4 October 2023
An excerpt from Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigator Rebecca Priestley’s forthcoming book End Times.
‘You know Granity is falling into the sea, yeah?’ says Maz.
I look past the row of houses that separates the highway from the stony beach, and nod. As sea level rises, some coastal towns are making plans to retreat, to move buildings, walkways and roads inland, and let the sea do its thing to the coastline. In Granity, there’s nowhere to retreat to. It’s home to about 160 people living on a tiny strip of land between the steep-sided hills and the encroaching sea. As you head inland from the highway, there’s the row of houses, the railway line, then the hills. We drive past St Peter’s Anglican church – I am the way the truth and the life: Jesus says a sign – and the Granity Judo Club and then a startling display on an unhitched trailer. A life-sized naked female figure, with large round breasts and no hair, reaches her arms high above her head to hold – or throw? – an angry-looking baby. Orange flames reach as high as her raised elbows. Beneath the flames are the words GLOBAL WARMING. The placement of figure and flames, and the fierce look on the woman’s face, give the impression she is about to hurl the baby into the flames, but I doubt that’s what’s intended.
At the north end of Granity, we park on a gravelly verge and walk over a mound of earth. There’s a pīwakawaka flitting about and gulls circling over the grey-green water. I walk south along the steep beach, which is covered in rounded pebbles of speckled granites and diorites. The sections backing onto the beach all have barriers. There are fences made from driftwood, others of traditional wood and wire mesh, one with fancy gabion baskets, and one concrete block. Further along the beach, a stretch of houses is protected by a long pile of sandy coloured boulders, a rock revenant or riprap. There’s a gentle roar of the ocean, a constant reminder that the tide is coming in. One section, lower than the others, has no fence. The sea has washed a river of stones and huge bleached logs over what used to be the lawn and up around the house.
I walk until I reach a tumble of broken concrete and mangled reinforcing wire. It’s impossible to tell what it used to be. A sea wall? A pier? Remnants of an earlier civilisation; the concrete and iron age. I take some photographs then turn back towards Maz, who’s sitting in the distance, hood up, looking down at her phone. A black-backed gull flies low over the waves and a yellow glow of morning sun starts to appear through grey clouds. As I’m looking at the sky a wave surges up the beach towards me. I run but the foaming water seeps through my boots to wet my socks. I shout out – ‘Maz!’ – but she can’t hear me above the tumble of rocks being dragged back by the undertow.
I join her, laughing now, and we look along the beach, to where a digger and three people in orange hi-vis are working. There are works planned here – a news article says the government has promised funding for a seawall between Ngakawau and the north end of Granity. Locals, though – one of those interviewed describes the town as being populated with ‘rednecks and creatives’ – are asking about the rest of Granity. The seawall will protect only five houses, three of which already have rock barriers.
An oystercatcher pecks at the sand, and I think of food. It’s 11:43am – high tide isn’t for another three hours.
We drive south to Waimangaroa, where we saw a sign earlier – Fresh homemade pies cooked daily. It’s an outdoor café, with a food cart and a few picnic tables next to some sort of post-apocalyptic sculpture garden. It’s been a busy summer, the woman in the food cart tells us when we ask how business is going. We’re aware things have been tough for the Coast, which relies on tourist dollars, and are happy to be spending our city folk salaries here. We order tea and pies – chickpea and pumpkin for me, steak and cheese for Maz – then go for a wander. The sculpture garden contains derelict machinery, wooden carvings and vegetation. A man called Woody makes the art, we’re told. We pass a rusted-out truck, a tractor, larger-than-life human figures carved with tā moko on faces and buttocks, driftwood carvings behind glass screens. Under a corrugated iron roof is what looks like an ancient waka. Beneath and between the sculptures the garden is wild with ponga, nīkau, grasses and pond life. We come back smiling, buzzing. We find a place to sit, and nod a greeting to a man sitting at the next table.
‘Where’re you ladies from?’ he asks. Auckland and Wellington, we say, then Maz tells him she used to live in Westport and they have the conversation in which they identify people they know in common. Things have changed on the Coast since Maz left, he says. House prices have doubled in the last few years. ‘People are asking crazy prices for West Coast houses, and they’re selling.’
We talk about COVID-19, the vaccine rollout, and the new variants we’re starting to hear about. ‘I probably won’t take the vaccine for a while,’ the man says. ‘I’m not really into it.’
The woman from the food cart delivers our tea, a big pot of English breakfast with the kind of floral bone-china cups and saucers my Nanna used to have. She tells us her daughter is vaccinated ‘homoeopathically’, and neither she nor her daughter are going to ‘take’ the COVID-19 vaccine. She knows someone whose kid nearly died after a vaccine – he had an allergic reaction. It’s put her off, she says.
I listen, and nod, but when the man starts to query whether the Pfizer vaccine is really a vaccine, ‘since it changes your cells’, my respectful and curious listening reaches its limits. ‘I’m going to do a little plug,’ I say. ‘It is a vaccine. And it had been tested on millions, if not billions, of people by the time it got to New Zealand.’
He agrees there’s a lot of misinformation out there. ‘We’ve had the leaflet drops. They say it’s going to pre-programme you to die,’ he says. ‘Will you guys take it?’
‘Absolutely,’ we both say.
‘Are you guys nurses?’ asks the woman.
‘No, but we’re both science-trained,’ I say.
‘Personal choice,’ she says with a shrug, and walks back to the caravan to check on our pies.
End Times will be available from all good bookshops from Thursday 14 October.