The Tongues of Men

A novel in redraft by Gabriel Smy


Having had a pretty rotten end to the year, I need a reminder from my holiday journal just how amazing our trip to New Zealand turned out to be.

It’s an inch on the map but it takes us four hours. The road traces the Coromandel peninsula loyally around every headland and pretty bay. Out in the firth of Thames black boats and rigs harvest seafood; the signs for fresh oysters get our mouths watering. Eventually we cross the hills on an even windier road. From the top we look back to the islands off Coromandel town, and forward to sweeping yellow beaches. Logging trucks squeeze past, tyres red with mud, carrying timber freshly felled from the forest.

Coromandel and the Firth of Thames

This is where we imagine the kiwis to live, their eggs on the floor among impenetrable pines, vulnerable only to the invading stoats. Finally we hit the bottom and turn off towards our dead end. On the map the low road appears to go right through the sea. In fact it is flanked by swamp land; scruffy bushes standing in clear water. We reach the one store town, sporting a single petrol pump to prevent visitors from getting stranded. Every New Zealander to whom we mentioned Whangapoua assumed we meant somewhere else. Although we probably don’t pronounce it right (something like ‘fonga-po-a’ with a very light ‘g’).

Whangapoua exists because of the beach, where three generations of baches (beach cabins) have been lined up against the shore. We’re at the back of the village by the fields, but it only takes five minutes to walk to the water’s edge. The off-white sand arcs gently for a mile, pitched up against small dunes by the strong, metre-high waves. Sometimes there are a handful of other people further down the bay, at other times we are alone. At night the sun kicks back into the hills behind the headland, and the last light on the beach is orange and cool.

Whangapoua beach

In fact the town exists because of two beaches. The second is not accessible by road. New Chums beach, or starfish beach to the natives, was a local secret until a travel website listed it as one of the best hidden beaches in the world. It is hard to reach, but having seen the pictures of white dry sand and golden flats against tall, dark trees, nothing will stop us from trying.

Every step of the trek builds our romantic expectations. The sun is shining as we cross the river at the northern end of Whangapoua beach, following the shore of the headland as it fills up with rocks. At first we can walk between them, but then they pile up: large and irregular, hard to walk on. The older children clamber ahead, but Jude finds it difficult and the baby must be carried. A track emerges by the undergrowth that at first makes walking easier. But it has been wet, and deep brown mud and puddles appear in the path, crisscrossed by devilishly slippery tree roots. We debate returning to the slow rocks, but the path is beginning to rise slightly. At last, after some tears and a lost flip flop, it turns and crosses the headland saddle.

An impossibly blue flash comes through the trees, and as we descend we see more of the gorgeous bay. Theo and Huxley have already negotiated the meagre rocks on the other side and are running in the water as though they were born to do so. The sandy crescent is so lovely, backed by dark and steep vegetation, that our hearts soar and we are desperate to dive into the inviting waters.

New Chums beach

Small snappers jump out of the shallows as we plunge in and each wave leaves sunlit effervescence on the surface. It is like swimming in champagne. And the water is mild. After the first nip it becomes warm enough to forget about the temperature completely. The struggle to get here is forgotten. It is simply the nicest beach we have ever been to.

Wave breaking on New Chums beach

Back in Whangapoua, we eat fresh fish that our neighbour caught in the bay. At night, the air cools fast and ankles are assaulted by sand flies, while the strumming of a thousand cicadas is as loud as the stars overhead are numerous. A mantis climbs up the window. In the morning the boys catch him. They call him Moron for being so easily captured: they put a bucket down and he crawled right in.

The village is still a wild place, belonging to the creatures. A fat kingfisher sits on the power line, less colourful but bigger than its British cousin. California quail busy themselves around the fences and shrubbery while welcome swallows swoop red-head first above them. In the weeds by the dusty road spiders build web balls like candy floss, and we startle a tatty peacock and his white hen who make off up the hill. We could stay here forever, defending sandcastles from the sea, bathing in it and devouring its fruit.

Whangapoua beach in the evening


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