Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

30 June 2010

New Zealand’s Diminishing Sheep Flocks

I took this picture in Central Otago, New Zealand, in the early autumn of 2010. They are Merinos and they are on their way to be shorn for their fine fleece. They are what they eat: grass – brown grass. Brown grass = brown sheep! Dun brown is the usual colour of Central Otago.

These Merinos are on the side of a hill. The paths along which they are walking while grazing are contour tracks made by sheep over many years. Sheep hate walking up hills so they walk round them. Much of the soil erosion of these hillsides is caused by sheep contours; rain gets into the terraces, breaks them down and causes landslips.

Thirty years ago there were over seventy million sheep in New Zealand now there are just over thirty million. Thirty years ago, for every one human there were twenty-three sheep; now there are eight. The reason is that farmers haven’t been able to make much money from sheep meat and wool so they’ve switched to dairy cattle farming which is far more rewarding.

If sheep ever get to be more valuable than cattle, farmers will switch back again. Per capita, sheep are becoming more valuable because there are fewer of them but it all takes time.


27 June 2010

Derelict Refuge: Burkes Pass

In 1950, when I was a late teenager, I lost a friend. He was serving in the British Intelligence Corps stationed in Austria. The story was that he went for a walk on the Schneealpe, was caught in a blizzard and died of exposure. The headline in my local paper read: 'British soldier dies 150 yards from safety'.

What tragedy! He had been within walking distance of a refuge hut but was obviously so disorientated that he never found it. Stewart was 18.

The hut in my photograph was taken in early autumn near Burkes Pass in South Canterbury, New Zealand. You can see the hut from the modern highway but when it was built Burkes Pass was extremely remote and, in winter, was (and still is, of course) subject to heavy snow storms and sudden blizzards. This hut served the same purpose as that one in Austria that my friend missed and then died.

Interestingly another friend grew up on a sheep station near Burkes Pass. Two of his ancestors died here. One in an avalanche while searching for sheep; the other was gored to death by a prize bull. Vita brevis!


24 June 2010

Burkes Pass: St.Patrick’s Church 1871

The last time I saw this church it was in a slightly run-down state and was no longer a church but some sort of arts and crafts centre. At least it wasn’t a Bingo hall! It was built in 1871-2 and intended for use by several denominations in what was then a very remote place. But the Catholics (being almost as élite as the Elusive Brethren) declined to use it.  Seeing St. Patrick’s again in autumn 2010 was a pleasant surprise; it’s become loved again and looks very spruce for such an old lady.

I was travelling with an old friend from Sydney who was brought up over 80 years ago on a local sheep station. Our real mission was to visit the nearby cemetery where some of his ancestors are buried. The cemetery is a bit ramshackle but we found some stones, two of which were poignant to say the least: one recorded the death of an uncle in an avalanche while he was trying to find Merino flocks in a snow storm; the other was a grandfather gored to death by a prize bull.

Rural life was a game of disaster or survival in the 18th century. I shivered at the thought of such horrible ends and felt lucky to be alive.


23 June 2010

Methven Public Library 1883

A certain Hugh Anderson disappeared while out hunting in 1882. He has never been found. His people in England were so grateful to the several parties of locals who searched for him that they sent a gift of £100 as a reward. Instead of spending the money at the local pub the men gave it towards the building of this public library which was established one year later. (Can you imagine any building going from start to finish in one year these days? It would take ten years to get resource consent!)

Until quite recently Methven was a modest township serving the mid-Canterbury farming community but in recent years it has turned into an important centre for the ski-ing fraternity who come from all over the world to break their legs on the Southern Alps. Restaurants, pubs and hotels of world class abound, few of them as handsome as the public library and none of them will last as long.

It’s odd to think of those earnest pioneers of 1883 valuing culture so much that they would worship at the home-built altar of books and learning. These days, with  flick of a switch you can get more information on the internet than a million Methven Libraries could even hold.

I’ll bet the 1883 Methvenites could spell better though, and their grammar would have been to die for!


22 June 2010

Glentunnel: The Octagonal Library

Glentunnel is a quiet hamlet on State Highway 72, the scenic inland road between Christchurch and Geraldine.

There was a coalmine here that opened in 1872 and was worked for 66 years so, for a short golden age, it was an important little town; it even had a railway that opened in 1875 to connect the village to Darfield and Christchurch (sadly, as with so many branch lines in New Zealand – indeed, in the world, it’s long gone).

Relative affluence financed this exquisite octagonal library. It was built with bricks from the local Tile Brick and Pottery Works whose products were also used for a number of other distinctive town and farm buildings in the Glentunnel, Methven, Hororata and surrounding areas.


20 June 2010

A Post-and-Rail Fence Near Akaroa

New Zealand’s modern, standard, utility farm fences usually comprise three basic ingredients: 1. Preserved pine poles. 2. High tensile steel wire. 3. Pine battens.

The poles, pinus radiata preserved in all sorts of toxic chemicals in order to resist decay both above and below the earth, are augured into the soil a few metres apart. Upon them, tightened like guitar strings, are attached up to seven high-tensile steel wires, the horizontal gaps between them narrowing as they near the earth, all secured into the poles by galvanized steel staples. In order to keep the gaps constant, battens 7o mm in section and long enough to extend above and below the wires (but not to touch the earth) are strung at 600mm intervals.

This everyday fence will enclose sheep and cattle. It is highly efficient. It is about as romantic as a fly-struck ewe’s daggy bottom.

But the fence in my photograph is an old technology built with craftsmanship, built to survive, built of materials that will outlast any modern farm fence by a factor of ten? twenty?

It’s called post-and-rail, it’s entirely made of New Zealand native totara, it is untreated and will last underground without rotting. The rails are simply inserted into morticed holes; depending upon the number of rails will be the fence’s stock-retaining efficiency.

The photograph was taken near Akaroa on Banks Peninsula. Akaroa was founded by French settlers in 1840. The surrounding farm sections were laid out over the following years. As the fence is close to the township it could be more than 150 years old.


17 June 2010

Akaroa, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury, New Zealand

Akaroa is the oldest European town in Canterbury. It was founded in 1840 by some would-be French colonists who never actually got to colonize it because the British pre-empted them but who nevertheless managed to stamp an unusual Frenchness upon the town. In more recent years the locals not only realized what a draw card its origins were, they actively promoted it by squeezing every last drop out of its Gallic origins. At least half of the streets have French names such as Rue Jolie and Rue Lavaud (earlier known as Jolie and Lavaud Streets) and the tricouleur accompanies the New Zealand ensign and the union flag on festive occasions.

Akaroa township started life as Port Louis-Philipe but soon took the Maori name of its South Pacific inlet (Akaroa means long harbour) which, like its neighbouring Lyttleton Harbour, is a flooded extinct volcano.

By 1844 its population comprised 60 French, 20 German, 40 British and 97 ‘aborigines’. I guess the ‘aborigines’ were in the area long before the Europeans arrived and, indeed, there is a tiny Maori ‘kainga’ (village) to the south of the town to this day.

Akaroa’s population swells each summer with tourists, and grows, too, with new residents seduced by its natural magnificence. As gems go, Akaroa is lustrous in the extreme and well worth the long winding journey over the volcanic hills of Banks Peninsula from its nearest big city, Christchurch.


16 June 2010

Akaroa: Langlois-Etevenaux House

Lured by the treasures of tourism Akaroa becomes Frencher by the day, and it is with relish that the richly Gallic syllables of ‘Langlois-Etevenaux’ are rolled out in the town.

Quite right, too; Akaroa has a unique place in the history of New Zealand and whether or not it is for commercial reasons its French colonial origins should never be forgotten.

Jean Langlois was skipper of the whaler Cachalot from Normandy who, having visited Akaroa Harbour, felt that it would be a good base from which France might colonize the South Island of New Zealand. He negotiated a doubtful deed of purchase with some Ngai Tahu chiefs in Port Cooper and then sailed for France where his enthusiasm infectiously encouraged formation of the colonizing Nanto-Bordelaise Company, and despatch of sixty-three migrants to Akaroa in 1840.

The rest is history: there was to be no French colony; intention was scotched by the pre-emptive establishment of British sovereignty at Waitangi. Notwithstanding, the immigrants came, and stayed. Jean Langlois’s brother, Aimable was among them. He opened the town store – the French Magasin – and he built the dolls house cottage on the corner of Rue Lavaud and Rue Balguerie that is now part of the Akaroa Museum, administered by the Department of Conservation.

It is said to date between 1841 and 1845 and could compete with Deans’s Cottage as the oldest house in Canterbury. There is speculation that it may have been partially pre-fabricated in France, and my instincts – having seen nothing else quite like it – support the probability that it was at least French-designed for it is wonderfully well proportioned, and its fine, inward opening, casement windows with their flanking shutters have an old world elegance.
By 1845 Langlois had left New Zealand for Honolulu. He died about 1857 near San Francisco and the following year his brother, Jean, sold the house to Jean Pierre Etevenaux, one of the original settlers from France. He, his wife Jeanne Françoise and family owned it from 1858 to 1906. Thus Langlois-Etevenaux’ House.

14 June 2010

Akaroa Villas: 113 and 115 Rue Jolie.

Many things, including houses, are thrown away as rubbish or no longer relevant just before they would have become treasured antiques had they not been discarded.

The people of Akaroa, or those who eyed Akaroa from afar as a special place, had the wit to save the town’s heritage before it was too late. By doing so they added enormous value to the town, its attraction as a holiday destination or alternative residence, and its ability to attract tourists.

These two villas in Rue Jolie are typical of the ‘Gothic Revival’ architecture that came early to Akaroa (mid 1870s) but was later seen all over New Zealand.

They are magnificent but they could so easily have become victims to ‘progress’.


13 June 2010

Akaroa: The Gaiety Theatre

This imposing building in Rue Jolie was opened in April 1879 by the Oddfellows Friendly Society. In those days Akaroa was pretty remote, its largest neighbour city being Christchurch a long, hard road journey away and character-forming by boat trip round the indentations of Banks Peninsula.

In those days also there was a top-hat-and-morning-coat need for dignity and so any public building – town hall, bank etc – had to have a classical facade even if what lay behind was pretty ordinary. It was turned into The Gaiety Theatre later and is still the town’s theatrical hub and public entertainment venue.

The architect was A.W. Simpson of Christchurch. The whole building, including its faux Corinthian capitals is made not of stone but of wood. In the words of W.S Gilbert, who would have understood entirely the need for dignity, ‘things are seldom what they seem’.


06 June 2010

Akaroa: The Coronation Library

This charming little building in Akaroa was once the town’s main library but now it’s kept for ‘heritage’ and as a source of reference.

While it’s claimed to date from 1875 – the design of Sam Farr an architect from Christchurch who had lived for some time in Akaroa – it’s not that original. It was a bit dilapidated by 1911 and the funding opportunity of having a memorial for the coronation of George V was applied to the library’s re-building. New foundations, a new front (somewhat influenced by the William Morris ‘arts and crafts’ look from England) and a new roof transformed Farr’s old building into Akaroa’s Coronation Library.

Today it benefits from loving care derived from a determination to preserve Akaroa’s history and keep the town’s appeal for tourists and residents alike.


03 June 2010

Onuku Church, The Kaik, Akaroa

Onuku marae is a small Maori village beyond the town of Akaroa on Banks Peninsula. While Akaroa is the oldest town in New Zealand, Onuku ‘kaik’ or kainga was probably there before the French tried to colonize the local area. It’s not the easiest place to reach because the road isn’t signposted. It isn’t signposted because the local sub-tribe probably don’t like having too many visitors. But it’s a neat settlement and is very, very proud of its Anglican church.
Its red ochre ‘Maori-ness’ and carvings turn a typical, simple nave and porch into something very special. Even the picket fence that surrounds it is a celebration. Although I’ve drawn it many times in the past, it always comes out differently. (Have a look at my book ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ or enter ‘kaik’ in the search box).

Onuku church was begun in 1876 and opened as a non-denominational ‘all-welcome’ whare karakia on 21 March 1878 to a congregation not only of locals but also of people from the North Island and the Chatham Islands.
There’s a sealed bottle in the foundations containing secret documents concerning the now resurgent Ngai Tahu iwi.* I’d love to know what’s written on them…
‘Kaik’, by the way, is simply an unfortified village.

* In Maori, ‘Iwi’ equates to ‘tribe’. Ngai Tahu is the iwi that largely dominates Maori presence in the South Island. Whare karakia means house of prayer.


01 June 2010

Duvauchelle Hotel: What’s In A Name?

Not long ago this was called Hôtel des Pècheurs in evidence of how close this area came to being a French colony. Duvauchelle was named after two brothers who, in 1843, had acquired sections at the head of Akaroa Harbour from the colonially minded Nanto-Bordelaise company: they never took up residence.

In 1851 the first inn at Duvauchelle was opened by Francois Le Lievre, a member of one of the original French families brought to Banks Peninsula in 1840. He also ran a ferry service to save travellers who’d tramped across the hills from Lyttelton Harbour from having to make the last hard plod to Akaroa.

But the recent name change is by no means the first. Ben Shadbolt, an ex-convict from Van Diemen’s Land (a.k.a. Tasmania), bought Anderson’s Accommodation House at the head of the bay in 1861 and named it, appropriately if unoriginally ‘The Travellers Rest’. Ironically a condition of the licence was that Shadbolt was sworn in as local constable; thus the poacher turned gamekeeper! He and his wife, Elizabeth, were at the heart of the community and, with his larger-than-life ebullience, he was famed as a racehorse owner, trainer and breeder, farmer, forest owner, local politician and proprietor of a coach service.

The Travellers Rest burned down in 1876 whereupon Shadbolt erected ‘The Somerset’, a palatial affair named after Elizabeth’s birthplace in England. For six more years The Somerset served the travelling and resident communities with grog, sustenance, accommodation, travel and a post office; but a wowser arsonist maniac, who laid fires in a number of Banks Peninsula hotels, burned it down in 1882: that, coincidentally, was the year of Ben’s death.

The redoubtable Elizabeth rebuilt the pub, which has lasted well over a century with few changes apart from odd additions, several changes of name – ‘The Crown’, ‘Duvauchelle Hotel’ (deja vue), ‘The Bricks’ and then the penultimate ‘Hôtel des Pècheurs’ – exotic and complete with accents Françaises. The biggest change was that the road now passes what was the back of the pub and so it’s back to front.



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By Don Donovan