Caroline Bay has been considered the jewel in Timaru’s crown since the early 1900s. Historically it has been promoted as ‘the Riviera of New Zealand’ and ‘the Riviera of the South’.
The bay is the only sandy beach between Oamaru and Banks Peninsula, but it was not always so, in fact, at one time it was little more than a line of rocks under a cliff.
Mt Horrible lava flow
Two million years ago, lava flowed from Mt Horrible to the sea and helped form the terrain, reefs and wetlands of Te Tihi o Maru's coastline. Tī kōuka is cabbage tree in te reo Māori and maru can be interpreted as shelter, or one of the early ancestors.
The coastline was abundant in marine life and was an important source of kai moana for Māori. Kai such as tuna (eel) and inaka (whitebait) patete (fish), and kōareare (the edible rhizome of raupō) were abundant in the area.
Caroline Bay was part of the seasonal food gathering journey for local Māori, and there are over 500 rock art images in South Canterbury created by their ancestors. Some of these could depict waka and mokahi used to journey the sea and rivers.
You can learn more about these ancient art works and the people that created them at Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre in Timaru.
Earlier people included Waitaha, Rapuai and Käti Mamoe, later came Ngāi Tahu. Arowhenua is the marae for this area.
Trading of food and resources between villages up and down this coast was an important part of the economy. Pounamu (greenstone) and titi (sooty shearwaters or mutton birds) were sent north to trade goods in return for kumara, taro, stone and carvings coming south.
You can learn more about our coastal history on the fantastic Ngai Tahu Atlas - search Timaru.
Caroline Bay was likely named after a whaling supply ship that came to collect oil. There was a Weller Brother whaling station at Caroline Bay from 1839 - 1841. If you explore Caroline Bay via this app you'll find a Weller Brothers whaling pot on your trail.
Shipwrecks and the breakwater
The natural harbour was notorious for shipwrecks, you'll learn more about them on your next stop. Strong swells, a rocky reef and cliffs wrecked over 20 ships, so work began on a southern breakwater in the late 1870’s to provide safe mooring.
Shingle soon built up around it so a north mole was built in the late 1880’s to fix the problem and delivered the added benefit of depositing sand on its northern side, forming the beach at Caroline Bay.
Blackett and the port
John Blackett was sent down by the government to investigate the breakwater and the need for a port. He declared the work "a complete fiasco" and likely to cost the country hundreds of thousands of pounds by damage to the coast. He wanted it blown up immediately because of the impact to the long shore drift.
This didn't go down very well, and in protest the good people of Timaru paraded an effigy of him down the main street to the end of the breakwater, filled it up with fireworks and blew it up!
The local people then established the Timaru Harbour Board and funded their own port. Timaru Port was to be only one of two independent ports in the country. This put Timaru on the colonial shipping map, and hugely impacted the growth of the region.
However while the Port and Bay flourished, the coastline erosion rapidly increased. And there was significant loss of nearby lagoons and wild life refuges. Waimātaitai lagoon was drained and turned into a park. Basalt was quarried and positioned along the Caroline Bay, Benvenue and Dashing Rocks cliffs to reduce the erosion. And today sediment is dredged from the Port and placed as close as possible to Washdyke. This demonstrates the role human structures can have on coastline evolution.
The Timaru community focused on developing Caroline Bay as a seaside resort. Many hours of voluntary labour went into creating a promenade and pleasing recreational facilities. By the 1930s it was a popular holiday spot with well laid out gardens, plus facilities including the Bay Hall, the tea rooms (now a Category 2 listed historic building), hot and cold water baths, a tennis pavilion and six asphalt tennis courts, bathing sheds and a caretaker’s cottage. There was even a shop on the northern breakwater.
There has been a continual progression of beautification and development on the Bay over the decades, particularly as the beach has continued to extend seaward providing greater areas for lawn and facilities.
Caroline Bay Carnival
Without a doubt one event that is a Timaru institution is the Caroline Bay Carnival. Instigated in 1911 by the newly formed Caroline Bay Association the Carnival offers rides, sideshow games and free concerts for the community. Run solely by volunteers the Association’s fundraising efforts have provided many of the facilities that you see at the Bay today. Prior to the 1960s huge crowds congregated at the Bay for the Carnival. There were even excursion trains from Christchurch that brought revelers down. As private car ownership became more common and people had greater entertainment and travel options, the numbers attending the Carnival declined.
More recently, with a huge investment by the Timaru District Council and support by amazing local community groups, the Bay has undergone a radical transformation and there has been a resurgence in its use.
It’s home to regular events such as the Caroline Bay Rock and Hop, Cancer Society Relay for Life, and the Timaru Festival of Roses, and the recently announced Bandquet.
Check out venturetimaru.nz for more.