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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 8 (November 1, 1937)

Kawhia by the Sea — A Place of History and Romance

page 21

Kawhia by the Sea
A Place of History and Romance

Witty people sometimes refer to Kawhia as the “Jumping-off Place.” … the idea being, of course, that when you reach there you can go no farther. In all fairness it must be added that very often you have no wish to go farther.

The township of Kawhia is built upon a narrow sandy spit of land lying between the almost land-locked waters of the Kawhia and Aotea Harbours. The days are filled with the lap of the incoming or outgoing tide, the nights with the murmur of the surf upon the bar to north or south. The houses straggle between the sand-dunes and the shining tide-flats, and the launches tie up at the end of the main street, and the seagulls come in to mew and quarrel on the footpaths. There are no impressive public buildings, no concrete esplanade, or palm trees. In fact the style of town-planning is a little unconventional, not to say peculiar. The tide comes up around the County Council Chambers, and cows graze by the post office, and the roads lose themselves in the sea or in the sand-dunes. The cottages of the summer colony straggle out along the shore toward the entrance, and the track leads by the tide-wet beach past the drying nets of the fishermen, and upturned boats, and coils of rope, under the pohutukawa trees, and through the sea-grass and the lupins where the cicadas sing their never-ending summer song.

Looking back we find that Kawhia entered very early into New Zealand history …. almost from the beginning of things, one might say. For it was in these waters that the canoe “Tainui” sought harbourage after the long journey from Hawaiki. On the shore at Maketu, between the entrance and the point where Kawhia now stands, the weary mariners came to land, and beneath the matted sea-grass of the peaceful beach, so tradition has it, the stern-posts of the great canoe lie buried to this very day.

In the early part of the last century, the shores of the two harbours were intensively settled. The waters teemed with fish; there were birds in the forest; the soil was easily cultivated. Each bay and beach and river had its own small settlement. Then the great warlord, Te Rauparaha, swept ruthlessly through the land leaving a bloody trail behind him. The population of the harbour shores was decimated; many of the villages were entirely wiped out. In the burial caves along the harbour the bodies of men, women, and children were laid together, and to this day no Maori will penetrate the dark entrances between the tide-washed boulders.

In the ‘sixties those dark days were forgotten, and peace and prosperity once more reigned beside the Kawhia shores. The Maoris owned their own small schooners and cutters, and traded between the port and Onehunga, selling wheat and maize, fruit and pigs, and large quantities of dressed flax.

Then the sound of the war-conch was once more heard through the country, and this time it was war between white and Maori. Rewi Maniapoto marched out to the coast, with a war-party, on his way to Taranaki, and, when he passed through Kawhai, the men left their tools in the field, and their boats in the water, and followed him. There were left only the old men and the women and children. The sails of the
(Photo., Shacketford, Waipawa.) Waipukurau Railway Concert Party. Back row, left to right: G. Hart, G. Scoggins, W. Foley, J. Seabrook, G. Noble, C. Harrington, A. Paterson. Centre row: M. Phillipps, R. Hepburn, R. Nicholson, Organiser; G. Wiggins, D. Moffatt. Front row: N. Hwenricksen, R. McGregor, F.

(Photo., Shacketford, Waipawa.)
Waipukurau Railway Concert Party.
Back row, left to right: G. Hart, G. Scoggins, W. Foley, J. Seabrook, G. Noble, C. Harrington, A. Paterson. Centre row: M. Phillipps, R. Hepburn, R. Nicholson, Organiser; G. Wiggins, D. Moffatt. Front row: N. Hwenricksen, R. McGregor, F.

old mills ceased to turn, and the weeds ran waist-deep in the wheat-fields. The canoes rotted in the water. The small settlements of the bays were deserted. The days of prosperity were never more to return to the shores of Kawhia harbour.

White settlement was difficult, for Kawhia lay within the bounds of the King Country inviolacy. There was no connection with the outside world but by the sea. The trading ships had ceased to ply. Even as the years passed, the plentiful rainfall, the tidal creeks, and the heavy forest that grew inland all tended to retard road-making. It was a long, long time before a coaching-road connected the coast with Hamilton. Some time after the beginning of the present century, a sudden wave of interest was awakened in Kawhia. The Main Trunk Railway had been completed, and there was talk of building a branch line to the coast, and making Kawhia the seaport for Australian trade. However, the scheme never got beyond the talking stage, and the investors who had made a rush to speculate in sections were left disconsolate.

As time passed, the service-car road between the Main Trunk and the coast was completed, and Kawhia became what it is now…. One of the most charming, leisurely, and happy-go-lucky holiday resorts in New Zealand.

The traveller of to-day may approach Kawhia by sea, or overland by service-car from Hamilton or Te Awamutu, or page 22 page 23
(W. W. Stewart Collection.) A special train from New Plymouth approaching Auckland.

(W. W. Stewart Collection.)
A special train from New Plymouth approaching Auckland.

over the new motor road, through the bush, from Raglan. Still another route is from the south, leaving the railway at Hangatiki, and travelling by way of the Waitomo Caves to Kinohaku, on the southern shores of the harbour, and thence by launch to Kawhia.

Here I add a word of reservation. If you are looking for cabarets and midnight bathing and Lido parades…. in short, if you want to be really fashionable …. then Kawhia is not the place for you to spend a holiday. But Kawhia will give you a leisurely few days or weeks with the sea at your door, the safest boating and swimming in New Zealand, splendid fishing, warm-spring bathing, surfing on the ocean beach, launch trips unparalleled for odd and beautiful scenery.

The warm shallow beaches of the inlets make a children's paradise. For the more adventurous there is the tramp across the sand-dunes to the ocean beach, and, a choice of lying luxuriously in the warm springs that well surprisingly out of the sand, or of more strenuous surfing in the long foaming breakers that roll in from the thundering might of the Tasman.

But the crown of Kawhia is its launch trips. The shortest outing is to Te Maika, on the other side of the entrance, a narrow strip of sandhills lying between the mirror waters of Te Maika Bay and the breakers of the ocean beach. All day long the cicadas keep up their monotonous chirping in the lupin bushes, and the air is full of the honey scent of the flowers and the long crooning murmur of the breakers.

At Te Waitere you may see the remains of the old mission station, the outpost of Rev. John Whitely, who was later murdered by the Maoris at Pukearuhe. There is nothing left of the garden but two lemon trees, gnarled and bent and stubborn, more than a century old. They must have seen a strange, colourful, and bloody pageant, but they look out now, crouched and patient, above the mirror waters of the peaceful inlet.

Somebody has called the trip to Rakanui the strangest trip in the world. The launch heads purposely for the apparently unbroken line of the hills, and, at the last minute, the bluffs swing aside like stage curtains, disclosing the narrow river mouth. In a second the harbour is gone, and there is left nothing but the tortuous curves of the deep little river, the strange grey rock pinnacles like monuments, and the sound of the launch engine ringing back from the seemingly impenetrable bush on every side. All sense of direction is immediately and entirely lost. Surely the designer of Hampton Court Maze must first have seen this river!

Farther on, the locked bush bends give way to tide swamps, where there
(Railway Publicity photo.) Whangamomona Station, on the Stratford Main Trunk Line, North Island, New Zealand.

(Railway Publicity photo.)
Whangamomona Station, on the Stratford Main Trunk Line, North Island, New Zealand.

is no movement but that of wild duck rocking in the wake of the boat to break the monotony of the miles of red-brown sea-weeds. The river still winds, and doubles back on itself, and winds again, with the obvious intention of being lost for ever in the maze of the hills, until, surprised at its own cleverness, it discovers a tiny settlement, and a store, built like a wharf, on piles above the water.

So you may keep up your outings, with a fresh trip on the water for every day of the week. If you are fond of tramping, you must not miss seeing the strange lake that lies deep in the sand-dunes of the peninsula between the two harbours. It is supposed to be volcanic in origin, but the Maoris say that it is haunted by a vengeful spirit. Certainly it would be a bold swimmer that would test the story by plunging into its black and sinister depths. The waters are said to be bottomless, and I quite believe it, for it is the darkest, quietest, and most sinister strip of water I have ever seen.

A few minutes by car takes you across the narrow peninsula to the Aotea harbour, but the ideal way to see the Aotea is on horse-back, so that you may venture out across the tidal track. The Aotea harbour has a character all its own; it is narrower-mouthed, and shallower, so that the ebb and flow of the tides is amazingly swift. Woe betide the unwary horseman who is overtaken half-way across the track, for he will most assuredly have to swim his horse out! The shores of the Aotea harbour are less deeply indented than those of Kawhia, and are lined, mile after mile, with the great gnarled pohutukawa trees that lean to the water's edge.

(Continued on p. 24).

page 24

The dominant note of the scene is Mount Kariori, whose blue cone rises steeply above the hills to the north.

If the waters of the Kawhia harbour teem with fish, then the waters of the Aotea are thick. The incoming tide, pouring through the narrow harbour entrance, brings shoals of fish, flounder, and the silvery herring, and the agile kahawai, surging stirrup-deep around your horse, leaping and flickering and flashing, sending showers of diamond brightness in rings across the full-breasted water.

Where the fish are, the sea-birds follow, and the tide-flats teem with gulls and sand-pipers and long-necked shags, while predatory kingfishers flash like jewels above the shoreward creeks. In winter the black swans come to the harbour, flocks upon great flocks of them, flying with flash of black-and-white wings against the sand-dunes and the sky, or riding tranquilly in the pale cold water.

But if you go to the Aotea harbour in the season of the flowering of the pohutukawa, you will see something you will never forget. There is a ride of six miles on the tidal path under the glowing crimson trees where the fallen blossom lies like spilled blood on the rocks and in the water. The harbour is lonely; the Maori settlements are almost deserted. You will pass white shell banks and mossy apple trees that are the remains of dead villages since Te Rauparaha ravaged the land, villages that were young and filled with life when the strange prow of Cook's “Endeavour” first clove the stormy waters about the islands.

Returning to Kawhia, you pause at one point, and look down to Aotea on your right and Kawhia on your left. The harbours are half-full, channels glistening like silver in the evening light, the pale water creeping across the wet grey tide-flats. Kariori is hazed with summer mist, withdrawing into itself.

Back to Kawhia in the lingering warmth of the summer dusk, and you find that the slow spring tide has filled the beaches where the seagulls pace sedately. The fishermen are hanging their nets to dry, and the glass balls of the floats gleam like bubbles of the sea. By the wharf the launches ride at anchor, double, real boat merging into mirrored boat. The track along the shore under the giant pohutukawa smells of salt and fish and lupin-flowers, and it is growing dusk. The first star rims the misty grape-blue of the over-harbour hills.

Night has come, leisurely as everything else, to Kawhia.