Ask anyone about the summers of their childhood and the stories are likely to be similar – long lazy days at sleepy coastal towns. But now those sleepy hollows are becoming mega-resorts, and HAMISH CARNACHAN wonders if paradise is being lost forever
It’s a migration of monumental proportions. Lured by a mysterious, seemingly magnetic, pull of azure oceans and a bizarre ritual of basting in the sun on golden sands, New Zealanders leave the city centres and rural outposts in their droves during an annual summer exodus.
Warm seasonal weather, longer days, restless nights, and pohutukawas bursting into bloom seem to trigger this strange propensity to drift in a coastal direction at the same time year after year. When the signs are right, tools are downed, computers terminated and homes fortified.
The traditional migratory paths become clogged and congested with cars snaking like bison across an African savannah. Irritable bulls driving the family group to their traditional summer stomping grounds jostle for position, cursing and bellowing at each other, often coming to blows with the heat-induced aggression.
Of course many do stay behind, particularly the elderly that are too weak to travel, but also a handful of the younger generation in their late teens or early twenties. These youngsters will remain and invariably search out a mate in their year-round environs.
However, the masses will still assume their yearly movement, returning to familiar haunts like salmon to a spawning stream. This pattern has been witnessed for many decades now but as the population has exploded the numbers of leavers have swelled exponentially too.
As time and the summer travellers march on, so too does progress, and many of these migratory environs are starting to bear the weight of modification. On an increasing scale it seems that the traditional kiwi holiday is evolving to accommodate the changing lifestyles of New Zealand’s seasonal wanderers.
In many places, multi-storey apartments and ‘holiday homes’ of palatial proportions have usurped the temporary canvas and caravan cities that once dotted the shorelines of our favourite summer retreats.
The traditional fish and chips shop now has to compete with cafés that have popped up to cater to the migrants’ more extravagant culinary expectations, and the staple summer diet of beers and bangers on the barbeque have been exchanged for champers and gourmet paninis.
Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty is a prime example of a traditional holiday hotspot that has undergone such a transforma-tion. Local resident Graham Barnett first started spending time at Mount Maunganui in the early 1950s. Then, in his late teens, he was drawn to the beach, the surf, the sun, and of course, the girls. He says Mount Maunganui beach became a focal point of his life, he was a fit young man, a strong swimmer, and loved the beach lifestyle, so the natural progression was to sign up with the Mount Maunganui Surf Lifesaving Club.
Barnett still classes himself as a strong swimmer, which isn’t all that surprising considering he remains an active member of the surf lifesaving scene. In fact, he’s coming up to 50 years service at the club and, as the longest serving member, he can still be found patrolling the beach a couple of days each week.
Having spent most of his adult life at ‘The Mount’, as the locals like to call it, Barnett has had a first hand account of the development that has taken hold of this once quiet beachside retreat. He says he isn’t surprised by the change but holds fond memories of the place before it became the popular destination it is now.
“It’s always been a nice place to be so I guess progress was always going to catch up with us at some point or another,” says Barnett.
“Back in the fifties Christmas was still pretty busy and there were plenty of people around – not by today’s standard though.”
Barnett remembers an almost hour long trek from Tauranga to Mount Maunganui beach, an unsealed loop route that skirted the southern end of the harbour. Nowadays, with the recently completed harbour-bridge causeway, the trip takes less than 10 minutes.
“The Mount used to be a little place but obviously as access opened up more and more people started to visit or move in. Before that though, there weren’t many houses and you were classed as living in the sticks if you were any further out than the rugby club [approximately 2km south of the main beach]. Papamoa [approximately 10km south of the main beach] seemed an eternity away and we used to call it Shanty Town because it was just a handful of run-down baches.
“Really, when you look at the change that’s gone on, the Mount has gone from a sleepy little holiday spot to Surfers Paradise.”
His reference to the popular destination on Australia’s Gold Coast is an allusion to the numerous apartment blocks that now dominate the beachfront properties at Mount Maunganui.
Luxury condominiums now stand in place of the scattered and simple baches that Barnett recalls, and developers eagerly eye up the few that remain as potentially lucrative investments.
As a recent example, a two-bedroom Lockwood bach and its 811sq m section at Mount Maunganui, which initially sold for $1.8m, is understood to have gone for between $2.1m and $2.2m in the second sale just three weeks later. The site can be developed with seven new apartments or town houses.
Tauranga real estate agent Gill Beadle says dramatic increases in property prices at Mount Maunganui, highlighted in this case, have only eventuated within the last five years. He attributes the rise to population increase.
“We’ve seen tremendous population growth over the last 10 years and subsequently subdivision started to take off in the nineties. Also, we saw Auckland money starting to come south, which was a change because traditionally it went into northern beach locations.
“You can really put it down to supply and demand. With the influx of people the demand for property on the Mount peninsula has soared and therefore so have the prices.”
Beadle insists holiday homes still make up a substantial slice of the Mount Maunganui property market but says that that share is competing against development and an aging population looking to retire in the area.
“Development of property into apartments will continue because there’s a demand and this trend has really been driven by the Auckland apartment scene. I don’t think the Mount will ever end up like the Gold Coast because the council has restrictions to ensure there’s not too much height but the change has been noticeable. It’s gone from one windswept café 10 years ago to struggling to get a seat in one of the six down there today.”
Mount Maunganui may not be the Gold Coast but at an average of $450,000 for an apartment it is certainly starting to become somewhat of an exclusive destination, generally out of reach of most kiwi holidaymakers.
Beadle says the locals are not happy with the extent of the development but, understandably, they love what it’s doing to their property prices.
Locals aren’t too happy about the influx of visitors each summer either. Each year you can expect reports of mayhem descending on Mount Maunganui as drunken youths take the New Year’s festivities too far.
“It’s crazy at that time of year,” says Barnett. “We didn’t have all the fools in fast cars in the early days. That was the best time. We had three dance halls going every night and there was hardly ever any aggro.
“Now the young idiots want to party all night and sleep all day. One of the biggest problems is broken bottles on the beach. It costs a hell of a lot to employ people to keep the place tidy over Christmas and it’s the local ratepayers who have to foot the bill.”
Drunken youths are not the only gripe though…
“We’re getting like Coronation Street. We used to have plenty of room around but now with these apartments and houses and all the cars it’s causing big problems.”
When Barnett first ventured out to Mount Maunganui beach all those years ago space was never an issue. He recalls never having trouble finding a camping ground. Today, however, an Internet search for campgrounds in the area turns up only one result, Mount Camp Ground, which, by the way, is also now a company-owned and operated investment.
“In the early days you could just park up and camp on the beach or even pitch a tent and party on one of the vacant lots,” says Barnett.
It seems the traditional kiwi camping holiday at Mount Maunganui is now as hard to come by as those vacant house sites.
Of course there are still locales to escape from the hustle and bustle of city living. But small holiday centres whose mainstay was once steeped in this now nostalgic notion of getting back to nature and living simply are few and far between today.
Any such places within a few hours drive of a major civic centre seem to have been taken over, consumed by coastal development that has, over recent years, moved as swiftly as the masses pack up and migrate in summer. For example, there is the Coromandel Peninsula. Traditional summer escapes like Tairua, Whangamata and Pauanui have been developed to such an extent that they are now, essentially, satellite townships of Hamilton and Auckland.
The Thames-Coromandel District Council’s (TCDC) area manager for Tairua, Pauanui and Whangamata, Peter Mickleson, says the improved access to the peninsula has boosted the appeal of the area and has had a marked effect on the social fabric of holidaymakers.
“The people who come here now tend to have a very high disposable income, particularly holiday home owners. I think because there are now better roads and access is easier it’s a more attractive prospect to buy those holiday homes,” says Mickleson.
The TCDC has a policy in its district plan to limit development of the existing settlements to their present boundaries but Mickleson says subdivision is now commonplace.
“There’s a lot of development happening here. We probably get about 10 to 12 subdivision applications a month just for Whangamata. It’s all basically infill so it’s the quarter acre getting chopped into two or three or four; the old bach being remodelled into a modern home; that type of thing.”
The majority of these new homes stand vacant for most of the year but when summer arrives so too do the holidaymakers – en masse. Whangamata swells from a permanent population of about 4500 to almost bursting point at 40,000 people over this period. Mickleson admits that this stretches local amenities and infrastructure to the limit.
“Our water supply systems and our waste disposal systems are designed for 4500 people. It can cope with peaks to an extent but, for instance, if we have a very dry summer then we do run out of water,” he says.
Unlike Mount Maunganui, which has the backup facilities and services of Tauranga, a sizeable city, places like Whangamata, Pauanui and Tairua are essentially still isolated.
Mickleson says the population influx over the summer months means these towns have now been forced to a crossroad in their future development options.
“It creates a dilemma within the community in that do you build a water supply system to cater for 40,000 people that gets used for three weeks of the year and is paid for by 4500 permanent residents, or do you build a system that caters to permanent residents and is stretched to capacity during peak times?”
And when the locals are expected to foot the bill for an influx of “outsiders” it can create tension says Mickleson. On the other hand, he acknowledges that the visitors actually support the permanent residents – most of the retailers’ profits are made over the summer season. He says an important part of small-town living is being able to juggle the costs and benefits of the seasonal influx.
“We get about 200,000 visitors to the peninsula over the summer period. Now there are motels and hotels etcetera that can cater for about 30,000 of those so all the rest are actually staying with people who have homes. So we have to say to the homeowners that you are part of the problem causing strain on infrastructure.
“It’s just part of kiwi culture that if your mate’s got a bach you go and stay with them I guess. It does create a strain but we always cope in the end.”
For anyone who has visited the townships on the Coromandel Peninsula it is appar-ent that they are at very different stages of development to Mount Maunganui. But, is it feasible that they be heading down that same path? Mickleson says there is always that risk but it depends on whether that’s necessarily good or bad.
“There are a lot of people who probably think Mount Maunganui is great and should be more developed and others who will say it’s gone too far. But at the end of the day it’s for the community to decide how much is too much. To a great degree, the district plan is steering development into those areas that the community has agreed there should be development and is trying to protect those other areas,” he says.
“The other thing is changing trends in New Zealand. The days when you went to your holiday home and spent the whole time mowing the lawn and trimming the trees are gone. Today the sections are smaller because people don’t want to be spending their holiday maintaining the property. I suppose people are busier than they used to be.”
So a different way of life may be behind the changing face of the New Zealand holiday and the changing character of the traditional destination. But what about those who don’t have friends with baches or have the money to buy a holiday home?
Because the popularity of these places such as Whangamata and Pauanui (the latter being coined a “playground for the wealthy elite”) has driven up land value at a substantial rate, they too are becoming out of reach as holiday destinations for most families.
Camping grounds here are scarce because, like Mount Maunganui, the land is now an attractive prospect for development. And who could blame the camp-ground owners for selling out? It doesn’t take the greatest busi-ness mind to weigh up the fi-nancial benefits of accepting the developer’s cheque when he comes knocking. Especially when the only alternative is to slog it out and wait for business that only provides any substantial rewards over an eight-week season each year. Prime real estate with low returns doesn’t justify holding onto that land.
Currently in Whangamata there are three camping grounds although one has recently been sold. Mickleson says he is not sure what is going to happen with the property but predicts that in time, as land value increases, the owners will come under pressure to sell to developers.
“I think land prices will eventually squeeze out the ones in the prime locations. The one that recently sold was closest to the beach but there are campgrounds further away that may never come under that pressure. Again, I think it will come down to demand. I guess there will always be demand from people who want to go and pitch a tent in a campground but I think there’s less demand now than there was 20 years ago.”
That may be the case on the Coromandel Peninsula, but if you head east across the Firth of Thames and then veer north to the coastal limit of the Hauraki Gulf you should be able to find the tiny township of Mangawhai where tenting is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance.
Mangawhai is a quiet little seaside resort nestled between the beautiful Pacific Ocean on the east coast and gently rolling farmland. About 1000 residents live here permanently but the population swells at summertime as the holidaymakers move in.
Lorraine Hartley, the owner and operator of Mangawhai Riverside Caravan Park, has lived here for eight years and has noticed “dramatic changes” over that short period. She says property, including farmland, has been “extensively” broken up into smaller blocks to be developed into holiday homes and the range of shops has flourished.
“When I first came here there was a small block of shops up at Mangawhai Heads and a very small block in the village. It’s been a gradual thing but they’ve almost doubled in size within the last four or five years,” recalls Hartley.
Today, visitors can stumble across anything from boutique clothing outlets to legal advice at the local shopping centre. In addition to the four campgrounds there are also a range of other accommodation alternatives including luxury apartment rentals and bed and breakfast venues.
Hartley says that although she has noticed an increase in the number of visitors throughout the year and suggests that the mass migration at Christmas has changed from what it once was, most of the businesses still depend on the summer break.
But for all the devel-opment that has hit Mangawhai over re-cent years and all that the town now has on offer, Hartley says the traditional camping holiday is making a comeback because people still enjoy living simply.
“In the last two or three years I’ve had lots of people coming in with brand new tents saying, ‘We want to go back to doing what we used to do as kids and give our own children that experience too’,” says Hartley.
“The other thing we’ve found is that Aucklanders who don’t want to get into the business of buying land and building houses are bringing caravans onto the park and they leave them here all year round. That’s the bulk of my business today.
“We have another side of business developing too though. That’s the [temporary] home park. We’ve redeveloped some sites to give more space and clients purchase their own unit, which can be up to two or three bedrooms, and they locate these on the large sites. They’re almost like a semi-permanent home and it adds a new dimension to camping.”
So it seems you can still find a good old kiwi campsite – if you look hard enough – they’ve merely taken on new character just like the places and the vacations we remember from our childhoods.
However it also seems that there is no longer anything that can simply be categorised as a ‘traditional kiwi’ holiday. Times have changed and so have the lifestyles and the needs of the summer migrants.
Time has caught up with many of our holiday hotspots too, and ‘progress’ has followed it there, at varying degrees though, as you can see through the different stages of development.
But at least some things about summer will always stay the same: sandwiches will always be crunchy at the beach; some item of utmost importance will always be left at home; kids will always be carsick; holidays will never be long enough; and the mass migration will always be observed year after year after year…