Summer on the Coromandel
Crimson pohutukawa fringing azure seas, a rugged mountain chain rising into the clouds and, at journey’s end, a shady hideaway beside a peaceful estuary. These are the elements that make the Coromandel a place apart. Yet all is not sunshine in this slice of paradise. Making a living here is getting tougher, and as city-dwellers from nearby Auckland and Hamilton seek to partake of the area’s tranquillity, people-pressure threatens to corrode the Coromandel’s natural charm.
Getting out of Auckland at any time seems to take forever, but it’s infinitely worse at holiday time. If you’re not driving you should take a book At Christmas, expect a slow crawl over the Bombay Hills and a low-gear grind for the next 60 or so kilometres, all the way to the Kopu bridge on the outskirts of Thames.
The bridge is the entry to the Coromandel for most visitors. It’s a single-lane affair spanning the broad Waihou River, and is controlled by traffic lights. After the battle to escape Auckland’s traffic snarl, an enforced wait for a red light at Kopu comes as a not-unwelcome relief. Road rage has no place here. The old bridge has the effect of slowing down the body rhythms of all who pass over it. It is an introduction to the gentler pace at which life meanders on the Coromandel Peninsula. In my mind, at least, it is the dividing line between the madness of the city and the magic of the peninsula.
The locals hate the bridge. They want it replaced by a bigger one. It’s the standard Coromandel conflict: history vs. progress but it’s not a battle I have to fight today.
I’m finally across, and driving up the coast road. Though it’s only a week after Christmas, the pohutukawa flowers have finished and the roadside is a crimson carpet of fallen stamens .
I wake to one of those soft Coromandel mornings when the sun comes out of the sea and over the hills like a shy child suddenly thrust on to centre stage.
In our little community at Manaia, the morning sounds belong to the birds. Raucous mynahs, rosellas, pheasants, quail, tui, domestic roosters and clucky hens all cry the new day.
Although I live and work mostly in Auckland, I also spend a lot of time on the road. But Manaia is home, and I think of myself as a Coromandel local. Because of the gypsy lifestyle, it’s sometimes hard to find the words to express feelings about “home” when I’m not there much. The best I can do is say it’s a mixture of the tangible and intangible. The tangible is easy enough our Manaia hills, the sea and the solitude.
Getting a grip on the intangibles is the problem. It’s more than just the contrast between a working life in metropolitan Auckland and a weekend/holiday life in the coastal countryside. Mixed in with it are elements of identity and responsibility. My ancestors shed blood over this land, and I think that brings with it an obligation to make sure we look after the legacy they have left us.
These thoughts come lazily as I sit in the morning sun with a mug of tea. I decide finally it comes down to hedonism. Does being here make you feel good? Yes.
Bushclad mountains behind Buffalo Beach provide a lush backdrop for holidaymakers taking the short ferry trip across the mouth of Whitianga Harbour. Captain Cook visited the area in 1769 to observe the transit of Mercury, giving this section of the Coromandel coast its name Mercury Bay.
It’s a feeling that has drawn many to the district—and held them here. The 1970s saw an influx of people seeking to live in a simpler, less materialistic way. Alternative communities were set up Opuhi, Moehau, Karuna Falls, Mahana and others. Arts and crafts flourished, and concerns for
nature led to environmental protest. The influence of these new guardians of the land, who have put down roots around Colville and Whitianga in particular, is evident in the wider community—in local education, government and social services, and in the strength of the green lobby.
At Colville, the northernmost village on the western side of the peninsula, I study the community notices outside the store. Somebody has stolen a set of bagpipes from a Model A Ford off a farm at Waikawau. The reward is a couple of free lessons. And in a land where cars go to die (warrants of fitness don’t seem to be a priority here), somebody wants an engine for their HQ Holden. The fact that there’s no coffee in the Colville Cafe the machine is broken is a warning of summer visitor overload. But the lemon meringue pie is good. Services on the peninsula are stretched during the holidays.
A visit to the hillside Colville cemetery shows a community trying hard. Someone has been in clearing the gorse and blackberry and giving the place a bit of a mow. Native trees have been newly planted around the perimeter. The epitaphs on the stones are the same sad litany you find in many rural last resting places. Children taken by disease. Men lost to accidents. Couples buried side by side. More interesting are the tombstones with a poignant gap for the beloved who might have found another love and now lies side by side with someone else.
I spread out a picnic tea on one of those standard timber roadside table-and-seat combinations in the reserve just outside the village. Two kids two little kids without helmets putter round and round on their father’s farmbike. Macrocarpa trees look ancient and silvery in the late afternoon light. The sun sets pinkly out over the mudflats. Black oystercatchers pick squawkily at the beach debris. The odd pukeko, white tail feathers flicking, scuttles off into the roadside grass when cars pass. The car radio is playing U2 “Angel of Harlem” and in this rural setting the music seems to fit. Even a cheese and tomato sandwich tastes really good here.
The people in every car going by wave. Locals are coolly reserved usually it’s just a raised forefinger off the wheel. Kids in old station wagons or battered Toyotas, loaded down with surfboards, wave enthusiastically some even beep their horns. Their neatly stacked rooftop boards offer an interesting contrast to the chaos of gear filling the back seat. Just happy to be on holiday.
Family groups go by, Mum and Dad looking a little grim below their sunglasses; children, after what’s probably been a long day travelling, looking tired.
A boy wanders out from a house over the road with a green bucket and sets off to check the contents of his set net, which, judging by the attention given it by a couple of marauding seagulls, has caught some thing. Outside the holiday season, the pulse of life beats slowly in Colville .
The drive to Kennedy Bay is not one you would want to do every day, but apparently some people do because of work or school. The yellow clay dust is thick and the road surface badly corrugated. They’ve taken out the worst hairpin “The Devil’s Elbow” but the other defects of the road shrink that small benefit away to nothing.
Kennedy Bay is so pretty it almost makes the journey over the hill worthwhile. The bay is suffused with a feeling of security, which comes in part from the wraparound effect that the rocky arms of the harbour give. The wide beach of silver sand acts as an alternative highway for locals and bach owners alike. The afternoon water is warm, and some terns are fishing the incoming tide.
Kennedy Bay is famous in the Maori world for being one of the few remaining examples of land gifted in accordance with customary Maori lore tuku land. It was given last century by the Hauraki tribe Ngati Maru to Ngati Porou of the East Coast for the latter to use as a safe haven on their trading journeys to and from Auckland. It still feels like a haven today, with a few fizz boats and some mussel barges swinging in the stream.
We call in on the McLeods. Dolly is home with her mokopuna (grandchildren), although on this fine summer afternoon all the kids are inside watching a video. She and George have been married 51 years. Their wedding photo shows a handsome young couple, eyes bright and fixed on the future. She was a trained nurse and teacher when they met, he an officer in the army. They ran old fashioned country stores at Manutuke, on the outskirts of Gisborne, and at Te Araroa. But the call of home was too strong for Dolly, and they retired to her ancestral land at the bay some years ago.
Even in his eighties, George still manages to mow the lawn. The grounds of their little house are neat and tidy. In the sandy soil at the back of the section Dolly’s got a good crop of spuds, silverbeet and other vegetables. She and my mother chatter on in the afternoon sun about local church affairs. Dolly lives across the paddock from the church. The bush comes right down to the edge of their property.
Coromandel gets its name, indirectly, from its bushclad hills. In 1820, the ship of the same name sailed into Coromandel Harbour to take on kauri spars for the Royal Navy. That was the start of the great felling, which continued for 100 years and saw millions of cubic feet of timber stripped from the peninsula.
Coromandel kauri are now few and far between, but up close, towering out of a green world of lattice-leaved nikau palms and drooping ferns, they force silence on the observer. Noise, apart from the clucking of a solo tui and the quiet burble of a bush stream, seems juvenile in the presence of these ancients who have somehow managed to elude the axes and saws of last century. Up the dusty 309 Road across the peninsula there’s a kauri grove standing in hushed dignity, and if I’m here for more than a few days, I always visit it. I think of the trees as old friends, and myself as a visiting namu, a sandfly. In terms of scale, that puts our relationship in the right perspective for me.
Another friend is the square kauri on the Tapu-Coroglen road, and well worth the climb up the steep clay hillside track to have your photograph taken against a wall of ancient living wood. It’s my Coromandel favourite.
Sitting on one of the seats under the 309 trees, I think about my father and mother, who, as a young couple, made a living packing kauri gum out of the bush by horseback. The horse had to be tethered below the first set of waterfalls because it couldn’t climb any higher. Bags of gum bled from the giant trees were manhandled down to that spot.
They collected gum because there wasn’t a lot of work around in those days, and that hasn’t changed much on the peninsula. One of my cousins runs an eco trip through the bush to show visitors the last remnant kauri in the Manaia sanctuary. One generation cuts them down, the next shows them off.
After big tides, you can still pick up lumps of kauri gum along the beaches. I’ve found lots below the old pa at Marutuahu, where the backwash leaves them stranded in a small lagoon there, where the stream meanders across the shells and stones. The small gum bits make excellent fire starters, but it seems wasteful somehow.
Jim Davies is a genial salt-of-the-earth man. He has a stocky, muscular build which fits a life spent wresting a living from the very bones of the land. “Me knees are a bit crook,” he says, pointing at one of them. “I’ve had this one replaced.”
This sunny afternoon, at his house on the outskirts of Coromandel township, he’s just returned from fishing with his son-in-law and has a couple of nice snapper to gut and scale. A 12-foot tinny enables Jim and his family to get a feed of shellfish or fish all that they need. “You don’t have to go far to catch fish, just have to go at the right time of day.”
Jim loves fishing and is amazed at the number of fish around this year. But he’s angry about the trawlers who pair-fish in the Firth of Thames. Sometimes they catch too much and chuck some of it overboard. The result is fish strewn along the beaches, rotting. Shaking his head at the irony, he tells me: “You know, sometimes you can’t buy local fish in town. Can’t get snapper, but you get hold on the menu. Hold!”
Jim tells me his family have been on the Coromandel since 1865. The first arrivals were linen workers from Glasgow and Paisley who had heard about the vast flax swamps of New Zealand, and arrived here with all their linen-making machinery only to find that the flax was “Maori flax” and not suitable for making fine linen.
Not put out in the slightest, Jim’s forebears turned their hands to mining, farming and timber. Jim’s grandfather, Owen Evans, and his brother Johnny built most of the kauri trip dams on the peninsula. The brothers were experts.
Jim says that most people have the misconception that kauri logs, after being trimmed up, were put behind the dam for later release in a flood of water and wood. “Most of the logs were placed in the gully in front of the dam, only a few were placed behind. It was the sudden release of the water that picked up the logs and sent them crashing down to the river or sea below.
“One time my grandfather spent three years cutting for one such drive. It was a pretty wasteful way of getting the timber out but what else could you do?”
Jim worked as a bulldozer driver, but then I think of the damage from the combined scourges of gold-mining and timber logging. Both activities contributed not just to destruction of forest on the peninsula, but the ruin of the land itself. Heaps of tailings, bottle dumps, abandoned equipment, an endless warren of shafts and tunnels hardly a sound basis for rich pasture.
Jim diversified. In the ’70s he put 240 hectares of the farm into radiata. Then in 1994, as if to replace the trees cut down by his ancestors, he planted 20 hectares of kauri-1000 trees grown from seed from the giant Tane Mahuta of Waipoua Forest in Northland. Some of the kauri now stand three metres tall. Jim feeds them on blood-and-bone, superphosphate and lime.
“It’s hard clay country with low pH, and you need fertiliser to get them away. It’s my hobby. The one problem I hadn’t anticipated was possums they eat young kauri. It was costing me $120 a month for poison. Now I trap and poison before planting. The possums make good dog tucker.”
left to break in a farm in 1965. He was clearing 40 hectares a year by hand mostly manuka scrub. He bought his own bulldozer and started contracting, built up a business and opened a quarry. Then he went contract scrub cutting by hand. He remembers doing 160 hectares at $50 a hectare in 1967. His farm just north of Coromandel was uneconomic, the main reason being that the hills wouldn’t grow enough grass. I catch Jim’s pensive glance out of the window at the brown hillsides.
“Too many seasons like now, the dry running into March and beyond. No grass and the lambing average around 65 per cent or lower. Gold-mining operations last century left a legacy of country ideal for growing weeds like gorse and ragwort. It was a never-ending job just trying to keep your place clean. That was one of the main reasons I gave it away. That and the price of meat, which has been on the decline since the ’50s. There’s no future in farming the Coromandel unless you’ve got flat land, and even then it’s marginal.”
Forestry has other pitfalls, too, the main one being the Resource Management Act.
“When I first planted those trees there was no such thing,” Jim says. “Now some of my neighbours have told me that they’re going to stop me from harvesting logs and using the road. I’m going to have to go through a hearing, and getting consents might take two years. Seems to me that the Thames-Coromandel District Council, Environment Waikato and the Department of Conservation plus greenie locals don’t want to see anything happen at all.
“Other small forest owners are going to be in the same position because under the RMA you have to notify all neighbours and just about everyone else. Anyone can then put in objections. I remember when I wanted to start another quarry on my own farm. I spent a lot of money, but withdrew in the end. The objection levels were unbelievable. I was only looking at taking about two truckloads a day, but there were objections about dust, birds, bush I was just trying to make a living off my own land, enough to pay the rates, but it got out of hand.”
The conversation comes down off the land and back to the sea. Jim thinks that the shellfish industry is the best thing that has happened to the Coromandel. Marine farms mean that new fish-breeding places have been created for parore, snapper and cod. The commercial boats are stopped from getting in under the mussel rafts.
Jim pauses in the rush of words. The tea’s gone cold. He clasps his hands together and leans forward conspiratorially. “You know, I’ll never leave this land.”
It’s probably the run-on from Christmas and New Year, but eating at holiday time becomes something of a casual adventure. We turned it into a quest: the hunt for the perfect Coromandel fish and chips. Coromandel summer holidays go with a big pile of golden chips and battered fish like a Parnell blonde goes with a bare-midriff outfit, Armani sunglasses and a cappuccino.
You would think that on a piece of New Zealand surrounded by sea the search for the perfect piece of battered fresh fish would be easy. It’s not. There are many pretenders, and few deliver on the promises painted on their shopfronts.
Having said that, I think the primo F&C are to be found at Moehau Takeaways in Coromandel, right opposite the sagging yellow sadness known as the Golconda pub: golden hunks of freshly battered deep-fried fish, vinegared crisp chips and a swathe of tomato sauce, enjoyed on a wooden picnic table, washed down with a few bottles of warm fizzy, under a red-and-white Coke umbrella. A notice on the wall says that the BYO licence is unvalid. Unvalid? I still haven’t worked out what that means.
Some general observations: if you regard the Coromandel Peninsula as starting at Thames and looping around the thickish land-finger to end at Whangamata, then, following this little journey, the fish and chips go from tolerable to wonderful to garbage. In Thames the fish is good, if greasy. Three out of five to the Majestic Café. The same goes for what’s dished up at Te Puru. Tairua get a pizza. Whitianga get two pizzas. Whangamata where’s the McDonald’s?
The entrance to the Mounsey farm is at the top of the Manaia hill and is the first “stunner” view of the Coromandel Peninsula on the western side. From their mailbox you can look down on the mangroves and beaches of Manaia Harbour, inland to Castle Rock (the Giant’s Head) and out over the outer Firth of Thames to the Hauraki Gulf. To the north, along the coastline, are the islands off Manaia, Te Kouma and Coromandel Harbours, scattered among them the myriad black floats of mussel farms.
At the end of a winding downhill farm road, Kim and Paul live in a house crouched behind flax bushes and coastal natives, sheltering from the afternoon sea breeze. Hot pink bougainvillea encrusts the carport out the back.
The house looks over a beach of white sand and a travel-brochure sea of translucent blue-green: Matariki Bay. Paint in a couple of palm trees and it could be Anybeach, Oyster-encrusted rocks guard one end of the beach. The other is marked by a tiny rock-pile island, its near slope carved with the terraced platforms of ancient occupants. Behind the island there’s a barge harvesting mussels.
A small creek, garnished with bunches of bright green watercress, wanders past the stockyards and terminates in a tea-coloured pool, from where the water filters away through the sand. Kim shows me a wooden hoe, a canoe paddle, silver-grey with age, which was found in the creek, along with several basalt adzes. An adze-like tool they believe to be a flax stripper was retrieved from among the exposed roots of a pohutukawa tree. Human bones, washed out by landslides, and extensive middens on the property show that the Mounseys have not been the first to find Matariki an ideal kainga, a home.
From the verandah, the view takes in Waiheke Island, with Rangitoto’s distinctive profile smudging the far horizon. Kim says that at night you can see the red lights of the Skytower blink above the glow of the Auckland sprawl. “We feel invaded by that red light,” she says.
Across the gully from the house is a stand of regenerating bush—something for which they have a passion. The farm is dotted with similar patches. They think that the ridges should be planted with plantation timber to provide pasture shelter and erosion control.
Outside on the lawn Paul shows us a petrified tree from off the farm. It’s a big log of opalised wood dragged here by tractor. Kim says that semiprecious stones were once abundant on the peninsula red jasper, quartz, amethyst and rhyolites but they’ve all been well picked over now.
The family are big seafood eaters fishand shellfish. Like Jim Davies, they think that while the mussel farms have increased the snapper catch, they see a decline in kahawai and mullet schools. Their hillside home is brilliant for monitoring the harvest of the sea. They see “plonkers” operating trawlers using lights to chase fish into nets. They’ve seen the dumping of fish and the over-dredging of scallop beds. They’ve seen sacks and sacks of kina and paua go out of the bay. The boaties doing it don’t go back to the proper boat ramps, and seem to come from the camping grounds such as the one further south at Tapu.
Litter is a big problem, too. It increases as the weather improves, they say. In summer the Mounseys will take a bagload of rubbish off the beach every week. One thing they’ve noticed and been relieved about is the disappearance of bird-snaring plastic beer collars. But it probably means a sea floor littered with stubbies. Disposable nappies are their pet hate.
Like most other locals, the Mounseys think of the offenders as Aucklanders, with no real affinity for the place.
Like nearby Paeroa (in the words of the TV ad), Thames is not world famous for its shopping, but the town has a nice feel. Not exactly rural, but somewhere intermediate like the city that should have been, but never will. It’s a little like a reluctant Rip Van Winkle who would prefer that “wake-up time” was delayed for a little longer.
Thames worries about its future. Like Coromandel further up the coast, it was a gold town, and for a while the third-largest centre in the country, behind Auckland and Dunedin. But when gold-mining ceased a slow wind-down began. To be sure, Price’s and Judd’s large foundry operations remained, Price’s making many of the country’s locomotives in the first quarter of this century. Price’s is still a major employer, but Judd’s closed over a decade ago.
A toyota car assembly plant sprang up where a tip had reclaimed a corner of the foreshore, but now car assembly, too, is to cease, and a question mark hangs over the hospital. Despite the setbacks and the fears, Thames seems to remain prosperous, as shown by the large new Goldfields shopping mall.
On my visit a summer carnival has been organised to cheer everyone up. But from what I can see, it’s really just an extension of the regular Saturday-morning street stalls with the same old junky stuff. Still, an effort’s been made, and it demonstrates an awareness of community. A lot of people have turned out.
In the sky, a big parade of kites the star, a long-tentacled pink octopus with giant hubcap eyes. Outside the Brian Boru Hotel, one of a few survivors from the boom days when 80 hotels serviced the town’s thirst, a cheerful Christian group sings the praises of the Lord and covers of popular songs from the sixties. It’s easy and relaxed and the small crowd is appreciative. Some of them jiggle up and down on the spot.
Two boys in big, baggy shorts go by, carrying their skateboards and eating huge cream buns from the local bakery. Carrying their skateboards! Stencilled on the pavement at regular intervals is a sign banning skateboarding and roller blades on the street. My estimation of Thames kids, and Thames city fathers, climbs enormously.
Cook parked the Endeavour up near Cooks Beach in 1769, so I suppose you could say that Whitianga has the longest association with Pakeha of any of the Coromandel communities.
I wish we had an empty beach today as he did. Parking along Whitianga’s main beach, even among the palm trees, is impossible. The town shops are humming with holiday commerce. For two bucks you can get a ride on the big pink plastic sledge being towed around the bay by a fizzboat. The queue of excited kids waiting their turn twists across the sand like a brown-legged caterpillar.
My mates John and Kay Kneebone have got a bach here on the southern headland of the harbour. It’s up on the clifftop looking straight out past Shakespear’s Cliff to Centre Island. Like most views on the peninsula, it’s enchantingly beautiful. The sound of surf surging up the narrow beach drifts up the cliff face and lulls the willing into drowsy contemplation. Sunrise and sunset compete with each other in an unwinnable daily splendour competition.
Tracks down the cliffside, many of them shaped with roughcast concrete, testify to the thousands of swimming trips the cliff residents have made through the pohutukawa. A morning swim and walk along the beach provide an introduction to a noisy seagull colony, whose outriders defend their gullery with vigorous dive-bombing. Holding a stick above the head provides an alternative target for their screaming swoops.Rocks here are carpeted with tiny black flea mussels and, further out, green lips, some of which provide a late steamed breakfast.
The headland community is an interesting one. Next door to the Kneebones, old Harry is well into his nineties. He’s a retired psychiatrist, and potters about the cliff face weeding and pruning as a self-appointed track monitor. Fresh air and a quiet life obviously keep him in reasonable nick. Across the road, someone’s purchased an empty section and installed a tennis court. Former National Party maverick politician Mike Minogue lives here. Opposite is John’s brother’s house, interesting because it sits partly in an old farm reservoir which was gouged out of the living rock.
The harbour lighthouse sits on the headland point, the prime site in all of Whitianga, with views across the Pacific, up the estuary and over the township. A foot-wide path down the ridge brings us out above the seagull colony, and, hidden behind a screen of manuka, we watch fluffy spotted chicks with wobbly stick legs look around at their rock-and-water world. Their baby wing stubs create the illusion that they’re walking around with their hands in their pockets.
It’s only a downhill step away from the crowded gull colony to the Whitianga ferry. The swift outgoing current pushes the boat sideways in the tide flow. There’s a constant to and fro of people across the gap mostly day-trippers with chillybins, folding chairs and sun umbrellas coming across to “our” side and the short walk to Cooks Beach. The reverse passengers are those who’ve just taken a ride for something to do, or locals going over to the shops in town. There are so many of them at mid-morning that a queue has backed up the road.
Almost oblivious to the ferry-boat mêlée are a holiday dad and his daughter fishing, standing firm on the remains of the old wharf. It makes a change from the father-andson combos you usually see.
Over the road from the ferry carpark there’s a path which briefly follows the water before climbing up on to a reserve. The reserve sits on a small peninsula culmiThe track to the tihi, the last defensive platform, follows a long line of deep holes bored into the rock to hold the palisades that would have once stood here. The labour in creating these holes, using only stone tools, is almost unimaginable. Obviously fear, the fear of being killed, generates a special kind of stone-working energy.
It’s a terrific pa site, and looks impregnable, but history would tell us that at some stage it was taken in battle. The sheer drops to the water on either side, and to the rear, say plainly that retreat was only an option of desperation.
Later, at dinner time, looking out over the darkening sea, John talks about his family. The Kneebones came to the Coromandel from Cornwall in the early 1860s, and the family has remained largely centred in a triangle consisting of the Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Hauraki districts. His own association with the Coromandel arises from childhood holidays spent camping on the beach at Kennedy Bay, courtesy of a wartime friendship forged by his father. Getting to the bay was part of the adventure: by train from the Waikato to Auckland, sometimes nating in a steepish rock pile which completely dominates the surrounding harbour and the lands across the river. Not surprisingly, the whole peninsula is an old pa site. The lower defensive ditch to the pa provides a handy track across the peninsula spine with an overnight stay, then across to Coromandel on the ferry, and from there over the hill to Kennedy Bay on the cream truck.
Happy memories of a sunny childhood on Coromandel beaches have been passed to his own grown-up children. Updated, they will find a similar home in the hearts of future grandchildren.
For the Kneebones, Whitianga was a retreat from the grind of a Waikato dairy farm, and now in retirement it offers them a peaceful alternative to their comfortable “town” house in Cambridge. It’s the end play of the Kiwi dream, really, the unostentatious bach at the beach, which once upon a time seemed to be everybody’s right but which nowadays has increasingly become the prerogative of the wealthy.
Port Jackson can only be reached by a long dusty drive up the western coast line. But the journey offers some benefits. The coastal seascapes here where the views open out into the Hauraki Gulf are just heart-stopping. It’s chocolate-box scenery, complete with a background yacht hustling downwind, spinnaker up and heeled to the breeze.
Out here the coastline is made up of a series of stony beaches, their tidemarks littered with bleached driftwood. The road is pohutukawa-shaded in parts, especially where it rims the foot of Mt Moehau. This high point in the peninsula’s northern range is said to be the resting place of Tama Te Kapua, captain of the Arawa waka, which brought the region’s first settlers from legendary Hawaiiki.
Standing out from the beach near Fantail Bay is a granite wharf, its orderly straight lines in sharp contrast to the curves of the coast. Kids explore and adults fish, climbing over its rough-hewn blocks, many more of which, from the same local quarry, once departed this wharf by scow. Today they can be seen in some of the country’s best-known monumental buildings, including the Auckland Museum and Parliament Buildings in Wellington.
From the top of the hill the line of Port Jackson looks sculpted into the land’s end. Its white sand beach, fringed with farmland, is the first surf beach on the peninsula as it begins to bend around to face east.
At the bottom of the hill a fenced reserve marks the site of the last battle between Ngapuhi and the Hauraki tribes, where the latter finally achieved parity in musket firepower and the leisurely Ngapuhi summer raiding season was abruptly terminated.
Out here, at the end of the peninsula, you begin to think you’re miles from anywhere and should almost have the place to yourself. But it’s not so. The camping ground is crowded and a procession of cars passes up and down the road, kicking up clouds of dust. I think a lot of people can’t believe you’re unable to drive right around the peninsula to Port Charles, and have to see for themselves. Or maybe it’s the desire to go to the end of the road so you can say you did it. “Yeah, we drove all the way out to the end.”
Spreading a blanket and putting up a sun umbrella are the rituals signalling a temporary claim to a piece of beach. It’s hot. The surf is big enough to be fun but not threatening, and kids on boogie boards bounce down the faces of the waves, some with skill, most with just enthusiasm .When the sound of electronic chimes announces the arrival of Mr Whippy, I know the suburbs have arrived and it’s time to leave.
On the highway outside Pauanui there’s a black BMW in the ditch. It’s obviously been driven too fast and has spun out. While the rest of the traffic bumpers up, a group of extravagantly gesticulating youths is attempting to right the situation. Oh, dear. Mummy is not going to be pleased.
I’m sorry, but Pauanui brings out the cynic in me. The place is obscene. Would I say the same thing if I owned a property there? Isn’t it just envy? I don’t think so. Pauanui offends my sense of balance between comfortable living and the environment we live in. There is a place for summer mansions empty for most of the year, front-door canals and private docks, but it’s not here. Pauanui is outrageous skiting, the vicarious swank that money brings. It represents the values of another kind of country and another kind of people.
I think my aversion has to do with the way the environment has been bent to fit around a preconceived idea of what paradise should look like. It should be the other way round. It’s a variation on the Spenserian idea of art competing with nature, except that nature was already winning and, in the case of Pauanui, has been diminished rather than flattered by imitation.
The property advertising in the real estate glossies shouts: “No! It’s not the Gold Coast it’s Pauanui! So why pay costly airfares to Australia? Pauanui is only a pleasant drive away!”
The local advice is: Do us all a favour, pay the airfare.
A few kilometres south of Pauanui as the jet-ski whines is Whangamata, surf town of the Coromandel. Thirty years ago when I was a college kid we used to come here on weekends, pitch a tent in the camping ground I think there was only one then and surf the bar or the shore break, depending on the size of the swell. Surfing the right-handers on the bar was thought dangerous fun because of the occasional sand shark sunning itself in the shallow water. Doing the hand paddle with feet up on the board became a Malibu necessity. You couldn’t do that on the dinky fibreglass chips that kids ride today.
I used to take my guitar. Here is where we had some of our first meetings with alcohol in all its exotica: Gin Sling, Pimms No. 1 Cup, Blackberry Nip, Cream Sherry, White Horse whiskey and something atrocious called Merry Widow. Emboldened by the illicit cocktails, we looked forward to Saturday night at the movies, and it really was a case of who cared what movie we saw. The local girls were impervious to our teenage charm, and pickup lines such as “Gee, you look neat” went absolutely nowhere.
In the 1980s, New Year’s Eve at Whangamata degenerated into a teenage drunken orgy which made our tent parties look reasonably civilised. Nowadays there’s a concerted effort by police and locals to clamp down on rowdy revellers. On New Year’s Eve police patrol the beaches, forcing underage drinkers to tip their beer out.
Otherwise, things don’t seem to have changed that much. I see pimple-faced kids cruising the main street in baggy shorts and jandals. Cars with boards on roof racks still pull up to the beach and everyone stays inside commenting sagely on wind, tide and wave conditions and weighing up the possibilities, say, another 20 metres down the beach. The surf always looks bigger just a little bit further along.
One last look at the beach and across to Hauturu (Little Barrier) Island, where one of my ancestors, Kamaukiterangi, “tidied up” the neighbourhood by having a few of his rivals over for a barbie. Literally. Nothing so drastic is needed these days, but a coastal development plan to preserve what’s left and a more stringent approach to expansion might be a good idea.
The town itself is not the sleepy village it used to be. The shopping area is a garish mess, and I’m pleased the horror of the main street is well back from the beach. Prices here are Auckland dear, and the restaurants serve meals which could be generously described as ordinary but at extraordinary city prices. It’s very much small town trying to be big urban, and it isn’t working.
Our motel is clean and comfortable, but I’m pleased to leave the next morning, my teenage memories a little less golden but largely intact.
There’s a morning mist on the valley floor at Manaia now and it’s cooler. I had to light the fire last night for warmth, and not just to heat the water with the wetback. The leaves on the persimmons have turned a bright orange, hiding the ripening fruit. Not enough, though, to disguise them from the alert eyes of mynahs and lorikeets, which squawk and mutter as they feed among the branches. The pheasants have discovered the last of the spring carrots in the garden and have been digging them up and eating them. For lunch yesterday I had half a watermelon, sweet with the juices of summer gone. They were smaller this year because I didn’t keep the water up to them.
I worry for the future of the Coromandel. It’s obvious coming, forced by economics as much as anything else. Marine farming seems to be doing okay, but beef and wool prospects on the Coromandel aren’t great. Forestry is just beginning to come on stream, but the infrastructure of the peninsula, particularly roading, needs vast improvement to cope that the Coromandel I know will not be here soon. It’s in the nature of things that the quality of life and the environment it exists within the things that make the peninsula so special will be destroyed by our journey towards them. There are just too many people making the trip.
It’s a values thing as well. Values have changed. I see it in the way land and sea are treated. The wasted fish caught and dumped, the mountains of rubbish that visitors discard. This summer the pipi and cockle beds in “our” harbour were decimated by people not content to take just enough for a meal but a sack or two for Ron as well. (That’s “later on” in the local patois.) The two-kilometre walk doesn’t seem to deter them. Some of them come in by boat.
Immigrant groups new Kiwis, I call them take anything and everything off the seashore. It’s not xenophobia, there just doesn’t seem to be any conservation ethic there. No discrimination between big and small, no thought for the future. The locals are by turn astonished and then mostly angry.
Further social change on the peninsula is But better roading means more people. It’s why the people of places such as Kennedy Bay may moan about their dusty access road but wouldn’t really like to see it improved it’s a deterrent to more visitors. The Toyota plant in Thames is going to close, and commercial fishing into places like Thames and Whitianga will always he marginal. The strong anti-mining lobby, as well as the abysmal environmental performance of some mining companies, will ensure that mining on the peninsula will stay hugely unpopular.
The spectre of unemployment, then, is never far off, and the only obvious way for the peninsula to survive as an economic entity is to become a dormitory holiday suburb for Auckland and the Waikato, a reversal of its role in the middle of last century, when the Coromandel fed the fledgling capital on the Waitemata all manner of essential produce not only timber, but also fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and firewood. But this means opening up the Coromandel to more people, which means suffering more of the unthinking visitor practices we presently abhor, and that means the death of the Coromandel’s main attraction-its soul.
I don’t apologise for being selfish about the Coromandel. I would be happy to see it remain in a time warp. And while I also believe in personal freedom and the right to individual expression to being able to do what one wants to do on one’s own land and in one’s own waters I think that the only way to maintain the mann of the Coromandel is to establish the proposed Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. It will be particularly helpful around the tip of the peninsula, where population and development are still relatively small.
A freeze on the development of areas in standing native bush is also required, and these lands, particularly where they are adjacent to the conservation estate, need to be acquired as a priority, and milling on others needs to be halted. Coastal strip development needs sharper monitoring, and should have two overriding priorities: the preservation of public access and enhancement of the environment in its natural state. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that there’s too much money to be made for that to happen.
One my last night before crossing the Kopu bridge back to Auckland I eat steamed river-caught mullet, garnished with fresh herbs from the garden. I’ve got no TV at the bach, so I read by the fire and watch the dry wattle and manuka burn hotly. Manuka burns with loud crackles, and hits of driftwood, mixed in with it, burn their dried salts in flames of sodium yellow, pale green and deep turquoise. Apart from the fire noise there’s the loud ticking of the clock and, indistinctly from outside, a frieze of cricket sounds. It’s peaceful bliss. A brief pause in life’s rush.
This summer I have looked at the place of my birth through different eyes, but I have not found it wanting. I think that it is we, the inheritors, who are wanting. The people I have met are mostly ordinary, like me, and we all share common concerns for the Coromandel Peninsula and its future. It’s almost love.
There is a philosophy of thought in the Maori world which talks about people belonging to the land rather than the other way round. I believe that, and am privileged that this land is gracious enough to have me as its child.