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Te Awanga railway iron protection

A row of “giant shishkebabs”

Keith Newman explains how they got there

Back in the 1970s Te Awanga locals, fed up with inaction by local authorities over the regular erosion in front of their beachfront homes took matters into their own hands, creating the iconic double row of railway irons still evident today.

While some scoff at the rusting imposition on the beachscape, many locals continue to swear the irons, particularly when loaded up with old tyres, can indeed deflect the power of the ocean.

Some insist that if it maintained properly they would continue to provide an extra layer of protection against the rolling ocean when it ventures too close to residences.

While several irons have been removed because corrosion presented a danger, dozens remain deeply planted into the beach with tyres mysteriously appearing from time to time to enhance this curiosity often remarked on by visitors.

So how did the Te Awanga beach protection plan get underway?

Discussions were initiated early in 1974 by Te Awanga Progressive Association (TAPA) member and engineer Doug Reeks, along with Lew Nicoll and others on how to halt erosion.

They eventually deciding on a “picket fence” of railway irons across the high tide mark in front of at-risk Te Awanga beachfront homes.

This came after approaches to the Catchment Board, the Hawke’s Bay County Council (HBCC) and Government ministers had failed to deliver any practical support.

The experiment began in earnest with first 3.6m railway iron driven into the beach just before the big seas hit in August 1974. Mr Nicoll, using a tractor and pole driver was paid to place over 200 railway irons driven 2.4m deep into the beach in front of most of the 50 sections.

“We’re only experimenting at present but we’re hoping these will break the waves up,” he said.

After local MP Dick Harrison failed to convince the Minister of Railways to supply the irons at a reduced price, locals ended up paying the going rate, 55 cents a foot. The cost of driving them into the beach was $11 per iron. Section owners paid $80 each.

Residents were frustrated the Catchment Board would not assist. While Catchment Board chief engineer Peter Simons conceded the scheme had merit but refused to assist saying the board would never spend money on such temporary work. It considered stopping the work but decided to “turn a blind eye”.

The TAPA newsletter of March 1975 reported it had spent $650 with a further $300 approved to finish the job making the irons 8ft apart and tapering toward the lagoon.

TAPA secretary Mary Reeks said $300 had been raised by the Village to Association Shop Day with “little or no help” from any local authorities or central government since the floods, despite an approach to Cabinet ministers.

All up TAPA contributed $1350 toward the cost and by August 1975 the total had reached $5410.

While the two 1500m lines of “picket fence” were heading toward the Te Awanga Lagoon, locals added piles of truck tyres, piercing them through the irons to further break the power of the sea.

According to one media report the fence resembled “a row of giant shishkebabs”.

Many mocked the effort, suggesting there was no way it would make a difference but four months later, after high seas, locals were applauding their success despite claims by the HB Catchment Board that “you just can’t stop it (the sea)”.

Contractor Lew Nicoll quipped “you can’t stop the sea but you can take the force out of it and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Locals claimed their railway iron protection plan had managed to break the force of the waves and prevent gravel from being dragged away.

Mr Nicoll said the beach now had a chance to build up and consolidate behind the barricade. In some more exposed places there is a double row.

“We have all but beaten the sea but if the catchment board would concede our idea works, and provide a third row of irons, Clifton Rd would never have to worry about erosion again.”

“It’s cost us about $5500 – the catchment board spent $15,000 for a survey of the area and all there is to show for it is a couple of survey pegs,” said Mr Nicoll.


Article: Keith Newman, paraphrased from WOW unpublished manuscript Saving the Cape Coast (2016) for Cape Coast Arts & Heritage Trust Sources: Te Awanga residents spent $5410 to fight erosion, HB Herald Tribune, 17-09-75 Erosion dilemma, Dominion 02-11-1974 TAPA March 1975 newsletter Te Awanga residents spent $5410 to fight erosion, HB Herald Tribune, 17-09-75 Iron seawall ‘that wouldn’t work’ saves homes, 24.4.76. Herald Tribune

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