When people first set foot on New Zealand, probably between 1250 and 1300, they stepped onto a beach. Those beaches where the founding waka (canoes) landed are of great significance to Māori. There are over 70 revered landing places – known as ngā ūnga waka. According to tradition, some beaches still bear the marks of the landing – such as Moeraki Beach, on the South Island’s east coast, where the giant round boulders are said to be the petrified remains of the kūmara and gourds that scattered when the Ārai-te-uru capsized.
Pākehā too arrived on the beach, and some of their landing points have been commemorated. These include several of Captain James Cook’s beaches, such as Ship Cove in the Marlborough Sounds and Cook’s Cove near Tolaga Bay. Later arrivals are remembered at Petone Beach on Wellington Harbour, where the first New Zealand Company settlers landed.
Kaiti Beach, in Gisborne, has the distinction of being a place where both Māori and Pākehā landed. The Horouta and Ikaroa-a-Rauru canoes are said to have landed here. Generations later, in October 1769, this was the first place Captain Cook and his men set foot in New Zealand. Today, an obelisk marks the spot.
Once people settled, the beach remained a significant place of travel. Māori found inland routes difficult – the country was often mountainous or swampy – while out at sea the waters were rough. So in some places, such as the North Island’s west coast, the beach made for easy travel. That shoreline was referred to as ‘te ara one a Hine-tuakirikiri’ (the sandy path of the sand maid). Te Rauparaha (a Ngāti Toa chief) led the famous migration of Ngāti Toa (Te Heke Tātaramoa) in 1822 along the beach from Taranaki southwards to Pukerua Bay.
Pākehā also used the beach for travel, walking, and more often, riding on horseback. Commercial coaches took the same route.
The first flock of sheep taken to the Wairarapa from Wellington, in 1844, was herded along the beach to Palliser Bay. At Mukamuka, where rocks jut into the sea, the sheep were carried through the surf, one by one. For the next century, the sight of a drover and a flock of sheep on the beach was relatively common, especially on the east coast of the North Island. The beach on this coast was also used to transport wool. A horse and cart brought the bales down to the shore, and the wool was then loaded onto small boats, which headed out to a waiting coaster.
In 1840 Queen Victoria instructed Governor William Hobson to set aside areas for public roads and recreation. However, this ‘Queen’s chain’ (a 20-metre strip above the high-water mark) was never universally applied. In the 2000s, only about 70% of the coast is in publicly-owned roads and reserves.
When motorised vehicles arrived in the early 20th century, the beach was used as a road because it was flat. Many farms depended on the beach route, despite the disadvantages of tides, soft sand, and the corrosion of vehicles from the salt.
Some of these beach highways became official roads, and were significant public routes. Ninety Mile Beach in Northland still carries tourist buses today. The first car races were held at Muriwai Beach in 1921, using the hard, wet sand as a track and the sand hills as a grandstand. Early aeroplanes used beaches as runways.
Travelling on the beach has continued. People drive over it in motorbikes, beach buggies and four-wheel drives. Tractors towing boats are a common sight. However, sand hills have been flattened, birds’ eggs have been crushed, and sunbathers have been annoyed by the noise and danger of fast vehicles.
When Māori settled in Aotearoa (New Zealand), their Pacific culture and the absence of land mammals encouraged them to look to the sea as an important source of food. Kai moana (food from the sea) was gathered in several ways. Men fished from canoes, and on their return, the women cleaned the catch. Women gathered shellfish – pipi, tuatua and toheroa from the sandy shallows, and mussels, pāua, limpets, kina (sea urchins) and seaweed from the rocks.
Seals and sea lions were slaughtered for food as far north as North Cape. A stranded whale was also a source of both food and bone, and it would be cut up with much ritual and ceremony.
The beach was often the place where kai moana was eaten – judging by the large number of middens (rubbish dumps) to be found on New Zealand beaches. These usually contain shells, ash, burnt stones and fish bones.
It is said that while Māori take food from the beach, Pākehā take food to it, and that while Māori wait until the tide is out to search for shellfish, Pākehā wait until the tide is in to swim. These generalisations were never entirely true. In the 19th century, some of the earliest Pākehā visitors and settlers joined Māori on the beach to butcher seals and whales, although this was normally for their oil, skins, and bone, not for food.
But from the mid-19th century, some Pākehā went to the beach to fish, and this has continued – whether it is surfcasting from the sand or dropping a sinker from a jetty. Some have copied Māori and dig for pipi or (before it was prohibited) toheroa. An increasing number of people search for pāua and crayfish, using wetsuits and snorkels. However, Pākehā tend to throw out the hua (stomach) of the pāua, which is a delicacy for Māori, and few have a taste for kina.
More recently the search for food at the beach has attracted people who want to sell pāua in quantity, or those from Pacific or Asian countries for whom shellfish has always been a favourite food.
Picnicking began in the late 19th century when the idea of a meal at the beach became popular, and sandwiches of egg, lettuce and pressed tongue were on the menu along with a brew of tea.
By the 1920s, large office picnics at the beach were in fashion. In the 1950s there were barbecues with sausages, tomato sauce and white bread, and all of the food was carried in a wicker basket. Soon after, insulated containers such as the chilly bin made it possible to keep beer and wine cold, ready for drinking at the beach. When the home-made foods were eaten, people walked along to the beach dairy (general store) for ice cream and soft drinks. Food and the beach are inseparable in New Zealand culture.
For many New Zealanders, the beach is a place for fun and relaxation. In pre-European times, Māori children learnt to swim from an early age. They would jump from rocks, compete in races and play in small canoes (waka or kōpapa). In areas with large surf, especially the east coast of the North Island, there appears to have been a strong tradition of surfing (whakahekeheke), using wooden planks, small canoes or simply bodysurfing.
Britain had a sense of the seaside as a site of leisure. From the 18th century the wealthy began to visit resorts like Brighton, on England’s south coast. When the railway made beaches more accessible, the seaside became an attraction for all classes.
It was a highly commercial place with pleasure palaces, music halls, slot machines and plenty of fun on the sand for the children – donkey rides, merry-go-rounds, and Punch and Judy puppet shows. There was food such as fish and chips, ice cream in cones and candyfloss. The atmosphere was of a carnival, an escape from the daily grind.
Not many people went swimming, although children did paddle in the shallows. However, from the 1870s people believed that sea water was good for health, and adults took to the sea. Men and women were segregated, and they were expected to hire horse-drawn wooden bathing machines, which were pulled into the water to protect people’s modesty as they went in and out of the sea.
This commercialisation emerged in parts of New Zealand at the start of the 20th century. At New Brighton, on Christchurch’s coast, a pier was built, in the hope that the town would imitate its English namesake. In Wellington, the ferry, Cobar, took day trippers across the harbour to Days Bay, where they could slide down a water chute, explore a castle or visit a zoo with monkeys and exotic birds. Later, Caroline Bay in Timaru, a totally man-made beach, was developed as a commercial seaside with aviaries, a sound shell, a skating rink and pony rides.
But most New Zealanders came to the beach to picnic or to promenade in a relaxed fashion, not to spend money or swim. Photographs suggest that it was only young children, with their trousers rolled up, who paddled in the sea. Adults’ clothes were formal. Bathing machines were rarely used, and the prohibition against mixed bathing remained strong.
The opening of public baths from the 1880s encouraged a growing interest in swimming, and men began to swim in the sea, sometimes in the nude – to considerable public outrage. In 1901, the New Zealand Graphic argued for mixed bathing, and by the end of the decade local councils were abandoning their previous prohibitions and passing by-laws requiring clothing from neck to knee.
By the 1920s, the beach had become established as a place for swimming. Trams took people to the beaches close to cities, such as Sumner in Christchurch or Titahi Bay in Wellington. The spread of cars opened up wider horizons, such as Piha in West Auckland, and Castlepoint on the Wairarapa coast.
For the first time, New Zealand began to promote its beaches and mountains to tourists. Like other parts of the Western world, it discovered the attraction of the sun. Sunbathing and swimming became part of the New Zealand dream.
As New Zealanders developed a liking for sea swimming, distinctive clothes evolved. When swimming first became accepted, at the turn of the 20th century, women wore heavy, voluminous costumes that covered them from neck to knee. Men wore tops and long johns covering them from calf to elbow. Neither costume allowed easy movement.
Men were first to gain greater comfort. By 1910 they were wearing woollen suits, which left the legs free from mid-thigh and had only narrow straps over the shoulders. Some local by-laws also required men to wear V-shaped trunks over their costumes. Soon after this, women began wearing Canadian two-piece outfits – woollen pants and a short-sleeved tunic. They were all in navy blue, and the wool made them heavy to swim in and slow to dry.
By the late 1920s, women were offered one-piece suits, often still with a skirt attached. Bright colours appeared – the Coney Island suit came in red, salmon, jade and royal blue. As sunbathing came into fashion, swimsuits became sleeveless and V-necked, and were cut to expose the back. Elastic materials were used, and togs (swimming gear) became form-fitting. By the late 1930s men could bare their chests.
After the Second World War, synthetic, quick-drying materials appeared, and the bikini was invented. However, it was not until the 1960s that this garment was common in New Zealand.
The beach became a place to show off a beautiful body. From the 1930s, beauty contests became a common part of Boxing Day or New Year’s Day beach carnivals. Sunbathers spent time tanning their skin to a perfect brown. The beach was associated with images of romance and sex. The moonlit walk along the beach and the retreat to the sand hills were teenage rituals.
In New Zealand, the beach is a favourite spot to see in the New Year. Bonfires are lit, the beer flows freely and social taboos come under threat. Some beach resorts, such as Mt Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty, Whangamatā in the Coromandel, and Tahunanui near Nelson, are notorious.
The most common, and perhaps the least respected, beach danger is sunburn, which has caused pain to many New Zealanders in the short term and led to skin cancer in thousands. Only in the last years of the 20th century did people heed the warnings to cover up, wear a hat and use protective lotions.
Many beachgoers are afraid of being bitten by katipō spiders and sharks. However katipō have rarely caused fatalities, and shark attacks have been responsible for only nine deaths, the last in 1968. Being bitten by a crab or stung by a bluebottle jellyfish is more common.
The greatest danger is drowning. Between 1995 and 2000, 70 New Zealanders drowned while swimming. Another 19 people lost their lives snorkelling or scuba-diving, and five more while gathering shellfish.
The first life-saving club was established at New Brighton in 1910. By 2002, there were 79 clubs. In 2001, surf lifesavers rescued almost 2,000 people from New Zealand’s seas. The surf clubs are a characteristic feature of the New Zealand beach, with their red and yellow flags marking safe areas to swim.
Children with buckets and spades dig trenches and build sandcastles, while others play cricket and volleyball, and beachcombers collect driftwood. Wooden surfboards, blow-up lilos and water-wings have given way to polystyrene surfboards, boogie boards and surf riders.
For many New Zealanders the beach is the essence of the Kiwi dream – the sun, the space, the physical beauty and the sense of a relaxed escape into nature. Easy and free access to the beach has been seen as a national birthright. The beach is considered to be the place to go for a holiday. For over a century it has attracted campers, and about half of New Zealand’s campgrounds are located at beaches.
For some, a holiday at the beach is spent at the weekend crib or bach. This was a humble dwelling, often with the marks of the home handyman and painted in bright colours. It had old furniture and fading photos, along with collections of shells, discarded jandals, beach equipment and fishing gear. Initially there was little public regulation of these beach houses, and there were few facilities such as piped water or sewerage systems.
However, by the early 2000s the iconic Kiwi bach was fading. In 1989, the re-organisation of the local government brought beach areas under the jurisdiction of regional and district councils, instead of the counties, which had relaxed the rules for beach settlements. The Resource Management Act (1991) and the Coastal Policy Statement (1994) sought to protect beach areas from subdivisions that might harm the environment. The same building standards and facilities, like sewerage and footpaths, were required as in the city.
Further, there was a rush to buy coastal properties, which began to attract huge prices as overseas buyers and the new, urban wealthy looked to purchase their piece of paradise on the coast. Luxurious holiday homes became prominent, and more New Zealanders bought retirement homes close to the beach.
The beach fulfils the New Zealand dream for the old and the young. Children see the beach as a place of freedom and escape from the domestic and suburban constraints, and in the past, many families have taken some of the beach for a sandpit at home.
Many New Zealanders considered their days at the beach as being the highpoint of childhood. The Children’s Health Camp movement sited many of their camps close to a beach, so that children could enjoy the sun, sand and sea. The largest of these camps was at Ōtaki, a settlement near the coast north of Wellington.
There are over 50 New Zealand children’s books about the beach. For many New Zealand adult writers too, from Katherine Mansfield’s At the bay, to Bruce Mason’s The end of the golden weather, the beach was a symbol of childhood.
Yet, the meaning of the beach is not the same for all people, and the clash of dreams has led to increasing conflicts between the competing interests. Those who see the beach as a natural transport route have met opposition from those for who believe it should be preserved as a place of nature, and a nesting place for birds such as dotterels and Caspian terns.
As the numbers of holiday homes have grown, people have discovered that sewage and recreational swimming do not mix. Those who gather seafood have found that the harvest has dwindled and the beds are polluted.
A national debate exploded in 2003–2004 when the Court of Appeal ruled that the Māori Land Court had jurisdiction to determine Māori claims to the foreshore and seabed. The argument was that Māori had traditionally used the beach and foreshore for such activities as collecting kai moana (seafood) and had never sold or formally relinquished those rights. Other New Zealanders, saw the possible loss of access to the beach as curtailing a national birthright. Parliament quickly legislated to determine the foreshore as Crown property with public access.
Barnett, Stephen, and Richard Wolfe. At the beach: the great New Zealand holiday. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993.
Carlin, Jocelyn, and Lloyd Jones. Beach New Zealand. Auckland: David Bateman, 1999.
Coney, Sandra. Piha: a history in images. Auckland: Keyhole, 1997.
Daley, Caroline. Leisure and pleasure: reshaping and revealing the New Zealand body, 1900–1960. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.
Lenček, Lena, and Gideon Bosker. The beach: a history of paradise on earth. London: Secker & Warburg, 1998.
McLean, Denis. The long pathway: te ara roa. Auckland: Collins, 1986.
Part of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research site, Cam-Era gives hourly images of New Zealand beaches and rivers.
This site provides contemporary and historical information about Piha Beach.
This page, from the BBC’s social history site, explores the Victorian seaside in Great Britain.