At Riversdale, says long-time local Bill Roberts, there’s a golf course, surf club, general store, campsite, long stretch of surf beach – and “not much else”. He and his fellow coast-dwellers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Riversdale Beach, 54km east of Masterton, is often considered the hidden jewel in Wairarapa’s crown – home to the region’s longest and widest sandy beach, year-round surf and a balmy micro-climate.

The settlement has become an attractive destination over the years, with its population swelling to near 20,000 in summer. During cooler months, the small number of “regulars”, are happy with a tranquil pace of life – enjoying crayfishing, walks through the Southern Reserve, weekend drinks at the Golf Club and short queues at the Riversdale Beach Store.

“It’s a little gem of a place,” Bill Roberts, president of the Riversdale Beach Rate Payers Association, says. “We’re tucked away, so it’s pretty quiet most of the year – there are only about 40 houses in the village which are permanently occupied. “But we’ve got a great community; we look out for each other.”

Similar to other coastal locations in Wairarapa, Riversdale is steeped in Māori history and folklore. In te reo, the area is named Motuwairaka, a name chosen by, according to the people of Ngati Kahungunu, the rangatira Haunui a Poupoto, who pursued his wife across the country after she was kidnapped by slaves. As legend has it, the chief’s wife, Wairaka, drowned at the mouth of the Rongoua, near Riversdale, where she now lies in the form of a rock – hence Motuwairaka, “motu” meaning rock or island.

For years, the Riversdale Beach site remained deserted – as Bill puts it, nothing more than “a little scrubby beach and lots of sand hills’’. This changed in the 1950s, with the arrival of Masterton businessman Basil Bodle, who saw in the desolate area the potential for a thriving coastal settlement. Basil bought 100 acres of sandy wasteland from Riversdale Station – and despite derision from friends, opposition from the then Masterton County Council, and treacherous gravel road from Masterton, ended up selling the first 41 sections by 1957.

By the early 1960s, Basil had dug wells, developed roads and embarked on an extensive planting programme, and demand for sections increased. Later, he began work on Riversdale’s most notable amenities: the reserve and picnic ground, the store, and the surf and golf clubs, reflecting his sporting passions. The golf club has retained a faithful membership over the years, many of whom are local farmers, with the club premises acting as a social hub, Bill says.

The surf club building is undergoing major renovations and the club is still going strong – last summer recording 45 guards on the beach, 25 rescues and 235 preventive actions. One of the club’s most popular activities is the Nippers programme, teaching youngsters to be safe in the surf and appreciate the sea, with 80 to 100 kids enrolled each season.

Bill says the beach is also a popular fishing spot – with keen anglers launching their boats from the beach in search of blue cod, crayfish, groper and trout. “You don’t have to go far to get the good stuff and you can pretty much always come back with a feed. “There’s nothing like a nice piece of blue cod.”

Newer developments in Riversdale include the three “beautiful” walking tracks through the Southern Reserve and the Riversdale Dune Restoration Committee, which runs planting days to help stabilise the sand dunes. Bill says the planting days are well-attended by hard-working locals and children from nearby Whareama School. “It’s great – we put on a barbecue and make a day of it.”

By Erin Kavanagh-Hall