Topic: Kawhia! by Kristina Jensen

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It’s a beach day and not just any old beach. We’re off to Kawhia. It’s my favourite place in the whole world. My brother and I argue every time as to who sees the estuary and the Te Maika bar first. If the tide’s out, it looks like a big mud bath but if the tide is in, the water sparkles its invitation to swim.

“Hurry up!” it seems to tell me so I pass the message on to Mum.

“Hurry up!”

She says, “Hold your horses,” but she’s smiling.

Mum loves Kawhia, too. She can go fishing and read her book and not have to get up to milk cows for a few days.

Dad’s not coming.

“Cows come first,” he says, “but you guys go and catch some fish for me.”

This year, my teenage cousin Chris is working for my parents and he helps with the milking. That means we can stay for a few days. Mum’s been busy cooking cakes and pies and packing up all our stuff. I am so excited I can hardly breathe!

I can swim now so I’m very keen to try going out from the wharf. Maybe I’ll even jump off it this year with the other kids.

Only a few more turns until we reach the little sleepy town with one grocery shop, a library and a couple of fish and chip shops. I didn’t puke that time. The road is so windy and I’m sick almost every time we come out here. Mum turns the car into the lane on the seaward side of Mrs. Oldbury’s.

Mrs. Oldbury’s is the perfect place for us kids. We spend hours exploring the old sheds filled with curious boating paraphernalia. There’s the old store with the gigantic cash register and a secret stash of fake lollie cigarettes under the counter that only we know about. The lounge inside has these fake velvet wall hangings. You know the kind that have fantails and little Maori dancing girls on them and stylized maps of New Zealand. A few old men still stay here as lodgers, snoozing in the huge chunky armchairs in the sun. The whole place smells like mothballs and fish.


Audrey greets us. She has lived in Kawhia almost her whole life. Her face always reminds me of a walnut, it’s so wrinkly and brown. She lives with her mother, old Mrs. Oldbury and they seem to live mostly in the kitchen. The fish smell is overpowering here and always makes me gag.

Once, when we visited for lunch, Audrey served us up fish head soup and I cried silent tears into my bowl because I just couldn’t eat it. Mum pretended I wasn’t feeling well after the drive out so that Audrey’s feelings would not be hurt by my not eating her soup.

She takes us over to the little house we will stay in. Its old weatherboards shed their peeling paint onto the grass. I can’t wait to get my shoes off and run around on the short, spiky kaikuyu. But Mum gets us to help unload the car and choose our beds.

All the beds are what Mum calls ‘friendly’ beds. If you are sleeping with another person in one, both of you roll together all the time! No matter how hard or how often you sweep the floor here, there’s always sand, black sand. It gets in the bed, into my pockets, into the parting in my hair so that when I brush it, I get sand in my eyes.

As soon as we can, we head for the wharf with our rods. Basil, Audrey’s Corgi, comes with us. Mum calls him everyone’s dog because he’ll go trotting off with everyone and anyone. But he always comes back to Audrey with a doggy smile on his face as though he’s been up to something sneaky.

Audrey has heaps of cats so my brother and I set about catching sprats for them to eat. We keep them alive in a bucket of seawater.

One time I caught this huge crab. It took me ages to haul it up onto the wharf. Mum said they anchor themselves to something on the seabed so it’s a battle to see who wins the tug-of-war – the crab, which means you lose your tackle, or you, which means crab for dinner. When I finally landed it, Basil stuck his curious nose in just a bit to close and the crab grabbed it.

Basil started howling and thrashing his head around, with us all in hysterics until the crab finally gave up its hold and scuttled off over the side back to its seabed home.

There’s a Māori girl here this year, same age as me. Her name is Cushla and she’s staying with her nanny and koro. Her big brother is a fisherman and when he comes in on the boats, she comes over to tell Mum that there’s fresh fish down on the wharf. This summer, hundreds of kingfish came in to the harbour with the tide.

Cushla and I sat on one of the platforms down in the dark under the wharf with the fish. Their yellow eyes trapped little shards of sunlight that glittered as they flowed like silk all around us. It seemed like all of Kawhia had arrived with their nets and rods when we came back up. I bet lots of people had kingfish for dinner that night.

We can’t go to Kawhia without going out to Ocean Beach. I’m usually the first one up when we stay at the beach, creeping out quietly to go down on the wharf and watch the day waking up. But this morning, I can hear Mum bustling about already. Her surfcasting rod is standing up outside the door so I reckon she’s planning to go out to Ocean Beach.

“Can Cushla come too?” I ask, and she says yes so I run all the way down the road to her house. I’m a bit shy of her koro, sitting out on the porch having a smoke, but he smiles at me when I say why I’ve come and waves me inside.

Cushla is still asleep so I wake her up and she gets her towel and togs. Her nanny grabs a facecloth, gives her face a quick swipe and hands me something warm wrapped in a tea towel. I sniff it. Rewena bread. I say thank you and give her a big beaming smile. I feel as though I have a warm loaf of bread feeling inside me too.

Cushla is lucky to have grandparents. Mine are either dead or they live in Denmark so I never get to see them. We race back to the cottage where Mum is trying to get my sleepy brother to eat some breakfast, and then we’re off. 

We’re probably going this early because it’s a good tide for fishing but it’s good in another way too. The sun hasn’t had a chance to heat up the black sand to burning point yet so instead of having to do a mad screaming dash over the dunes to the beach, we can amble along. Mum doesn’t muck around though. She marches down to a good spot, dumps the food bags down and gets her rod ready.

Charging down the steep black sand dunes is the best fun in the world. When Dad comes out, he always comes up with us and cheers us on. One time, he bought a shovel for digging for the hot water that wells up just above the low tide mark. We dragged it up into the dunes and discovered that it makes an excellent toboggan.

Today, Cushla and I crawl along collecting ‘fluffies’, the soft downy pompom grass seed heads.

Hunger finally drives us down to where Mum is. She’s getting a few nibbles, she says, that means there’s something out there. She doesn’t seem to mind if she doesn’t catch anything. Just being out on a wild west coast beach is enough for her.

Armed with a slice of Mum’s delicious sausage-meat base egg pie, we walk down the beach aways, dodging the surging tide as it tries to sweep us into its frothy fringe.

Soon, we will pile into the sea and get pummelled by mountainous waves. And then we’ll head home, tired and happy, after lots more walking, digging, sliding and eating. We’ll be a bit sunburnt and Mum will get us to take a fish down to Cushla’s.

We will fall into bed, our skin tingling from the exposure to sand, wind and sun and we will sleep the sleep of happy children who know the joy of playing in nature in and around the sleepy little town of Kawhia.  





I have deliberately not included date references in the story because I wanted it to retain a sort of timelessness. It’s my fervent wish that there will always be beaches for kids to play on and adults who love taking them there. I hope everyone who reads this story is reminded of their own happy beach memories.


Places like the Oldbury home and outbuildings no longer exist and Kawhia has changed considerably since the 1980s when I was a child, but Ocean Beach is still as wild and remote as ever. Go there. Take your shovel at low tide and dig for the hot springs. Get touched by wind, sun and sand and I hope the pure natural power will keep calling you back.


About the writer: Kristina Jensen is a poet, writer and musician living on a boat in the Marlborough Sounds with her artist husband and home-schooled son. As a family, they advocate spending as much time with nature as possible. Kristina’s works have been published in New Zealand, Australia and America and she holds a Diploma in Creative Writing.

‘Kawhia!’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region)with support from Tauranga Writers.



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