When people first set foot on New Zealand, probably between 1250 and 1300 CE, 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 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.
Not once, but three times
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 James Cook and his men set foot on in New Zealand. Today, an obelisk marks the spot.
A traditional pathway
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 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 Lieutenant-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, sandhills have been flattened, birds’ eggs have been crushed, and sunbathers have been annoyed by the noise and danger of fast vehicles.