Clifton Beach, tucked under Cape Kidnappers on the southern side of the vast sweep of Hawke’s Bay, is on the watery doorstep of a world class fishery, hosts two camping grounds, a marine club, a popular café and an historic wool museum.
The popular gannet coastal tours depart where Clifton Rd terminates; to the right is the narrow access to the embattled No.1 camp where the Clifton Marine Club is located, and to the left the No.2 campground.
Clifton Motor Camp was for many years promoted as the ideal holiday spot, offering a sheltered beach with safe swimming, surfcasting or deep sea fishing from boats that could be launched from the Clifton Marine Club ramp which had its own winch facilities.
In the early days the cabins and caravan and tent sites on the beachfront were so popular that some made semi-permanent homes there and many families from Hawke’s Bay and outside the region made Clifton Camp their holiday destination with a community of familiar faces arriving each year.
Toilet, shower and cooking facilities, a camp store and children’s playground provided everything they needed.
Today Clifton Beach is mostly steep and gravelly having taken a pummelling from the ocean. Various ad hoc protection works were undertaken by locals over the years and three times in the past decade the road became so undermined the tar-seal dropped into the ocean.
Over time about 50 camp spaces have been lost to erosion with many people moving their sites and semi-permanent baches back from the edge, and some campers and boat owners giving up altogether when plans for protection failed to be realised.
After various ad hoc efforts to protect access to the camp and Marine Club, a more serious sloping rock revetment was approved by councils between 2016-2018 as part of a wider plan for creating a more attractive end point to the popular coastal destination.
The beachfront at Clifton was donated to the Crown by Frank Gordon for a camping ground in 1936. The decision wasn’t without controversy as adjoining property owner, Colonel Neilson felt this would threaten his stock access.
For the next 15-years people swimming and sunbathing simply had to put up with the Colonel’s sheep dogs and herds passing by.
Delwyn Hall says her father Jack Butcher, who lived in Haumoana until his death aged 99-years in 2017, caught his first fish at Clifton camp at a time “when it was all scrub and lupin”.
She recalls a walking track high on the hill behind the camp before the pine trees grew, going part of the way around the Cape. “You could look out over the reefs but use of the track was stopped because hooligans used to roll boulders and branches down on the camp below”.
When the wind and sea got up, conditions could be treacherous and over many years the beach access became difficult. At the southern end of Clifton in the 1930s, the Harbour Board placed a large wooden fence in the sea to act as groynes to slow down the significant erosion that was eating away at the campground.
Locals were well aware how efficient those wooden groynes were as they build up shingle and protected other parts of the beach, although camp resident Wes Stanley still had to move out from his house until summer due to the sea washing right through it.
Delwyn and Alex Hall ran the Clifton Motor Camp between 1993-1996 when protective slab walls were erected to stop the sea eroding the area.
“After both our partners had died we met at the Gannets Bar and later were married there. Alex had the first caravan with an annex at Clifton Camp. That started a trend that later caused problems with council permits because so many people wanted to add an annex and permanently live there.”
Delwyn says the council’s response was that it was not for permanent dwellings and so all annexes had to be able to be shifted “within a minimum of eight hours if there was a problem”.
Ideal for Marine Club
Neville Bawden, who’s been a member of the Clifton Marine Club since he was about 11-years old, says close to the Cape, at depths from 70-100 metres, there’s a good array of species; gurnard, groper, kingfish and terakihi, trevally, blue cod and even tuna.
He says, everyone’s welcome to take advantage of the clubroom and facilities; some join in the fishing competitions while others simply stop to watch the boats coming and going during the holiday season. “It’s a very social atmosphere with club room and bar.”
Neville’s father Nelson Bawden used to build old clinker boats that were launched off Te Awanga and was a founding member of what was originally the Clifton Fishing Club.
Back as far as 1949 Te Awanga residents were investigating ways to make the area safer for boat owners including having lifesaving equipment available at the Te Awanga Domain.
Over the years there was growing concern at the increasing numbers of small boat owners leaving Te Awanga Beach for the open sea ill equipped even for minor emergencies. “It was quite rough at times and a decision was made to go to Clifton which was more sheltered.”
In those days, says Neville, there was a lot more land before you got to the sea there were three roads into the campground and club rooms.
The main objective of membership is to have access to a fishing ramp that enables people to head anywhere from Napier to Waimarama with locals believing there’s far better offerings near its boat ramp around Cape Kidnappers.
At its peak the club had a membership of about 400, but that had tailed off to around 170 by 2018. Like many clubs the flagging membership comes from natural attrition with fewer young people joining, often because of the high cost of boating as a hobby.
“It used to hum with 100 boats heading out at weekends although you don’t see that many out today,” says Neville.
Membership includes engineers, sparkies, builders, mechanics and others who enjoy the delights of boating and fishing. “Impromptu meetings and discussions are held, often aided by a few bottles of home brew then working bees to carry ideas through,” he says.
“We’re delighted there’s now protection for the remaining rebuilt road and hopefully it might entice a few people to come back who previously feared the road would collapse and they wouldn’t be able to get their boats and trailers in and out.”
Those heading out to this final destination along the Cape Coast can enjoy a meal, snack of coffee at Hygge (the former Clifton Café) or visit Wool World, a working museum of the region’s wool history based in the old Clifton Station woolshed built in 1886 when 25,000 sheep were shorn.
As part of the Cape Coast Reserves Plan and efforts by the Cape Coast Arts & Heritage Trust there are plans to landscape the parking, roundabout and visitor area at the end of Clifton Rd, add an information kiosk and public art highlighting the history of the area.
Interview with Neville Bawden and Delwyn Hall
Clifton’s Marine Club, HB Today in 31 October 2013.
Te Awanga Our Home, Burdon Childhood Days
Photos: Delwyn Hall and Neville Bawden