Matakana, Farmers Market and a Marine Reserve

April 12, 2013
Iain MacLeod

I mentioned a week or so ago that autumn was slowly winding its quiet way up the country.

Well it has now arrived in Auckland. It almost feels like someone has flicked a switch.

It is a time of year I love and a change that I enjoy (although I could have done with one more month of the amazing summer we have just had). I start thinking about getting out the jacket and pulling on something warmer in the evening. Five months of shorts and tee shirts are not yet over during the day but at night you have to have thick blood or be an English immigrant (everything is relative) not to need a sweatshirt or jacket.

The humid, muggy nights with overnight temperatures of the mid to high teens have been replaced by temperatures of around 13 degrees here in Auckland. Daytime temperatures continue to be in the 22-24 degree Celcius range and there has still been precious little rain. Autumn really is a special time in New Zealand. In the far south you get the trees turning rich reds and yellows about now before discarding their leaves. This colour explosion slowly moves its way up the country through late March, April and May although I heard today autumn is late down south after their summer that has lingered on longer than usual. We see these autumn colours less vibrantly up here as autumn and winter are relatively short and the temperature cools down slowly through April and May before warming up again by September. And with winter, rain. Although it will inevitably come right now my garden is thirsty and requiring constant watering. The fields and farms outside the city and over most of the North Island continue to be parched and dry.

The days are growing shorter and we have just put back the clocks by an hour – the end of daylight saving draws a curtain on summer around here. The sun is now setting around 6.30pm (on the longest day December 22nd it doesn’t set till just before 9pm – don’t forget we also put the clocks forward for by an hour in summer). I tell myself about this time each year there is only eight weeks till the shortest day and then we are all downhill to spring and summer again!

Although the trees in my garden and the city’s parks aren’t yet losing their leaves they will certainly be thinking about it.

It is a time of year when the fishing is nothing short of spectacular as it tends to be every autumn as the fish look to fatten up before the winter arrives in a few more weeks. Last weekend my wife and I caught our daily legal limit of snapper (a superb eating fish for our overseas readers) in a little over an hour. We actually caught about 36 but as the legal daily catch is only 9 per person (and woe betide if you get caught with more – you can lose your boat and whatever is pulling it as well as being stung by huge fines) so we threw back anything under 35 centimetres (legal minimum size is 27 cm) and stuck to our 18 fish limit. That will keep us in fillets for a few weeks.

At this time of the year the fish practically jump in the boat. We use two hooks and flasher rigs and I cannot tell you how tired we got of hauling up two fish on each line every time the bait was lowered 40 meters to the bottom. We caught our limit too quickly. Seriously, the fishing is that good at this time of year.

However, as the fishing won’t get this easy till next summer and the seas can, at times, get quite rough through winter I am heading north next weekend to have a final crack and fill up the freezer before the fish lose interest and head into deeper waters.

For those living here who don’t have access to a boat you can just as easily perch yourself on one of the wharves in downtown Auckland and try your luck. Plenty a feed of fish are caught down there – people fish in their lunchtimes!

A must do for those of you who have recently moved here or are looking to visit is to head to the Matakana Farmers Market on a Saturday morning. I particularly enjoy it at this time of year- wandering around the stalls with their local produce and ready to eat food on a crisp autumnal morning is great fun and a wonderful way to while away an hour or so. This is a very interesting example of rural regeneration and ‘build it and they will come’. This picturesque little village which is an easy one hour drive north of Auckland was, until about ten years ago, a sleepy little village you drove through on your way to somewhere else. With the Farmers Market, their choice of stall holders (all locally produced foods, wines, olive oils, pastries etc) and its layout which resembles something from Medieval times and village shops it is a destination in itself. The Farmers Market stalls are made of rough sawn timber and chunky native wood and each is covered by fabric in faded red stripe. The gravel underfoot is fine and you expect to hear the sounds of knights on horses jousting in the distance. It doesn’t look like a film set – nothing Disney or tacky about it – it is just well thought out and stylish and the coffee, food and produce are great.

I was sitting outside one of the cafes on the weekend and seven ducks – three white and four brown wandered across the road behind me stopping the traffic before waddling up the footpath stopping to see what titbits of food they could coerce out of the diners. They were very comical and awfully cute.

Matakana has become so popular now with day trippers from Auckland in particular some of the locals are moaning about the traffic jams on Saturday morning and the inconvenience. But this commerce has brought considerable wealth to the area and there is a definite whiff of money about the village and surrounding farms, orchards and lifestyle blocks.

I managed to buy and consume in my hour or so there last Saturday a South Island whitebait fritter (whitebait are the juvenile form of native freshwater fish and are a rare delicacy in this country), consumed a Belgian style custard filled doughnut, had a great coffee and munched my way through a bap filled with rocket and a locally made pork and fennel sausage with caramelised onions (makes me drool just remembering it). And I skipped lunch……

We bought seedling lettuces for the garden, basil and coriander to plant and a 1 litre bottle of local olive oil which is seriously right up there with the best we have ever tasted anywhere in the world (and that includes Italy).

Matakana and the Farmers Market is a place to linger. Once you have eaten your fill and/or bought lunch my advice is then to head off to the Goat Island Marine Reserve. This is about another 15 minutes drive. This was New Zealand’s first Marine Reserve and has been around since I was a small boy. I remember many a summer’s afternoon spent there when I was only 5 or 6 being mesmerised by the fish and marine life while baking under our hot summer sun.

The Marine Reserve gives visitors a sense of what our inshore seas must have been like before humans settled this land. It is breath taking if you take a mask and snorkel. At this time of year the water temperature is still around 22 degrees Celsius so it is quite warm enough to swim in without a wetsuit.

The fish are everywhere and literally even if you stand in the water up to your ankles you are quickly surrounded by them – and some are quite big. Kelp grows in great brown swaying beds. Sea urchins litter the seafloor. Crayfish (lobster) dance on their many feet at your approach and slink backwards into their rock crevices as you pass by. Large crusty old snapper will circle you and smaller schools of fish swirl just out of reach. Truly magical and a wonderful way to introduce your children to the way things were and many of us hope one day they will be again. For those a little less keen to get their head under the water there are glass bottom boat trips and kayaks are available for hire. It is also a popular scuba diving spot.

There is even a camping ground there for those that might wish to pitch a tent and stay the night. In summer it is a real treat – in winter it can be cold (not freezing, just cool).

Within 10 minutes drive of Matakana are a number of vineyards so you can always call into one of these for a wine tasting, to buy a few bottles or just to enjoy the afternoon sun, tapas or dinner before the drive home to Auckland.

I hope you take the time to visit these places. They are well worth it and I was encouraged to see a number of tourists wandering the markets and sampling the wares. I must have heard 25 different languages in the space of an hour.

Add it to your to do list.

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