Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 5, 1993
Lake Rotoiti Holidays
If I were asked what were the happiest days of my childhood, I do not think I would have any hesitation in replying, "The days spent at our cottage at Lake Rotoiti". My father had visited the Lake and been enchanted by the peace and tranquility of it. On December 16, 1929 he went into Nelson, after learning that there was to be a sale of sections at the Lake. When the busy Christmas season was over, on December 29, Mother was up at 5.30am to cut sandwiches and pack a picnic lunch. At 7.30am Mr Sid Croucher arrived and took us, accompanied by friends, up to the Lake for our first visit. It was all rather too much for me, with the winding roads and excitement, and all I remember, at 4½ years, was the unpleasantness of car sickness – both ways! However, they had a good look around and managed to find the survey pegs of the new section. My father decided to also buy a second section, so that we would not be built out. One drawback about life at the Alexandra Home was that both my parents could not be away at the one time on holiday, and Mother always took us with her. It seemed to work out very well. She was gregarious and enjoyed catering, entertaining and baking, and always filled her car with friends and children. My father, on the other hand, with the never ceasing demands that the busy public life at the Home entailed, wearied of people and preferred to go alone to the house at the Lake, do the general maintenance and upgrading of the property, and get away for a quiet time by himself.
On September 11, 1930 all was prepared in readiness, with supplies of bread, fruit, fish, tomatoes and groceries, crockery and cutlery packed for an early start next day. My parents were up at around 5am to light the fire for breakfast, and Mr Best's lorry came to take the bulk of the things. For Lloyd and myself, it was our first day back at school after the holidays, and so we were denied the trip. Mother drove her car and kept Best's lorry in sight to Belgrove and, after one or two hold-ups, they arrived at the Lake at 20 minutes to 2 o'clock. Until my father could lay the foundations and erect the frame-work of our cottage, they had the use of Major Elliott's house across on the other side of the road. Beds were made up and things put straight, and then Mother had to return alone on the long drive back to the Home, leaving my father to tackle the big task ahead.
Mother's first ear had been an open tourer Chevrolet and, for some reason, my father never learned to drive, having little patience with anything mechanical. Mother, on the other hand, was enthusiastic to say the least and her second car was upgraded to a shining dark-green 1929 Chevrolet. We were terribly proud of that car, and it would be requested for weddings and special occasions by friends in the district. When everything was packed and ready, our constant friend and companion, Roy the dog, would hop on board and off we would go.
In those days, trains had to be looked out for at the crossings at Brightwater, Spring Grove, Wakefield, Belgrove and Kohatu. The train left Belgrove first thing in the morning, taking freight and passengers, including pupils of Nelson Boys' and Girls' Colleges. At other times there could be a Special train, with goods and seasonal fruit, so it paid the car driver to use caution at the crossings, which were marked with signs warning "Stop – Look Out for the Engine!"
The road to the Lake was a never ending kaleidoscope of interest and beauty. Winding gravel roads, sometimes dusty, sometimes rutted and boggy, at others, icy and slippery. With the discomfort of travel-sickness brushed aside, our interest was taken when the car had to negotiate the high-sided wooden bridges at Brightwater and Wai-iti. Sometimes there were horse-drawn vehicles, cyclists, or another car to wait patiently for be-page 4fore we could cross, but it was the long wooden-sided bridge at Kohatu that was the most thrilling of all. Getting Mother to keep up a fair speed, to gain the full delight of the irregular humps and hollows, we would shriek with laughter as the car bumped its way across.
Not far past this bridge, the road curved round to the Motupiko general store and post office, where we would sometimes pull in for petrol from a hand-operated bowser pump. The Motupiko Valley, with its tall poplars and willows, was a glory to behold in the Autumn. In the spring time it was transformed, with lush green pastures and grazing sheep and lambs and the river edged with yellow wattle trees, their heavy fragrance filling the air. As the car sped along we knew where to watch and catch a glimpse in season of the beautiful white flowers of the native clematis, twining over a clump of manuka or high in a native tree. This was about the end of September or beginning of October. In December the parasitic mistletoe, growing in dark-green clumps on the beech trees, burst into fiery beauty and, running across from the car, we held each other up in turn to gather branches to take home to decorate for Christmas.
The first water-courses were after coming off Spooner's Range, in Norriss gully, and where the road turned off into what is now known as Golden Downs. In the Korere Valley the first water-course which warranted some care was clay-banked and rocky and had a nasty rutted-out bed, which could prove tricky if taken too fast. It had been given the name 'Dayman's mistake'. It is not now remembered who the hapless Mr Dayman was, but we had heard that he had taken the water-course too fast, crashing and breaking his wife's neck. Be that as it may, for once we sat quietly, while our Mother negotiated the bumpy ford. A farm house stood on the bank above this water-course and there was a thick entanglement of blackberry vines all along the bank beside the roadside. Mrs Piper, the lady of the house, once gave us a billy full of lovely ripe blackberries, because we had had the courtesy to request permission to pick berries from their 'patch'. It is quite remarkable that any ever survived for jam-making or an apple and blackberry pie, as our hands and faces were blackened with the juice from the sweet berries, as we sat dipping into the billy in the back seat as we drove on.
The Korere Hotel had been a landmark since the old coaching days, with a very old wooden stable and barn standing across the road from the hotel. Over succeeding years a newer hotel with adjoining tearooms was erected, and the service-car from Nelson, on its way to Lake Rotoiti and back, made a stop over, with enough time for passengers to have a nice hot cup of tea and delicious home-made scones and cakes. There was something a little harder across the passage in the bar if so desired. The Lake bus left Nelson on its return journey around 4.30pm and arrived at the Lake at approximately 7.30pm, depending on the condition of the roads. The driver delivered newspapers, mail and parcels to the boxes standing by the roadside along the route.
Once the main road to Murchison had been left at the Korere turn-off, and the oneway wooden bridge crossed, the road passed several farms with sheep and cattle grazing. From there on the road became rougher, with the distinct feeling that we were slowly getting into higher country. Altogether about twelve water-courses had to be forded, depending on the time of the year. This to us was the best part of the journey, and we would wind down the car window and lean right out, trying to touch the swirl of water that cascaded out on either side as the car forded the stream. We knew each water-course well, whether spreading out shallowly, or deep-rutted and treacherous. The worst and most unpredictable was at Top House, in the valley below the old Hotel. In winter, indeed even in summer, one could never anticipate how the water-courses would be. If it had rained they would be in angry mood, or if it had snowed and melted page 5in the back country. It may have been a perfectly fine and clear day, but the stream would turn into a raging torrent and be quite impassable.
After the two Chevrolet cars, Mother purchased a more economical Baby Austin. Once we travelled right up as far as Top House, nearly three quarters of the journey, only to find the water-course quite impossible to ford in such a small car. This was very disappointing, as we did not want to have to abandon the plans for our holiday at the Lake and return to Richmond. Mother decided to retrace our road to the Korere turn-off, and try to reach our destination via the Hope Saddle's winding and tortuous bends. To our dismay, when we reached the bottom of the saddle, there were at least six or seven vehicles stranded either side of the gushing Moorhouse Stream, including a big red Newman's bus. What hope would a Baby Austin have if it was too much for the bus to take on? The outlook was not promising, and we were disappointed at the thought of retracing the road all the way home. People were standing about in groups talking, while some were walking across tine wooden foot-bridge to watch the swirling torrent below. One of the bystanders called out with a suggestion. "Why not try and see if, with its small size and weight, the Baby Austin could possibly cross over on the foot-bridge?" The wheel-span was measured and there were six inches to spare, three inches either side if taken Very, Very, slowly and carefully. They decided it was worth giving it a go and Mother, always a very determined lady, was not used to letting a situation beat her. With very slow and careful manoeuvering, and guidance from several of the men, Mother eased the Baby Austin over the foot-bridge, to the triumphant cheers of the watching onlookers. Proud and delighted, we scrambled back into the car and, with a cheeky Beep Beep and waves to all, we resumed our journey once more. It was not considered at the time what the outcome may have been had the foot-bridge given way under the added weight of the car and the pressure on the foundations from the flooded stream. The little car had been named Blossom, because of her cream and green coloured paint-work, and we were very proud that the little midget had out-classed even a big red Newman's bus. We had made it safe and sound and away we went, leaving the stranded passengers still standing about by the Moorhouse Stream.
After passing the railway settlement at Glenhope, with its dark red railway sheds and station and cluster of houses, the road turned off from the main West Coast route at the Kawatiri Junction, where the railway-line ended at a small station. From here our road followed the course of the Buller River for a time. There was a sparse scattering of a few small farms on the river-flat, with the odd roadside cottage on banks above and beside the road, and a one-teacher school at the Howard Junction.
As we travelled along the Buller River Valley, signposts indicated the mining areas where men were trying to be self-supporting and eke out an existence. Times were indeed very hard for the men, many having been made redundant when the railway building work ended. There were communities in the Maggie, Maud and Louis Creeks.
A very long straight stretch of the road passed the old historic Speargrass Station, and we would beg Mother to toot the horn of the car. The unaccustomed noise of the passing vehicle would startle hundreds and hundreds of rabbits of every colour; grey, fawn, black, brown, and cream. Those were the years when the rabbit and hare populations increased so alarmingly, before the big eradication schemes were introduced. The first attempts were with poisoned carrots, which drove the population up to the snow-line on the mountains.
Nearing the Lake from this direction, the first wooden-sided bridge over the Buller River was always a very beautiful place, with the river rushing down over the boulder-strewn bed and the snow-capped peaks of the St Arnaud range making a lovely back-drop.page 6
This was not the usual route we took to reach the Lake, and we mostly travelled via Motupiko and the Korere Valley, passing farming homesteads, Christiansen's Mill and water-course and the Kerr Station at Blue Glen, Kikiwa. One of the first forestry camps was established above the road, in the vicinity of Kerr's, in the 1930's. Crossing another water-course and up a clay-sided rise, we came to a wide grassy plateau, where Tomlinson's farm could be seen, nestled near a stand of native bush. A little further on came Carlsson's timber mill and farm. When my father built the Lake Rotoiti house, much of the timber came from Carlsson's, being handiest to the Lake for transport.
As the miles sped by, the road was gradually climbing, until an altitude of around 2,000 ft.
In the years when we first started going regularly to the Lake, Jesse Baxter and his wife Phyllis and three daughters were the proprietors of Tophouse, where they had spent around twenty years. The main Blenheim-West Coast highway was reached a few miles past Tophouse, with the Blechynden homestead on the right, among the trees. From the area by Blechynden's, the beautiful mountain peaks around the Lake came fully into view. In the distance, on the right, was the bare face of Mt Robert, named by Von Haast for his son, with higher peaks rising behind and beyond to Mt Travers, at the head of the Lake. The St Arnaud, or No Catch 'Em range, as it was called then, ran parallel to the road as we descended gradually to the settlement, a mere cluster of buildings at Rotoiti. A fire had burned through some time previously, leaving a cleared fringe to the bush-line. The stark and blackened grey tree-stumps had an eerie beauty of their own. As we drove by I would gaze at them and, with my childish mind, imagine how difficult the scene would be on a jig-saw puzzle, with no variation in colour to give a clue to trying to assemble the pieces.
Occasionally there was snow, and the high clay banks along either side of the road around Tophouse were transformed, taking on an almost fairy-tale beauty. Icicles hung like crystalline stalactites, shimmering in the light, and the frost made intricate patterns in the frozen soil and covered grass and manuka like a mantle of snow. The red-coated, white-faced cattle stood huddled together in groups for warmth, their hot breath steaming. Their coats were thicker and shaggier than the cattle back on the Waimea Plain, because of the 2,000 ft altitude, and they reminded me of the long-horned Highland cattle seen on Scottish calendars.
At last came the final run down to the settlement, through the last water-course and around the corner to the little Post-office-store, owned by Jesse and Phyllis Baxter after they left Tophouse. The Post office was transferred in 1931 and the name changed from Rotoiti to St Arnaud in 1951. This store was always our first port of call, as the house keys were left there for convenience sake. If the house was let on occasions, the keys were always at the Lake for the tenant to pick up. Although we enjoyed being sent there at any time, it was in the evening, when the bus was due from Nelson with mail and stores, that the little store really came alive. People seemed to miraculously materialize from cottages scattered about in the bush and, by the mellow glow of a kerosine-lamp, yarns were exchanged and we listened to the tall-tales of the fishermen, trampers, holiday-makers and the odd miner, as well as a very few local residents and road-men. Occasionally an enquirer asked a miner "How are things going?" The reply was invariably "Not too good", but at times, when they caught the bus out of the area, or trudged off with all their worldly goods in a sugar-bag pack, folk wondered about the value and mystery of the contents of their swags. I never remember hearing of anyone striking it rich and making a fortune, just a living, which for them was better than being unemployed. As the general economic situation improved throughout the country, and work page 7slowly once more became available, these men drifted away, with only a heap of red, rusty-coloured tailings to mark their former presence. A few solitary fossickers stayed, working patiently at their claims.
Between the store and our cottage, the road passed a really large solitary rock, by the turn-off to the Buller and West Coast road. As children it seemed Huge to us, so we named it our Mt Everest. We never passed without climbing up, sliding down, or jumping off it. Across from the rock, nestled in among the young manuka bushes, was a cottage named Cram 'Em In. Others had a variety of original names; Rookery Nook, St Arnaud, 'Avarest, Long Look Out and Torestin, to name just a few. An Accommodation House used to be near the turn-off from the road down to the Lake and View Road, where our house was situated. This was to become known as Cumming's Cottage. Mr Leathem had moved to Lake Rotoiti with his family in the early 1930's. He had been working on the railway extension from Glenhope to Murchison and then came to Lake Rotoiti to work on the road improvements. Mr Leathem's own house had been brought from Glenhope and was one of the original Accommodation Houses. It was later sold to Mr and Mrs Barker who operated it as a boarding-house. Around 1940 the Baxters sold to Mr D Cummings, who lived in it with his family for a number of years. When he sold it to the Nelson Lakes National Park Board, the dwelling became known as Cumming's Cottage.
Opposite the Accommodation House lived Mr Charlie Dobson, who started a three day a week passenger and mail service from Lake Rotoiti to Nelson and return. He opened under the name of Dobson's Motors, with the bus leaving for Nelson on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7.30am and leaving Nelson at 4.30pm, arriving back at the Lake around 7.30pm.
The 1914–1918 war, in which my father had served as a Sergeant cook, played quite a significant part in the building and naming of our cottage. My father was twice Mentioned in Dispatches for outstanding service. He told of how, on one occasion in the Somme battles, they had come into a village and found the remains of a brewery. He promptly set to with his men and heated water in the large vats, giving the tired, dirty, battle-weary men the wonderful luxury of a hot bath, even if the water had, of necessity, to be well shared!
The naming of the cottage at Lake Rotoiti as All Quiet was no doubt influenced by Erich Maria Remarque's book All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929. On reaching our destination at the end of a long journey, the suitability of the name All Quiet became obvious. There was a calm all-embracing silence, a peacefulness so profound as to be almost felt, with only the gentle murmur and sigh of the bush and the calling of a bell-bird or tui. Occasionally there would be the far-off sound of someone chopping firewood, the only indication that there was anyone in the area at all. The mountain air was so clear that one felt compelled to draw in long, ecstatic, lungs full, to savour its purity.
There was no electricity at the page 8Lake then, with only kerosine-lamps and candles for lighting. No road traffic, no motor-mowers screaming, no noise pollution from the staccato bark and rasp of chain-saws shattering the air, or from high-powered speed boats, with shouting water-skiers in tow. Just a beautiful peacefulness, and there, shimmering away into the distance, the tranquil waters of the Lake itself, the snow-covered peaks reflected on its surface. At times though, the lake would unexpectedly boil into an angry fury, when a squall blew from Mt Travers, at the southern end. One day we were gathering firewood and skipping stones from the shore-line, when our Pomeranian-cross dog Roy, more perceptive than we were, took off up the bush track to the house. With his tail uncurled and tucked firmly through his hind legs, he was a strange sight indeed as he ran desperately for safety. In a matter of seconds a storm broke on the lake, sounding like the rush of an oncoming express train, with the wind and waves angrily lashing on the stony shore. Because of these sudden squalls, there were warning signs erected around the Lake track for dinghys to keep to the edge of the lake. Rowing boats were the most used, although the first power-boat races were held in the early 1920's, when there were Two competitors, the Eileen, a Nelson owned boat, and Wakefield garage owner Mr Shuttleworth's 303. The challenge cup was an empty condensed-milk tin, with a handle soldered on and the name of the winning boat scratched importantly on the side. There were boat-sheds along the shoreline below our cottage and my father had a site reserved, but did not bother to have a dinghy. He said they were nothing but trouble from the time they were put into the water. He would have been remembering his boyhood at Church Bay and the constant care and maintenance required on the wooden-hulled boats they had sailed on Lyttelton Harbour.
On our arrival at the cottage we would burst inside and rush either to be first to start playing a small French harmonium, or to claim a top bunk. The harmonium had belonged to our Hughes grandparents, and had to be pedalled energetically and continuously to make it work. A top bunk in the four-bedded bunk-room was the perfect end to the perfect days, as they were up under the sloping ceiling, where the heat rose on a cold night and, best of all, they had lovely, slightly sagging, wires and real feather mattresses. The combination of sagging wires and feather mattress meant that when you climbed up to bed, after the exhilaration of the day's activities, you were practically enveloped in a soft bed of feathers. Through a chink of the door, the hiss of the kerosine and Tilly lamps, or the flicker of the candles gave reassurance. In case Nature called in the night, each bedroom had a curtained corner wardrobe, with a low shelf and discreetly placed Royal Doulton floral china chamber-pot! This saved having to wake the household, and having to walk out alone into the dark, along the path leading to the outside toilet, amongst the manuka bushes, in the freezing night air.
The front bedroom had a double bed with a firm under-mattress, topped by a feather one. From this bed there was a lovely view right to the head of the lake. A large, kauri, Scotch-chest stood along one wall and, in both the front bedroom and lounge, were built-in box-seats which housed spare blankets and grocery and first-aid supplies. On the box-seats were covered cushion squabs and, with any over-flow of visitors, we children were put to bed on them, although they were a trifle hard after the feather-mattressed bunks.
On the bedroom walls were silver-lettered, rose and lily-embellished texts, with words of comfort and assurance of the Divine Presence such as "He Shall Direct Thy Paths", "Behold I Stand At the Door and Knock" and one simply saying "God is Love".
In the living room, above the passage door, was a picture which captured my interest immensely. Father had been greatly interested when Howard Carter had discovered the page 9magnificent and ancient tomb of the Pharoah Tut-Ankh-Amen, in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in 1922. The excitement that this caused had been well covered in the Illustrated London News, with a coloured centre-fold being published showing Tut-Ankh-Amen's impressive funeral boat. This had been framed and it hung majestically above the living-room door. My Father also had a series of slides for his Magic Lantern show entitled The Pyramids of Egypt.
Above the French harmonium was a well-filled, glass-fronted bookcase. There were piles of back numbers of the Illustrated London News and National' Geographic magazines on a high shelf, which ran around three sides of the room and which also held vases, ornaments and jardinieres. Several big, red-covered books with coloured illustrations, which had been a wedding present to my parents in 1920, were written very much in the Edwardian style and were entitled The Sunday at Home. These were the types of books, along with a children's set of The Golden Pathway, which we were encouraged to read. My father commented that, if we became accustomed to reading quality literature, we would not be bothered with trash. However, we did enjoy reading friends' comics, such as Tiny Tim, My Favourite, Sparkles, Film Fun, Play Box and Comic Cuts, if we got the chance.
The table in the sitting-room was a large kauri one, with drawers pulling out from underneath on all four sides. Cutlery was contained in one and table-linen and serviettes in a second, with the remaining two holding packs of cards, dominoes, draughts, snakes and ladders, ludo, crib-boards and other games, for playing in the evenings and on wet days.
One of the men from the Home once won a sum of money from the Australian Tattersall's Lottery. He went into Nelson by Surburban bus, to cash in on his winnings, and arrived back some considerable time later, very jovial and slightly intoxicated, in the back of a taxi. Placed beside him was a brand new, wind-up gramophone, with the trade-mark of H.M.V., the little, listening, white fox-terrier, inside the lid-case. The old gentleman had been so grateful to my parents for their care and kindness to him, that he had bought them the gramophone by way of thanks. It was taken to the Lake and was well used, although sometimes arguments would develop as to whose turn it was to rewind it, or to change the thick, steel needles. The used needles were placed in little metal bowls recessed beside the metal arm. As the record slowly ground to a halt, the voices and music strangely lengthened and distorted, until it finally stopped with a screech. We churned out Sousa's famous marches, the rousing Under the Double Eagle, Sir Harry Lauder, popular after a recent concert visit to Nelson and, from the days of the Charleston and flappers, a seedy tenor warbled in falsetto "You can't walk back from an aeroplane, so whatta' you girls gonna' doo hoo hoo?" Another record acknowledged Henry Ford's rise to fame with a catchy, sing-along tune "No more rattles, no more shakes, now she's got those four-wheeled brakes, Henry's made a lady out of Lizzie!" Lex McDonald, the boy soprano, sang To a Wild Rose. Hymns, from Onward Christian Soldiers to Abide With Me, Caruso, with strong operatic arias, nursery-rhymes, comics, Boccarini's Minuet – we loved them all.
The cottage had been well built by my father and was, above all, cosy and warm. Many of the first baches at the Lake were very basic dwellings, with their only means of cooking being iron bars over an open fire. We enjoyed the luxury of a small, black, wood and coal range, which had a small hot-water tank, with a tap on one side, on the front. The knobs were of polished brass. A rack above the stove was useful, not only for heating plates and keeping meals warm, but also for airing and drying clothes and shoes. The very efficient pot-bellied stoves in the farm houses of France, Belgium and Ger-page 10many had impressed my Father. At that time nothing similar was available in New Zealand, and so he had a box-heater made to his specifications by the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Co. at Port Nelson, and installed it in the corner of the room. It did not look very remarkable, but it worked splendidly. It would take about four or five good-sized logs at a time, and the steaming, bubbling, sap would hiss and froth from the ends of the manuka. As the fire died down, we could bake potatoes in the coals and make hot-buttered toast on a long-handled, three-pronged, wire toasting fork. The box-heater proved so efficient in heating the cottage that firstly one door off the living-room would have to be opened, then the bedrooms and kitchen, the bathroom and, lastly, the sunporch, until the whole house glowed with warmth.
It was seldom that we went alone to the Lake, as Mother would invite our friends, visitors and relatives from away to come and spend a few days with us.
The air gave us enormous appetites to do justice to the plates of freshly-baked scones, hot-buttered and dripping with golden syrup. Rabbit and duck were sometimes on the menu as well. Rabbits were often seen playing outside the cottage in the mornings and evenings and once, after a light fall of snow, there were deer hoof-prints, left silently over night, around the house.
I do not remember how the tradition started, but we always requested that our first meal on arrival at the Lake be sausages and tomatoes – we loved them! The delicious smell of them, spattering in the frying-pan over a manuka fire, with the toast made on the embers, was memorable to say the least.
The days were never long enough for all the adventures we had in store. We followed all the bush tracks and walks around the edge of the lake, usually terminating the walk at one of the gravel screes which had eroded down from the St Arnaud range. Another enchanting path led up the Black Valley stream, winding through ferns and low-growing native shrubs on the forest floor, overshadowed by the tall, black and silver beech trees. From a high bank above the stream, we descended over tree-roots to a log-bridge, which we crossed, holding precariously onto a single strand of No. 8 wire, watching the stream rippling under the mossy bank. This path meandered along, following the course of the stream, and finally came out in a clearing at the rear of the Post Office-store.
John Kerr first released brown trout into the lake in 1873. There was a trout-hatchery at the Black Valley stream, and we would watch, spell-bound, as the Acclimatisation Society Ranger, Mr W A Andrews, milked the shining, red-orange, bead-like eggs from the female trout into a bowl. The eggs were then fertilized by the white milky sperm from the male trout. Young trout were taken from the hatchery in containers by dinghy and released into the lake at selected sites. The hatchery operated from 1926 to 1946. Near the hatchery, in an uneven grassy area, there was a pond which held tadpoles and frogs in the summer. In the winter it froze over, creaking dangerously when we gingerly tested if it would take our weight, to walk across or perhaps, even to skate on. Our happy companion, Roy, was tormented by being sent slithering across, from one side to the other. He held no resentment whatsoever, his enjoyment of the holiday as great as ours, and was soon away, his little black nose scenting out rabbits, hares, birds, stoats, ferrets and weasels, and the paradise and mallard ducks, quacking and feeding on the lake shoreline.
A lot of energy went into building a great variety of manuka-brush huts, from Indian tepee-style, to intricately woven ones with a roof and walls and a carpet of moss on the floor. They even had the refinement of an oven, dug into the bank, with a piece of tin for the oven-tray. A small fire would be lit to cook the cakes, which were fashioned from clay soil and decorated, quite professionally with either manuka seeds or rabbit droppings for the 'raisins' on top.page 11
Fires had burnt through the area at different times. In 1929 a fire swept up the Buller Valley and burned over Black Hill. Road workers and all available manpower helped to fight the blaze. It must have reached as far as the peninsula and, with the clearance, it meant that our house had a practically unrestricted view, right to the head of the lake. The survey pegs of the various sections were clearly visible. The dried skeletons of the dead manuka meant that firewood was readily available in the beginning. Fire in that isolated locality was one hazard that my father feared. After the 1929 fire, Mr J N Blechynden had a 40 metre-wide strip cut, from the nearest point on the road, over to the West Bay lake edge, to provide a fire break and so protect the village from fire. Even so, with the regrowth of manuka and kanuka, most cottages were surrounded again before very long.
My father laboriously brought up logs from dead beech trees below the house and sawed them in the yard, on a large wooden saw-horse. The sawn logs were stacked under the house, in the low basement area. Until the beech forest began to regenerate, the shore-line was clearly visible, much more so than today. In 1956 the Nelson Lakes National Park was formed, and even the dead beech trees would no longer be allowed to be sawn for firewood.
One of our long walks followed the survey-pegs across the peninsula and down the bush track on the western side, to where the Buller River had its source from Lake Rotoiti. We sometimes made a day's outing of this, lighting a camp-fire by a large rock near the shore and picnicking there. In tune with the seasons and nature, we knew where the dainty, native, white and mauve-throated violets, Haka, grew among moss and small ferns, right beside the source of the Buller River.
Returning from there late on the afternoon of May 13, 1931, Mother was carrying me while taking a shortcut through a regrowth of manuka scrub. I had been convalescing following a suspected bout of whooping-cough, and Mother was hurrying before the late afternoon cold descended. Suddenly, and without any warning, live shots from an unseen rifle were crashing around us. A hunter on Black Hill must have seen the movement in the scrub and mistaken us for browsing deer or pigs. With presence of mind, Mother called and sang at the top of her voice, and tried to pacify me as I clung, crying in terror, to her neck. Fortunately the hunter had been a poor shot, and must have been horrified when he became aware of his near-fatal mistake.
The seasons provided different things of interest, with native birds, their nests and habits and the strange and varied lichens, mosses, berries and ferns. After an expedition, we would get a large, meat-baking dish and make a fairy-garden, using as a base the different coloured mosses and green, white, silver and yellow lichens. Some of these were tiny and red-tipped, like fairy matches, while others were goblet-shaped, like miniature wine glasses. In the autumn, we knew where the different coloured toad-stools, yellow, brown, white and a beautiful clear purple, could be found, growing by a fallen tree. Also the pink and red snow-berries, mingimingi, the white berries of the grass-tree and the fern-like lycopodium. In November, green, trowel-leaved orchids appeared through the moss near the house, alongside the very delicate, slim-stalked, ice-blue flowers of the New Zealand bluebell. December was the month for the mistletoe, January for the small white, and the showy red, southern rata.
Our activities were by no means always so innocent, however, and one of these exploits I remember to this day with shame. Accompanying friends around the lake edge in a rowing boat, we pulled the dinghy alongside one of the wooden jetties and began idly playing about, somersaulting over the jetty hand-railings and then, lying on our stomachs, dropped flat stones down through the cracks in the boards, to hear them plop page 12into the clear water. We skipped stones across the lake for a time, trying to out-do each other, and then we wandered over to a small motor-boat, pulled up on rails outside a boat-shed. The boys climbed into the small cabin, inspecting the interior and taking turns at pretending, with realistic sound-effects, to be the captain at the helm of their craft and turning the steering wheel around. Tiring of that, someone's attention was taken by the propeller-shaft underneath the stern and, after spinning it around for a while, the propeller came off! Although this was an unexpected turn of events, we were delighted with our prize and, scrambling back into the dinghy, cast off and rowed out some distance from the shore, before entertaining ourselves by throwing the propeller into the crystal-clear, calm, water of the lake. We watched its golden-bronze blades glinting in the sunlight, as it twirled and rotated to the depths. Childlike, the gravity of our action did not occur to us at the time. Considering the trouble, expense and inconvenience it must have caused the unfortunate owner of the boat, we were lucky that he never found out who the culprits were!
We usually followed a track which led down to the lake through the native trees, where stones and tree-roots formed a natural stairway. One day, lying on its side down a bank, we saw a dead black cat, quite a rarity in that locality. It fascinated and awed us, with its long, grinning, incisor teeth showing whitely against its black fur. We stared at it and discussed at length what may have caused its demise, nudging it with a careful toe. Becoming bolder, we poked it warily with a stick, not a little fearful, and ready to run for our lives, in case it showed the slightest sign of reincarnation. Nothing happened, so we left it where it lay and wandered off home again. It was some considerable time before our next visit to the Lake, and we couldn't wait to go over and see if the dead black cat was still there. But we stopped in our tracks. Where we had left a pure black cat lying there was nothing but a bleached white skeleton. It did not seen possible, the transformation was so great. We had imagined it would be black All Through, and not have White bones. After considering this, and to end the matter, we covered the remains reverently with moss and put a ring of stones around the spot, to mark the last resting-place of an enigma.
In the early days at the Lake, our supply of rain-water was held in a large tin tank on a high wooden stand. It had been made by Mr Albert Tuffnell, the plumber, who had established his Queen Street, Richmond business in 1915. The sign above his shop read "Where the good tanks come from". In our absence, an idle vandal amused himself by shooting a row of .22 rifle holes around the tank, thereby letting out all the water. My father then built two large concrete tanks, which were recessed into the ground, only showing some three feet above ground. These tanks held many thousands of gallons of water, sufficient for the drier summer months, if used with discretion.
A hand-operated pump was installed in the wood shed, to pump the water from the tank by the house up to the one situated by the garage. On most of his concrete work my father engraved his initials, a capital A over H. They are there on the tanks to this day, with the date alongside. The bath water was heated by an ingenious chip-heater. It spluttered out near-scalding water at one end of the bath and was stoked with small pieces of brush, bark and quick-burning, small wood chips and ends. It heated the bathroom at the same time and, with very hard frosts and occasionally snow outside, it was a real luxury. From time to time the cottage was let in the summer months, when my parents could not get away. Most of their tenants were used to the convenience of a town water supply and had absolutely no idea of conserving the tank water. For this reason, my father did not link the kitchen-stove hot-water-supply system to the bathroom, so that more thought, time and effort had to go into stoking and heating the bath page 13water. Besides, in the summer months there was always the lake for a bathe, although I felt the cold, and the temperature was usually too bracing for me, except on the warmest of days, when one could swim and then thaw out on the sun-heated lakeside stones. The soft, beautiful rain-water in the tanks was like velvet for shampooing the hair, leaving it soft and shining. Cups of tea and cocoa seemed to taste better too; coffee was not drunk so much then, usually being bought in syrup form. On picnics the smoky taste of the billy-tea would warm us and quench our thirst. Half the fun was in setting up the billy over the fire, which at times, when not constructed properly, would collapse. The billy of water would douse out the fire underneath and you had to start all over again. If my father went off for a tramp, he would take his lunch, a small tin billy and a pinch of tea, rolled in a piece of paper, in his waist-coat pocket. This may have been a Shetland habit from his forebears, as his mother took a little gift of biscuits, or something from her garden, and a pinch of tea when visiting family members.
At night time, after the bus had come in with supplies, we would pick our way along the road from the store in the soft darkness, without the aid of any street lighting. Armed with newspapers, mail and provisions, the quiet cloak of the night would envelop us, the sharp, clear, brilliance of the stars making us feel closer to heaven. Gazing up at the heavens, we would look for the points of the Southern Cross, the Little Dipper and the white shower of the Milky Way, which trailed across the eternal dome of the sky and faded out of sight behind the mountain peaks. A more-pork would call, and be answered by another away in the distance, then all would be silent again, except for the quiet murmur of the bush.
Sadly, the days of pleasure passed all too quickly and it was packing-up time again. We would draw the curtains in the rooms and help clean out the ashes from the fireplaces, which would always be reset so that, on our return, the whole happy cycle was ready to be re-enacted, with lively children bursting through the door, jostling to be first to play the wheezy harmonium, or scrambling up to take possession of a top bunk. With a match to the lamps, another to the stove and heater, we did not have to ask "What's for tea Mother?" It was always sausages and tomatoes.