Posted February 18, 2020
Not long after Awaroa became New Zealand's beach, resident Geoff Philips found a woman camping on the sand.
"I said, 'what are you doing here?' She said, 'I paid money towards this'. I said, 'where did you go to the toilet?' 'Oh, I didn't go', she told me.
"I said, 'really? In 24 hours you didn't go to the toilet?'"
The furtive camper was one of many Kiwis who chipped in for the 2016 Givealittle campaign that raised $2.8m to buy Awaroa Beach for New Zealand. The 2.8-hectare (6.9 acre) property, with its 800 metres of coastline, later became part of Abel Tasman National Park.
For a while, interest in the beach was strong, Philips said. Tourists sprawled on the white stretch of sand and hiked along the 2km-long inlet. Tour guides cashed in on the beach's fame.
"All the boat operators made a meal of it, 'come down and see your beach'."
Four years later, the dust has settled, Philips said. But as part of one of the country's most visited coastlines, Awaroa Beach has hitched its wagon to the fortunes of the national park, home to golden beaches, turquoise waters and one of the country's favourite walks.
Last year, about 300,000 people visited the park, a tenfold increase since Philips built his property on a bank overlooking the estuary 30 years ago.
For a long time the home was a summer getaway, but three years ago, after a couple of health scares, Philips packed in his Wellington job and moved to the beach. His wife, Elva, keeps a foot in each camp, dividing her time between the capital and Awaroa.
Summers are busy for Philips, who works for tour company Wilsons. He ferries people to and from water taxis, and rescues stranded kayakers and lost hikers. During colder months, he has the beach to himself, an unofficial caretaker for the handful of baches that line the inlet.
Over the decades, Philips has watched the landscape change.
Twenty-five years ago, the sea forged a new path into the inlet, taking out a house and a slice of land. And in 2018, the storm surge of ex-Tropical Cyclone Fehi coincided with a king tide, inundating campsites around the park. Awaroa Beach lost a large section of dunes, including habitat for nesting birds.
"When the spit was here we had 300 terns but now there's nowhere for them to go," Elva said.
"The cyclone took a lot of sand. It's good that people bought the beach, but it's half what it was."
Last year, a Department of Conservation report outlined the expected impact of an expected 0.5 to 1m sea level rise by 2100 on New Zealand's coastal areas.
Sixty-two Abel Tasman assets, including huts and campsites, and more than five per cent of the track are at risk, the report said. Higher tides are coming, and DOC plans to move some campsites to safer ground.
When Awaroa Beach became part of the national park in 2016, DOC said work would be done to restore the dune ecology.
Operations manager Dave Winterburn said the first priorities after the beach changed hands were fencing off nesting areas and arranging access for walkers and boat operators.
Over the coming year, DOC will "explore options for restoration", he said.
"While the cyclones did impact some private beachfront properties around the Awaroa estuary they weren't a determining factor for whether work was done or not done on the 'People's Beach'.
"If anything they have prompted more discussion about restoration work."
With the sea nibbling away at their front garden, the Philips can't help think about Awaroa's future.
But for now, they do what they can to preserve the beach.
"It's our backyard," Elva said. "If there's rubbish on the ground we pick it up. We just think, we have to look after it."
Catherine Taylor works as a chef at Meadowbank Homestead, catering to package tours of hikers and kayakers making their way along the coastal track.
Four years ago, she was working on a cruise boat in Doubtful Sound, a job that ignited a love of wild and remote landscapes.
After work, Taylor and her colleagues would turn to the quiz in The Southland Times. Flipping through the pages one evening, the crew spotted a story about the crowdfunding campaign.
"It reminded us of where we were, and what if that was sold off overseas," Taylor said. "I felt very strongly I wanted [Awaroa] to stay in New Zealand."
Taylor pledged $20 to the campaign, then forgot about the white-sand beach until a couple of years later, when she got a job on tour boats travelling along the Abel Tasman.
"One day, I was on the boat and they were like, this is your beach. It was a shock when I realised.
"I put towards it without knowing [where it was], and now I'm working here."
Visiting Awaroa Beach means a water taxi journey, or a 2km hike along the inlet from the end of an unsealed road.
The remoteness preserves the beach's tranquility, Taylor said.
"Other parts of the park are very busy. To come to Awaroa and have the whole beach to yourself is amazing."
Rob Barth has spent two summers working as a kayak guide on the Abel Tasman.
It's easy to see why visitors love the park.
"The golden beaches, the clear waters, the estuaries, the bird life," Barth said.
Working on the water, Barth has a keen eye for the way the coastline has altered. After Fehi, it was "exciting" to see how dramatic some of the changes were, he said.
But the effect on the bush and the birdlife was sobering, he said.
"The waves are changing and the sand is shifting," Barth said. "I think about it a lot."
There were few tourists on the beach when Stuff visited.
Theresa Hasmann and her partner, Jens Haumann were on holiday from Germany. They stayed in Nelson the night before and visited Awaroa on a recommendation from their hostel. With limited time, they planned to view the rest of the park from the top deck of a water taxi.
"The landscape is really pretty," Hasmann said. "I thought because it is high season there's going to be a lot of people. But there's not; it's lonely."
Irish couple Catriona and Eugene Scally were soaking up the sun ahead of a walk to Tonga Quarry to meet their water taxi.
"We couldn't be further away from Ireland," Eugene said.
He hadn't heard of the crowdfunding efforts, but wasn't surprised that Kiwis had thrown their weight behind the campaign.
"People have pride in where they live, I think that's absolutely fantastic.
"We heard [New Zealand] was beautiful but it's exceeded our expectations."
Christchurch man Adam Gard'ner was another visitor to Awaroa this summer. The beach has special significance for the Christchurch man and his family: Gard'ner and his brother-in-law Duane Major were behind the 2016 Givealittle campaign.
He tries to get back each year, but January was the first time he'd visited with his children for some time.
"We just love it. The pristine beach, the beautiful green of the bush land, it's magical."
The family walked through the bush, swam in the sea, and chatted to other visitors.
"They mentioned how cool it was that it's part of the park now and can be shared by everyone."
Gard'ner kept silent about his part in the beach, but it was a meaningful moment.
"When the land can connect people, that can be really powerful."