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Opinion

Great about highway – what about our Cathedral Cove track?

The reopening of the main highway into the Coromandel occurred on Wednesday, 21 December with the completion of the Taparahi bridge. Good news! However, locals are voicing increased frustration over the continued closure of the Cathedral Cove track.

The fact that State Highway 25A between Kōpū and Hikuai opened ahead of time, is being applauded by those on the peninsula, says Mercury Bay Business Association (MBBA) member Ray Van Beynen. But he says there’s “utter disbelief” amongst locals that “absolutely no progress” has been made to reopen the track to the Cathedral Cove recreation reserve. Both the highway and the cove track were badly impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle in January 2023.“It’s coming up a year since the closure of the track to the cove and the Department of Conservation, who closed the track without consultation citing safety concerns, can still not offer any evidence of a repair or re-opening plan. The track’s indefinite closure, and the fact DOC has not released a re-opening timeframe, is of massive concern to many individuals, businesses and organisations. The Mercury Bay Business Association is one such group,” Ray says.

“Only a small part of the track was damaged… 90 percent is absolutely fine. The situation is nowhere near as bad as DOC makes out,” Ray states. DOC has publicly stated that, unlike State Highway 25a, the Cathedral Cove track is “not critical public infrastructure”.

“But where is the acknowledgement that Cathedral Cove is a critical piece of tourist and visitor infrastructure? It (with Hot Water Beach) is recorded as one of New Zealand’s most-visited tourist attractions, with upward of 300,000 people visiting per year (a pre-Covid figure).

As far as many Coromandel residents are concerned, DOC is suffering serious reputational damage for its inaction around reopening the track down to the cove,” Ray says.

“Questions are increasingly being asked, regarding whether DOC is up holding its legislative obligations and its cyclone recovery responsibilities. DOC should consider the role it is playing in costing the Coromandel Peninsula millions of dollars in documented economic loss after three consecutive years of dire economic circumstance,” Ray states.

Left dangling are those whose livelihoods (in accommodation, transport and hospitality, for example) rely on tourists flocking to walk the track to the cove that has long been an iconic destination for many. The entire community is widely impacted, locals say.

Ray believes DOC has been “inept” from the very beginning. He argues the decision to close the track was not based on scientific fact. DOC states its decision to close the track was based on expert scientific advice following the commissioning of a Tonkin Taylor geotechnical report. While the report details various risks to visitors, its calculations show a very low level of risk. “The geotech report cost the taxpayer a large sum of money and clearly contradicts DOC’s safety arguments,” says Ray. “We are left querying why DOC did not follow the report’s advice. Since then, DOC has exacerbated matters by failing to clearly communicate with key stakeholders and by acting as a corporate bully in refusing to answer key questions about the track’s future,” he says.

Thames Coromandel District Councillor, John Grant says unfortunately meetings held recently between DOC and MBBA and the Hahei Residents and Ratepayers’ Association just left locals feeling more frustrated than ever. John believes DOC is acting in an unreasonable manner that breaches public sector codes and the high level of transparency and professionalism expected, by the community, of a government department. He says DOC’s communication strategy throughout has left a lot to be desired. Coromandel CFM (a radio station he co-owns) has made public interest requests, including one Official Information Act (OIA) request. 

“DOC’s response lacks any real detail, and we are considering lodging a complaint with the Ombudsman for failure to respond in detail to our OIA request,” he says. 

 

Ray considers DOC is being “mischievous” in some of its information sharing. In commentary released this month to Whitianga-based newspaper The Informer, DOC Regional Director, Tinaka Mearns, states the cove is a “geologically dynamic coastal site where there are 180 current or historic landslips to be considered”. This figure relates to slips noted since 1944 and that timeframe should be noted. Ray says, “Indeed, Cathedral Cove has always been a dynamic geological site… but so has the remainder of the Coromandel Peninsula. It is a benign, currently stable environment, not an active volcano and is less dangerous than most DOC tracks. The risk should be considered, assessed and mitigated. “Why not warn visitors of the potential dangers and allow them to make their own judgments. It is estimated that 2,000-3,000 people have already ignored the track closed signs this year,” Ray states.

Meanwhile, holidaymakers are swarming into Coromandel. There is the ability to still visit Cathedral Cove, but access is by water, courtesy of local tour operators. Ray believes there’s “a total anomaly” around the fact DOC is open to people accessing the cove by sea – which has significant risk and challenges – but not by land.  In the Tonkin Taylor report, it is clearly stated the beach (from which DOC has removed its toilets) is more dangerous than the track. This makes a nonsense of DOC’s safety claims, he says.

In her response to an article published in The Informer, Ms Mearns says criticism levelled at her agency is “very disappointing” especially when there are things to celebrate.

One of these is the opening announced by DOC yesterday of “new and improved walking tracks” offering summer visitors the opportunity to enjoy the history of several significant sites. 

One of these is a loop track to McHand’s Lookout which crosses private property and connects to Lees Road and DOC land to the north of Cathedral Cove. The lookout – which offers expansive views over Mercury Bay – forms part of a 90-minute walk from the Lees Road carpark.

 

Ray says DOC has been warned that opening partial access to the Cathedral Cove walk is a far-from-smart plan and will be a nightmare to facilitate without detailed planning and traffic management.

Ray says none of these new tracks allow access to Cathedral Cove beach and do not offer the full experience people have enjoyed for years.

Nearly one year since Cyclone Gabrielle, Coromandel locals say there is much that mystifies around decisions made, or not made, by DOC concerning their popular track. What they want are some answers. That could give cause for celebration.

Caption: The worst section of damage on the Cathedral Cove Track.