• Beaches – for Cars or People?

    The following article appeared in the New Zealand Herald on 11 January.

    “The Kiwi beach holiday used to be about picnics, sunburn, surf and games on the sand. Today, it is increasingly about the internal combustion engine.

    In 2008, cars, motor bikes, quad bikes and all sorts of motorised vehicles are a dominant presence on our beaches. And if land-based motorisation is not enough, there are always the motor boats and jet skis to add to the jollity.

    The traditional beachgoers now need to have their wits about them. The danger to swimmers and sunbathers, picnickers and walkers, is constantly there, and can easily become real, as recent well-publicised events have shown. Small children and dogs are particularly at risk.

    Our beaches offer in many cases the kind of flat open space that can be hard to find elsewhere. Little wonder that the eyes of drivers, who have chafed under the constraints of the Road Code and a growing volume of traffic on our roads, light up when they see the chance of opening the throttle.

    But it is not just the threat to life and limb from speeding vehicles that has grown. As our beaches have been transformed into race tracks and test beds, the beach environment suffers as well. The motorised holidaymakers will return to their everyday lives oblivious of the damage done to the habitats of rare nesting birds or of vulnerable native plants.

    And then there are the various forms of pollution that come inevitably in the wake of the internal combustion engine. The peaceful enjoyment of a beautiful beach can be ruined for hundreds by the noisy exhaust of a single motor bike doing wheelies on the wet sand all afternoon.

    Hearing is not the only sense to be assaulted. I recall snoozing under a pohutukawa tree one afternoon, listening to the rustle and rumble of the sea, when I suddenly realised what it was in my nostrils. It was the smell of diesel, the first indication that a large four-wheel-drive vehicle was approaching and the last thing one expected to smell on a pristine beach.

    And then there is the visual pollution – the rutted tyre marks disfiguring the sand and making walking difficult, the rows of parked vehicles at the water’s edge looking more like an urban car park than a beautiful part of our once-beautiful country.

    I should make it clear that it is not the fisherman looking for the best surfcasting spot who is in my sights. I regret that it seems necessary to use vehicles for such a purpose, but I recognise that fishing is a legitimate, pleasurable and traditional leisure activity on our beaches, and that the careful use of a vehicle should be accepted as a reasonable balance between the interests of fishers and of other beach users.

    The people I object to are those who seem to have lost the use of their legs. I know of a beach where a car park has been thoughtfully provided just metres from the sand and less than a hundred metres from the water’s edge. Drivers regularly by-pass the car park, drive their vehicles on to the sand and up to the water’s edge, before getting out to swim or picnic or play games on the beach.

    It is almost as though they have become so enamoured of their vehicle, so dependent on it, that it has become such an integral part of their lives, that they cannot bear to be more than a few metres from it. So much for the outdoor life!

    I have even less sympathy for those who have no regard for other beach-users but are determined to inflict their vehicle noise, danger, smell, environmental damage and all on everyone else. Or for those who ignore an easily available road route for getting from A to B in favour of a short-cut along a populated beach.

    In vain do local authorities put up notices proclaiming that vehicles are forbidden on the beach. The proclamation, we are told, is unenforceable. The police solemnly intone the mantra that the beach is regarded for legal purposes as a highway; but, if this is the case, how is that so many unlicensed vehicles and drivers are being allowed to destroy our beaches? A change in the law is long overdue.

    There can be no bright side to the tragic accident in Northland this summer. But, while it will be of no comfort to the bereaved family, it may awaken us to the damage we are doing to ourselves through carelessly allowing what Mrs Thatcher once described as “our great motor car culture” to harm the beautiful and vulnerable environment in which we are privileged to live.