Maybe you’ve heard this word before, this name, maybe you haven’t? But some words just ooze intrigue, spiciness, even, dare I say it, sexiness …….. and I think ‘Coromandel’ is one of these. If you ‘Google’ it you get lots of hits!
Geographically the land of the Chola dynasty in south-eastern India was called Cholamandalam in Tamil, which literally translated as ‘the realm of the Cholas people’ from which the Portuguese derived the name Coromandel. Nowadays the Coromandel Coast is recognised as the coastal region between the southern tip of India and the western side of the Bay of Bengal.
As India was part of the British Empire until partition in 1947, it was inevitable that this evocative name would be used by its Royal Navy. In fact five ships carried the name HMS Coromandel. One of these ships arrived in Holdfast Bay in South Australia in 1837 with 156 English settlers. Maybe naval life didn’t really suit some of the sailors, as they fled inland, and made their home in a valley which became known as Coromandel Valley! Other minutiae about the name is that it’s been used to name one of the earliest Indian superfast trains – the Coromandel Express. And Chanel, the French perfumery, obviously think as I do about the sexiness of the name, as they have a scent called “Les Exclusifs de Chanel Coromandel” ……. ‘an inspired fragrance, a rich composition of Frankincense, Benzoin and Patchouili’ ….. and ‘oriental-woody ……. enveloping notes of its amber vibrato before giving way to …..’ …. Whatever! Sounds like some of those descriptions of wine so beloved of wine snobs.
OK! So why have I launched into this PC about one word – Coromandel? Well, because, in addition to all of the above, an HMS Coromandel stopped in a harbour on a large peninsula to the east of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, in 1820, to purchase lengths of Kauri. Kauri is a tall tree with very dense wood, ideal for ship’s masts, and only grows north of 38 degrees S on the North Island. The name was adopted by both town and peninsula; and I started writing this on the Coromandel Peninsula, in a town with a population of 4500 called Whitianga. In the Maori language ‘wh’ is pronounced ‘f’, so it sounds like Fitianga; you could also get your tongue around Whangeri, Whangamata, Whakapapa (just say this one out loud for a laugh!) and so forth.
The Coromandel Peninsula extends 85kms north from the western end of the Bay of Plenty (another great name huh!) and forms a natural barrier from the Pacific for Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. It’s quite mountainous, so the small population tend to live on the narrow coastal strip and some of the interior is virtually uninhabited. Originally settled in the 1960s by those wanting a somewhat alternative lifestyle (ie hippies!!) the Coromandel has become a magnet for seasonal tourists and more recently for those Aucklanders happy to commute the 2 hours or so from New Zealand’s largest city.
I first came to New Zealand in 1986 on a business trip and at the time I had no inkling that my great great grandfather Henry Nation lay in a grave in the Parnell suburb of Auckland. It was another twenty years before I started to uncover my ancestor’s links with New Zealand and meet some of the distant relations. Despite having travelled extensively over both North and South islands, I had only seen photographs of The Coromandel ….. and wanted to visit it.
On a recommendation, we drove out to Optio Bay ……. and walked along the empty beach. A few beach houses, traditionally called batches but these more substantial and modern, hide behind the dunes.
On the way back we stopped at Luke’s Kitchen for a rather late lunch. Around the corner a small café sold ice creams. It was clear that the size of the scoops reflected the enthusiasm the ladies who served us had for their own ice cream.
Never one to duck a challenge, I ordered 2 scoops. The pile of ice cream must have been at least 12cms tall, dwarfing the little cone ……. and in the hot sun it started melting as soon as one was outside. They could have doubled their profits by halving the quantity without anyone complaining – but where would the fun have been in that?
We had chosen to stay in some self-catering apartments in Whitianga – and a quick rifle through one of the drawers uncovered endless little colourful brochures for all the ‘normal’ attractions of a modern holiday destination …… glass bottomed boats, water-skiing, scuba diving, theme parks and hot pools, bush walks and eating ….. and drinking …… but actually there is nothing nicer than finding a virtually deserted beach and walking barefoot along the water’s edge ……. particularly when the sun on your back is warm!
New Zealand’s ‘Coromandel’ did not disappoint.
Richard 19th January 2017
PS Some rather quaint post boxes in the interior