This morning I attended a respiratory rehabilitation course at the public hospital. Before it began several of us began reminiscing about our childhood. It brought to mine one of my youthful experiences which I recently wrote about.
Banks Peninsula – two large extinct volcanoes – juts out from the Canterbury coastline. I grew up there in Little River, in those days the end of the rail line from Christchurch.
My extended family were keen on picnics. Many of these centred around the fishing expeditions of my mother’s brother Uncle Charley, who was the local rabbiter. In easterly weather he put out a raft (now called a kon-tiki) at Birdling's Flat, at the south end of Lake Forsyth. To get bait he would set an eel trap in the river the night before, baited with a rotten egg or a lump of stinking, ancient mutton. Once they swam through the narrow entrance, the eels were trapped. In the morning he would lift it, kill them, cut them into pieces and bait the long lines.
The stony ninety-mile beach was treacherous: a hubbub of crashing waves and a confusion of spray and spume, as the long-combered ocean waves gathered power to batter the shingle, rattle the stones in the retreating breakers and pound in again. One of Granny's brothers drowned there at the turn of the century. Once, during the war, a fishing boat from Timaru lost power in a southerly buster. Helpless, the men on the beach watched it drift closer and closer until it was dumped in the surf and every man drowned. With such treacherous seas and undertow, there was always tension as Charley tried to get the raft out through the surf, slipping and sliding in the loose shingle.
Once it was out to its full length, we had a long wait on the treeless beach. Sun-hats were essential but there was the constant threat of a wind gust sending them bowling into the surf or beyond. Then came the excitement of hauling the raft in - coiling skates digging their tails into the shingle, very hard to dislodge, dogfish galore, the occasional larger shark and usually several big fat slippery groper.
A shingle bank stood between the lake and the sea. Unless this was regularly cut, the lake would flood. The Council used huge scoops pulled by draught-horses, the great beasts straining in the sliding shingle to get a foot-hold while the perspiring men encouraged them to give that extra pull. Occasionally we were present when the channel started to open, the men quickly pulling horse and equipment to safety as the force of the water undercut the banks and widened the cut. Later they replaced the horses with caterpillar tractors - but the task remained dangerous. When the lake was let out, local Maori pitchforked up the stranded, wriggling eels into a dray hitched to a horse, and dried them on racks standing on the Lake side of the beach.
Charley and Uncle Tom, who’d married my mother’s sister, had a boatshed and a dinghy at Jones Bay in Akaroa Harbour, a small rocky inlet between Barry’s Bay and French Farm. When the tide was right the extended family would drive over to scramble down a steep clay track through manuka, buddleia and broom, to picnic on the beach and go floundering.
While the men rowed out it was my task to sit in the stern and play out the net with its sinkers and floats. Sometimes, while we waited, the men would row over to Onawe Peninsula to collect and smash a few mussels from the rocks as bait for us to fish with long lines in mid-stream – mostly for red cod, but every so often, to much excitement, there would be a blue cod. Behind us the peninsula – the plutonic plug in the volcano’s core – loomed, Friesian cows peacefully grazing. It was hard to imagine that it was once the scene of a brutal massacre, as Te Rauparaha swept down from the North Island in 1832 to raid and capture the local pa, and over a thousand Ngai Tahu died.
Other times, we splashed in the sea in our togs while the adults sat round and gossiped over billy tea, bacon and egg pie and scones. Mid-afternoon, not too late - Tom had to get back over the hill to milk his herd - the net was pulled in, all hands to the task, with a few cod, the odd puffer fish, lots of crabs and usually a good feed of flounder for every household. That evening, Mum deftly handling two large frying pans on the wood stove, we would feast in relays on the succulent fresh fish.