Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 25, November 1981

By H. Rawle

SEVENTY years ago the only access from Waihi to Waihi Beach was through Athenree Gorge, a tortuous and roundabout route which involved the crossing of a ford at Athenree. It was not until 1911 that a primitive road was formed through the 13 kilometres of developing farmland which separated Waihi from the now popular holiday resort.

Although the district was administered by the Ohinemuri County Council it was Waihi Borough who put the road through at a cost of 3,600 pounds. A strange anomaly arose when farmers with properties adjoining the new road besieged the Borough Council with complaints concerning its condition while paying their rates to Ohinemuri County. Years were to pass before the road was metalled and it was 1939 before the road was finally sealed.

The beach was known to the Maoris as Waihi, long before the nearby gold mining town of the same name emerged from the scrub in the 1890s. Several tribes inhabited the area at different times, their pas stretching from the Okiri stronghold of the Ngatimaru in the north to the great Kurouamis settlement which sheltered the hapus of the Ngaiterangi on the rocky fortress of the Bowentown Headland.

Once the ancient boundary disputes had been resolved the Maoris lived peacefully in a number of Kaingas which dotted the fertile land behind the 8 kilometres of sandy beach. Amongst the more notable were the swamp encircled Tamita pa famous for the many splendid Maori carvings found on the site and the Harakoko pa where strong westerly gales in the early 1900s laid bare the dunes and exposed an ancient burial ground and workshop which covered nearly an acre of ground.

Scores of human skeletons were found, together with many tools and implements, fragments of greenstone and obsidian, quartzite drill tips and chert hammers. Finished articles included knives and adzes, fish hooks, combs and ornaments made from albatross and moa bones and several flutes and bird spears fashioned from human bones.

The Maoris had vegetable plots extending from the sea to the foothills, their staple diet of sweet corn and kumeras supplemented by the occasional wild pig and a variety of fish, particularly large sharks which were plentiful in the surrounding waters. Situated at the southern end of the beach the Bowentown Headland separates the ocean from the quiet waters of Anzac Bay. Moas roamed the area in the distant past and many artifacts carved from the bones of this now legendary bird have been found in the vicinity. Today a road climbs past the softened outlines of old Maori pas to the trig point which takes in the broad sweep of the Bay of Plenty coastline and gives magnificent views of Mount Maunganui, the Aldermans and other island groups. A hillside track leads to Fisherman's Rock where tree clad Matakana Island beckons from across the narrow straits.

A spacious domain overlooks the harbour with its crumbling stone jetty, once used by day-trippers from Katikati, and its backdrop of ancient pohutukawas leaning from the cliffs. Scrub covered and dotted with squatters dwellings until recent times the reserve now provides tree shaded picnic areas and ample parking space. Behind the domain a track leads over the hill to Shelly Bay, site of the old Otawhiwhi pa and the scene of a savage tribal battle of revenge which ended with the victors feasting on the bodies of the slain.

Up to 1910 nearly a hundred Maoris still occupied a pa at Bowentown but gradually the natives made way far the increasing flood of white settlers.

In the 1870s Vesey Stewart, the pioneer farmer who founded Katikati, took up 1,760 acres of land at Waihi Beach which included gold-bearing country in the northern hills. Some 130 acres were later sold to James Shaw who eventually owned nearly all the Vesey property, which reached from halfway to Bowentown to the far end of Orakawa Bay [Orokawa Bay – E].

Up to this time the dunes were unprotected from the vagaries of wind and tide. Sand drifts buried fences or left them high and dry until the new owners laid the foundation for a stable shoreline by sowing lupin seeds along the whole length of the sand hills. The Shaw family also drained the swamp adjoining the Beach Hotel, exposing the famous Tamita pa and recovering thousands of' totara logs later used for fencing.

Gold was found at Waihi Beach as early as 1870 when small quantities were being panned from local streams. Following Shaw's discovery of gold-bearing lodes on his property north of the beach a mining company in 1899 sank a shaft into the headland now known as Mine Hill. This was the only mine to seriously explore the potential of the Treasure Island reef and from the outset the venture was beset with difficulties.

With no roads in the area all mining equipment had to be transported by horse-drawn waggons over the six kilometres of sandy beach from Pio's Point and then hauled up the steep incline to the mine. Heavy winding gear, steam engines and boilers all followed the same route, as did the hundreds of tonnes of coal unloaded from sailing scows on the clay bank which is now the site of the Bowentown Boating Club. The mine was never successful and work came to a standstill when a drive extension breached an underground stream resulting in serious flooding. A 90 horse-power Cameron pump failed to cope with the increasing flow and the mine was finally abandoned in 1910.

The entrance to the old mine shaft can still be seen near the start of the walkway which climbs over the cliffs at the northern end of the beach. The track winds high above Shark Bay, known to the Maoris as Okiri, then leads on to Orakawa with its white sands fringed with gnarled pohutukawas.

A reserve planted with native trees now covers the hillside where the old Whitikareo pa once stood, while the bush at the far end of the beach conceals a scenic wonder which existed long before the Maori came. Markers point the way to the 30 mete high Orakawa Falls which leap in two stages into a valley whose bush-clad sides rise sheer into the sky. The track to the waterfall is difficult in places, sometimes involving the crossing of a stream or wading a few metres where the dense bush grows down to the water's edge.

Further along the coast, lie Hoamanga Bay[Homunga Bay – E], Mataura [Mataora – E], picturesque Whiritoa with its clean sands and freshwater lagoon and 13 kilometres to the north the ever popular holiday resort of Whangamata.