Wednesday, 25 November 2020


Chapman family legacy remembered at Opito Sands

There are tears in Sue Edens’s eyes as she talks about her brother, Perry. The anguish of the moment 50 years ago when she desperately pulled his lifeless body from beneath the tractor he had been driving along Black Jack Road is still raw and vivid. “He was a really good driver,” she says. “We think he missed a gear and couldn’t brake. He turned the tractor into the bank to try and stop it, but it tipped over. We heard the thud and I ran down the road. When the road workers arrived, they lifted the tractor and I dragged him out. The only thing we took comfort from is that he would have died instantly.”

Perry was just 14 and his name now sits proudly at the heart of the Opito Sands subdivision alongside those of Sue’s parents, Joyce and Skipper Chapman. Telling their stories is important to Sue. The construction of the children’s playground at the new Perry Chapman Reserve marked the final stage of a 14-year dream that has been both rewarding and challenging in equal measure. “It was deeply personal for me,” Sue says of the 76-lot development, established on part of what was her parents’ farm. “This is where I grew up, my parents were one of the pioneering families of Opito Bay. I believed I could continue that legacy in a way that was careful and thoughtful, continuing to look after our precious environment. Not everyone agreed, of course, and it was a tough journey. It is not pleasant when you fall out with some of your neighbours, but we have worked really hard to do something special here and I am proud of what we have achieved.”

With titles finally received at the end of April, the first new homes have started to appear at Opito Sands and Sue says seeing people breathing life into her vision is satisfying. Despite battling through a variety of health issues, her hands-on approach has seen her pour hours of physical labour into the project alongside the substantial financial investment she says was vital to make it everything she wanted it to be.

“We planted 1,600 Pohutukawa and 12,000 other plants on the hill behind the subdivision, including some bottlebrush to help feed the birds over the winter months,” Sue says. “At one point we had thousands of plants in a nursery and we were constantly potting and repotting. I also made a contribution of $76,000 to help with pest control to protect the dotterels. That’s something that has just always been important to me. Back in 1986 I even learnt calligraphy and made a sign, ‘Mother at work - NZ dotterels,’ for out there on the dunes.

“There was also lots of boxthorn and other weeds that we have been removing for years. Now we have beautiful boardwalks so as not to damage the dune system like has happened on other parts of the coast.”

Sue also hopes that work to redirect the creek will reduce the impact on the dunes and allow more sand to build up over time. “I still go up to the subdivision every day just to check in and see how everything is,” she says. “I hope to build a house on the hill just behind it eventually.”

It’s all quite a change from the family’s early beginnings at Opito Bay. “The old house had a coal range stove, outside toilet and no running water,” Sue says. “Often my Mum would say, ‘There’s a thousand acres and three miles of beach, get out of my kitchen,’ so we spent all our time off exploring.  As a child I rode all over Opito Bay with Linda Moore from the neighbouring farming family and later Joyce Stockley from Kuaotunu. We were allowed to take milk and eggs, and make a fire on the rocks to cook. The milk usually turned to butter from the motion of the horse ride and the eggs were often undercooked.

“Blackjack Road was all metal, extremely narrow and steeper than today. Mum used to take Perry and me to Kuaotunu to catch the school bus, a trip that took 35 minutes (now 15), including opening two gates. The concrete causeway at Otama was often blocked when it rained, so there was no school those days. After CRC was invented, Mum would spray the carburettor to get the car going again when it got wet from the flooding.”     

The family connections to the area run long and deep through Skipper’s mother, who was a Davis of the Ngati Karaua hapu of Ngati Hei and born in Kuaotunu. “Mum came from Waitakaruru and she worked in the dining room of the Whitianga hotel, that’s where she met Dad,” Sue says.

After Skipper passed away in 1992, Sue continued farming at Opito Bay along with her mum and then husband, Murray. Son Ross, now a civil engineer in Tauranga, and daughter Kim, an early childhood teacher, grew up in the little community and are still regular visitors supporting Sue through the development and her health issues. “They were amazing, they really helped out and took care of me when things were tough,” Sue says. “I had 13 trips to hospital overall and several surgeries. I eventually had a pacemaker put in and now I’m feeling fit and healthy again.”

A stint as Thames-Coromandel District councillor from 1998 to 2004 and a role as chairperson of the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve committee are also proud achievements. “I like to be busy and I think it is important to make a contribution wherever you can,” Sue says. A committed National Party supporter, she still volunteers regularly, even as recently as the run up to last weekend’s election. “I even met Judith Collins back when Sandra Goudie was MP for the Coromandel,” she says proudly.

Looking ahead, Sue is about to embark on another project, a 25-lot subdivision in Taupo. “I learned so much with Opito it seems a shame not to do it again, but this one will be less personal, it will be more with the head, Opito Bay was definitely with the heart,” she says. Travel, once the New Zealand border re-opens, and more time with her family are also on the wish list. But for now, Sue says she is proud of what she has created at Opito Sands and credits architect Brian Sharp, surveyor and planner, Phil Green, and Dave Hooker, who dealt with the contracts, as huge contributors to the project’s success. “It has taken many meetings, discussions and frustrations in achieving this lasting tribute to my family and an asset for the Bay,” she says. “But on those tough days I just thought, ‘One day at a time and never give up.’”

Pictured: Sue Edens at the Perry Chapman Reserve, which was names in memory of her brother.


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