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Keep Raglan weird:
The battle over a surf town’s soul

(Photo: Sylvie Whinray).

Keep Raglan weird: The battle over a surf town’s soul

Don Rowe on the unsettling boom in his hometown.

This story originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine.

Raglan is changing. You can see it in the streets, where luxury cars slot side by side like so many dominoes. It’s audible in the endless buzz of bikes, jet skis and drones. And it’s palpable, if you’re paying attention, in an angst which sits below the surface of conversations between old friends.

“A lot of old locals are leaving,” says Maki Nishiyama, editor of the 115-year-old Raglan Chronicle. “They’re leaving because they feel like this isn’t a place for them any more. They can’t afford it and they’re out of place. It’s really sad.”

It’s the story of coastal towns around New Zealand, which has seen shifting demographics disrupt communities with longstanding traditions, moving capital to the forefront of daily life, stratifying towns across incomes like never before. And it has the artists and eccentrics that typify Raglan nervous.

In 1987, before his iconic series Heartland celebrated the minutiae of New Zealand towns, Gary McCormick visited a very different Raglan for his documentary Raglan by the Sea. This was an era from which the town’s reputation derives. Alongside musicians like Graham Brazier and Sid Limbert, McCormick attends ‘Mudshark Monday’ at the Harbour View Hotel, where he meets Blues legend Midge Marsden – they speak of a time “before the housing boom”.

In the past five years, median property value has exploded by more than 60%. Midge and The Mudsharks are gone now, and the hotel is on TradeMe for $6.5 million.

McCormick speaks of the black sand, which repelled potential holiday makers like magnets laid end to end. But that same black sand has sparked a protectionist movement, locals pitted against multinational, as Chinese steel companies attempt to dredge the coast for precious iron ore – plentiful amongst the black-blue beaches.

It’s more than the black sand or the precarious mountain ranges that have isolated Raglan in the past, however. The storm-struck cliffs, hard-won land and a Māori population of 800 years mean the whenua has long retained an element of the frontier.

The first European settlers arrived in Raglan around 1836. The Wesleyan Reverend James Wallis lived with the locals for 15 years before the government sent land agents, surveyors and speculators.

In the 40s, when the war came, sacred whenua at Te Kopua, the site of the modern campground, was stolen from tangata whenua to build an aerodrome. A military pillbox still sits at the entry to the harbour, filled with piss and graffiti and condoms – an ugly callus waiting for a Japanese invasion that never came. Instead of returning the land, a golf course was built, and local mana whenua were disestablished – momentarily.

Three years after the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, in 1978, the golf course attempted to expand from nine holes to 18, bulldozing sacred whenua as well as an urupā, and turning a pond where locals believed a taniwha lived into an effluent pond. Tohunga warned there would be consequences. That year Raglan suffered 12 drownings.  

To lift the tapu, 12 tohunga gathered on February 12 at noon. It coincided with a golf tournament, where local wahine toa Eva Rickard staged a sit-in. She was violently arrested with 17 other protestors, but was ultimately successful in securing the return of the whenua.

The protest, along with similar action at Bastion Point, showed the way for land reform across the country. Eva Rickard’s mokopuna remain on the site today, and it’s once again a hub of Māori life in Raglan. Kaumātua Sam Rickard, Eva’s brother, was known to greet trespassers on his Whale Bay land with an old shotgun, and son Pablo retains control over access to the surf break beneath their property.

Raglan is growing, but who’s benefiting (Photo: Sylvie Whinray).

Raglan is steeped in te ao Māori. The maunga Karioi, a 2.5-million year-old volcano, lays west of the township and resembles a sleeping woman. In myth, she fought with her sister mountain Pirongia when Karioi’s husband Karewa got a wandering eye. The sisters now sleep 30 minutes’ drive from one another. At the foot of Karioi is Te Toto Gorge – the blood gorge – where Te Rauparaha fought a decisive battle to avenge the killing of a number of Ngāti Toa. The school has a full-immersion Māori unit, and even mainstream students find themselves reciting karakia several times a day. But with gentrification, the demographics are changing. The Māori roll is collapsing. 

“The kids are stressed,” says Lisa Thomson, a local councillor and member of the school board of trustees. “Families are being split apart. My son’s friend lives at [Te Kopua Marae] in a tent with his aunt and uncle. They live there because they can’t find housing, and that causes anxiety and fear.”

Thomson is a founding member of Whāingaroa-Raglan Affordable Housing Project (WRAP), an initiative she founded alongside surf-school owner Charlie Young. The programme was launched when Young, looking to contract a team of scientists, couldn’t find workers because of a lack of accommodation. A 2018 WRAP-commissioned survey found 45 % of Airbnbs in the Waikato region are in Raglan.

“That’s when I fired up and thought, ‘This is just ridiculous’,” says Young. “It happened so suddenly. These aren’t minimum wage, they’re good, managerial jobs, and you can’t find anyone. These are oceanographers, coming from other countries, it’s not like they can’t afford it, it’s just total unavailability, and it happened really quick.”

For Raglan woman Sal Hobbsie, two years of frequent moves and house searching have ended in her living in a caravan on borrowed land, her possessions sold to save on storage. Hobbsie has dealt with insecurity of tenure, cockroach infestation and electrical fires. It is not ideal health-wise living in a caravan.

“I have had constant illness all this year with respiratory problems. I have constant asthma now and am on a twice-daily purple inhaler. I have had Prednisone. I’m already ill after three neck surgeries, surviving thyroid cancer and complications from surgery leading to a lifelong rare endocrine disorder. It’s not ideal to say the least. We have been looking at moving but there is just not much anywhere. It’s a rotten place to be in if you are sick and in need of a healthy home.”

Charlie Young says providing accommodation for people like Hobbsie requires a realistic assessment of income levels in the area, and a clear picture of the impact of services like Airbnb.

“Unfortunately, for something to be affordable in Raglan it needs to be between $150,000 to, at the most, $300,000 to fit our average income. That’s the reality of the situation. When you’re looking at properties that are double to three times that much, how on earth are our people going to find housing? We have to do something disruptive.”

Raglan local Maki Nishiyama. Photo: Sylvie Whinray.

For the past 50 years, a defining feature of the town was the possibility of a life untethered from your financial station. There was a time where houses could be rented for $60 a week, and idyllic artist retreats sprouted amongst the mānuka like so many mushrooms. Now, an old two-bedroom far from the surf breaks can be as much as $500.

“Back then property out near the beach was worth, what, $10,000?” says Nishiyama. “Now it’s millions and millions of dollars. Auckland is pushing up everywhere else. But Raglan is also just getting so busy now that it’s pretty constantly packed. Everyone loves this place and it’s constantly in the news, so as a town it’s important to preserve what’s good about it while maintaining sustainable growth.” What’s needed is a paradigm shift, she says. Example: people living at the campground are having to go to the Karioi Lodge to use the wifi. “This is where people are living. There are toilets and showers but that’s it.”

At the beginning of the year, the Karioi Lodge was purchased by Vend and OMGTech! Founder Vaughan Fergusson, who plans to turn it into the ‘Institute of Awesome’ – an eco-technology lodge. Elsewhere, a 550-home subdivision on the Rangatahi Peninsula has already sold more than 100 plots, with developers the Peacocke family saying half of that number was to locals. The development is the most obvious geographical shift in town, with formerly verdant fields now great orange clay pits as the wheels of industry churn. Thomson says that while people reluctantly accept the subdivision, the effects are yet to be felt in town, and the pace of development hasn’t slowed elsewhere.

“And I think it’s easy to look at that subdivision as the entirety of the problem, but even if you go up the main street you can see pockets of development, all the new houses. People are worried about change by stealth, where it’s one house here, two houses there, before you know it there are 50 houses.

“One thing that people say to me as a councillor is that Raglan is catering more to money than it is to people and I know for Māori, it’s a real concern. Seeing whānau members needing to move elsewhere is certainly a real worry.”

Thomson says there are promising models in existence, like communal papa kāinga housing, with receptive landholders in town, but funding remains an insurmountable barrier.

“I think for all of us it’s a real concern that that will have major impact on pushing those of us who don’t have out, and those that do have can come in. They’re coming here because we’ve created this amazing environment and if they push us out then they lose that.”

In the next 15 years the permanent population is set to grow another 25%, on top of 21% over the past decade, but the cultural makeup of that growth remains a question mark, says Thomson.

“There are higher tensions. That feeling of them and us can be exaggerated. You look downtown and there’s a Tesla Model X, then down the street there’s a soft-top Lamborghini, there are Porsches and Audis – you can literally see the gentrification rolling into Raglan.

“For our young people who are working away, there’s no way you could move back and afford it. Our children can’t buy here, so where is the succession planning? Where is the plan to make it possible for our young people to come back?”

Raglan’s famous black sand (Photo: Sylvie Whinray).

The influx of new capital has also changed the dynamics of the town. This summer, Nishiyama’s publication began an education campaign, chronicling the history of the town and the people who made it what it is. Nishiyama hoped it would defuse tension, contextualising the various moods in town for foreigners.

“Surf into Summer was a series where we went right back to the origins of surfing here. Part of that was educating surfers that come here to the fact that the locals are very invested in this community and this town and it’s not just like ‘We live here, so we get the waves’, but they’ve actually put in the work and they clean up and they do all these things, then visitors just come in [and act] as if the locals are entitled. It’s about talking about these things.”

Raglan’s reputation as a surf destination was broadcast to the world by an appearance on legendary surf film The Endless Summer in the 1960s. With that popularity came increasingly crowded surf breaks, and over the years that has only got worse. All surf spots develop some form of localism, and Raglan has had to strike a balance to keep money coming into town, but the breaks protected.

“There are some hardcore locals that will always… they take it upon themselves to be enforcers, or guardians in a sense,” says Nishiyama. “But if those things don’t happen they feel like it’ll get a reputation as a soft place. You go to another break like Taharoa [where surfers say they have been shot at]… you’re not going to surf there, but in Raglan it’s relatively easy. The worst that might happen is a punch in the face if you’re really rude. From what I hear around town, at this time of the year it can get pretty bad.”

Over the New Year’s break, Raglan made the news after more than 500 tents were left dumped at the Soundsplash festival. With 60% of the 6,000 campers under 18, the ‘camp-aggedon’ was mostly ascribed to out-of-towner teens. The Xtreme Zero Waste recycling facility dealt with a further several hundred air mattresses and camp chairs. “The message is, you come here, you leave only your footprints,” they said at the time.

In 2018, for the first time in several years, the Raglan rugby club fielded a senior rugby team. Following training, there were drinks in the clubroom, which had been quiet and shuttered for months on end. During more than one such drinking session, Nishiyama says, the police were called.

“People were intimidated and thought that they were gang members getting together,” she says.  “But you know, they were literally at the rugby grounds. They had every right to be there, and it was like ‘Oh my God.’ It’s things like that which really break your heart. All they had to do was go down and say hello.” There are signs of progress, however. This Waitangi Day the first ever Raglan celebration was hosted. Over 150 people walked onto Te Kopua, both new arrivals and locals.

It was the first time the New Zealand flag was flown above the marae, where Eva Rickard’s whānau are still mana whenua.

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“That’s because all of us can change and see potential,” said her daughter Angeline Greensill. “What’s helped facilitate that is the community.”

Nishiyama says local town halls and information evenings are well attended, and a core of new arrivals are cognisant of the impacts of their migration. They want a part of the Raglan they hear about, she says, and that necessitates a few local freaks.  

“A lot of what made this town is the weird people that live here. Nothing will be smooth sailing, but as long as we have people who still care about Raglan, and the spirit of the community, I think we can be carefully optimistic.”


Pick up the winter edition of 1972 magazine at Barkers stores everywhere. It’s bursting with beautiful photography, clever writing and fashion advice for the chilly season. 

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