned to complete and go to Antarctica in. Apparently he was caught growing marijuana. . . I first visited Motueka in the summer of 1975. when Nelson and the surrounding beach areas were a summer magnet for Christchurch and Dunedin people and I was on a motoring circumnavigation of the South Island.
We called to see some Dunedin friends who were holidaying in Mot' and stayed a couple of days in a caravan park where the expanded Talley's factory now is. I remember getting so badly sunburnt I got sunstroke, fishing for sprats off the wharf and swimming at high tide in an old concrete pool that seemed to be filled by the tide (the council had plans to demolish this pool but up popped Bill Ayres who waged war and saved it and it's now been restored and given historic protection).
Story and photographs by Allan Dick. Previously published in NZ TODAY. To subscribe phone 0800 611 911 or e-mail