Plod out onto the little wharf at Moeraki around sunrise. The chugging sounds of a tiny Otago fishing village seem largely unspoiled by time. A salty breeze wafts across the old whaling port. The gulls swoop around fishing boats heading back with their day’s catch.
Not even half a dozen commercial fishermen are left. Before the quota management system Moeraki had 32 fishing boats. Three or four charter boats get their share most days. Blue cod, groper, elephant fish, terakihi, gurnard, crayfish, flounder and sole keep the boats going.
Bellbirds flit among the low-slung shrub around the hills. They were here to greet the Maori and then the whalers when they set up camp too. Some of the families never left.
The famous Moeraki boulders up the coast have not budged for thousands of years. Locals call them the eighth wonder of the world.
A monument in the town says six Europeans and six Maori established a whaling station here on Christmas day 1936. A massive Moeraki boulder was placed on top of the monument but was replaced by a fake one years later when it was in danger of falling apart and hitting someone.
Retired fisherman John McLellan, now in his 80s, says the whalers wanted to make Moeraki the No.1 port in North Otago. But the road to the town was too unstable for rail or trucks. John remembers the town’s centenary party in 1936.
Moeraki – 30 minutes drive south of Oamaru – is a humble settlement. Boats chug in an out quietly. The commercial bustle has gone. Locals say they like it as it is.
The tranquillity, light and aura of Moeraki is staggering. Maori people named it Moeraki - ‘sleepy sky’. Around the amphitheatre of hills above the port, Moeraki looks pretty much as it did half a century ago.
A few more houses have popped up. There’s no shop. No school -- the kids bus to Hampden five minutes up the road. There no petrol station.
Some motorists driving between Oamaru and Dunedin stop at the café by the Moeraki Boulders and look at the boulders on the beach. But most drive past the turn-off on a rise on State Highway One to the village. It’s a bit out of the way.
The twisty road to the township is unstable and has collapsed in parts. Barely 100 permanents live in Moeraki – but the numbers swell to hundreds during the holidays.
On the way in stop at Gav Te Maiharoa’s house to buy live crayfish. Gave catches them and also runs a charter boat. His daughter Ashley, 12, beaming with bright eyes, a welcoming smile and humbling country good country manners, hobbles on crutches to get my live crayfish. She hurt her leg playing basketball. She is a great walking advertisement for her Dad’s career.
The hub of Moeraki used to be the wharf – now it’s Fleurs restaurant – built with timber from the old Kakanui wharf, trusses from an old barn in Maheno and corrugate iron. The place draws people from all over New Zealand.
The rich and famous make the trip especially to soak in the ambience, warmth of a working coal range and the taste of fresh seafood to die for. Moeraki would be lost without Fleurs.
For a cheap meal and pint, some fishermen prefer the Moeraki Tavern after a day toiling in the salt spray at sea.
Away from the port, there’s an art gallery, a lighthouse, a penguin colony, an old Pa site, another settlers’ monument and two small bays jammed with rickety looking but cosy old Kiwi fibrolite type baches (cribs down here). The Maori and locals call these bays ‘kaiks’.
The cribs look out to sea and there is a sense of history of the old whaling days. Standing high above the bays is an under-stated Maori cemetery of less than 100 graves without headstones. It sits on a sloping hill beautifully mown.
Artist Ralph Hotere has a crib around here – but they don’t say where it is. They look after their own here. Nationwide retailer John Arbuckle whittles away some spare time in Moeraki, so does Oamaru millionaire builder Nigel de Geest.
Moeraki feels a place to reflect on life, tranquillity, harmony, provenance, heritage and a morning’s sleep-in with only the c hug-chug-chug of fishing boats slipping slowly out to sea.
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