The old store rooms had been chiseled out of the limestone with the precision of a master craftsman. The roofs long gone, and nature has long reclaimed what once was a useful storage room back when tall ships, steam engines and horse and cart were the normalities of life.
“We built this city on rock n roll…..” blasted from a stereo speaker just as a convertible VW beetle passed by, overflowing with teenagers excited to be seen by pedestrians on their way to the beach. There were thousands of people going about their day, window shopping, collecting holidays trinkets and generally loitering in a sleepy fishing town that usually boasts a population of 3500 people. But this time of year it swells to 20,000. The influx of holiday makers fills the 6 caravan parks, tents pop up on front lawns, back yards and empty lots, and handlebar moustaches, stubby shorts and the sweet smell of “atmosphere” drifted in the breeze.
I was 7 years old, bare footed and sun bronzed, making my way back to the caravan where my family ad I were to spend 4 weeks over the Christmas/new years period. I had a “Pixie Caramel” chocolate bar (“The longer lasting chew” – click here ) sticking out of my pocket and a carefully folded yellow piece of paper which was the weeks movie theatre schedule in my left hand. I wore a “Mellow Yellow” t’shirt and brown shorts with a pocket on the front which was to small to fit anything in it. Yellow and brown were matching colours back then !!! Mum was fussing with her perm in the mirror and my brother was listening to his favourite mix tape.
Times were simpler, the town was familiar and my friends and I were looking forward to seeing “Who Framed Roger rabbit” on the wooden seats of the movie theatre while eating our 50c box of jaffas.
The town is called Whitianga. A large bay called “Mercury Bay” which includes the beaches – Simpsons Beach, Flax Mill Bay, Buffalo Beach and Cooks beach. Cooks beach is where Captain Cook landed on the 9th November 1769 to observe a transit of Mercury (hence Mercury Bay).
Nowadays the town boasts a healthy population of 4700 residents. The modernisation of the town has seen a new shopping precinct, movie theatre and higher class living with a completed “waterways”project in which town houses are built with their own pier in which to tie off their boat. There used to be just tow boat ramps, but with the development of the harbour, there’s now boat docks and a new launching facility. I used to spend hours watching cars get bogged attempting to drag boats out of the old ramp, three wheeled tractors, massy fergusons and the ocassional series 2 land rover.
Fishing from the wharf is still a favourite past time. There’s plenty of sprats to be caught. If your lucky, dolphins occasionally come into the shallows and like it did as a child, they allow themselves to be patted by excited children and adults.
As a teenager, watching boats and cars at the wharf gave way to exploring the area. My friends an I used to catch the ferry across the estuary (a mere $1) to Flax Mill bay. The lush coastal growth and limestone cliffs, Maori Pa (War site) and miles of trails used to keep us out of Mum’s hair.
Soon exploring gave way to water activities such as snorkelling, and later SCUBA diving. With the crystal clear waters and abundant sea life there was always something to see, or catch.
As I grew older, I started too reminisce of what it was like as a child. The excitement of meeting up with campground friends after the normalities of school and home slowly started to decline as friends broke away from the family holidays and started to do their own things. Camp grounds which were always at capacity slowly started closing and holiday homes, apartments and condo’s took their place when people started to want a little more comfort and refinement on their holidays. I still prefer a tent !!.
After years of camping in the caravan park, under a huge tree, the awning and bunk camp stretchers we used to sleep on, watching Gary the owner ride his ride on mower, taking lemons from the lemon tree to squeeze into the fruit salad (try it if you haven’t) and the anticipation of seeing the very first “Simpsons” episode, Mum decided to retire in Whitianga. In fact half the people from the camp ground whom we’d made close friends with, decided to buy sections (in the same street), and live there.
Every childhood should have lasting memories. Something to go back to while sitting in grid lock traffic, something to visualise while starting blankly at the wall of your office cubicle. Having Mum retire there, means I can go back whenever I want. A lot has changed, and I’m yet to decide if its fair the better or not. As the world develops, people, business and even resort towns must keep up with the times. But for those that have such favourable memories of a place, it becomes a little sad to see the old replaced with the new. Thats life I guess !
I find it hard to visit Whitianga, and imagine people not knowing what it was like back in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. For me its the memories make the place.
For anyone travelling to New Zealand, and maybe struggling a little to fill a day or two (unlikely), just 2 hours drive from Auckland is the Coromandel Peninsula. Its on this Peninsula that you’ll find Mercury Bay and Whitianga. Do yourself a favour. Pay a visit, and just maybe, you’ll create a memory like mine.