Topic: Return to Whiritoa by Beverley Wood

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'Return to Whiritoa' was Beverley Wood's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here. 

The ocean keeps coming and going, whispering secrets to me; curling in and crashing on to the shore and running back in little eddies. It leaves a swirling line of broken shells on the sand like the frills of broderie-anglaise that edged my summer skirts in my long-ago childhood. It deposits necklaces of seaweed, the same as I’d worn around my neck. I laugh when I remembered how we’d chase each other along the beach ready to squeeze the trapped water from the swollen seeds onto bare legs.

Whiritoa, between Waihi and Whangamata on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, was the scene of a long holiday in the summer of 1947-1948.  Our family had come to this remote beach to hide from the insidious monster that was stalking the land.  This monster was infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis, and its vicious grasp on the defenceless population had already caused schools, swimming pools, theatres and other public facilities to close. 

Dad hadn’t long been back from fighting in the Pacific, protecting us from invasion by the Japanese.  Now he and Mum were protecting us from another invasion, the cruel virus whose fingers were reaching out for the unwary.

Our family didn’t need an excuse to find a lonely beach.  This is what we loved; camping within sight and sound of the sea.  The Morris Series E was packed to the brim with the bare essentials for a camping holiday, and the rest was crammed into the small trailer.  We brought clothes, towels and togs stuffed into Dad’s army kitbag.  We had a tent, camp stretchers to sleep on, a thermette for heating water and a primus stove to cook on. 

We thought the beach and surrounds was ours and ours alone. Everything from the shore to the horizon belonged to us.  We had the sea to swim in, streams to dam, trees to climb, rocks to clamber over, and fish to catch – and best of all we had each other.  The summer holiday stretched out in front of us like a never-ending book, each day a new page of adventure and exploration.

 The road my sister Robyn and I travel over today is a good sealed road, and Whiritoa no longer seems remote.  We pass through the rugged Karangahake Gorge alongside the Ohinemuri River as it bounces and burbles over the rocks.  Remains of goldmines blend into the background.  I make a mental note to return when we have more time to explore the area.  Then we are into Waihi and heading north, through rolling farmland clambering into the foothills of the mountain range.

“Remember the loose metal road, the dust, and the twists and turns?” I ask.  “And how we competed to see who would be first to see the sea?”

Some distance on we turn down a side road, and there in front of us is the Pacific Ocean rolling in.  The farmland where we pitched our army tent all those years ago is now covered with beach houses.  Instead of collecting milk in billies from the local farmer there are groceries, T-shirts, hamburgers and other essentials readily available.   

A surf club stands proudly, facing protectively over the sea.  I stand with my back to the beach homes so they do not impinge on my view, nor on my memories.

As I look out over the ocean, I can almost hear my brother Peter’s voice calling, “Come on, I’ll race you,” as he runs barefoot over the sand dunes, with Robyn and me chasing after him past lupins, their pods popping loudly in the sunshine.  And Mum’s voice calling, “Put your hats on,” reminding us of the importance of keeping the sun from our necks. This was considered a risk for letting the polio virus sneak in to our vulnerable bodies.

The sand dunes are still there, but even if we want to we can no longer run and slide over them, jumping, rolling and crashing to the bottom, sand getting in our ears, eyes, nose and hair and Mum and Dad laughing at our antics. 

Robyn and I walk down the wooden boardwalk to the beach.  Native grasses and ground-hugging plants have been planted in place of the lupins.  It is essential to protect our vulnerable coastline from erosion, but I feel a twinge of regret that the children of today don’t have the uninhibited pleasure of making the dunes their playground, as we had made it ours.

We kick up the sand as we walk along the shore, marvelling at its whiteness.  Two men, warmly clad in anoraks and woolly hats, sit on the sand, fishing rods in hands.  They greet us as we pass, then turn back to their task.  I have a feeling that it is the companionship that is the important thing, not the actual fish they might or might not catch. 

I recall the fear and fascination I’d felt, as we’d stood close to this spot and watched a shark cruise past, clearly visible just beyond the breakers - fear and admiration for its grace and beauty.  I wonder where it went, and whether it, like us, ever revisited its old haunts.

A small flock of swallows swoop overhead, chasing each other, playing a game of tag, carefree and playful as we had been carefree and playful.  A couple of oyster catchers strut into view, fussing, darting along the water’s edge.  As we approach they scurry away, chattering to each other.  They look a devoted pair, long legged, black and handsome, their long curved red beaks poking and prodding.

“Don’t bother us, and we won’t bother you,” they seem to say.

Was the lagoon where we used to swim smaller than we remembered?  The beach at Whiritoa shelves steeply, and Dad had told us the ocean was too dangerous to swim in, so the lagoon had become our swimming spot.  

One day, the ocean was so calm it looked like a sheet of glass glinting in the sunlight.  Peter, Robyn and I were sure it was safe, but Dad explained about the danger of hidden undertows.

We cheered when he suggested we might like to venture in one by one. He tied a long rope securely around my brother’s waist, and then stood on the sand holding on to the other end while Peter swam and cavorted in the ocean.  Robyn and I had our turn, and to this day I can still feel the sand under my feet as the sea pulled and tugged beneath the surface.

The lagoon is an estuary at the northern end of the beach, with sand to one side and bush-clad hills rising from the rocks on the other.  Two boys about ten-years-old, their bare winter-white backs dazzling in the pale sun, drag their kayaks up the sandbank. They seem impervious to the cool breeze.  At the top of the bank they turn their kayaks towards the water, jump into their small craft and slide into the lagoon like boats sliding down a ramp. 

Their father joins in the fun, rolling down the bank gathering sand on his black tracksuit. He stops just before reaching the water and then climbs back up again.   This time, lying on his back with his bald head pointing towards the water he slides down backwards.

“Good on you,” I want to call, as we laugh at his exuberance.

Later we eat our picnic lunch under the pohutukawa.  Maybe it was this very spot where we pitched our tent all those years ago.  We are lucky to revisit Whiritoa when few people are here, but even at the height of the season it remains a beach to enjoy for its simple pleasures.  With few extraneous amusements to distract it appeals to those who enjoy the beach for its natural charms; a beach for people who like to stroll along the sand collecting shells and memories, swimming, relaxing, fishing…

The rain clouds gather around the steep hills behind.  A rebel shaft of sunlight streaks the sky, sending a narrow beam of intense light onto a patch of restless sea, creating ghosts dancing on the water.  They are dancing for us, watching over us, pleased we have returned to the scene of our idyllic long-ago family holiday.

“Goodbye, Mum and Dad,” I say. “And thanks for the memories.”


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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