Last week, a community group fighting to preserve Wainuiototo Bay (aka New Chum beach) in the Coromandel were celebrating a long-fought for victory after developers withdrew their application to subdivide the area.
Here, Catherine Delahunty writes about the beach she loves more than any other, and why she was among those fiercely opposed to development.
I first waded through the river, scrambled over the rocks and climbed the ridge to find the beach I love more than any other. It was 1972.
I was 19 and intent, as Canned Heat sang it, on “going up the country”.
There were quite a few like me — young hippies who first discovered, then fell in love with, the beauty of the northern Hauraki. For some, that was a phase. They moved on. But for me, that first love has turned into a lifelong passion.
But, as I look back now, I marvel at how little I knew back then about this marvellous place.
That first visit, we picnicked naked on the white sand — the old black and white photos show us in our dream world.
Our awareness of that place, Wainuiototo, or, as it’s widely known, New Chum beach, was wholly innocent of any understanding of its history, and its significance.
Back then, it was like falling in love with a postcard picture. We swooned over the intense colours, the white sand, the sparkling waves and azure water. We didn’t know then what it meant to love the actual place; the place that’s been home for a people for many, many generations.
Back then, too, I had no idea how Wainuiototo would feature in my later life, in particular how it has loomed large in my last dozen or so years, as we have fought the rich men who are trying to subdivide it.
Wainuiototo has caused me to wonder: What is this love of place that captures us and which has so many layers?
I’ve learned that a personal attachment to the beauty of a place isn’t the same as being ahi kaa.
It’s not the same as having a 700-year collective connection to a place — a connection broken, mended, lost, re-visited, fought for as whakapapa (never mind whose names appear on title deeds). It’s also not the same as being a person who grew up there, whose earliest memories are fixed in that place.
The beach at Wainuiototo is a perfect half-moon of white sand, curving lines of surf and silent hills behind the beach. It is both blessed and cursed by its isolation. You can get there only on foot, or by boat — yet it’s just a couple of hours from our biggest city.
It is a star of the Lonely Planet guide, a place labelled and featured like a celebrity, adored by the paparazzi and tourists, sometimes too busy, and sometimes blissfully quiet.
But there’s a world of difference between saying, “Wow, what a great place for a picnic”, and glimpsing the sacred knowledge of a place based on whakapapa.
The land behind the beach is the whenua of several iwi — including Ngāti Huarere ki Whangapoua, who still live nearby. In the 1960s, a group of locals tried to persuade the government to buy the beach backdrop, which was farmland at the time, for about 3,000 pounds. But the deal fell through.
Then, in the early 2000s, the blocks behind the beach came on the market, and so began our long struggle to stop development. Around 2010, I got caught up in the campaign to save Wainuiototo. Three wealthy developers had bought the land thinking they could make some serious coin out of it.
Where some saw tūrangawaewae and unspoiled beauty, they saw dollar signs. They planned to build holiday homes for the wealthy — and roads on which rich folk could roll down the hillside in their SUVs, towing their jetskis to the water’s edge.
Their roads. Their jet skis. Their right to a private, oh-so-privileged ocean view.
But Ngāti Hei kaumātua Peter Tiki Johnston wasn’t having it. Firmly, but quietly, he insisted that Wainuiototo must be left in peace.
We Pākehā who campaigned alongside him and the Ngāti Huarere people learned snatches of the local history.
We were told the word Wainuiototo had two possible meanings. It could mean great waters of blood, which might refer to the great battle fought above the beach between local iwi when the cliffs ran red with blood. Or it could refer to the red kelp tides that wash onto this beach to this day.
Peter Johnston and Linda Cholmondeley Smith, who grew up at New Chum and whose family had once owned the farm, came to parliament when I was still an Green MP to lobby for the end to development.
I took them to the Back Benchers TV show and hosted them in the strange world of Wellington politics — a lifetime away from the wave breaks and the nikau grove at Wainuiototo that they loved. Peter has died since then, but we keep going for him.
We’ve campaigned long and hard. Human body-sculptured messages on the beach calling for government action, petitions, media campaigns. And time and again, we’ve been to court.
The court hearings have always been held in the Thames Coromandel District Council chambers in Thames. The ceiling of the council chamber is alive, thanks to the extraordinary art of John Hovell of Harataunga (just north of Wainuiototo), whose marine creatures and plants float and cruise above the room below.
Above the rigidly dull, often petty, and dreadfully Pākehā rituals plodding out beneath them.
The last time we went to court, I included John Hovell’s beautiful submission in my defence of an undeveloped Wainuiototo. I didn’t know John that well. But I had a close relationship with his sister Mary and his brother George, who lived most of their lives at Harataunga.
Mary was a tall, strong wahine who’d earned her living as a crayfisher and by giving exhibitions of stock-whip cracking at local fairs.
She and her partner, Ruth, had a tree nursery at Harataunga, and Mary would fiercely defend the natural world, chasing vehicles off the beach and supporting campaigns against mining and development.
George, her brother, became a particular friend of mine. We’d row across the estuary at Harataunga to visit his home where we’d talk about art, the Hovell Māori and English whakapapa.
George lived in a tumbledown house (one of the oldest wooden homes on the peninsula) crammed with paintings and exotic treasures. He also had a glass house by the sea, where we once had Christmas dinner. That was a magic day — close to heaven with plenty of crayfish to go round.
As a boy, George had been sent away to school by his well-meaning mum and dad. But, time and again, he ran away from school and kept on running until he reached home.
By the time I met George, he was a very large man living in a falling down home, with a soft rich voice and a smile you couldn’t forget.
So, the Hovell whānau were always there, in person or in spirit, when we fought the mining companies across the northern Hauraki and when we fought for Wainuiototo. They knew what was valuable, and they touched us with their stories, their largeness of person and spirit.
They showed us the essence of a love of place that stays home, loves home, and looks after home — and John captured all of that in his art.
His written submission on why we should save Wainuiototo takes you straight in through the veil of time.
Every year, by the little stream midway down the beach, the hapū would gather to decide how the shared fishing grounds would be allocated. The first fish caught was hung from the pohutukawa tree by the stream mouth to mark the agreement just made.
That agreement was like a covenant, and John would talk about how the waters of the stream enter the sea there, at that point, like the sealing of a covenant binding the people in that important place.
So, when I wade through the river now, scramble over the rocks and climb the ridge to find the beach I love, I feel the wonder of entering someone else’s world.
There are usually a few people on the beach. But the silence enfolds them. There is no unnatural sound. No cars. No motocross bikes. Maybe a surfer out on the wave break. From the nikau forest beside the beach, you step out into the blue ocean beating against the coast.
When I stand on the beach now, I sense the tapu that I can’t describe, as well as the raw joy of that place.
I always run into the water and feel an instant recharge from the splash of the fresh saltwater and the breaking waves.
In the constitutional transformation document Matike Mai, the tangata whenua have named a set of values which could be the basis for better governance of these lands. One of the bedrock values on the list is “the value of place”.
I guess “the value of place” is going to look different for different people.
But the deeper we go into recognising the connections between these powerful places and the first people of the land, the stronger our respect for these places will be.
Standing up for Wainuiototo is not only to respect our deep need for such places, which has never been greater than it is now. It’s also to stand up for the love of place expressed by people like Peter Johnston and John Hovell, who have gone before us and who’ve charged us to do more.
So, this month we’ve done more. We (community groups, manawhenua people and a national group called the New Zealand Coastal Trust) have collaborated to buy the northern headland and to protect it from development.
With both ends of the beach protected, we still face the possibility of more legal hearings to stop houses being built behind the middle of the beach. Over the years, we’ve reduced the landowners’ plans to a very small, less visible subdivision. But the debate isn’t finished.
We want the land and the beach to be left in peace. My dream is that one day the rich will be made to give up having to own the view.
I dream, too, of the day when the tangata whenua feel they can trust us to support their love of place.
Then we’ll have found the way to a truly shared caring of the whenua we’re all blessed to live on.
Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in the campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother.
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