Like a sleeping giant, the emerald mountain Karioi dominates Raglan. She’s an anchorstone safeguarding the town, and where she shoulders into the surf, her bulk does battle with the breakers.
Taking a walk at the water’s edge, I can see the surfers are already out—a pod of land mammals sliding like seals through a muscular swell rolling in from the Tasman.
High on the mountain, tendrils of mist are snagged on treetops and pool in dramatic wind-furrowed gullies. The sun rises sharp and hot, the last remnants of morning mist roll down the gullies and are lost to the earth. It is the beginning of a perfect day on the Waikato coast.
Above the beach is an organic market garden with lavender flower beds shaped like koru. I make a note to visit, but for now, there is a yoga class to attend, my first ever.
Under the lee of the great mountain, a small group gathers poised to stretch. Time to begin. We are asked to close our eyes and feel our breathing. I’m distracted by thoughts of coffee and a morning paper, but the instructor soon wins me over, advising me to seek connectedness with the land through the feet, through conscious breath, through finding the moment between inhaling and exhaling. In this glorious spot high above frothing surf, with fishing boats streaming out through the channel, I start to experience Raglan in a new and different way.
For my teacher, Bernadette Gavin, a third-generation Raglanite, this place has always had a spiritual power.
“Raglan attracted artists and musicians early on,” she says. “You have to make a conscious decision to come here. It’s at the end of the line; you don’t pass through. You come here and it acts like a kind of incubus of creativity.”
With her partner, Phil McCabe, Gavin owns a retreat
committed to sustainable principles and teachings. A visit to Byron Bay—Australia’s Raglan—inspired them to provide the same kind of focus here.
“There is an inherent thing inside humans, a need for connection with the land, the sea and community. And this place amplifies all of those things,” Gavin says.
My thoughts drift back to the rush-hour traffic I endured attempting to escape Auckland—the zombie faces stuck in cubicles heading off to work in yet other cubicles. Sure, here there is a beatific bible-camp glow to the faces of these folk that is a little forced, even compulsory, but then, it seems everybody in Raglan wears a smile.
Perched on a peninsula and set along an avenue of phoenix palms with a parade of heritage storefronts, the main street is straight out of central casting for a Hollywood southern belle town. The grand old lady, Harbour View Hotel, with exquisite veranda fretwork and turned balusters, holds centre stage like a Mississippi paddle steamer tied up at a river bank.
There is no question people here seem to be living life with infectious ease. Taking time over their lattes, locals wearing stubbies and jandals and tractor caps fit alongside latter-day flower children in diaphanous muslin gowns. There’s a table-load of garrulous surfers with Rasta dreads and board shorts.
It was the discovery of world-class surfing that put Raglan on the map and set the course for this rainbow nation at the end of a geographical cul-de-sac, 45 km west of Hamilton.
“With the surf, we started out on common ground,” says artist and surfer Aaron Kereopa. “We were stoked to look after all the guys from California who came here, and that early welcome put a stamp on this place and who we are to each other.
“Now we have Kiwi, Maori, American—the whole world living here together. We share the same goals: fishing, surfing, celebrating our love of the land, the ocean, this place.
“It wasn’t always that way. In early times, when the surf at Raglan was a jealously guarded secret, the locals didn’t take too kindly to the influx of American surfers that started to arrive. All that loud talk rubbed us Kiwi blokes up the wrong way. Now, though, the barriers are gone.”
I’d first spotted Kereopa’s name on a carved surfboard wall-hanging that celebrated the mountain Karioi. The artwork was a floating, moving thing with koru curls of surf, koru twists of cloud and precisely carved scales.
“Surfing is key to this place,” Kereopa says. “Yes, this place is about movement, about physicality. You get out there among the waves. You carve water, carve waves when you surf, and I try to bring that feeling back off the sea for my art. It’s what everybody here is involved with.”
You don’t have to be an artist to speak of the area in spiritual terms. Ray Bailey, barber, volunteer firefighter and keen fisherman, put it this way:
“There’s a special energy here, eh? It’s the Tasman Sea, remember, with wild waves and black sand and those cliffs and the mountain sitting there looking over everything. The thing is people just seem happy here. It’s not about money. It’s about the ocean, what the waves are doing, where the fish are biting.”
Phil McCabe swears it can be spiritual and meditative. “Surfing, exposed to a foreign element, requires all kinds of inner strengths. Patience, respect, courage, just being present in the moment, but also looking to the horizon. You come out onto land and you’re still in that fluid moment. We are connected to nature because that’s what happens when you live here, and it transforms utterly your place in the world.”
One sign of that seaward focus is the annual Maui’s dolphin day, a festival drawing attention to the plight of the critically endangered species and a venue for a raft race and regatta where vessels must be constructed from waste. Entrants range from seriously fettled catamaran surfboards obviously built by dad, through to fish bins with drink-bottle outriggers. The event is raucous fun, with dads jumping in to help push their kids over the finish line—a whole town out celebrating itself.
Spartacus actor and Raglan local Antonio Te Maioha is giving a keynote speech about how dangerously endangered the Maui’s dolphin is, but within a minute is talking about Tame Iti’s prosecution for weapons training in the Urewera Ranges. I don’t get the link. (Turns out that both the dolphin and Iti are victims of Pakeha oppression. I have visions of Iti being refloated .)
I head away from Te Maioha’s message to the ageless—and apparently tireless—ritual of jumping off the footbridge, and am treated to an Olympic discipline of audacious bombs, star jumps, staples and pratfalls with mid-air winks and thumbs-up. The bridge is framed by plumes of water shooting skyward as though it is being strafed by an invisible air force.
Over at the skateboard park, designed by pro-surfer Miles Ratima, there is still more movement. The whiz-kids whizzing, the juniors with lips pressed tight in concentration, testing their own limits. Everybody—even the kid with the Fred
Flintstone skateboard with worn-down wobbly wheels—is cutting vectors over the concrete curves.
I am struck by this extraordinary tableau of healthy activity. I mention it to Bernadette Gavin. “That’s been happening since I was a little girl. Some days you are just out walking and you see it in front of you. The surf is pumping, rolling in on the black sand, there are people surfing, kayaking, paddling, diving. There’s markets, craft shows, music, art. It’s Raglan.”
Across the road, I see folk turning up at the Raglan Cosmopolitan Club. Entering through the front door is like crossing a portal into a parallel universe. It’s only 7.30pm but the dance floor is already filled with older folk having a good time.
The room is a swirl of dress cardigans and Viyella permanent press as grans and grandads twirl in time to songs of their youth. After so many decades and so many dances, it’s plain there is still romance in the air. The steps are jaunty, there is the timeless brush of lips upon cheeks and women favour their men with hugs as soft as fresh-baked scones.
I order a shrimp cocktail and watch on. (It’s served on a bed of iceberg lettuce, with crushed ice and freshly defrosted shrimps drowned by an avalanche of sumptuous yet peppery Thousand Island dressing.) I learn from the old cove sharing my table that Ken Hughes, the band leader, isn’t from Raglan, but has come through from Hamilton. The female vocalist, she’s from Ngaruawahia.
It seems Raglan has always been light on its feet. This punishing schedule of regatta and dance is nothing new. Take the social programme for a fête run by the Athenaeum club in 1906. It kicked off at noon with a demonstration by 50 children of a musical dumb-bell drill. There were stalls and entertainments galore: art galleries, lollies, baking crafts, tobacco, flowers. Only after 10 hours of fun and games—on a workday Friday, it should be noted—was it time, at 10.30pm, to dance.
We forget that rural history was a busy history, and Raglan is no exception. Despite the encumbrance of crinoline, overloaded launches and cutters set off for what seemed like an endless round of picnics. The main street, with its vestigial palms, was at least as busy as it is today.
Exploring the harbour, it’s not difficult to discover signs of pioneer life. At Okete Falls—which pour directly into the sea—there are concrete foundations that, like tombstones, speak of what was once a settlement and a flax mill that in 1890 produced five tons of dressed fibre a day. A broken-backed jetty pokes into the tide, rickety, like an arthritic stick-insect. And way up the far reaches of the Waingaro River stand the remains of a wharf where, as late as 1912, mail-coach passengers from Ngaruawahia were transferred to river steamer for the last leg of the journey to Raglan.
Now there is a new wave of settlement that has seen surrounding land eaten up in lifestyle blocks. Omaha-styled subdivisions are pushing in at the outskirts of the town, but Raglan, at heart, remains defiantly wedded to its history.
From the harbour, it’s easy to spot the baches and shacks that have evaded suburbanisation. Some can be reached only by boat at high tide. Others reign over little-known bays. A huddle of baches on one sandspit floats barely above the high-tide mark. In one finger of the harbour, a shell path traces a route from a jetty into the bush to a solitary shack with a deck.
I’m travelling the harbour with Fred Lichtwark to check out progress on one of New Zealand’s most important community-instigated environmental programmes. In 1995, faced with a silted harbour and declining fishery, Lichtwark and a dedicated team of locals branded as Whaingaroa Harbour Care fought back. Their aim: to save the harbour by fencing stock away from the foreshore and catchment and replanting extensively.
Now, with more than a million trees propagated and planted and with 90 per cent of the shoreline, along with a staggering 30 per cent of the waterways in the catchment, fenced off from stock and replanted, the harbour has been transformed. It is an achievement that few local communities faced with similarly degraded waterways elsewhere in New Zealand know about.
The harbour care trust plants and the farmers fence, but once the benefits are pointed out, farmers are often keen to do both.
“What we promote is not just for tree-huggers,” says Lichtwark. “Fencing off swamps and drains and the foreshore leads to better-quality paddocks because it allows you to more intensively graze your stock without the risk of them foraging into swamps or drowning in creeks or getting stuck in the tidal mud.”
There is special magic in seeing farm-drains and pugged muck turned into oasis-like glades; in seeing water running clean and sparkling in verdant corridors from bush-line to beach. It’s a welcome relief from the industrial approach to dairying that lays waste to so much of our landscape.
We nose into a desolate cove I’d visited with Lichtwark years ago, and now the water boils with fish. A continuous 30-metre waterside strip of paddock has been turned into a parkland of food-bearing native plants, and the fragile fringes of the ocean are rich with undisturbed sea grasses. Lichtwark explains that the streams, too, with vegetation as nursery protection, are rich with whitebait.
“Now that these margins are protected with proper vegetation, we’ve turned what were wastelands into productive nurseries. And it’s transformed the harbour. Where it was silted and catches were low, now the harbour is running clear and there are record catches.”
Returning to Raglan, we take a moment to explore the limestone outcrops on the northern shore, directly opposite the township but hours away by road. Lichtwark explains that back in the early days they’d take horses across, swimming behind the dinghy, led by their reins. Here the water is so clear and clean the underwater landscape shimmers in the sunlight and tree roots coil around the rock outcrops like anacondas.
Back on shore, I learn from Phil McCabe that we’ve missed a protest of more than 200 Raglanites marching to show a visiting mine company representative that black-sand seabed mining—with its apparent risk to Maui’s dolphins—is not welcome on their beaches.
The process requires many million tonnes of sand to be sucked from the ocean floor, the iron extracted, and most of the sand pumped back into the sea as waste.
It will leave the seabed “a virtual desert”, according to McCabe, damaging one of our healthiest snapper fisheries. “Deep-sea oil drilling is like poking a needle through skin, but this is scraping the whole skin off, leaving it raw. We in Raglan are the guardians of our coast. We are going to fight it.”
There’s nothing new about protest in Raglan. At one point the council wanted to cut down Raglan’s avenue of phoenix palms, planted following a 1922 visit by Governor-General Viscount Jellicoe. The locals rallied, confronted the chainsaws and tied themselves to the palms.
Nursing a coffee in the sunshine on the main drag, Lichtwark attracts a coterie of folk on permanent guard against the idea of Raglan ever becoming like Mt Maunganui.
“Some town planner or road engineer with a diploma thinks they can come into this town and re-do everything we have, all of this. Well, we are ready for them. We are happy here. Just stop! Just stop doing things, because the stuff you do doesn’t work. You are on permanent notice.”
As we talk, he points to a few feet of rough-hewn limestone kerbing, all that’s left of the town’s original gutters. “They got rid of it all, concreted over the lot. Could you imagine Paris doing that to its cobblestones? It’s detail like this that’s history.”
Sure enough, I note how among these delicate Victorian shopfronts, the street surface is laid out with all the aggressive perfection of a brand-new supermarket parking lot. A kind of road-engineer vandalism, the road is tagged and slashed with a mad degree of paintwork.
Towards the end of my stay, I notice the supermarket selling Mountain Fresh Kaiwhenua Organics produce and decide to make my overdue visit to that corn-rowed market garden on the hill. I catch Kaiwaka Riki and his wife, Lynette Lovini, bent double, harvesting baskets of cherry tomatoes. We don’t have a chance to talk because he’s due to pick up his granddaughter from the kohanga reo pre-school in town. I jump in the van with him.
Turns out Riki left for the high life of the big city as a young man and did it the hard way, including jail time. “I was right into selling drugs and I realised I had to take myself away from being a prisoner and start the journey a kaumatua or rangatira would make. I was stuck there in Wellington getting nowhere, but you know, I’d always check the calendar and think of the seasons for planting, for harvesting, because it was like my father told me: in those days, if you missed the seasons you’d starve. Now we sell all we grow to the restaurants and supermarkets in Raglan.”
Back at the gardens, Riki shows me faded Kodachromes with masking-tape frames of an unpromising hillside covered in scrub and gorse. This is the family land he returned to. Clearing the land, conditioning the soil, absorbing the principles of traditional Maori organic horticulture required more than hard work. It required inspiration.
“Sometimes I used to wonder why I was doing it—when the work was too hard, or the prices dropped or people were stealing at the gate. But I would stand up and look around me, look at our achievements; they kinda slapped me in the face. This is why I am doing it. The land gave me back my mana. It has given me back the right things to think about.”
If there is a positive push in Raglan, Maori—with cutting-edge art, sport and music—are leading the charge. Aaron Kereopa and Daniel, his champion-surfer brother, stand as examples of the new way forward. I visit Aaron at his studio; we talk about the fresh air of this place.
“The thing is, Raglan gives all groups a break, allows them to blend in. It’s a safe place, everyone is comfortable, it’s not segmented… All the good things that are supposed to be happening in life are happening here.
“Sure, if you wanted to, you could still find a dialogue only between the staunch Maori and red-neck Pakeha, but for almost everyone here that dialogue is not a cool place to be.
“Back in the day, there was a big divide. We were dumb horis and the Pakeha were baldheads. But now we’ve all moved forward, and I am thankful to be part of that change. We all help each other to move forward. We are human first, and instead of chucking our ethnicity down in front of people’s faces like we are trying to prove something, we are all just trying to be the best humans we can be.”
Strangely, surfing played a big part in that emancipation of identity. “Surfing was a window for us. We didn’t have to be stereotypical Maori doing shearing, rugby, that kind of thing. We didn’t have to be like our cousins. I made a conscious decision I didn’t want to part of that world.”
Kereopa’s parents supported the choice. “Mum bought us boards and Dad made us leg-ropes out of inner tubes and bright-orange baling twine which snapped on our first wipe-out. Me and Daniel even joined the nippers surf life-savers. People were just blown away to see Maoris on a surfboard. Too often, Maori place limits on themselves, on what they think being a Maori should be. And we broke free.”
Now his art features the forest where he lives, an intertwining of carved limbs with crystal-sharp blue tubes—the light of connection and communication. The boy who started with a box knife and a broken board now sees his work sell for up to $15,000.
On my last day, a summer-kissed Sunday among a cicada chorus, folk are picnicking in the shade of pohutukawa along the foreshore. I see one father sprawled asleep on a cushion of kikuyu, snoring like a foghorn. His toddler is behind the wheel of the family car pretending to drive furiously.
I take his cue, and drive around Karioi to catch the sunset. Far to the south, Mt Taranaki is caught pink in the glow of dusk, like Kilimanjaro rising from a salty Serengeti. To the north, the lights of Auckland glow ghostly on the horizon. I think of how, in this vast stretch of ocean, there are just 55 surviving Maui’s dolphins. At least they have Raglan fighting back.