Poised above the outgoing tidal current of Pataua Harbour four kids in wetsuits wait. Dripping wet, black and shiny as seals they are standing on the handrail of the footbridge that links the north and south sides. Stopping to watch passers-by cluster mid span; cyclists are blocked and there is a good natured pedestrian traffic jam.
We wanted to take Charlie to one of Northlands more out of the way beach communities and decided Pataua half an hour's drive east of Whangarei, would be perfect. We pass through rolling hills and lifestyle blocks before the bush closes in and the road becomes steeper and more windy. The sea is glimpsed in the distance and gradually gets closer until we find ourselves following a mangrove inlet before cresting a low hill and reaching Pataua North. Getting to Pataua South is a different route completely just meters away on either side of the harbour linked by the narrow footbridge that makes a jump spot popular with kids.
Inland beyond the bridge the estuary opens into a vast expanse of sand banks and channels rich in shellfish, fish and the birds that feed on them. The day we are there the tide is receding and people are wading and kneeling in the shallows collecting kaimoana. Clutching her pink net Charley wants to join them so we squish across soft sand dotted with shells and the hollows left behind by feeding sting rays. Swishing her net through the warm water of a sandy hollow we catch shrimps, crabs and cockabullies; Charley says she saw an eel but I'm not so sure.
To the seaward side of the bridge the south shore is a sweeping shallow bay lined with modest baches that look out to Te Whangai Head where the harbour empties through a narrow gap between rocks and shifting dunes. On the north shore where the current flows out towards the sea are low sand banks lined with Pohutakawa trees that reach out over the narrow beach offering shade on this hot day. People float with the tidal current, it looks like fun and we join them, drifting along looking at the baches.
Resisting the flow is a home built raft which is the focal point for swimmers, us included. The water sucks around its plastic drums as we warm in the sun. The raft tips and tilts as people crawl aboard then leap off. Charley is nervous so we flop back into the water and drift towards the harbour entrance. A boy runs over to us urgently warning of a sting ray cruising the shallows. We wade to the shore and look about but soon the lure of the tide overcomes any anxiety. The sand and water swirl around us as we sit in the shallow current and take in the view.
While the harbour appears unspoilt I reflect on its history. Maori have lived in the area for centuries, the terraces on the surrounding hills evidence of their occupation. With European settlement came timber milling, gum digging, dairy and even ostrich farming. Before road access, scows would ply the coast delivering supplies and loading logs and livestock, but then as surrounding forests were felled the harbour silted up until larger vessels could no longer enter. The changes have been many but sitting in the tidal current all looks pristine in the midday sun.
Sheltering in the shade of flowering Pohutakawas we eat our sandwiches then decide to clamber to the top of Te Whangai Head. A well worn path through long kikyu grass leads us up past scattered trees and over terraces and pits which are the remnants of Maori occupation. From the top we see the farms and forests surrounding the harbour, we see bush covered Patuau Island linked to the mainland by low lying paddocks and an olive orchard with Taiharuru Harbour beyond. At our feet is Papuni Beach, accessed on foot from Pataua South while northwards the golden sands of Parauwanui Beach stretch away towards Nunguru. Out to sea are the distant peaks of the Poor Knight Islands.
On the way back to our car on the North side we cross the foot bridge again. Built in 1984 to replace an earlier dilapidated structure built in the 1950's it is the iconic feature of the harbour, essential for tying two sides of the community together. Ironically recent talk of replacing it with a road bridge has caused division. Some see a circular link road as a way to invigorate the community, bringing back people and business that have disappeared over the years. Others prefer Pataua to be at end of the road, a quiet backwater of peace, good fishing and on the right day, an uncluttered surf break.
Personally I prefer the bridge as it is. As the four kids prepare to jump we wait with other holiday makers so we can watch. They call back and forth co-ordinating the jump, they feign indifference to their audience. They take their time and we get a bit bored, Charley tugs my hand to go. An impromptu countdown begins and we all join in. At zero they leap out with a synchronised forward roll before splashing down in the clear water where the deep shelly bottom is rippled by sunlight. They swim with the current to a nearby sandbank where they clamber out.
Children walk on holding their adults hand, quietly dreaming of when they are older and braver so they too could jump off the foot bridge with their friends. Parent's dreams are of youth and fun and years gone by.
It is a summer day at Pataua and we are glad we came out.