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A good day

What better place to play truant from daily life?

They should have been at school, of course: but if it's a bright, shiny Friday morning in May and the sky is clear blue and the sun is sparkling off a calm sea and Dad says, "Let's go fishing", what's a boy to do?

So there they were, the two of them, barefoot on the beach, seizing a precious chance to do summer things in autumn while Dad kept an eye on the five rods stuck in the sand and Mum knelt by a driftwood fire, its thin blue smoke curling up into nothing.

We were skiving off, too, so we just exchanged grins as we trotted past behind them under the pohutukawa-clad cliff. Our hired horses were making heavy weather of the soft sand and we were glad to get back to the hard, wet edge where the waves foamed in and splashed up under their bellies.

It was a day made for simple pleasures. It was the place for them, too: Maketu, a village of a thousand souls, squeezed between a green headland jutting out into the Bay of Plenty and a wide sandy estuary where birds easily outnumber the human residents.

Back before breakfast, the early sun had thrown long shadows through the marram grass and lit up the pipi pickers, shin-deep in the water, heads down, bums up, just like the birds. Beyond them, an elderly Maori man - a tough old bird himself - waded deeper and deeper into the channel as he set his flounder net.

Just below where I stood on the deck of Tricia's B&B, a younger man, less hardy, settled himself into a low chair for a morning's fishing from the beach. He and I and the kingfisher on top of the lamppost watched the boats buzzing past, battered tin and shining white, all heading out hoping for snapper and sure of a fine day of warm sun and gentle seas slapping under the hull.

Peace returned to the flats and the oystercatchers' burble was audible again over the clink of breakfast china. Out in the estuary the squat maimais were black against the silver water, but the clear sky meant peace too for the ducks ("It's like Vietnam out there on a foggy morning," said Trish).

The bay is still as bounteous as when Cook first named it and much of Maketu life revolves around gathering, selling or eating food: the local pies are famous enough to be named in Lonely Planet; hot newspaper parcels of fish'n'chips are carried home by eager children at tea-time; people sit longer than they meant to at the beach café; and, on the third Sunday of the month, a market offers paua, mussel or whitebait fritters, steak sandwiched in rewana bread, smoked fish. There's sometimes a hangi and there's always steamed pudding with custard and cream. It's a major social event in a place where time passes slowly enough for people to notice gradual things: the sandbar shifting again or a lean on the river-stone memorial marking the landing in 1340 of the Arawa canoe.

It's also a place of memories, where swirling around something as simple as a sawn-off diving board mounted on a concrete pile in the river are stories of tribal tapu, unfulfilled dreams, arrogance, innocent fun, and death. Niven Rae is the man to tell the tales: he has lived here all his life and can remember when the sand dunes stretched far inland and when the road into the village was opened. He recalls the only occasion when a fish was winched up at the weigh-station by the boat ramp: a white pointer so big that its head lay flat on the ground.

On a walk round the village, he talks about older history, when Maketu was a busy port with a trading post established by an enterprising Dane, Phillip Tapsell, the first white man to live in the Bay of Plenty. The Tapsell name is still common in the area.

Maketu was also the site of many fierce battles during the Land Wars, when the Arawa people supported the British, a fact that rankles today with members of other tribes. It was a gateway for tourists going to Rotorua to view the Pink and White Terraces, but their destruction in the Tarawera eruption was the beginning of the end for Maketu's heyday.

The great storm of 1907 silted up the harbour and sealed its fate. Since then, Maketu has ticked along quietly, caught in a time warp. Its past is visible like the children's footprints on the oiled kauri boards lining the ceiling of St Thomas's church, built in 1869. But the great threat now is development, creeping along the coast and as close as neighbouring Papamoa.

"It's a virus," says Niven, squinting narrowly into the distance, as we stand at the end of the walk on the site of Pukemaire Pa high above the village. But the blot of houses beyond the estuary is soon lost in darkness as the sun drops behind the Coromandel and the sea and the sky blazes red and gold and orange.

It had been a good day; and instructive, too, for the boys back on Newdick's Beach. They had found a long driftwood log, dragged it over to a rock to use as a see-saw and between the two of them, big and small, had discovered the principle of the fulcrum. So that was all right.