Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Waimarama - a place of myth and Maori legend

An old tractor and trailer await the return of a boat full of fishermen from an early morning trip off Waimarama Beach. Photo / Alan Gibson
An old tractor and trailer await the return of a boat full of fishermen from an early morning trip off Waimarama Beach. Photo / Alan Gibson

From the east coast's endless expanses of soft white sand to the rugged beauty of the west coast, New Zealand's beaches remain among our greatest treasures. In the first of a six-part journey around the North Island, reporter Jamie Morton and photographer Alan Gibson travel to Hawkes Bay's Waimarama.

Waimarama, say its tangata whenua, is a place of myth. Walk to the water's edge and face north, to sweeping brown hills looming above like the laps of giants, and watch as they roll into headlands, diving into the Pacific blue.

Peer beyond the sea spray and you might make out Mahia Peninsula, 200km across the ocean at Hawkes Bay's other extreme.

Behind you is Waimarama's most striking resident, Motu-O-Kura or Bare Island, the high and craggy piece of rock that cuts a jagged figure across the southern seascape.

As the last of the day's light drops over the island's pale western face, crayfish pots behind the breakers twinkle - like gold against the sunset.

For the fortunate fisherman, Waimarama's waters can also yield butterfish, kahawai, gurnard and blue cod.

Commercial fishing has made groper and hapuka a rarity, and even the pipi that Robert MacDonald cherishes in his earliest memories have all but vanished. Much of the local kaumatua's life has been dedicated to ensuring his people's rich history doesn't disappear.

The settlement of Waimarama has sprung from coastal farmland, growing from a cluster of quaint baches to a seaside village of 350 homes, many of them modern two-storey works of steel and glass. The land where the settlement now sits remained in Maori ownership until the early 20th century, having been first leased in 1866 for a sheep station.

The people of Rangitane, Waimarama's ancestral tangata whenua, pre-date any European presence on the land by hundreds of years.

Descended from the first explorers to New Zealand, their mighty castle here was Hakikino, one of Rangitane's great battlements along the eastern coast. Commanding sweeping views from its perch across the Te Apiti valley, Hakikino kept a community of several thousand people safe from invading tribes for more than 200 years.

Bones from ancient battles sometimes surface even after hundreds of years.

"We forget sometimes that this is basically a huge grave site - and Maori people don't occupy grave sites without a huge amount of respect," Mr MacDonald said. "That determines what we do here and it always has."

The land has always remained in ancestral hands and Mr MacDonald, who manages the farm on behalf of his family, moved to have it placed under covenant with the Department of Conservation.

Sharing its history at Hawkes Bay Museum brought more visitors to the site itself and inspired the award-winning Waimarama Maori Tours.

"Sharing it with people is the only way we can make it reasonably safe," he said.

"If we are not active in promoting our history, then this area might be lost. And that would be a tragedy."

The life-long resident grew up with the stories of Hakikino. He felt humbled that it was still providing some form of protection to the generations after him.

"I'm enormously encouraged that our young people could come and be a part of this and feel proud. In a world where they seem to lack direction, Hakikino gives them a real sense of bearing."

Mr MacDonald has now begun to realise a new vision - replenishing the hills in native bush from the skyline down.

He'd like the rest of Waimarama to stay the same.

Keith Atkins, almost as much part of the furniture, summed up how the rest of the locals would put it.

"From talking around the village, if you'd ask what people would like for the future, they'd say they don't want anything."

For Mr Atkins, heading to the beach with his family almost 70 years ago meant a gravel road that would carry their caravan through the high backblocks of Hastings to their holiday hotel - an old woolshed near the beach. The caravan, he adds, happened to be one of the very first in Hawkes Bay: "A box on wheels".

Rolling out old aerial photographs across his deck table, he traces Waimarama's transformation since.

A picture taken in the 1950s shows just over 20 rooftops, and there's no domain, store, school, or surf lifesaving club.

The sea has crept inland through the ages, but it was a bad storm in the mid-1970s that forced beachfront residents to protect their properties with a long rockwall.

"We are here to be the caretakers of the land and are supposed to look after it for people in the future," Mr Atkins said. "A lot of people say let nature take its natural course, but nature takes it all away and doesn't give it back - so what's the point of letting nature win all the battles?"

The rockwall pulled locals closer together, and galvanised the Waimarama Development and Protection Society, which Mr Atkins now heads.

It's handy to the Hastings District Council officers putting together the Waimarama Plan, with water supply likely to be among the big issues.

Water can get wasted during the summer holidaymaker influx when it's used for more showers and washing the boats that suddenly pop up around the village.

That and traffic on the beach, alcohol control, protecting plantings and what to do about the Waimarama and Maraetotara Memorial Hall, which got badly hit in a flood that ravaged the town in April 2011.

Without warning, water streamed down the hills and carpeted streets in mud and silt. Thirty residents had to be evacuated and those who stayed were left without power, phone, water or bridge out of town.

The community rallied, pulling on gumboots and clearing muck from each other's sections.

Erosion, too, remains a problem.

Sand on the shore has diminished as currents scoop it up and drag it away up the coast, and the waterline has maintained a landward march over the past few decades.

Authorities recognised the threat of erosion when they drew a line through seaside properties, Mr Atkins' among them, and ruled it a coastal hazard zone.

Values took a hit, but for many prime property sites even a section remains hard to get for less than $280,000.

It's a far cry from the £500 it took Keith Cross to acquire his first property here, a little bach he bought when he was just 18.

"Even 10 years later, you probably wouldn't have got your money back."

It was just over a decade ago when Mr Cross - an old surfer whose "buggered knees" have stopped him getting back on his longboard - and wife Laurie were talked into buying the Waimarama Store by its former owner.

His shop is famous for its fish and chips but he doesn't know why.

A beach-inspired mural covering its exterior was painted by an artist from the road who had initially only asked if he could sell an artwork there.

A wall of old photographs at the back of the shop is a doorway to its past - a scene from the 1970s has a girl and a boy sitting outside Cronin's Waimarama Store, one nursing an ice cream, the other a lolly.

With an asking price of $920,000, the store is available for a new owner to write the next chapter.

Mr Cross said selling up wouldn't change his love of Waimarama - and he's proud that love is shared by children Ben and Leila, who went on to join the Waimarama Surf Life Saving Club.

His favourite photo in the store might be the pair with the silver medals they won for IRB rescue in Adelaide at the lifesaving world championships in November.

Their club has saved countless lives over more than six decades, from a child plucked from a floating mattress that was heading out to sea in the early 1950s, to two men thrown overboard when their boat flipped 1km offshore earlier this year.

When lifeguards reached the pair, one was struggling to keep his head above the water, club patrol captain Kim Nilsson said.

"Afterwards, he actually told us he thought that was it, he couldn't go on anymore - and then this hand came out from nowhere and pulled him back out again."

The deed earned the club the region's rescue of the year.

What 32-year member Mr Nilsson described as "serious rescues" were relatively rare at Waimarama, with only one or two a season.

River mouths could drive dangerous channels through the surf, dragging anyone caught in it out to sea, but those familiar with the beach knew where not to swim.

"The deaths we have had have generally been people from out of the area, who have gone fishing out at the rocks and been swept off, or caught in the river and taken out."

It was at the height of summer, when the beaches swelled with thousands of people, that lifeguards mostly had their work cut out.

One of the biggest draws of the season was Hawkes Bay's Miss Waimarama pageant.

As teenaged Napier beauty and aspiring police detective Laura Blackbourn won the crown last year, more than 2000 people crammed the domain for the spectacle.

But when the pageant rolls around this month, you won't find Robert MacDonald among the jandals, bikinis and bronzed bodies.

As Waimarama heaves with thousands of beachgoers, Mr MacDonald will likely be enjoying the quiet at his century-old homestead.

"The best parts of the year for me are the quieter winter months."

And while it's hard to believe Waimarama's imposing landscape could be lost on anyone who travels there, Mr MacDonald thinks few visitors understand its true beauty. The myth, the legend, the spiritual significance. "The myth of the place is not important for the average holidaymaker, who is only interested in going to the beach," he said. "I just think they are missing so much."


Waimarama

Location: Waimarama is a 5 hour drive from Auckland, or a half-hour (33km) drive from Hastings.

People: About 1020 people live in the wider Waimarama area, home to about 350 homes. The population is expected to climb to 1500 by 2031. The median age of residents is 38 and personal income $25,200. Waimarama is one of the few areas left in Hawkes Bay with a strong Maori presence.

Famous for: Its beach, the most popular in Hawkes Bay, with fishing and the annual Miss Waimarama pageant, a summer favourite.

Special features

Hakikino: The ancient fortress that overlooks the area and one of several great east coast battlements once occupied by the Rangitane people at the iwi's height. Waimarama Maori Tours offers visitors the chance to see it up close. Visit www.waimaramamaori.com.

Motu-O-Kura/Bare Island: The small craggy island once served as a defensive position and was named after a resourceful woman who would swim out and provide life-giving water to the people on it. Sailing past in 1769, Captain James Cook described it as "a pretty high white island lying close to the shore".

- NZ Herald

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