Whangamatā. Photo: Courtesy Anna Rawhiti-Connell.
About Town: Whangamatā
The natural beauty of “Wanga” becomes clearer as New Year’s holidays spent in thrall to the psychodrama of being a teenager are slowly replaced with days spent wearing sensible sun hats and playing lawn games.
By Anna Rawhiti-Connell
Which road you take to reach Whangamatā depends on where you’re coming from. If arriving from south of the township, the road to use is carved into the side of the base of the Coromandel Range and will bring you through the Karangahake Gorge. Cars towing boats hug a steep rock face that was blasted away in the late 19th century, creating a snaking road which follows the twists and turns of the canyon formed by the Ohinemuri River running below.
It’s this road I took as a teenager in the 1990s, driving eastward from Hamilton for days of blazing sun and countless hours playing “will he, won’t he” with boys my friends and I had seen all year at garage parties and school socials. The river is named for the weeping waters of Hinemuri, the daughter of a Hauraki chief. She cried so much over lost suitors she formed the river and the surrounding floodplains with her tears. Hinemuri seems an appropriate narrative companion for teenage girls arriving in Whangamatā, where summer loves were found and lost in the space between long days and longer nights.
These days my husband and I instead head to Whangamatā from the north, from our home in Auckland. Coming from this direction you take a road which abruptly sends you off the flat straights of the Hauraki Plains and into what I call “the windies”, a series of hill climbs and descents that make our dog Coltrane car sick. These days I don’t worry about tears or humiliation or how I might be undone by the unsophisticated rules of teenage social strata. Instead, as soon as we approach the bridge over the Wentworth River with the marina to our left, we wind the window down and yell, “We’re at the beach”, as loud as we possibly can. Coltrane and his brother Albus stick their noses out the window to tell everyone they’re at the beach. I feel at peace.
These roads into Whangamatā are my own two roads into my relationship with this place. One falls in line with the township’s identity as a summer hotspot, a place you love for its buzzy and busy New Year’s vibes and then leave shortly after. The other was formed more recently and is based on the restful effect of Whangamatā’s natural environment during the off-season, when the town is quieter and you can appreciate the place not for the thrumming crowds but for the four kilometres of biscuit-coloured beach, the Otahu Estuary and the surrounding bush that drips wet when it rains.
These relationships also underscore a tension that exists in coastal towns across the country, which depend on seasonal holiday economies and accommodating the demands of hordes of visitors. Whangamatā’s population can swell to 10 times its off-peak size over the holidays, which takes a toll on the ecology of the coastline and infrastructure. Recent divisions also occurred between those who had been backing the marina as an economic opportunity and those who were worried about its impact on marine life and the famous Whangamatā surf break.
As a teenager I did not appreciate Whangamatā as a restorative marine environment, nor that the dunes at Otahu Point are home to nesting pairs of rare dotterels and oystercatchers. Back then, nesting pairs were what happened in the sand dunes near the surf club after dark and a bottle of Bernadino Spumante. To me, the beach was a mere backdrop to the psychodrama of being a teenage girl in New Zealand in the nineties.
A cacophony of “You going to Wangaaaaaa for New Year’s?” would sound during term four in late November, the H dropped as the nasal intonations of summer planning bounced off the concrete surrounds of the school quad. The rolled skirts of high-school uniforms would soon be swapped for Hot Tuna t-shirts and surfie shorts. We’d save our babysitting and café money to buy just one new branded t-shirt at the surf shops on the main road of Whangamatā. Remaining change would be spent on friendship bracelets at Garuda — which is still there actually, selling bracelets and dream catchers and sarongs.
As teenagers we’d be in town every day, loitering, hoping to bump into James or Michael or Nathan. We’d buy mince pies from the Port Road Bakery and Fruju Snows from the Achilles Store. Owing to an unfortunate sign misprint on the Coca-Cola supported wrap-around, the store had been renamed last time I was there and is now the Achillies Store. It’s still a good dairy. Fruju Snows have become something of a mythologised icy treat, and both Whangamatā and I have aged our palates up a bit.
Back then, “nesting pairs” were what happened in the sand dunes near the surf club after dark and a bottle of Bernadino Spumante.
As a teenager I stayed with friends, whose brave parents had forgone all hopes of a restful break. Ten years ago, my parents bought their own small bach in Whangamatā — well into their own children’s adulthoods, you’ll note. This year, in the midst of the Omicron outbreak, when things in Auckland felt especially perilous and claustrophobic, my husband and I escaped there with the dogs. We did not venture into town much.
On our most recent trip down from the city, I biked the flat roads to buy bread each day from Oliver’s Bakery and to have a rare yarn with someone who wasn’t my husband, talking to the butcher at Meat at the Beach about pork ribs. We fulfilled our bougie desires at Gather and Roam, a new eatery owned by Simon Wright, the former owner of Auckland’s The French Café. We bought dog leads from that local institute, Sunny’s of Whangamatā, where a large yellow sign proclaims that The Prices Will Brighten Your Day!! The emporium sells a range of hats — I buy one on every trip but always lose them. We walked the dogs along the beach in the mornings and evenings, carefully keeping them away from protected areas where the birds nest.
My family now gathers at Whangamatā as often as we can, my brothers having returned from overseas just before the pandemic. We play Kubb, throwing wooden batons at blocks arranged on the sandy dry lawn. Well, they play Kubb. I umpire in one of my hats from Sunny’s. We stick to a strict regimen of eggs in the morning, making lunch plans as we eat, followed by a lunch spent talking about dinner. There is always a late-afternoon walk to the beach to swim and sleep with a book resting on our chests. Once a year we do the walk to Wentworth Falls, cleaning our sneakers on the way in and way out to prevent kauri dieback.
Before returning to the house I always take the quintessential Whangamatā beach photo from on top of the dunes, looking out to Whenuakura Island. The dunes were heavily eroded after a storm in 2020. A coastal management plan was adopted by the Thames- Coromandel District Council in 2018. The beaches they say are one of the major reasons for people coming to visit the area. “Keeping them in such magnificent condition comes at a cost, given the effects of climate change, storm events and other natural processes.” As a visitor I appreciate it but it’s not a cost I have to bear. I exit via the road back to Auckland, windows wound up, dogs asleep. Even as an adult with an appreciation for more than the buzz, I am still loving and leaving.
The author refamiliarising herself with the rules of Kubb. Photo: Courtesy Anna Rawhiti-Connell.
Anna Rawhiti-Connell is an award-winning columnist and a North & South contributing writer.
This story appeared in the August 2022 issue of North & South.