Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Our beaches: Summer hot spot rich in history

The sweep of Buffalo Beach is framed by an iconic pohutukawa tree at the edge of the settlement of Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula.  Photo / Alan Gibson
The sweep of Buffalo Beach is framed by an iconic pohutukawa tree at the edge of the settlement of Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula. Photo / Alan Gibson

It's morning in Whitianga.

Mercury Bay's easy waters blink against a high sun and a boatie makes an unhurried return between Tower Rock and Centre Island, a good haul of snapper likely onboard.

A young couple stroll along Buffalo Beach, serenaded by the clatter of cockle shells as small waves whip themselves against the shore.

Buffalo Beach offers a visual feast, but, as its peculiar name hints, there's much more to appreciate here than the scenery. More than 1000 years of history has brought boom, bust, bloodshed and tragedy.

The great explorer Kupe named it Te Whitianga-nui-a-kupe, after his own crossing from Raiatea in Tahiti.

Historians date this landing at about 950AD, but Ngati Hei's Peter Johnston places the historic landfall somewhere between 800 and 900.

The name of the stream Tapu-tapuatea, flowing gently into the harbour at the beach's northern end, is a token of the visit, taken from the sacred marae for all of Polynesia on Raiatea.

A hot spring at the stream reminded Kupe of home and Mr Johnston put it forward as a wahi tapu area under the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Its immense cultural and historical significance would probably be lost on those in campervans that rattle across a bridge over the stream every few minutes.

The modern beachfront of hotels and large holiday homes they cruise past was just a sea of flax marshes and a forest bush and pohutukawa that stretched to the sea when Kupe was here.

Those in the waka Te Arawa who later settled here became the iwi Ngati Hei, whose numbers have dwindled to around 300.

Mr Johnston shares an interesting belief that Whitianga was once home to many eru kehu - those with red or copper hair.

It could still be seen in some of their descendants today, he said.

A rock where iwi gathered mussel from was similarly named Nga Erukehu. Just as waves break over it, the red seaweed appears as a head sticking up above the water.

Mr Johnston also believed Ahuahu, or Great Mercury Island, could be one of our first points of settlement, and a point or origin for many of the people who moved down the East Coast.

"Because it's an area of land of about 4500 acres, it could have supported up to 10,000 people.

"What we believe is that those remnants of Kupe's people came to Ahuahu, lived there and inter-married, and gradually, maybe because of over-population or food shortage, then came to the mainland."

Above the fast-flowing harbourmouth, where Whitianga's famous passenger ferry bounces back and forth, the people of Ngati Hei defended themselves from Whitianga Pa, protected on three sides by sheer cliffs.

In 1769, a new era came with the strange sight of the Endeavour ambling into the Great Bay of Hei.

Here, Captain James Cook and his men used the transit of Mercury to calculate Greenwich Mean Time, the site being immortalised as Cook's Beach.

For the peaceful seafaring Ngati Hei, other visitors arrived with more brutal intent.

Hundreds were slaughtered in raids by Ngapuhi chiefs Te Morenga and Hongi Hika over the deaths of relatives which Ngati Hei could not be blamed for.

"All of our pa were sacked, and those who weren't killed were taken as slaves back to Northland," Mr Johnston said.

"There are probably a lot of people of Ngati Hei heritage still there today."

The name Maggie Kupae marks another savage chapter in Coromandel history.

With heels slashed by warrior captors, she made a painful escape to live a long life on hands and knees, becoming the last person to be buried in the burial ground Hukihuki in 1875.

The site, lying below the Mercury Bay Museum, is also the resting place of a sailor killed in the tragedy that gave Buffalo Beach its strange name.

Ask museum curator Dr Karen Verdurmen how many tourists stop by to quiz its meaning, and she'll give a funny smile. The answer lies less than 100m from the shore, although today there's likely little left of the HMS Buffalo.

Two crew members, one of them a boy, were drowned when the great British ship was sunk amid a vicious 1840 storm. Her captain described a "terrific gale of wind from the eastward and most tremendous sea rolling in".

The Buffalo briefly revealed itself in a tsunami event more than a century later, when the tide pulled back enough to expose the ribs of the ship, and a few of its salvaged relics remain on display at the museum.

For a town that has always had an unbreakable bond with the sea, it should be fitting that Whitianga has a resident shipwreck.

Tall masts towered a smoky industrial hub when Whitianga boasted the country's biggest export port in the salad days of the kauri trade.

Fishing has long since surpassed agriculture as its mainstay, yet Dr Verdurmen has always been puzzled by why Whitianga was never a beach town.

"It really stood out to me why this town was never focused on the beach. There's been agriculture, fishing and logging, but the beach strip I've found has been significantly under-used."

Albert St, a main drag of surf shops, cafes and takeaway bars, runs eastward from land to beach rather than sitting side-on to the sea.

Thomas Carina, one of the first Europeans, named the Esplanade and built the first hotel with the goal of creating a beach atmosphere.

"Except for the names that remain, it obviously wasn't followed through," Dr Verdurmen said.

For locals, she said, Buffalo Beach was more "a point of social contact".

"It's a place where you can go to meet your neighbours or friends rather than having a cup of coffee or going to the pub."

This of course changes over summer, with the annual influx of holidaymakers packing hotels and pushing the local population from around 4000 to around 30,000.

And as far back as Janet Riddle can remember, the sunseekers always came.

Whitianga would "always get choc-a-bloc" when launch races, river swims and beauty pageants marked the New Year's Day regatta.

She lived in Auckland for many years, but it was her blood bond with Coromandel that brought her back to the house she grew up in.

Brian and Jill Warwick share an odd tale of local roots joining.

Brian's great great grandfather Benjamin Schofield once ran the local mill, while former Miss Whitianga Jill also comes from old local lineage.

They met in Auckland as complete strangers.

After moving back to Whitianga they opened a quad cycle hire venture, which they run from a house looking out to the ferry landing.

It's on the market, but they don't plan on leaving town, Mr Warwick said. "It's social around here, with no stress - no one's got too much to get upset about."

Not much, it seems, except for erosion which has been threatening beach-side homes and their property values for years.

Since the 1990s, the duneline has eroded up to 20m in places - but this is now held to be simply a shoreline fluctuation typical of many Coromandel beaches.

Coromandel-based coastal scientist Dr Jim Dahm expected the erosion phase to end before the beach recovers again.

"The dramatic part of coastal erosion tends to be our emotional response to this natural process rather than any significant environmental change."

He didn't consider the erosion itself an environmental problem, rather a human inconvenience.

Planners and developers had placed subdivision and infrastructure too close to the sea to accommodate natural shoreline movements.

"If you went to the zoo and jumped in the tiger cage and got mauled, that is not really a tiger problem."

Dr Dahm said people usually looked at coastal properties with very rosy spectacles - the most valuable sections often the most vulnerable.

Thames-Coromandel District Council had looked at a variety of solutions ranging from rockwalls and bags to dune replenishment.

"We've got an action committee of locals, councillors and council staff and they just want to get on and see things happen," senior planner Nikki Williams said.

"It's about wanting to rebuild the beach as much as protecting the properties."

The latest solution might be most quirky yet - flax skirts strung between posts that allowed sand to blow over, but not back into the sea.

"I got the idea of a woman wearing a flax skirt," said its architect, local artist Michael Smither. "Just a gentle flow and a feminine kind of thing. Culturally, it seemed right."

The breeze here carries the sand and the scent of pohutukawa and at the other end of the beach, you'll catch the smell of deep-fried hoki from Buffalo Beach Takeaways.

As the sun lowers itself behind the Coromandel Range, a pink-orange haze works its way down over the town and across the bay, stopping to beam itself back off Centre Island in the distance.

Bars are preparing for another busy night's trading and in the same balmy evening air enjoyed long ago by the crew of the Buffalo.

So goes The Voyage of the Buffalo, penned by an anonymous poet:

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, at four o'clock we strike

Each man to wash and mend his clothes whilst he has got daylight;

We've extra grog on Saturdays, to cheer up every man;

There's happy days on board the Buff ashore in New Zealand.

Buffalo Beach

Location: Buffalo Beach stretches along the seafront of Whitianga, largely sheltered by Mercury Bay in Coromandel. It takes two-and-a-half hours to drive there from Auckland, and just over an hour from Whangamata or Thames.

People: The local population sits at just over 4000 but can swell by six times that over summer, and many homeowners live out of town. The number of traditional iwi Ngati Hei now sits at around 300.

Famous for: Fishing. Mercury Bay is synonymous with big game fishing and offers a bounty of smaller species. The ship Buffalo Beach is named after lies sunken just off the shoreline. Whitianga also boasts a beautiful seaward vista of turquoise water and islands.

Special features:

Ferry Landing: The oldest stone wharf in Australasia, built in 1837. In summer, it services a busy ferry service that offers a convenient bridge between Whitianga and popular destinations on the other side of the harbour such as Cook's Beach and Hahei.

HMS Buffalo Memorial: Located less than 100m from the wreck site of the British vessel, which went under in 1840. The memorial marks the name of sailors Charles Moore and John Cornes, who died in the incident. Little is thought to be left of the ship today, although pieces from it still sometimes wash up.

Taputapuatea: The stream at the northern end of Buffalo Beach, named by explorer Kupe after his sacred marae on Raiatea in Tahiti. A hot spring in the stream reminded him of home.

The series

Monday: Waimarama
Yesterday: Wainui
Today: Whitianga
Thursday: Raglan
Friday: Mokau
Saturday: Mt Maunganui.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 01 Sep 2014 19:38:55 Processing Time: 1010ms