Motueka – NZ Today – Part Four


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They've tried the usual stuff & kiwifruit, maize and now apples. They have high hopes for two new varieties & Jazz and another than sounds like a child's TT2 ice-block.  Apples have long been a staple crop for the area and was probably second only to tobacco but the apple market is changing and the old way of having your trees outdoors is no longer what the global market wants. Not even the new old way where the apple trees are trained to grow more like grapevines is good enough. Sophisticated international markets now want apples that are more consistent in shape, colour, texture and quality & and that means growing them under shade.

Some of the very long established farming families, like the Inglis, have moved into covering their Jazz apple trees with shade cloth. The problem is that a bright red shade cloth gives the best results & the apples more red in colour with better flavour and better quality. So what? Most of these large orchards are out at Riwaka in the lee of the giant Takaka Hill that separates Tasman from Golden Bays and two very distinct lifestyles.

Motueka and the Riwaka flatlands are more about getting on with life & and making a buck. The Takaka Hill and beyond is much more about lifestyle and the environment & and people who live on the hill are appalled at looking down on what is essentially one of the best views in the world & out over verdant green land. The margin of golden sand and then the (mostly) tranquillity of Tasman Bay, with the Marlbough Sounds and then the hazy blue of that other land & the North Island. They want that view, not one that is graffitti'd by large patches of bright red shade cloth. Now this leads me to Fred Willetts.  Fred used to be F.A. Willetts Construction, one of the largest privately owned construction companies in the South Island. Fred has a colourful history. He was born 74 years ago on a small farm near Lake Rotoroa & one of the famous Nelson Lakes. He left school and went straight down a mine to work and emerged to buy a truck and start a one-man, one-truck carrying business out of Murchison.

He has a love of the great outdoors and when younger he was very much a hunting, shooting fishing sort of bloke who would tramp into mountains, shoot deer, skin and butcher them and carry them out again.

He shifted his base of operations to Richmond and his business grew. He won some major government contracts in both the North and South Islands. He brought the first Caterpillar D10 bulldozer into the country to work on the Clyde dam. But he merged with Wilkins and Davies, taking script instead of cash and when Wilkins and Davies went bankrupt, so too did Fred Willetts.

"I was devastated & it cost me somewhere between eight and eleven million dollars." For the next few years he scratched out a meagre living with a couple of joint ventures, but these also turned sour. Then his wife dropped dead and a dark situation became bleak. 'I was penniless, living in a small flat in Richmond and I went and spent a few days with my sister in Picton. One night she made us a steam pudding as dessert. It was an old family recipe and I thought it was so good it would sell to the public."

That night in 1996 gave rise to the phenomenon known as "Aunt Betty's Steam Puddings". Using his genuine Kiwi character Fred convinced various suppliers he was onto a good thing and day after day, and night after night, he would mix up batches of steam pudding and ladle them into small, single serve plastic bowls in the kitchen of his flat in Richmond. The business grew and grew and he was named Exporter of the Year in 2001. Aunt Betty's was recently sold, but Fred's mind is still seeking new ventures. He's in the midst of creating an entity called Club Kiwi. The first product is a small book that's a guide to all of New Zealand's national Parks. It sells in tourist shops and a luxury version in a native timber case is on the way. But other products are also planned for Club Kiwi.

But, Fred the contractor, has another vision and while not strictly Motueka would have enormous benefit for the place. For decades Fred Willetts has dreamed of "completing the loop" & building connecting roads from Karamea to Bainham in Golden Bay and from Milford to Jackson's Bay. This is very much the proverbial hot spud. Speak to movers and shakers "off the record" and everyone agrees it's better than just a "good idea" and than the benefits would be huge. It would turn all of the South Island into arguably the greatest tourist destination in the world and instead of having to go to Motueka for a reason, it would be "on route".

Even Nelson has the same "seasonality" issue that Motueka has. It's really the summer that attracts the tourists and the holiday makers.  On this visit I went to Kaiteriteri and nearby Maharangi. The day was gorgeous & calm, the sun was out, it was 18-20 degrees. Most of the sea kayak operators were closed, a very slow and small trickle of people were heading off into the Abel Tasman National Park on foot and the famed Kaiteri' camping grounds were virtually empty & this vast place with all of its facilities sitting waiting for the summer. Come Xmas and there'll be 10,000 people here with the place booked out over Xmas/New Year for years ahead. Some people have been coming here for 25 years. The day I called was good enough for a camping holiday but the place was devoid of human life.

Across the road, the legendary golden sands saw not a single sun-seeker and the calm blue waters, lapping the beach contained just a single water taxi waiting on passengers.  Tourists who cross from the North Island to the South invariably head straight on down the Kaikoura Coast and most come back the same way & some down come up through the central roads to Nelson. But, if the loop was completed, it would create the greatest tourist drive, at least in NZ, if not the world.

There is no argument against that. The argument is that such projects have become dinosaurs in the eyes of some and when you have a Prime Minister who walks the Milford Track, hikes to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and whose government relies on the Green Party to rule, then such a project is best kept in the bottom drawer until somebody more sympathetic comes along. Is it a project that really would be that destructive to the environment? Up until 20 years ago it would have gone ahead without too much trouble if there had been the funds & and the will. If today's environment existed 150 years ago, it's doubtful the first European settlers would have got beyond tents on the foreshore.

Even if there is to be a change of government, the Greens become sidelined and the new government is sympathetic, it's likely that many of the people who have chosen to live "over the hill" from Motueka would allow it. While there still are some people in Takaka with mainstream and conservative views, it's also become very much a home for alternative people who would probably declare civil war if a road to Karamea was started.

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