Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 5, May 1966
By B. Merle Binnie
It would be just at the start of World War I when I first made the acquaintance of "Our Beach" as we called it. At that time there were only 30 or 40 cottages there. Half of these were on the two Terraces, facing the sea, a lovely position; the other half were scattered, a little further South built at all angles, some facing the hills and a few on the sand itself. These latter were looking for trouble! I have seen some piled high with sand inside and out after a storm, and others turned completely around with an abnormally high tide.
There was one store which functioned through the Summer; and one farm, (Shaw's) where milk could be procured if one cared to walk the half mile to the cowshed, picking one's way along a muddy road as often as not, then waiting in the shed while the cows were duly milked.
In those days the road from Waihi, 7 miles inland, was far from good. The first mile stretch was metalled, but where the Beach Road itself turned off the Tauranga Road, it was a wide flat road of clay, except for a small hill, and a short stretch of swamp, which were metalled. Then came the fearsome (in early days) Gorge, which descended 350 feet in 2 miles by way of many curves and narrow corners. This was metalled but very rough. The last mile was clay again, from the foot of the hill to the corner of the Beach itself.
Probably there might have been no road at all, except that a little gold-mining had been done in the hills at the Beach and horse-drawn drays had carried heavy loads up and down, often on a road that was a quagmire. Anyone who has lived in Waihi knows that the rainfall is one of the heaviest in New Zealand, an easterly storm often bringing a three-day's downpour.
Away up on the hill at the Northern end of the Beach, where the gold was found, there was a group of half-a-dozen cottages, where miners had lived. These shacks are gone now, either having fallen down or been pulled down, and I remember one being cut in half by a slip one Winter. The superb view was about the only advantage these hill-dwellers had. As a small child I had stayed in the top-most cottage for a holiday. Not only did we have to carry all our bedding and provisions up the steep stony track but also our drinking water had to be carried up in cans and billies from the small waterfall near the old sandhills. It was a long way to go for a swim, clad in thin cotton bathing suits. I distinctly remember the long shiver back again, clutching my billy of water, without which no-one dare return. The house boasted no lining or ceiling, and I recall my childish terror as I lay in bed wanting to sleep, but not being able to keep my eyes off the rats which were running about on the rafters. A bright memory of that time is of tobogganing down the hillsides near the cottage.
From a child I climbed all over these hills and soon found a favourite summit (known as the "Little Maori Pa" because of the trench around it, to distinguish it from the "Big Maori Pa" on a summit farther back) which commanded a glorious view right along the five mile stretch to Bowentown, and beyond, to Tauranga's Mount Maunganui. I liked to sit and count the cottages, and as the years went by there were more and more to be counted, until nowadays it would be an impossible task - but then, to-day, people do not seem to wander the hills as we did, and many of the old tracks are overgrown. I used to think, as I sat there, how very beautiful God's creation was, and how it was spoiled only by the work of man - the untidy group of cottages, some of them so rough and ugly.
It was a great day when my father, Mr. S.H. Brown, bought a cottage from Mr. H. Clark, the printer. It had two large bedrooms, a kitchen and a narrow verandah, yet because of its high stud, from the hills it looked one of the largest on the beach! and many happy holidays we spent there. At first we went by pony and trap. We had a fast pony, Katy, and my Mother used to say she wore out a pair of gloves every time she drove to the Beach and back. Then we had Rox, a slower and more stolid steed. He needed coaxing along, and when we reached a steep hill he always stopped and looked around until we got out and walked! Later we had a Ford car - faster, of course (and possibly bumpier too!) but in muddy times, rather terrifying, as the car might slither along sideways quite out of control. We learned to carry chains for such occasions.
Holidays could often mean harder work than at home, but somehow we didn't count it as work - it was all fun. We cooked on a smoky, rusty range, and gathered fuel for it from the Beach, which was always covered with driftwood. We used lamps and candles and the happiest memories are of the evenings gathered around the lamp at the large table, playing games, writing, knitting, or just talking.
Rats were a pest, and between seasons we had to keep all mattresses hung up on hooks from the ceiling. We always left rat traps set, and on arriving for a holiday, our first sight on opening the door might be of a very, very dead rat waiting to be removed.
Our mattresses were mostly straw ones, and every Summer we would choose a good day, take all the straw out, teaze it, and replace it - an awful job, but we seemed to get fun out of anything and laughed our way along.
My greatest Beach adventure took place during one of the Winter school holidays when my Mother took my sister Gladys (now Mrs. G.J. Gracey), myself, my aunt Violet, not much older than ourselves (now Mrs. F.W. Tribble) and a friend, Nina Williams (Now Mrs. Dutton), to the cottage. We took stores to last some days, as the shop was closed for the Winter. We counted on the service car bringing us more, as it came out every few days with bread, meat and mail. However, we reckoned without an Easterly storm! Rain set in - real rain, the nonstop variety. At first we thought it fun and found plenty to keep us amused, but after several days the situation grew serious. We realised that no vehicle could get through the sea of mud, therefore we could hope for no stores - and it seemed as if we were the only people in residence at the Beach - it was "our Beach" indeed!
By the Sunday morning we had used all our bread, all the flour (made into scones) and everything else eatable except some butter and sugar. These we made into toffee and felt comforted as we sucked a piece. We knew how worried our families at home would be, and when my Mother suddenly said "We'll walk home!" we all agreed lustily. "Put on all the clothes you brought," she said, "They will keep you drier for awhile and it is the easiest way to carry them."
So imagine, if you can, five females of varying sizes, all padded with layers of clothing, setting out on their seven mile walk. At first we enjoyed the humour and adventure of it all, and managed to reach the top of the Gorge Hill in fairly good time, though our clothes soon hung like a suit of mail about us. How glad we were to see the Plains, even though the road in many places was just a sheet of water. Where possible we crawled through fences and walked in the paddocks; but often we could not manage this and at one place, where the water was very deep, my Mother tried to pick me up (I was the youngest) but found me so heavy she could not lift me an inch off the ground!
So we plodded on - very quiet now and desperately weary. My Mother kept us moving. Nina had had pneumonia and Mother had this in her mind. The rain pelted down as hard as ever and the last mile seemed to have no end. Through the silent town we dragged, to the main street where we lived - what a sight we must have been! Yet I do not recall seeing a single soul. Perhaps the Waihi folk were wisely sleeping through a wet week-end!
There were fifty steps up to our house behind my Father's cycle shop and they must have seemed a "steep ascent" that day! but I remember how home seemed like Heaven! Mother made us all have a hot bath and go to bed, and how good a fresh boiled egg tasted!
Poor Mother's task was not yet quite finished. We had found the house empty and knew my Father would have gone to my grandparent's, Mr.& Mrs. L. Collier, in Martin Rd., half a mile away. So she set off there. They had a good view of lower Seddon St. and saw the solitary figure descending the hill. "It looks like Rhoda" they said, "but how can it possibly be?"
"It is Rhoda" said my Father and hurried to meet her. He had been very anxious, and they laughed with relief as she recounted our adventures. I have often thought since of that day and how, with improvements of all kinds - roads, stores, telephones and transport - it could never happen there again.
Perhaps some who read this may visit Waihi Beach this Summer. When they climb the Mine Hill (as we called the cliff top where the shaft was) and sit down to admire the view, perhaps they will try to imagine the scene as I have tried to show it: of Waihi Beach as it was nearly fifty years ago.