Cold water sloshes into the borrowed kayak I am paddling towards Cape Kidnappers. It is a cloudy December morning, and I have ventured out into the milky waters of Hawke Bay to put myself in the place of James Gillespie Gordon, patriarch of a family which has owned, farmed and lived on this jutting stub of land for 150 years. It was from the decks of his schooner, in the summer of 1861, that the 66-year-old Scot contemplated the dun-grey cliffs, cabbage trees and bracken of what was to be his new home. I have his portrait in mind as I paddle: white wavy hair, a resplendent snowy beard, pudgy hands resting on a stick with a dog’s head handle… but it is the eyes that hold me: calm, assured, with perhaps a twinkle of amusement that a man his age should find himself halfway around the world, reinventing himself in his twilight years.
A merchant trader in India, “JGG”, as his descendants call him, had lost much of his equity during the Indian Mutiny (“mutiny” being the British perspective—for India, the 1857 uprising was the first step in a 90-year struggle for independence). With the dissolution of the East India Company the following year, he decided it was time to seek greener pastures, and found them here: 13,500 acres newly acquired by the Crown from Ngati Kahungunu rangatira Kurupo Te Moananui, for which Gordon paid £3375.
Two years later, having set his affairs in order and bought the discharge of his two sons from the British army in India, he arrived with his elder boy, William, to a place known from ancient times as Matau a Maui, the fishhook of Maui, by which the legendary superhero pulled the North Island out of the sea. As the schooner swung at anchor, a team of white Indian army mules hauled the family chattels ashore, including the teak timbers of a prefabricated house. William rode one of the mules while James stood in the water with a pitchfork to ward off sharks.
Much of the scene from my vantage point with not a dorsal fin in sight—would be familiar to JGG: the down-tilting strata and deeply eroded gullies in the cliffs, the muffled boom of the surf, gannets wheeling and plummeting into the sea, then winging to roost at colonies at the tip of the cape. (Indeed, the preservation of these colonies, when so many seabird rookeries on the mainland have been lost, is due in large measure to the magnanimity of James Gordon’s grandson, who gifted 30 acres to the Crown as a wildlife reserve in 1915.)
Other sights from my floating perch would surprise the pioneer: two tomato-red antique tractors towing trailers of tourists along the beach, gannets bound; tall radiata pines peeping above the clifftops, and behind those sentinel trees the manicured fairways and greens of one of the country’s most salubrious golf courses. No doubt the good Scot would approve of that land use.
I paddle on towards Black Reef, a sandstone outcrop that extends ruler straight for a kilometre from the northern tip of the peninsula. Somewhere out here, less than a century before Gordon’s arrival, the cultural collision occurred that gave the cape its European name. In 1769, Captain Cook had been traversing slowly southward after making first landfall at what is now Gisborne. On the morning of October 15, Maori in fishing canoes approached the Endeavour and commenced trading “stinking fish”, as Cook recorded the exchange (some historians think it may have been shark). “It was such as the[y] had and we were glad to enter into traffick with them upon any terms,” he noted in his journal.
Taiato, a young Tahitian boy who was accompanying Cook’s translator and cultural adviser Tupaia, was standing midway down the ship’s ladder to receive the incoming goods. Without warning, the men from one of the waka seized the boy and started paddling away. “Tupaia was enraged,” writes historian Anne Salmond. “He called out, ‘Mai, mate koe’(You will be killed!), to which [the abductors] retorted, ‘Kahore he rakau o te hunga o Hawaiiki; he puu kakaho, he korari!’ (The people of Hawaiiki [where they assumed Cook had come from] have no weapons; only reeds and flax stalks!)” A volley from Cook’s marines disabused the locals on that point. Several were shot and two or three killed, according to Cook, and during the altercation, Taiato jumped overboard and swam back to the ship. “This affair occation’d my giveing this point of Land the name of Cape Kidnappers,” wrote Cook.
The name may have seemed appropriate to James Cook, but for James Gordon’s new enterprise it didn’t strike the right note. Setting aside the Maori name as well, Gordon reached back into his past and named the property Clifton, after his school in England and a British beach resort in India. Perhaps those soothing memories would be a mental antidote to the uncertainties ahead.
At 66, James Gillespie was a late starter to the farming trade. He hoped his sons would be participants in his dream, but it quickly became apparent that William had no interest. He resented being plucked from the predictable routines and entitlements of a pukka sahib, and turned to the bottle for comfort. Five years later, returning from an evening of bending the elbow in Napier, he fell from his horse into the Meeanee stream and drowned
It was up to Thomas, the younger brother, to carry his father’s hopes forward. He was the first of a succession of sons, brothers, sisters and wives whose names would become linked to Clifton. Yet Thomas’s own wife, Janet, proved not to be cut from settler cloth. Nervous by nature, she found the growing tensions between Maori and Pakeha during the 1860s to be a source of unassuagable anxiety. (It probably didn’t help that she was permanently pregnant, bearing six children in seven years.) The final straw came in 1866, when a band of Hau Hau warriors burst into the homestead, scaring the woman half out of her wits. Thomas had no choice but to take the family back to England, stappointing a manager to run the property. It would be from the next generation that a man would arise equal to the challenge, as Thomas put it, of“turning this huge fern-covered, pig infested, broken piece of country into a worthwhile investment”.
Seven generations of Gordons have now confronted that challenge, and the story of their long engagement with this special piece of New Zealand is what has brought me here, to see not just how they made a living from the land, but how they adapted to it, bonded to it and held on to it. The kurau holding has not been easy, but the satisfactions have been many. As Clifton’s current owner, Angus Gordon, wrote in his 2003 family history, In the Shadow of the Cape, his people have “clung tenaciously to this little corner of what, to them, will always be paradise”.
“You can never win at farming. You have to love it or you wouldn’t do it,” Angus shouts in my ear as we speed along on his farmbike. We’re taking a tour of the property. Two P of his wire-haired terriers have come along for the ride, all four of us crammed together on the quad. The brim of Angus’s trademark akubra flaps in the wind as we climb and dip like terrestrial gannets across a landscape that looks Aramo like a solid version of a wave-tossed sea.
Angus was 32 when he stepped up to the crease and took over the running of Clifton. The cricketing analogy is apt, because in farming, if it’s not floods or drought sending a googly down the pitch, then it’s a soaring dollar or slumping markets or some other imponderable that requires quick Waimarama thinking and a deft response. Angus has experienced most of them, though not a major earthquake—that misfortune befell his grandfather Frank. When the 1931 Hawke’s Bay quake struck, Frank stood aghast, watching the land heave and the chimneys topple, the seabed rise and the tide drain away. When it was over, his wife sobbed in his arms and screamed, “I hate this terrible country!”
But farming Clifton is all Angus ever wanted to do. A BA in English and two years with Volunteer Service Abroad in Vanuatu notwithstanding, he felt the pull of the land, enriched with such childhood memories as sliding on woolsacks down the rapids of the Maraetotara River, pulling monster eels out of pools, possuming with his fox terrier, Snip, and snacking on chocolate biscuits and barley water at his grandmother’s house, while she read aloud from The Wind in the Willows.
(An indication of how steeped Angus was in rural life is that he met his wife, Dinah, at a “stud dispersal sale”—an arcane sheep-farming term whose meaning I had to Google.)
The years of “tenacious clinging” came soon enough. When Angus took over the farm in 1982, wool and sheep-meat prices were already in a slow nose-dive. The government removal of farm subsidies in 1985 merely increased the angle of descent. For heritage sheep stations such as Clifton, the pressure was intense. Such stations are generally large, contain a lot of economically unproductive country, and require high levels of borrowing to run.
“My father was obsessed about debt,” Angus says. “He told me, ‘You can borrow to develop, but you must never borrow to live.’ Once you start doing that, you’re buggered.”
During the economic crunch, it was a few hundred acres of fertile cropping land—less than a tenth of Clifton’s total acreage—that saved the farm. Angus had tried various crops during the 1980s—strawberries, nectarines, peas and beans—but they either proved too labour-intensive or the export price crashed, or, in the case of the legumes, the cannery turned its back on the local growers.
Early-season butternut squash for the Japanese market turned out to be the ace in the hole. With the peninsula’s frost-free climate, squash could be planted, harvested and shipped early, fetching a premium price at the Kobe markets. Angus’s first major export crop was such a success he was able to buy a new family car, which was dubbed the Squashmobile. That was in 1990, and Angus has grown spring squash ever since. He sows in September and harvests in the first week of January, before the long summer dry starts to kick in.
Today, his eyes are on a new crop, a crop whose value is in the growing, not the harvesting: lovely, tall trunks of carbon. With the government’s adoption of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which pays farmers a carbon-storage dividend for their new and existing plantings, suddenly Angus’s problem country could be a route to prosperity.
He shows me some of the gullies that have been a thorn in the side of generations of Gordons. “The land can’t handle wet winters,” he says, pointing to a fresh scar on the hillside and tonnes of slumped soil below. “The upper layer of topsoil rolls off the underlying pan like a glacier. Traditionally, these gullies and gorges have earned us nothing. They’re a land slip waiting to happen, and cattle fall into them. They’re one of the reasons we can only graze the land lightly, because if we increase the stock density the animals head straight into the gorges.”
Until now, fencing those gullies was uneconomic. Carbon payments make that an option. “We can fence off those nasty areas, let them regenerate into native forest and push the remaining land harder,” says Angus. An added incentive is that the regional council eliminated possums from the cape peninsula to the Tukituki River to Waimarama in the mid-1990s, so young seedlings, native or exotic, are spared the ravages of possum browsing. “The timing is unbelievable,” says Angus. “We’ve always wanted to retire these gullies from grazing, and carbon credits will fund us into it.”
Radiata pines Angus planted in the 1990s also qualify under the scheme. As a timber crop, radiata had long ceased being commercially attractive. “What with planting, thinning, pruning and fencing, forestry was going to end up costing us money, rather than returning a profit,” says Angus. “Carbon credits are worth more to me now than the timber will ever be.”
There is a question mark, however, over how long the scheme will continue. If the government changes its mind about emissions trading and a related scheme called the Permanent Forest Sink Initiative, the carbon goose will stop laying its golden eggs.
Meantime, Angus is earning several hundred dollars a hectare for the pleasure of watching trees grow.
He derives a far more visceral enjoyment, though, from watching his squash plants grow. I notice that, wherever he is on the property, every few minutes, as if cued by some inner timer, he looks towards the jet of water spurting from an irrigator gun that is watering the squash fields—a giant white plume against the dark green of the cucurbit leaves.
Later, we walk down the rows, Angus stopping every now and then to twitch out weeds and check for flowers. The female flowers, which bloom first, are already out, glowing sunflower yellow against the grey alluvial soil. Angus searches for their male counterparts, with narrower stalks and smaller blooms. He finds one, and a bee crawls out from the calyx. Pollination is imminent; another crop will soon be ripening.
But the project that has become Angus’s favourite is the cafe he built in 1999 on seaside land a stone’s throw from the Clifton homestead. He strides in each morning with a cheery hello to the kitchen staff, who are busy tossing salads and pulling trays of chocolate-chip muffins from the ovens, to discuss upcoming bookings and the latest cruise ship schedule. As Hawke’s Bay has grown in visitor numbers (largely on the reputation of its wine and food producers), cruise ships docking at Napier have delivered a steady flow of visitors to Cape Kidnappers. In Angus’s reckoning, Clifton, being at the end of the road, was ideally situated to minister to visitors’ need for a caffeine-and-cake fix.
A good number of those tour parties move from the cafe, Clifton’s newest building, to the woolshed, its oldest. Built in 1886, its pens echoed to the bleats of millions of sheep during the 120-odd years the shed was in use. A new woolshed was built further inland in 2002, and this one has been turned into a museum and a base for shearing demonstrations. These, too, are part of new Clifton, the diversified farm.
I’ve been sleeping in the woolshed at nights. My bedroll is next to the wool press, under the steely gaze of Captain Thomas Gordon, whose chest-length beard rivals that of his father. The walls are covered with branded wool bales from all the great sheep stations of the region—Clifton’s own brand is an anchor over the letters JGG—and the nogs are crammed with shearing memorabilia. The old timbers, redolent with lanoline, creak gently in the sun and wind, and swallows fly the length of the shed and back, trapped until the doors open for the next tour group. At night, there are various thumpings and scratchings as a few caged possums—part of the farm show—become restless
Ian Richardson, a veteran Hawke’s Bay shearer, runs the show, while his wife, Wendy, manages a shop selling wool and possum-fur products, postcards and souvenirs. Ian comes into the shed for a cup of tea. When he opens the fridge, I see that the milk shares shelf space with lamb vaccine and Over the Moon Ultimate Energy Drench. I hope he picks the right bottle, although, considering that I’ve entered the 30 km Cape Kidnappers Challenge coastal run, maybe I should go for the energy drench.
I ask him if the shearing units are still operational, and he reaches up to switch on the big electric motor. The walls and floor start to vibrate as the belt spins and the long drive shaft rumbles in its bearings. The sound brings back a rush of memories. I am back in the shearing sheds of my farming uncles, immersed in a world of muscles and sweat and heat and the fling of the fleece and the ratcheting down of the press and the pop of wool hooks into bales as they are manoeuvred and stacked—a mesmerising world for a town boy on holiday, earning pocket money as a rouseabout.
Ian yanks the pull rope of a shearing unit and I hear the familiar clunk of the counterweight, the metallic hiss as the clutch engages and the chatter of clipper and comb. He passes the handpiece to me, and I remember the warmth and centrifugal energy of it, twisting in my grip as if it were a living thing.
In the afternoon, a coach arrives and visitors spill out to watch Ian bottle-feed a huge black Captain Cooker pig which rests its front trotters on the wooden fence, to the delight of guests, while Tom Gordon, Angus’s son, gives a sheepdog demonstration.
“Walk up, Fay. Walk up, Fay. Come by!” he calls to his eye dog. The guests line the fence, framing the moment in their viewfinders, clicking away, entranced. Earlier in the week, I had watched Tom putting in long days dagging at the new woolshed. His sinewy arms gleamed with sweat as he bent over the sheep. Here he plays the straight man to Ian’s more jokey persona, answering endless questions about sheep breeds and working dogs and the history of the station.
We move inside for the shearing demonstration, and I’m roped in by Ian to turn the handle of a vintage hand-cranked shearing machine, which he uses to shear a large ewe. My arms ache as I struggle to keep the handpiece up to speed—and we’ve only taken off half the wool. “Cranking was the job of the farmer’s wife, while her husband shore,” Ian tells the crowd as he makes the final long blows. My respect for those pioneering women soars. They must have had shoulders like hams.
Tom, a curly-haired 27-year-old, takes showbiz in his lanky stride. He spent three seasons working in farm shows in Japan. Before that there was a BA in geography and Spanish, and before that the long unofficial apprenticeship of a farm kid, learning by doing. “I was the maintenance guy around the farm,” he says. “But I loved it. I wanted to learn the ropes, to have the satisfaction of growing into the job.”
He is the same age Angus was when he started working full time at Clifton. In his memoir, Angus stresses that “there would be no pressure on [Tom] if he discovered some other passion in life”. But Angus and Dinah are obviously pleased that their boy has chosen the farm. This, surely, is part of the dream, the handing over to the next generation. Not that they are any less proud of daughter Abby’s decision to be a bush pilot in Botswana. Three of Abby’s uncles were fighter aces, so she seems to have accessed that part of the gene pool, while Tom, like his father, has heard the call of the land. Soon it will be his turn “to keep Clifton going for the rest of the family”, as he puts it, just as his forebears have.
Tom’s cousin Juliet, on the other side of the peninsula, has had a hard road holding on to her acres for the family. She is one of the “Charlie Gordons”, as Angus calls them descendants of Frank’s brother Charles. She and her husband, Warwick Hansen, farm Haupouri, which was split from JGG’s original holdings in 1906 to be farmed by another of Frank’s brothers, Edward. Edward, a major in the 9th Lancers, fought at the Relief of Kimberley in the Boer War and was renowned for chain smoking Egyptian cigarettes. His gaudily plumed cavalry helmet hangs in the entry hall at Clifton, next to a double row of Angus’s straw boaters, tartan cheesecutters and stockman’s hats.
Fittingly, for land once farmed by a cavalry officer, Juliet and Warwick’s main focus at Haupouri is a horse stud called Performance Horses NZ, which over the past 15 years they have built into the largest sport-horse-breeding operation in the southern hemisphere.
Their speciality is producing show-jumping horses. Warwick was a Grand Prix show-jump rider before he retired in 1995 to help found the stud. Their initial broodmare stock was sourced locally, but in 2001, they imported five filly foals of the French Selle Français breed, boosting the programme to the point where they now have 40 broodmares and produce up to 30 foals a year using artificial insemination from French stallions. Glancing at their breeding notes online, I note that while the sires have exotic-sounding names like Fétiche du Pas and Oberon du Moulin, their progeny get more down-to-earth names: Real McCoy, Oki Dokey and the tongue-in-cheek OSH Approved.
One of their mares is named Roulette which seems to describe recent events at Haupouri. “Four years of drought and recession forced us into survival mode,” says Juliet as she, Warwick (whom she calls “Waka”) and I talk at the kitchen table. “We had to cut back on staff, and we’re working seven days a week, but 2010 has been our best year ever for horse sales.”
The economic roulette wheel started spinning in 1980, when Juliet’s father died in a plane crash—the Widgeon amphibian he was in struck a sandbar south of Dargaville. Juliet and her two brothers found themselves facing a ubiquitous rural dilemma: what to do when only one sibling wants to farm, and the others want to be paid out? When Juliet and Warwick took over the running of Haupouri in 1988, it seemed possible, with a combination of luck, good stock management, the sale of a couple of strategic blocks and a modest housing development on a small coastal block, to achieve their own goals while making the necessary family payouts.
Then, in 2002, the picture changed. That was the year billionaire New York investor Julian Robertson bought the Cape Kidnappers block, on Haupouri’s northern boundary, for a rumoured $20 million. The Cape block, the largest of four blocks into which James Gordon’s original purchase had been divided over the years, had been sold out of the family in 1924 during a previous financial squeeze. Robertson’s purchase, along with his plans to build a luxury lodge and world-class golf course on the property, sent surrounding land values rocketing, increasing the amount Juliet needed to raise to buy out her brothers.
As word of the purchase spread, the Hansens started to receive offers. “We had Americans, Dutch, Germans, Japanese knocking on the door, cheque book at the ready,” recalls Warwick. Part of the attraction for investors was the eight kilometres of golden beach and dunes that form the eastern boundary of Haupouri, and where the Hansens exercise their horses. The only public access was at the southern end. The rest of Ocean Beach was as wild and isolated as something you’d find in a national park.
Though momentarily tempted, they decided that selling the family farm was not an option for them. It was a decision as much for their two daughters, aged 21 and 17, as it was for them.
“Our girls wanted to stay,” says Juliet. “If it wasn’t for that, we might have taken one of those offers. But then again, we’re land people. We were born to be workers. If we sold, we’d have a lot of money, but what would we do with ourselves? Our dream when we started was to farm, and have no debt when we finished. We still hold on to that. We’re determined and confident that we can make it work and make it pay, so that if anything happens to us, the girls will be debt free.”
She talks fast, the words spilling out, as if in saying them she reinforces their truth, makes them come to pass. Her eyes flash with the fiery tenacity that seems to be part of the Gordon DNA.
Like Angus and Dinah, the Hansens look to diversification as the path to survival, but they also want to play to their interests and strengths, so most of their plans have an equestrian theme: horse trekking, farm tours, youth training camps targeted at the Asian market (“learn to ride horses at the same time as learning English”) and, more ambitiously, an equestrian residential park, like a small golfing estate, except instead of homes dotted around a golf course, here they would be within walking distance of several sets of stables.
In 2002, the Hansens sold their coastal land to another neighbour, the Lowe family, and went into partnership with property developer Andy Lowe on a 650 ha block abutting Ocean Beach. Their goal was to develop a village-style community of homes, shops and small businesses on 75 ha at the southern end of the beach (including some adjacent land owned by the local hapu) while protecting and restoring the rest. In Lowe’s view, the new community needed to be large enough to be self-sustaining, yet possess values complementary to the restored coastal landscape he dreamed of.
The partners figured without the actions of a vociferous and well-organised opposition, which lobbied to turn public opinion against the idea. Local beer brewer Tui even chimed in with one of its distinctive billboards: “You won’t notice 540 houses at Ocean Beach. Yeah, right.” The scheme the Hansens thought would help them hold on to their property ended up colliding with the public’s desire to hold on to a perceived cultural “property” of its own: the experience of a wild, sparsely developed beach.
A visitor comes to Ocean Beach in the time-honoured way, kicking up a cloud of dust on a stretch of gravel road. With the window wound down, the taste of that dust in the back of the throat whets one’s appetite for the surf. The road climbs up to the top of a hill and pow!, you’re socked in the solar plexus as the view explodes in front of you. This is an east coast beach in all its elemental purity. Even the name announces its quintessence. Nobody’s memory is commemorated, no geographical location mentioned, no compass point suggested, no length in miles stated. Just ocean + beach; sun-bleached dunes and a searing blue infinity.
A lookout lets the visitor linger with the view. Far below, the tower of the surf lifesaving club presides over the beach. Surfcasters wade into the breakers while children play sand-bombing war games in a warm lagoon. Beyond the lagoon, a clutch of baches, a few modern, most kiwiana-DIY, straggle out to the south. At the lookout itself, paragliders take off in the onshore breeze, swinging like pendulums beneath their fabric arches.
In 2006, Andy Lowe gave a presentation to Hawke’s Bay community groups about his vision for Ocean Beach. He called it “Man and Nature”. In it, he said that, for all its scenic splendour and wild character, Ocean Beach was ecologically sick. “The natural environment,” he said, “is in dire straits and needing urgent and intensive care.” Pests had ravaged what remained of the native bush, weeds were taking over the dunes and vehicles were inflicting damage on wildlife, archaeological sites and the environment itself. The ecological values of Ocean Beach were eroding, and significant management and financial resources were required to restore them.
“Time is running out,” he said, “and it is not good enough to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that Ocean Beach will stay the way we remember it during long hot summers of the past.”
He believed and continues to believe that communities are the best guardians of natural heritage. His plan was to seed such a community at the already built-on end of the beach, and in time (he spoke of a 100-year time frame) those permanent residents, deeply invested in their local environment, would take responsibility for a conservation programme he had already begun at the northern ‘wilderness’ end of the beach.
Another thread running through his presentation was one of social equity. He pointed out that under the existing zoning rules, he and his partners were entitled to subdivide their land into 20 ha lots along the length of the beach. The presence of 50 or more holiday mansions for the rich stretching the full eight kilometres of the beach would arguably destroy the ambience of the place far more emphatically than a concentrated residential hamlet at one end. Was this what the community wanted, he asked? “Should the length of Ocean Beach be locked up for wealthy landowners to buy big parcels of land or should there be affordable medium-to high-density housing for the people of Hawke’s Bay?”
It was a compelling pitch, but at the time it fell on sceptical ears. Public reaction, conditioned by years of seeing the country’s coastal land sold into private hands and beach communities turned into carbon copies of suburbia, was understandably negative towards the idea of the same thing happening on their coastline. (Though, in a sense, the community called Andy’s bluff: he had the right to subdivide the block into play pens for the wealthy himself; would he do it?)
At the height of the public ferment, someone scrawled on the timber railing of the Ocean Beach lookout, as if inscribed on the view: “Leave it alone.” It is a sentiment that plays well to public nostalgia for an uncluttered coast, but to Andy Lowe it displays simple ignorance. “Doing nothing is no longer an option,” he says. The heritage sites (including the remains of two pa) will disappear. The ecological significance of one of the country’s finest duneland systems will be lost. The question is: Who will step in to prevent this happening?
The answer, in the first instance, is him. Even after the partnership shelved the development proposal in 2008, he and his wife, Liz, have continued to pour their time and resources into ecological restoration along the beach and in the 2400 ha Cape Sanctuary beyond one of the largest such projects in the country.
On the side, Andy bought a degraded wetland beside the road to Ocean Beach, reflooded it, replanted it and restocked it with waterfowl. He drove me around the site, called Lake Lopez, pointing to mixed native and exotic plantings, already several metres tall and casting needed shade, and a network of islands he has created to allow for safe bird nesting. His aim? To hand it to the people of Hawke’s Bay and say, “Enjoy”.
For the Lowes, conservation is more than an abstract commitment. When I helped collect seabirds for the Cape Sanctuary (see sidebar), Liz Lowe was in the thick of the action, lying on the ground and reaching into petrel burrows, being pecked at and vomited on by the chicks she extracted. Her husband’s idea of recreation is to head into the bush with his children for a week of deerstalking. (Their youngest boy, appropriately, is named Hunter.)
I ask him the obvious question: Is he disappointed the Ocean Beach development didn’t proceed? “I’ve moved on,” he says. “I undertake projects in places where I have a personal connection and where I believe I can bring about a good outcome. I’m not interested in foisting my ideas on other people. If those outcomes aren’t wanted, I have better things to do than fight for them.”
Ironically, at the same time that Andy Lowe was lobbying district and regional councils to back his dream community, on the other side of the cape residents were begging those same councils to help them save their existing one. For them, holding on to land has an uncomfortably literal meaning: keeping it out of the jaws of the ocean.
As I drive around the leafy streets of Te Awanga and out to Haumoana, flags with “WOW” emblazoned on them flutter from roofs, and signs saying “Save our Cape Coast” sprout among the ice plants and rose bushes of dainty coastal gardens. “WOW”, short for “Walk on Water”, is a poke at the Hastings District Council, which, say locals, will soon force them to emulate St Peter if it doesn’t do something about their erosion problems.
I knock on the door of one Te Awanga home, and Alan and Sue Johnson tell me that the council seems to be hoping people will move away of their own accord. “This battle has been going on for 20 years,” they say. “The council’s trying to wear us down.”
Sue remembers when there was an access road along the foreshore, just beyond the shrubs on their boundary. All trace of it has gone, and what you see there now are rows of rusty train rails sticking up out of the shingle, each with a stack of tyres threaded on it, like beads on an abacus. Further along, in a part of the community that has been labelled “Dunkirk”, sea walls jury-rigged from concrete slabs make a valiant stand, protecting 21 homes that are at greatest risk of inundation. But the sea keeps overrunning the barricades. And homeowners are prohibited from replacing them or building any new defences against the elements. If they do, they risk fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars or even a jail term.
Hastings District Council has offered Cape Coast ratepayers three options: do nothing and hope for the best, accept a “managed retreat”, or foot the bill for a network of concrete groynes designed to help stabilise the beach. The cost of the groyne field was estimated at $18.5 million, 90 per cent of which would be recovered through a targeted rate rise of $26–$30,000 a year per household for 13 years.
“It’s shameful,” says Haumoana resident Keith Newman, a technology writer, book author, broadcaster and WOWspokesman. “What kind of council would offer such options to its residents? The first two break up the community and the third one cripples it.”
We’re sitting outside the Mediterranean-style beach-front home he shares with his partner, surrealist painter Paula Novak. And, indeed, there is something surreal about the Cape Coast situation. This “iconic, pebble-laden stretch of paradise”, as Newman puts it, could be a major tourism drawcard for the region. Instead, it is being allowed to disintegrate into a demolition zone.
Rather than accept defeat and become what Newman calls “a beta test for managed retreat”, the 2000-strong community has rallied to what it sees as its Churchill moment—to “fight them on the beaches”. WOW organisers did their sums and found that once all the infrastructure costs of shifting people out of the coastal hazard zone were added up, the council’s retreat option would end up costing about the same as the groynes. So why wasn’t the council prepared to pay for the preservation of the largest coastal community in Hawke’s Bay?
In a 2010 submission to the council, Newman estimated that with community funds already in hand (including a $3 million private donation), the groynes could be built at minimal cost to the district. “If the balance was shared by the ratepayers, it would be less than three dollars a year per household over 25 years. In other words, less than a cup of coffee to save the Cape Coast.”
The council has yet to make up its mind on the issue, but meantime the sea keeps gnawing at the coast. Nowhere is the erosion more obvious than at Clifton Motor Camp, a classic canvas-tent and long-drop Kiwi campground that has modernised with the years, now boasting a gaggle of permanent bach-ettes, with flower gardens, gnomes and TV aerials, and house buses with fibreglass gannets on the roof. The camp still thrives, but it’s in a losing race against a hungry tide. Some roads end abruptly in a jagged tear of asphalt.
Keep driving and you’d fall into the sea. Slabs of grassed turf tilt towards the shingle beach, holding on by their roots, soon to topple over.
I stand at caravan site number one, now just a lonely utilities post on a metre-square piece of soil that wouldn’t hold a pup tent.
Walking back along the beach, dodging the spaghetti of defunct water pipes and power cables lying on the ground, I notice that the eroding shingle has exposed a clump of petrified tree stumps, so beautifully detailed I think for a moment they can’t be real. They have lain underground for thousands of years, only now to be revealed. The shape-shifting land has reached into its own memory and left a gift.
One of the first things James Gillespie Gordon did when he came to New Zealand was apply to the government for acoat of arms. His request was granted, and he became the first New Zealand resident to be granted that honour. The crest is a boar’s head perhaps an unfortunate choice, given the havoc wild pigs would cause among Clifton’s newborn lambs. But the motto couldn’t have been better chosen: Maneo, I abide. James’s dream was that the acres into which he had invested his life’s savings would be the foundation of his descendants’ lives. And so they have. Seven generations have been raised and nurtured here, clinging to their corner of paradise, inscribing themselves upon the land just as the land inscribed itself upon them.
During my farmbike tour with Angus, we climbed to the top of the knoll where his father’s ashes were scattered. A stand of old pines, planted by Angus’s grandfather, sighed in the wind, their gnarled roots splaying across the parched ground like snakes. “This was Dad’s favourite place. He could survey the whole property from here,” said Angus. A few years ago, when thistles had got away on some of the paddocks, Angus came to this spot to apologise to his father, who was a stickler for clean fields. “‘Sorry, Dad,’ I said. ‘It won’t happen again.’”
I asked Angus if he’d picked out a spot for his own ashes. “Hop on and I’ll show you,” he said. We wove our way up a slope behind the homestead until the whole curve of Hawke Bay stretched out to the west. Lush spring growth of ryegrass, barley and rat’s tail shivered in the wind. Angus picked a stalk and chewed on it, studying the squash fields far below, where the irrigator continued to spurt out long, elegant jets. “The flats carried the farm during the critical years,” he said. “So this is where I want my ashes scattered.”
I noted that from here he could also keep a weather eye on the irrigator.In his book reflecting on his time at Clifton Angus wrote, “It was the only place I wanted to be.” Even in a week of rambling around this landscape, I have felt kidnapped by the beauty of it—the visual ache you feel looking at sheep-flecked hillsides where cabbage trees stand like scarecrows and the turquoise sea shimmers beyond. Or the inconsequentiality you feel, standing beneath the towering cape cliffs and reading a million years of history in their sediments. Imagine if these were the viewscapes of your entire life. They would be, in a sense, like your own handwritten signature, developed tentatively at first, then becoming stronger, more assured, almost second nature, part of who you are.
“A man sets out to draw the world,” wrote the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. “As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”
This is what it must be like to live long with the land.