When I first saw the kids down by the seals, it seemed such a nice family outing: a bunch of young folk jumping around the rocks all excited and exploring, an older person, possibly a parent, videoing a peaceful summer excursion. But then I noticed the boys had what seemed to be sticks in their hands, flourished in the manner of taiaha. Seals wriggled in retreat over the rocks. The adult filmed the boys’ amusement. I had always wondered how those episodes start where seals are tormented, or beaten to death. What dark things go on.
I used the phone at a local fisherman’s house to call the police, who drove 40 minutes from the nearest settlement. After a review of the video, they were pretty sure the boys hadn’t hit any seals, so they let them off with a warning.
That evening at Ngawi's regular gathering spot, it didn’t take long for the stage whispers to start up.
“Didja hear. Some idiot called the cops about a seal. Me, I woulda given those kids a medal,” said a local. “Too right!” agreed his drinking buddy. “Best thing for bloody seals is a bullet in the head.”
Since I had already spent a few evenings bending the elbow in the company of these fishermen, I jumped straight in. “That’s how you buggers earn a living, hassling wildlife every damned day. Only difference is you don’t torment the fish for fun.”
I should have known calling in the rozzers wouldn’t sit well. People come to Ngawi to get away from busy-bodying clipboard-thrusting official interference. It was what attracted me here in the first place. Following my interest in isolated corners of New Zealand, I’d driven through Ngawi a few times while off-roading around Cape Palliser. It had stuck in my mind—this huddle of houses cast up on a rocky shore, dug into a cliff. It was the kind of place that you might expect to find on the Chathams, but not on the mainland.
Here, from the crooked tail of the North Island, there is a clear run to Antarctica. Get the nose of your boat pointed right and in no more than a few days the snowy peaks of the Admiralty Range would be emerging from the horizon. And in return, powerful, crystal-blue swells fetch up direct from the Southern Ocean and slam hard against this coast.
Ngawi, just shy of Cape Palliser, is a good two-hour drive from Wellington. It was little more than a few sweet fishing shacks perched precariously between sea and cliff-face until the 1960s, when an invasion of Fibrolite and ranchslider homes—notable for their staggering lack of pretence—were plonked down in this wild place, bald as badgers.
These were homes for fishermen and their families, not bach-vernacular designer retreats. Yet, despite the influx of holiday houses, Ngawi, at its core, remains a tight-knit fishing community.
To ease my way aboard, I introduced myself on the first day to a clubroom full of folk celebrating a day’s golfing tournament. I thought it would be a straightforward way to let the whole village know who I was.
I’d barely started when out of the crowd a bull of a bloke ran at me, screaming, the veins bulging in his neck, eyes popping in their sockets. As he pounded the floor with his feet, and his chest with his fists, I was glad to see from the roomful of grizzled roosters that this was an old joke. An old test.