In the summer of 1974, I was a finalist in the Miss Junior Ohope Pageant. This was back in the days when beauty pageants took their show on the road across NZ’s beaches every summer in the name of some brand or other. When they hit Ohope Beach, I pitched up at the first sniff of potential prize money, elbowed all the other surnburned eight year olds out of the way and belted out “Long Haired Lover from Liverpool” by Jimmy Osmond* at the top of my voice. I can’t remember where I placed but I do recall my prize was a block of Icebreaker chocolate (I’d say that’s a third, right? And what happened to Icebreaker chocolate?)
*This became strangely coincidental when I later met a young man from Liverpool with very long hair and then married him.
42 years later and I’ve hung up my sash (actually I don’t think I even got a sash). These days it’s a well-cut-polka-dot one-piece with excellent scaffolding and a kind of camoflauge cut over the midsection, which is meant to make me look Marilyn-esque but I suspect it’s more Manson than Monroe. Good news is, I don’t care. Even better news is, I still spend time at Ohope.
Based in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, around 350km southeast of Auckland (that’s a 3.5 hour drive), Ohope is a small seaside town sitting on a golden sandy beach that stretches for 11km, on the Pacific Ocean. It’s been voted NZ’s favourite beach by various surveys, and deservedly so. Backed by hills which create a kind of ‘micro-climate’ to deter too many clouds, it’s usually sunny. White Island, an active volcano, puffs away on the horizon and when I was little I was convinced that Whale Island, closer to shore, was in fact a giant seasnail which only came to life at night, swimming about the Pacific before settling back down in its spot just before dawn. This is a belief I successfully passed on to my daughter until quite recently. Neither of us worked out if that notion was magical or just plain creepy. Anyway, Ohope has been part of my life since I can remember. It’s my happy place.
Those familiar with the movie “The Seven Year Itch” (and if you’re not, check it out) know that the male lead character’s family, based in Manhattan, have left town for the summer. This was common practice in those days: the men would stay in town, at their jobs, and wives and children would escape the heat. Well, our family was a little like that, just less glamorous and without the Marilyn part, as far as I know. My Dad would deliver Mum and us five kids to the campground in Ohope and head back to Palmerston North for the week, commuting back at weekends. He towed a 1969 Anglo Pullman caravan on the back of a Holden Kingswood for seven hours, negotiating some extremely disturbing gorge roads with nail-biting drops over the edge in the days when the passing lane was the oncoming lane.
The campground was smack-bang on the beach and all our mates from around the North Island would pitch up at the same time. Us kids would spend our days visiting each others caravans, spending just enough time at each to drive the ‘mother-in-charge’ insane, sending us to the next one. The Mums had an unspoken roster going on, and every evening they’d gather at someone’s caravan for well deserved drinks. Strangely at that point they didn’t really mind the kids being around. They didn’t really mind anything. Go figure.
Our caravan had an awning attached to it: a huge canvas tent with two sets of bunks. The smell of canvas still takes me straight back to that awning. Mum and Dad held court in their caravan and we’d slink in and out for food. There was always a box or two of Griffins biscuits – the Sampler box – the chocolate covered ones always went first and the wafers languished at the bottom, surrounded by crumbs and possibly a Krispie or two.
I have memories of salty, sandy, sunburned holidays that lasted for the entire six week school holiday break, filled with bonfires on the beach, big scary surf, Coppertone, slipping into sleep with the sound of the waves lulling me away, dreaming of giant sea snails, sneaking biscuits out of the caravan for my friends, getting lost-but-not-lost in the wonderful campground right on the beach – and entering the odd beauty pageant.
Fast forward to the 1980s, my Dad no longer with us and my mother married to my stepfather, a man so far removed from my own father it was difficult for me to understand how she could love two men who were so different. But he was great, too. Where my father was considered, drily funny, laconic, relaxed and James Bond cool, my stepfather was vivacious, outspoken, passionate and larger than life.
They were living in Palmerston North and contemplating retirement. She mentioned Ohope. He’d been once, briefly. She took him to visit and it was a done deal. They lived there for over 15 years, in a house on the beach that was filled with visiting children and grandchildren, a huge vegetable garden for him and a flower garden for her, a garage which housed all manner of tinker’s gold (including the obligatory tennis ball on a string from the ceiling for parking-the-car-purposes) and large quantities of love and laughter. Mum walked on the beach every day, Ian caught shellfish from his dinghy and in the evenings they would sit together sipping gin and tonics on their verandah overlooking the Pacific.
My sister became engaged on the beach and was subsequently married in the tiny church at Ohope, and then Jake and I married some years later on the beach, at 4pm when the tide was low enough. We had a party afterwards in a marquee in Mum and Ian’s back garden, right next to the vegetable patch. When I lived in London I’d speak to Mum regularly and she’d be known to say things like “hang on a second dear, just spotted a pod of orcas swimming past the living room. Lovely. Now, what were you saying about the tube strike?” It made me very homesick.
And so to now. My mother and stepfather are no longer with us, and my sister is gone now too. But she will return to Ohope next year, a year after she left us. Two of my brothers own houses there, so we visit regularly: we just got back from a salty, sandy, sunny weekend. One of my brothers owns the Port Ohope General Store, where you can get breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, groceries, a paddleboard lesson or a cold beer. I have been known to have all of these things in the space of one day. We enjoy summer holidays there with our daughter, scouring the same beach I did at her age.
It’s a bit deja vu, although the beauty pageant roadshow hasn’t hit town for a while. If anyone knows if there’s a Mrs Middle Aged Ohope happening at any point, let me know. I have just the right polka dot swimsuit lined up.