Our Beaches: Where every day is fun day - Mt Maunganui

By Jamie Morton

In the final of a six-part journey to some of our most beloved beach destinations, reporter Jamie Morton and photographer Alan Gibson explore Mt Maunganui.

The spectacular view looking down over the main beach at Mt Maunganui at dawn. The Mount is one of the top summer holiday destinations in New Zealand. Photo / Alan Gibson
The spectacular view looking down over the main beach at Mt Maunganui at dawn. The Mount is one of the top summer holiday destinations in New Zealand. Photo / Alan Gibson

Elsa Cording might peer out the window of her caravan and see rows of dunes instead of cafes, boardwalks and high-rise apartment buildings.

Kent Jarman may imagine himself as a teenager again in the 1960s, dashing into the surf to make the first of countless rescues.

Stuart Crosby could think back to his free and easy years at the beach, cruising up and down the coast with his mates looking for the perfect break.

Unlike at her native Rio De Janeiro, Fernanda Braga doesn't have to arrive early to get a spot on the sand.

Gerry Hodgson can smile to himself each time he steps out of his apartment to meet another Mt Maunganui morning, remembering his efforts in nursing his favourite beach back to the sparkling beauty it is.

At the Mount, every local might view their home town differently, but get them talking for long enough, and all will come around to the same noun.

Paradise.

Pick any day at Main Beach and the scene won't be the same as the day before. Today, it's a group of sea kayakers fighting hard in the foam and two teenage girls dancing with the sunset.

There's a strong inshore breeze thick with the scent of sea salt, sweeping up a sandy haze that blows through the Norfolk pines lining Marine Parade.

Mayor Island, a faint blue outline on the horizon, is framed by the green slopes of Mauao and the rocky northern face of Moturiki Island.

Mauao, or the Mount, hovers like a monster above Maunganui Rd, the main street.

Down the road, music and laughter spill out of trendy bars and into the evening air of this tourist-ready boulevard of gift shops, boutique fashion stores and cafes.

But much of the old Mount still remains.

Teenagers wrapped in beach towels walk bare-foot over pedestrian crossings licking ice creams, and the facades of fish 'n' chip shops are classic, even if it does cost $6 for a cheeseburger.

The Mount that Elsa Cording remembers as a girl had only a lone hotel and a humble campground that stretched to the sand.

"The donkey days," she calls them.

Donkey rides, the beach's then top attraction, were offered to children for a few pennies.

Mrs Cording later began camping at the beach with her husband Butch not long after they were married.

That was more than 40 years ago and this summer was their first Christmas at the Mount.

They still enjoy its free and simple pleasures - reading books in the sun and collecting catseyes.

"We love just watching the ships coming and going, the beautiful sunrises," Mr Cording said.

"We get wet, but I don't know about swimming. I love to watch the scenery, sit down, go for a walk around the base track, that's me."

Mt Maunganui has some of Tauranga's finest restaurants - the duck medley at the Mount Bistro is an event - but the Cordings are happy enough with their usual orders at the local Cossie Club.

A shrimp cocktail for her and scallops for him.

"We've got to know some good people here over the years ... but most of them are all gone now," Mr Cording said.

Mt Maunganui Lifeguard Service veteran Kent "KJ" Jarman is a respected authority on Main Beach - after 46 years of patrolling, he knows its deadly rips intimately.

He learned how to bodysurf and handle himself in the water here in the 1950s.

That was before the bridge was built, and you had to travel over to Welcome Bay to get to the beach.

"From the city it was quicker to get the ferry."

At 16, he joined the club and was soon faced with his first rescue.

"There was a guy, probably about 150 metres out, with a big rip and a good surf running," he recalled.

"I had to swim out with a reel and grab him and about 40 well-meaning members of the public almost drowned us pulling us back in ... we went under a few times."

Mt Maunganui may be one of New Zealand's most popular beaches, he said, but few people realise it's also one of the most deadly.

A strong rip is usually working at the clubroom end of the beach and at the other, a fixed rip surfers call the elevator runs up the side of the blowhole on Moturiki Island.

The ferocious currents built the club's 40 lifeguards into some of New Zealand's strongest swimmers.

"To think we used to do all our rescues with reel and line ... there were no tubes back then," he said.

"You tell that to the kids now and they'll go, what?"

What began with wooden surfboards handcrafted for rescues and a Ford 10, the first vehicle used for patrolling a New Zealand beach, became a long and proud history of innovation by the club.

It was the first in the country to use IRBs - inflatable rescue boats - and started the first schools programme.

Mr Jarman has held about every position going and, in his early 60s, is still on the patrol roster.

The Mount had changed dramatically over the decades, but he was pleased many people like himself were keeping its character intact.

"It was one of the first surfing spots back in the 1960s, and a lot of the younger generation have adopted that philosophy," he said.

"Any day when the surf's up, you'll see a few extra vehicles parked up, and it's nice to think we haven't lost that. That's what makes the Mount special."

Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby said there were serious worries for that culture and identity when Mt Maunganui's council merged with Tauranga in 1989.

"That culture has been retained and it's still different when compared to the city," he said.

"The Mount is still very much that laid-back holiday destination."

Restrictions limiting the heights of buildings hadn't changed since the amalgamation, although residents had remained worried their relaxed community could become a high-rise jungle resembling a New Zealand equivalent of of Surfers Paradise.

An Environment Court victory over a Tauranga developer in 2007 and a later review of planning rules for the high-rise end of Mt Maunganui may mean their fears are never realised.

Mr Crosby, a self-proclaimed "beach boy" who grew up riding the Mount's waves when "I was about four-foot six and the surfboards were 12 feet long", wants the Mount to remain for the people.

"I want the beach and sand dunes to remain intact - that's its main point of difference to the rest of the city - and for there to always be access to public spaces, so everyone can enjoy it for free."

Shops in the Mount have come and gone, but its business community has preserved a strong owner-operator tradition.

"We have the perfect mixture of residential, apartments, cafes, bars and boutique shops, as well as a blend of local and national businesses," says the manager of the Mount Mainstreet business association, Leanne Brown.

"It would be a great shame to see department stores and parking buildings appear on our patch of paradise."

Main street retailers were enjoying a fast-growing trade from visiting cruise ships which had brought in more than $40 million this summer alone.

But the annual boom took a hit last year, when scenes of oil on beaches spilt from the stricken MV Rena turned many tourists away.

News of the disaster spread quickly around the world, tarnishing Mt Maunganui's postcard image of paradise.

Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, who rode ashore in an IRB months earlier for an iceblock promotion, was moved to tweet his dismay after reading an online article.

Locals were urged to post pictures of the restored beaches on Facebook as tourism operators battled perceptions that the region's entire shoreline was blackened with oil.

They were often at pains to point out that authorities had been able to re-open the beach days after blobs of tar-like oil appeared on it.

Gerry Hodgson feels proud to have been partly responsible for the rapid clean-up.

"When I walked down on the beach and saw that horrible black goo for the first time, I was shocked," the retired architect said.

He ignored warnings to stay away and began scooping the oil into shopping bags, using kitchen gloves to protect his hands.

"It was just so obvious to people like me who know a little bit about authority - when you see a tape, you know whether it's a bulls**t tape. You step over it and carry on."

Mr Hodgson eventually found himself leading a group of volunteers charged with caring for the beach.

Fernanda Braga has her own attachments to it.

On a warm day you might find her sunbathing at Little Rio, known to most locals as Tay St, a popular surfing spot that has become the seaside hang-out of Mt Maunganui's burgeoning Brazilian community.

"I remember coming here from Hawaii," she said. "I thought that was the best surf place I'd seen until I saw this beach, and thought, 'wow' ... I never left."

About 300 other Brazilians live here too, giving it a unique flavour that might be seen in Havaiana jandals or churrascaria, traditional Brazilian barbecue.

Coracao de Galinha - fresh chicken hearts marinated in beer and garlic - go for $16 a plate at Armazem, the Brazilian-theme restaurant Ms Braga runs with husband Alex Aragao.

Luis Moresco, working as a barman up the street, is also raising a family here.

The water might be colder than at the beaches of his homeland, but he enjoys Mt Maunganui's safety, pristine white sand and fat, rolling waves.

"I just love the fact it's so relaxed here, without any stress."

Mr Jarman sometimes found himself hankering for the old days, "those days when it wasn't so crowded and everyone knew each other ... but those days are gone and will never come back.

"This place will always be a holiday place - it'll always get that vibe for six weeks, and then we'll all go, 'thank God, they've all gone home'."

But a few thousand extra beachgoers to watch over during summer was little to complain about when he got to live in Mt Maunganui for 12 months a year. "I've travelled around, I couldn't think of anywhere I'd rather live. This place is paradise."


Mt Maunganui

Location: Mt Maunganui is on Tauranga's Pacific coast, a 10-minute drive from the city over the Harbour Link. The journey from Auckland takes about 2h 10m.

People: At the last census, 3738 people were recorded as living in the main area of Mt Maunganui, 336 more than in 2001.

Famous for: Pristine white sand, surfing, rolling waves, a laid-back holiday atmosphere and the extinct volcanic cone that overlooks it. More recently, the beach became associated with the Rena disaster.

Special features

Mauao: At 232m high, Mauao dominates the horizon over Mt Maunganui. In Maori legend, Mauao was a nameless mountain, which out of heartbreak asked to be drowned in the ocean. Patupaiarehe, the people with magical powers, hauled the mountain toward the sea with a magic rope but it was left fixed in place by the sun. The name Mauao means "caught by the morning sun". It takes between half an hour and an hour to climb.

Moturiki Island: Home to the famous blowhole, the island lies at the southern end of Main Beach and is connected to the mainland by a man-made land bridge. From 1967, the island operated as Marineland and was home to dozens of marine mammals as well as chimpanzees, llamas, wallabies, kea, possums and ferrets. It later hosted Mount Maunganui Leisure Park, which had bumper boats, a variety of hot and cold pools and a waterslide that travelled from the top of the island into the pool below.

Main Beach: One of New Zealand's most popular summer destinations, Main Beach is an open ocean beach that has gentle, rolling waves because of its unique geography and its position between Moturiki Island and Mauao. Its white sand was polluted in October 2011 by blobs of oil during the Rena disaster.

Mt Drury: A reserve overlooking Main Beach that once served early Maori as a burial ground. Its caves were used as burial crypts, and the terraces on its north-eastern face also indicate Maori occupation.

- NZ Herald

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