The Other Matakana
We have our own pacific island jewel set in the middle of the Bay of Plenty. In Tauranga, you can see it from almost any place: the tiny island community of just 250 residents part of our everyday landscape. Slipping surreptitiously into books and postcards, with even a glimpse on the Breakfast Show, this quiet understudy tucks neatly in behind our best-loved celebrity, Mount Maunganui. It is the other Matakana: Matakana Island.
On an April day that thinks it is January, I step off the ferry on my first visit to the island. It’s the annual Matakana Walk Run Festival, a local fundraising event. The minute we arrive, we switch to island time. There are two shipments of event participants, so before the second ferry disembarks I’ve plenty of time to swing by the Opureora Marae and wave at the volunteers preparing the lunch for today’s event. Registration is a casual affair, done the old-fashioned way with pen and paper. There are no fancy transponders or awkward safety pins. Instead, I stuff my number in my pocket.
The event starts with a powhiri and a briefing. Then we line up on the road. The 400 competitors, comprising 389 walkers and 11 runners, will cover two overlapping courses: 8km and 12km. Just follow the horses, we’re told, and then we’re off.
The guide horse and leaders are well gone by the time my friends as I reach our first landmark, a picturesque Catholic Church, which has stood on this grassy knoll for close to a century. Soon after the four of us turn off the road into local farmland and begin a moderate ascent. The terrain is easy, gravel farm road and grass, although I wouldn’t want to be pushing a stroller. The summit, Ahipuhipuhi, is the highest point in today’s event and a perfect spot for signal fires, as it’s Maori name implies. Today, though there’s nothing to report, except a stunning vista over the tiny cemetery to the Kaimais.
On the other side, we’re offered a rare view of the north face of the Mount, Mauao, rising out of the pines. We’re back on the road now, private farms on either side. Locals in battered cars slow down and wave cheerfully at us as they pass.
Further along, a water station has been set up, comprising a young couple, two chairs, a few cups, a tub of water, a dog, and a goat.
‘Gorgeous day, you’ve put on here.’
‘Piece of paradise.’
They seem pleased that we are pleased. They offer us more water and refrain from setting the dog on us. At Coach Road, the 8km walkers will take a short cut to the beach, but those completing the 12km continue into the forest veering right through the cathedral of pines. The road is sandy and soft. The resiny smell is intoxicating. It isn’t the pungency of Pine-O-Cleen, but a softer scent, muted by salt and damp bracken. It’s wonderful. I inhale deeply. Eeeuw! Horse manure. I’ve forgotten about the guide horse, somewhere out in front. At around 8km, we reach the final water station, where three women cheer us on with great enthusiasm.
‘Whoops, sorry, we forgot.’ They happily offer us an alternative, but as there are still 4km to go, we decline the beer. ‘Keep on going, follow the cones,’ they urge.
The cones lead to the beach. We pull up. There must be some kind of mix-up. We’re supposed to skirt the perimeter of this beautiful bay on the sand. Tell it to the moon! The tide is still full. I examine the footprints in the soft silty mud.
‘The others definitely came this way,’ I say. As if to prove my point, in the distance, a speck of red identifies someone way out in front. Resigned, we take off our shoes and hang them around our necks. Dip our toes in the water. For the first 500 metres we tippy-toe along hoping hold the water at thigh level. Of course, it’s futile, and eventually we give ourselves over to trudging waist-deep around the inlet. Isn’t this how they train racehorses? We wade our way around, lumbering through the water, mangrove air funnels poking our soles, soft mud squelching between our toes, the crabs scurrying before us. It’s exhausting, and in an hour, progress has been minimal. I console myself that by the finish I shall surely emerge, as sleek and muscled as a thoroughbred.
Across the opposite side of the bay, the 8km walkers are wading in the other direction. Suddenly, one of our party has the bright idea to take a short cut across the water. I hesitate. How deep is this bay anyway? I let the bright spark lead the way. I figure if he disappears up to his neck, I’ll go back to sensibly tracing the shoreline. The water gets a bit deeper, but it is doable.
On the other side, we merge with the 8km course, which conveniently hides the fact that we have cheated. I amuse myself watching one woman’s efforts to keep her underwear dry. She’s like a ballerina sur les pointes, raised up on the very tippy-tips of her toes, stepping slowly, slowly to reduce wash, meticulously choosing her route, and with her shorts bunched up as far as possible. I wonder that she bothers. We leave her far behind.
Ahead of us, spectators (I think there were three) have travelled in style from the race start in a cart pulled by two sleepy Clydesdales, that is, until they are forced to evacuate briefly when the cart is mired in the mud. An image of Caractacus Potts rescuing Truly Scrumptious springs to mind.
Finally, my friends and I pass by the school grounds, guarded by its grove of magnificent pohutukawa. Emerging from the water, we don’t bother to put our shoes back on; we can see the finish in the sports grounds at the end of the driveway. The event manager from Sports Bay of Plenty rewards every finisher with a rousing cheer. I dig in my pocket for my race number. It resembles a fish ball lifted from the soup at the Golden Lotus. No matter. There’s no precision timing here, no certificates or fancy medals. It’s not my most promising 12km result, but it’s perfect for island time.
The walk-run is over, and now the festival begins, with hospitality the word of the day. There’s free coffee and tea and fruit juice for the kids, and the rugby club bar is open, too. Local grapes, in handfuls, take our mind off our wet knickers. Each fat berry bursts in my mouth. They taste of sunshine. Everyone stretches out barefoot on the grass, drying out and waiting for lunch to begin.
It’s the school holidays, but the entire roll of Matakana school turns up to regale us with their passionate kapa haka: the smallest of them so tiny the hem of her piupiu touches the ground. She looks to the big kids for her cues, clearly not wanting to trip over the words of the special song the children have written themselves. The pride is palpable here, the sense of belonging. I find myself wishing for more than just a geographical connection to this beautiful place.
At last it’s kai time. Mountains of food are served on long trestle tables: sausages, chicken, beef, salads, bread. There is conversation and laughter, and some serious queue jumping!
After lunch, we amble back to the ferry landing. We’ve missed the first ferry and are in for an hour’s wait, but by now the island time attitude is fully instilled in us and we don’t really care. We send two of our number back to the island store for Trumpets, which we eat leisurely on the pier, our feet dangling over the side, while the afternoon picks out the Kaimai ranges, and local boys, their skin brown and glistening, leap and yahoo from the wharf.
As the ferry departs, heading for Omokoroa, I think back to the morning’s welcoming speeches. ‘There’s a myth,’ the kaumata said, ‘that you’re not allowed to come here.’ It’s a myth he debunks soundly. ‘Everyone can come to Matakana and enjoy the scenery, just respect our private property. Tell everyone, bring a picnic. Everyone’s welcome.’ I brush away wisps of hair licking at my face, and take a last look at Matakana.
Published in Walking New Zealand, Issue 152 (September 2010)