(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, May 15.)
One definition of a pilgrimage is “any journey taken for nostalgic or sentimental reasons”. Well, I recently went on just such a pilgrimage.
It took me to the Coromandel. Note that I say “the” Coromandel, so as to distinguish the region from the town of the same name.
My pilgrimage satisfied the dictionary definition, being a journey that was heavily tinged with nostalgia. I was last in the Coromandel about 30 years ago, but my most enduring memories of the place date back to the early 1960s, when my parents got the camping bug.
On our first camping trip in 1960, when I was nine, we explored the East Cape. We set out from our home in Hawke’s Bay in a mini-convoy, Dad with some of the family in our old Austin 16, towing a trailer laden with gear, and the rest of us tagging along in my brother’s 1937 Chev. I was the youngest.
The following summer we were more ambitious, venturing further afield to the Coromandel. In 1962, we took advantage of the new Cook Strait ferry service to head to Nelson and on to Totaranui, in Abel Tasman National Park. We were usually joined on these trips by cousins, uncles and aunties.
But it was the Coromandel Peninsula, with its pristine sandy beaches, bush-covered headlands and mangrove inlets, that became our favourite destination.
My parents generally eschewed established camping grounds, preferring to seek out relatively untouched places, always by the sea. At Whangapoua, on the east coast of the peninsula, we first camped on the Denize family’s farm. In subsequent years we pitched our tent (an old-fashioned square one, the only type you could get then, with no floor and a heavy wooden centre pole) in a sheltered hollow amid kanuka trees at the southern end of Whangapoua Beach.
The beach was a 30-second walk away through the dunes and Whangapoua Harbour, where we fished from the jetty, was reached via a track that led across a headland covered in pohutukawa trees.
Conditions were primitive. We cooked on the fire or on an old camping stove and we hauled water from the creek. Dad dug a long-drop dunny and we hung a safe from a tree to keep the food from getting fly-blown. We relied on the sea to keep us clean and about once a week we would take the tortuous metal road to Coromandel town for supplies.
It was much the same at Ohui, further south. There we camped on land owned by a Maori farming family, the McGregors. Our campsite was under an enormous karaka tree by a ford.
I remember when one wheel of my mother’s tiny Fiat 500 (we had acquired an extra car by then) slipped into a ditch outside the McGregors’ farmhouse. A giant of a man – or so it seemed to me at the time – emerged from the house and without a word, effortlessly lifted the car back onto the track that passed for a road.
My memory of how we spent our time on those holidays is hazy. We swam a lot and we sunbathed. We went fishing and we read. At nights Mum and Dad and any other adults present would play Scrabble by the light of a Coleman lamp.
There was a lot of laughter and a lot of singing, accompanied by a ukulele which was ideal because it didn’t take up much space in the car. Sad Movies was a favourite song one summer, and I remember my mother and her sister Winifred singing a popular song from their youth: I Was Seeing Nellie Home. I can't hear it these days without getting a bit teary.
I don’t recall it ever raining, but I’m sure it did.
It won’t surprise anyone to hear that it’s all very different in 2019. Whangapoua is still a magnificent beach – nothing can change that – but the land was subdivided decades ago. It’s all built up now and there’s a big general store-cum-café where you can get things we’d never heard of in the 60s, such as latté and pains aux raisins.
At Ohui I went looking for our old campsite but couldn’t recognise anything. What was once farmland is now subdivided into lifestyle blocks and covered in mature trees, exotics as well as native. Every narrow metal road ended in a sign that said “Private”. But you can still reach the beach via a public walking track and like Whangapoua, it’s still breathtakingly pretty. The day we were there, someone was having a wedding in the dunes.
Ohui remains relatively unspoiled, but everywhere else we went – Whangapoua, Hahei, Tairua, Kuaotunu, Whitianga, Coromandel town itself – the Auckland Effect was evident in the extraordinary proliferation of opulent homes, most of them vacant for 11 months of the year. It’s a display of affluence to rival the most fashionable parts of California.
Roads that were glorified goat tracks in 1961 – Uncle Bert’s Morris Minor barely got over the hill at Kuaotunu – are now wide and smooth. They have to be, to accommodate all the European tourists in their camper vans.
But it’s still a sublimely beautiful place, and not even the sight of a massive hilltop mansion with its own helipad at Whangapoua can erase memories of a time when things were different.