By Sandy Myhre
The Far North of New Zealand is known for its spectacular beauty and abundant fish, forest, bush and bird life. Some parts are slightly off the well-trodden tourist trail and worth doing (without much effort) because this is where things get even more interesting.
Kohukohu on the shores of the historical Hokianga Harbour (head west from either of the State Highways) is a gem of a village; quaint, rustic and teeming with photo opportunities. An easy fossick (just ask a local) reveals not-so-hidden jewels in this crown of a traveller’s delight.
Kohukohu (above) in the 1960s. Change over the past 60 years has been subtle.
One of those gems is the romantically named Night Sky Lodge, bought a couple of years ago by Dimitri Edmonds and his partner Rena. They are both genuine environmentalists and in their first year they catalogued the bird life (counting about 30 species).
Rena decorates the guest rooms with things she’s found, grown, made or woven, with the objective to give guests the most eco-friendly, natural, welcome possible.
It’s not hard to fall in love here with, well, everything.
Waking up to a glorious harbour vista accompanied by a symphony of birdsong before wandering lazily to the historic kauri-lined lodge for a home-produced breakfast to start the day is one of those magical moments one must experience at least once in a lifetime, preferably far more often. And here it is just a few hours’ drive from the frenetic, commercialised, pace of New Zealand’s largest city.
But wait, there’s more. Dimitri is a musician, he plays bass. For years he was the tea-chest bass player in an acoustic street band, the delightfully named Puha Bandidos, among other various groups that have enjoyed his involvement.
The Puha Bandidos acoustic street band. From left: Bob Jones (fiddle) Dave ‘Guru’ Gorrie, (guitar) John ‘JD’ Donoghue (Dobro) and on tea-chest bass, Dimitri ‘Bear’ Edmonds.
Dimitri was also the driving force behind the public appearances of the fruit-pickers from Vanuatu who arrive in the north every year for their months-long working stint in local orchards. They sang acapella island-style, on occasions, at various local markets and pubs and thanks to Dimitri organising some instruments, they plunked, strum and beat to time with various accompaniments at other times.
In the guest lodge there’s a grand old upright piano, an upright classical bass, sheet music, CDs and many smaller instruments that beg to be played of an evening in the lodge proper or around the large trestle table beneath an exterior canopy. And as if Rena doesn’t have enough to do already, she’s learning to play bass as well.
Dimitri has considerable nautical experience which is why, when he saw the classic launch Ranui for sale on Trade Me, he set about acquiring her. The plan was to restore her to an acceptable maritime standard and ferry guests and others around the Hokianga. Acquiring her was one thing, but getting her ready for charter another thing entirely. Ranui has quite a history.
She was originally called El Alamein, built in Auckland and launched on the 29th January 1945. For the first four years she mainly carried servicemen returned from World War II and convalescing at a hospital in Rotorua. It was part of their rehabilitation to help ease them back into civilian life.
She is 32’ long with a 10’ 6” beam, capable of seating up to 40 people and had what was considered a shallow draft for her day, designed specifically for use on Lake Rotoiti. Ideal, then, for the often not-so-deep Hokianga Harbour with its shifting sands and capricious tidal variances.
Eventually surveyed for 23 passengers, she has been revived and refurbished many times over the years. She has worked on Lake Taupo and in Tauranga until, 70 years later, she is now an increasingly familiar sight on the Hokianga. But not without hard work to get her up to scratch.
“She was near the end of her current five-year survey,” says Dimitri. “We had to have a new survey and renew the epic but surprisingly helpful Maritime New Zealand Maritime Operator Safety System, MOSS.
“We had to make quite a few changes to comply, but she had spent most of her life moving people so most of the ground work had been done.”
He somewhat under-states the elbow grease and back-breaking scrubbing, sanding, varnishing, painting, repairing and refurbishing required.
Ranui is now up-and-running sedately on the upper reaches of the Hokianga as a ferry service, a charter craft and cruiser. Her legacy lingers. For Dimitri and Rena, and partner in the enterprise, Siobahn, Ranui is not just a business venture. Even in casual conversation Dimitri reveals his altruism, his philanthropic approach to almost everything he does.
“Ranui is also a means of supporting the upper Hokianga Community with services where possible,” he says without hesitation and totally devoid of guile.
And in surely one of the most peaceful and pleasant environments in the world.
Notes: Ranui (Maori) means noon, middle of the day, meridian.
Hokianga: According to Te Tai Tokerau tradition, Kupe, the legendary Polynesian navigator and explorer, settled in Hokianga in approximately 925 AD, after his journey of discovery from Hawaiiki aboard the waka (canoe) named Matahorua. When he left Hokianga he declared this to be the place of his return and left several things behind including the bailer of his canoe. Later, Kupe’s grandson Nukutawhiti returned from Hawaiiki to settle in Hokianga