RAMBLINGS : Wairoa, New Zealand




Driftwood litters Taylor's Bay, Mahia Peninsula
Wild Beauty, Strong Spirit
"What's the hurry, bro?'' someone giggles from a shop doorway. 
After two days in Wairoa, I thought I'd adapted to the town's relaxed pace - but it seems I still have some way to go. 

A town of about 5000, Wairoa (literally "long water'') hugs a bend in the Wairoa River, just before it empties into Hawke Bay. The main street - called Marine Parade, although there's no sea to be seen - is a string of shops and cafés facing a riverside park lined by phoenix palms and pohutukawa. 

When I arrive, the last of the whitebaiters are packing up their nets, a busker is blowing tunes on a saxophone and shopkeepers are chatting on the footpath. There's a casual barefoot air, as many Maori as Pakeha, swanndris and gumboots, and a cheery "kia ora!'' every few paces. 

But if you believe what some folk elsewhere say, this northern Hawke's Bay town is a hotbed of crime and desperation. 

Wairoa mayor Les Probert, taking time out from his daily stroll down Marine Parade, explains that the town's infamy goes back to the gang violence of the 1990s. 
"It was an incident that got blown all over the country on national news, and we're still living it down,'' he says. 

He doesn't say it, but it's clear he feels the town's reputation is undeserved and unfair. 
"Wairoa is relatively crime-free, and even petty crime has dropped due to the work we've been doing on neighbourhood watch, Maori wardens and getting young people into training and meaningful work.'' 

The gangs may have made peace, but Wairoa's statistics are still less than glowing. The district's median annual income, according to Statistics New Zealand, is $14,600 (US$12,00), about $4000 lower than the national average. Unemployment is close to 12 percent, and health reports - on child tooth decay or smoking among young women, for example - make grim reading. 

But whatever the number-crunchers say, there's a sense of optimism on the main street of Wairoa. Tourism, forestry and meat processing are expanding, and the rest of the country is waking up to the district's potential. 
"It's really on the up, there's a feeling of optimism around. It's a marvellous little place,'' Les says. 

America's most influential newspaper agrees. In September, The New York Times, which has a daily circulation of 1.2 million, ran a travel feature on Wairoa and the East Cape. 

In Wairoa's "tidy farming services community'', writer Luba Vangelova found the antidote she needed to a "bad case of urbanitis''. 
"I was glad to discover ... that even town life in these parts was a journey back in time,'' she wrote, referring to the signposts that welcome visitors with the words "Wairoa - the way New Zealand used to be''. 

After scouring several blocks of "mom-and-pop stores parallel to a park-lined riverbank'' she discovered the award-winning Osler's Bakery and the "pastry perfection'' of a steak and mushroom pie. That probably makes Osler's the only pie shop in New Zealand to be recommended by The New York Times. 

Continuing east on State Highway 2, she described the East Coast as "stunningly beautiful'' and a "pastoral Eden as yet undiscovered by crowds''. Wairoa residents should brace themselves for an invasion of New Yorkers this summer. 

Wairoa's new district planner, Leo Koziol - an internet-savvy "born-again Maori'' of Rakaipaaka and American-Polish extraction - is another fan of Osler's pies.

One of his ideas for promoting Wairoa is to install a giant pie in the middle of town, like Paeroa's bottle or Ohakune's carrot, and he even built a website dedicated to his vision. 
"Award-winning pies are Wairoa's point of difference,'' he says proudly. The giant pie campaign may be tongue-in-cheek, but his enthusiasm for the district is genuine. 

A recent returnee from the United States, he laments how that country has been "blandified'' by the rise of chain store culture. He watched in dismay as, one by one, his favourite cafes in San Francisco were swallowed up by Starbucks. 
"The point of The New York Times article is that Wairoa is not just the way New Zealand used to be, it's the way the world used to be, the way America was before all the chain stores took over,'' he says. 

Indeed, almost all the shops along Marine Parade are small local businesses. There's even one of those old-fashioned independent hardware stores with stuff stacked up everywhere and barely a blister pack in sight. 

Another thing that makes Wairoa unusual is its ethnic balance - according to the 2001 census, 55 percent of the population is Maori. 
"I get a lot of strength from living in tangata whenua territory, in a place where the majority of the population is Maori,'' Leo says. 

"When you go to the supermarket you hear people talking te reo and asking when the next hui is. Then you get to the front counter and there's a whole stack of Mana magazines - anywhere else they're hidden away down the back,'' he says. 

Later I leaf through the visitors' book at Katz Café, a few blocks from Osler's, and find that half the entries are in Maori. How many places in New Zealand could boast that? 

Further down Marine Parade, artist Chris Wilson has a workshop for making one-off, hand-crafted furniture. A driftwood settee won him the top craft prize at the 1999 Hawke's Bay Review art show. 

He enjoys the buzz of living in a big city, but the high costs made it next to impossible to set up in Wellington. 
"Apart from the climate, the rivers and the lack of crowds, the price of accommodation and a place to work is a major attraction here,'' he says. 

Instead of taking out a hefty mortgage and paying through the nose for a workshop, Wairoa artists can put their money into furthering their creativity. 
"For some that could mean the difference between having to get a regular job and pursuing their art,'' Chris says. 

And by the standards of pretty much anywhere else in New Zealand, it is very cheap. A real estate office advertises perfectly good houses for under $50,000 (US$40,000); there's even a three-bedroom place for $20,000 (US$16,000). 

While the district's total population has fallen - from 10,125 in 1991 to 8916 ten years later - the number of artists based there has risen, Chris says. Could Wairoa be the next artists' haven? 

Perhaps the worst thing you can say about Wairoa is that there's not a lot to do after dark. By 6pm most evenings only the Chinese takeaways and a couple of pubs are still open. 
But even when it comes to culture and entertainment, Wairoa has something to brag about - The Gaiety, one of New Zealand's biggest (and best named) cinemas. 

Five years ago, The Gaiety was a crumbling, empty shell. Geoff Hole bought the 1930s cinema and, with the community's help, restored and reopened it two years later. 

The theatre has a vast auditorium, seating for 220, a 4000 Watt sound system and a 90 square-metre screen Geoff says is New Zealand's second-largest. For special screenings, like The Lord of the Rings debut, serious movie buffs drive to Wairoa from Napier and Hastings to experience the film in a real cinema, Geoff says. 
"It leaves anything you've got down in Hawke's Bay for dead.'' 

Now Geoff has bought another partly-derelict building next door for his newest project, a café and backpackers' hostel. 
"Where else but Wairoa could I do this?'' he asks. 

Heading out of town along State Highway 2 through Nuhaka and out to the sweeping white-sand beaches of the Mahia Peninsula, the district's potential as a tourist destination becomes obvious. 

It's also obvious that the district is being discovered. Mahia Beach is no longer a collection of scruffy fibrolite baches - one beachfront section sold recently for $250,000 (US$200,000), and a few of the newly-built monstrosities would stand out even in Auckland's ostentatious eastern suburbs. A real estate noticeboard outside the dairy advertises a bach with a $325,000 (US$260,000) price tag. 

The number of overseas visitors is also climbing. At the Morere tearooms, opposite the famous hot springs, owner Wendy Swan says the past two years have been "fabulous''. 
"Business has doubled, at certain times even trebled,'' she says. 

The Blue Bay Holiday Resort at Opoutama, where the Mahia Peninsula joins the mainland, has been booked out every summer for years. Owner Graham Nash, a refugee from the mayhem of Auckland's northwestern motorway, says Aucklanders are looking for a change from their traditional holiday spots in the Bay of Islands or the Coromandel. 
He has also seen a surge in the number of travellers on their second visit to New Zealand, many of them middle-aged North American surfies paying homage to the world's top beaches. 

"The Wairoa district has great potential - there's an increasing number of visitors looking for the natural environment, rather than the Ibizas and the nightclubs,'' Graham says. 

In Nuhaka, where the road to Mahia splits from State Highway 2, Trevor Kapoor and Jan Westbrook have set up a second-hand shop in what was an abandoned grocery store. 

The couple returned home last year after decades in Australia, happy to trade a higher income for a more relaxed lifestyle. Now the thought of having to live in a place with traffic lights horrifies them. 
"Here you see drivers stopping in the middle of the road for a chat. Try that in Napier and they'd swear at you,'' Jan laughs. 

But the Wairoa district is more than good scenery and an easy-going lifestyle, says part-Maori, part-Indian Trevor. 
"There's a strong Maori spirituality out here. Even the white man feels it when he comes out here. They call it chilling out, but we know what it really is - it's spiritual bonding with the land.'' 

Trevor and Jan, like many others on the East Coast, say greater interest in the Wairoa district and the rising number of visitors make change inevitable. They just hope the place doesn't change too much. 

First published in Hawke's Bay Today, November 2002.
This story was part of a portfolio that won New Zealand's Qantas Junior Newspaper Feature Writer 2002.

About this story...
This story was written for Hawke's Bay Today in 2002, when the small northern Hawke's Bay town of Wairoa was still reeling from a highly-publicised outbreak of gang violence. I wanted to see what the mood was like in Wairoa, and what the area had to offer beyond the headlines. Happily, I found plenty to like - a laid-back lifestyle, stunning beaches, a proud Maori community, and some great pies...


"Born-again Maori" Leo Koziol, from Nuhaka, at Kahungungu Marae


Wairoa artist Chris Wilson at work


Geoff Hole, manager of Wairoa's Gaiety Theatre

"There's a strong Maori spirituality out here. Even the white man feels it when he comes out here. They call it chilling out, but we know what it really is - it's spiritual bonding with the land" - Nuhaka shop owner Trevor Kapoor 


Trevor Kapoor and Jan Westbrook own Nuhaka's second-hand shop


Robert Wesche knocked of work early and drove out to Black's Beach in his 1954 Commer truck for a spot of fishing. "You can't beat the lifestyle, I reckon."


Native bush, Morere


New Zealand Glossary
New Zealand English includes many unfamiliar words and place names, including many borrowed from Maori. Here are a few that appear in this article... 
= a modest holiday home, ideally by a beach
hui = a gathering or meeting
kia ora = a Maori greeting
Mana magazine = a magazine made by Maori for Maori
Maori = the indigenous people of New Zealand (the plural is also Maori)
Ohakune = a town with a giant carrot for a symbol
Osler's = an award winning bakery, and past winner of New Zealand's Supreme Pie award
= a New Zealander of European descent
Paeroa = a town with a giant fizzy drink bottle as a symbol
pohutukawa = a tree that grows near the coast and flowers at Christmas
Rakaipaaka = a Maori tribe 
swanndris = a rugged, woollen item of outdoor wear
tangata whenua = the Maori people, literally "people of the land"
te reo = the Maori language
whitebaiter = someone who fishes for whitebait, a tiny juvenile fish


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Copyright Peter de Graaf 2011 : Ramblings designed and built by Peter de Graaf : Last updated April 2011