Sandy Bay, summer school holidays, three weeks – what a formula to conjure up who knows what wild adventures in the mind of a young boy. Visions of sparkling blue waters, days spent fishing and exploring the bush clad shoreline, with almost half of his holidays to expend, up his sleeve. His expectation was a rich mix of delicious impatience – couldn’t wait to get there tempered with the fertile imagination of escapades to come.
The bach had been lent to them by friends of the family who were going away and not using it this summer. Midway through last century, seaside bach’s were very basic constructions and this one was no exception. Four grey sheetrock walls, tin roof with large rust spots, brown hardboard partitions, and finished off with cracked green and cream linoleum just managing to cover the convoluted floor boards. But with its tawdriness glossed over and oblivious to its drabness, what an exciting venue for three weeks of untrammelled excitement.
Dad had to stay in Nelson the first week minding the family store but was to take the rest of us over and come back to join us at the end of the week. So we all set off on the Sunday morning with Dad at the wheel of the old V8. Dripping dew, the crystal morning balloons into a mind cracking miasma of kaleidoscope colours, the suns rays glittering omni directional as they filter ground ward. The local rivers are up after the rain – short steep streams boiling and brown, falling over themselves in their short lived frothy struggle to gain freedom at the sea side.
The Appleby, normally a quiet and gentle body meandering toward the bay, is running brown and high. The bridge has been taken out but the ford to the left of it is unobstructed. The sign reads ‘Not fordable in high flood’. Dad reckons it has receded enough and against Mum’s cautions proceeds to explain that our car is so high she can plough through just about anything. He noses her down and into the water keeping well to the left. The murky swirling water seems to be getting deeper and deeper. Indeed it is and shortly looks to be coming up over the running boards. Suddenly there is water inside the car and screams escape the round mouths of the three kids as they frantically scramble to a standing position on the back seat. Fortunately it comes no higher and the great grey-green beast ploughs out the other side and up the bank, brown water flowing in torrents off the bonnet and high round wings. Their fear under control now and peering out the rear window, the three are most impressed at how far their dripping wet tracks follow them down the metalled road.
Crunching round the final bend they arrive late morning. Bouncing in through the rutted gateway, the encroaching gorse, brittle in the midsummer sun searches out the paintwork, screeching down the side as they lope into the grassed front yard. The following yellow dust cloud settles gently on them as they come to a halt. All windows, wound fully down to keep the heat at bay, now suck in the billowing dust and juvenile coughing ensues – no air conditioning in cars back then. The tall grass having been left to its own devices all summer is wild, seed heads sprouting and getting ready to pop their contents anytime soon. Almost up to the flaking sills, the unkempt look portends a week or two of drudgery for Mum, but projects weeks of endless summer days filled with adventures onto the blank screens of the three young minds sitting in the back.
Round the front of the bach, or the rear, whichever is considered to be the main view, the land slopes down to the top of the cliff. Leading to the bay and beach below is a short steep track. Quick as a wink, the three intrepids have dived over and disappeared out of sight. Hauled back to unload the car, the first musty impact of the interior hits their nostrils with a certain acrid fullness. This odour will lodge permanently in their brains, flooding their future rememberings anytime a similar olfactory invasion in encountered. Everything stashed inside, an argument ensues as to who is going to sleep where. The two brothers form an unholy alliance and snaffle the front verandah facing the bay and closed in, in those days, front and side by rather heavy roll down canvas blinds. Being summertime this fact did not deter them at all, in fact it injected a certain element of excitement not experienced at home. Any night breeze is going to flap the canvas, raising the stakes of possible nightly marauders. This line of scary imagination injected into the mind of their sister was enough to halt any protestations on her part of her sleeping out there. The first night in a strange bed always sharpens the senses, and so it is they all tumble into bed along with a tinge of apprehension, heightened by the moaning of the rising night wind around the aged and draughty walls.
Morning brings the sound of steady rain on the iron roof. Gazing forlornly out of the great glass window of the lounge a dreary view moves across their vision. Great gobs of rain splatter onto the mirror grey panes staring sightlessly seaward. Heavy black clouds writhe their way all around the horizon. A tinge of mouldy green in them heralds some nasty stuff out there for any ship that might be overtaken. The morning passes unbelievably slowly with half hearted attempts at cards, jigsaws and Monopoly along with the attendant squabbles of three active and juvenile minds.
Noon arrives with a blue wall rising up from the horizon in the west and the sun bursting through, just as lunch arrives. The sea is shining within moments and exudes a magnetic pull that is not to be denied. Our man bolts down his food, races through the screen door and disappears bare and fleet footed down the muddy track to the shore. His objective is to put as much distance between himself and his siblings – he wants to explore the bay on his own terms and not be swayed by anybody else’s wishes and demands. First into the squelchy, oozy brown mud of a half tide, the pleasant feeling runs up his legs. Rounding the first bunch of rocks he glances behind and is surprised to see a still bare and empty strand behind. Good, he feels he has such a good head start on the others he might lose them for the rest of the afternoon – not knowing the reason for their non appearance, let alone care.
Within minutes he is lost in his own world. Squinting into the sun and feeling the warm water swirling around his calves, he is at one with nature. He feels the thousands of years of sea life, the crabs, the pre-historic molluscs, sea slugs, kelp, small fish, large fish all moving in that huge and milling stream of life, that he comes close to fainting with the delicious weight of it all. Flatties, or correctly named flounders, are plentiful around these parts, but usually hunted at night on an incoming tide, spear in one hand and a sputtering carbide lamp in the other. In days gone by they would have been so plentiful the local Ngawatu tribe would have come down anytime during the day to fill their flaxen baskets with these delicious and sweet tasting fish. He can visualise their brown muscular bodies in the late afternoon sun, glistening wet, and the laughter and shouts of youth as they toss the hapless flatties into their soft deathbeds. With hair tied back, male or female no different, the glittering crystal drops of sea arcing off them and the fish against the lowering sun, the fish would make their last short swim in an element totally foreign to the one in which they had spent their whole life.
His attention snaps back to the blackish rock he is working his way toward and tightens his grip on the ‘flattie killer’ in his hand. Not having the funds to purchase a many pronged professional spear, his is fashioned from a bamboo pole chopped off at the ground from the stand at the bottom of their garden. Whilst he has whittled it down to a reasonably fine and sharp point, it is going to make a fair size puncture in any unfortunate ‘flattie’ he happens upon! The optimism of youth leads him to think that he has just as good a chance of spotting one this time of the day, with the full knowledge that he wouldn’t be allowed out in the dark anyway. Besides, apart from not owning a proper spear, he also does not possess the carbide lamp.
The rising tide is going to arrive at the rock shortly before him, so he has curved out of the water and re-entering just behind on the landward side. As the sea swirls around the rock, languidly fingering it, he will have a good view into the water to spot any foraging flounder floating in on the rising flow. Feet well apart he is staring down and unbelievably, almost between them is a good sized ‘flattie’ fluttering its wings into the soft sand. At the very point of him jamming his spear downward and into the unfortunate denizen, the swirling milky water obliterates his vision. He waits patiently for it to clear. It doesn’t and his patience rapidly changes to impatience, and knowing that his ‘Mana’ will be judged by fish brought home, not tales of fish seen but not caught, he can contain himself no longer and thrusts mightily downward, burying the spear deep into the soft and very accommodating sand. Staring with disbelief at the now vacant spot so recently occupied by his prize, he feels the hot prick of tears at the back of his eyes blurring his sight – opportunity gone! Fighting them back in a manly fashion he scours the surrounding water willing his fish to be nearby. Smarter than he expected it to be, it is nowhere to be seen. His tumultuous emotions almost overtaking him, he swings away in disgust and begins splashing his way toward the shore. On his second step he lets out an involuntary yelp as he very nearly steps on a black shape known locally as a ‘Toe biter’. The more scientific term for this ugliest of seaborne blighters is Stone Fish. It lurks, half buried in the sand or mud awaiting any unsuspecting foot, which on arrival will nip into the flesh and in the process inject quite a strong poison. If not treated quickly, the wound goes sceptic and quite acute problems can result. Whilst it has never been heard of anyone having a foot amputated, the imagination of a pubescent youth can take over and swell to enormous proportions, hence the involuntary and fearful yelp. Almost careening into a full length flop into the shallow water, he manages to retain his footing and stumble around this monster, his left foot missing it by inches. Unlike the flounder this fish moves not one millimetre, instead just glaring at him from his lair. Lesson, don’t allow emotions to dictate actions when stalking a quarry – a lesson he can put to good use later in life.
Back on the hard stand and emotions under control once again, he takes stock. The advancing tide is too far in now for any success with those flatfish, so he opts to try for a snapper for dinner. Racing back up the path and somehow successfully avoiding his siblings, he is spotted returning a short few minutes later with his beach caster rod and reel. This rod, like his spear has been made from the same bamboo stand back home and whilst he cannot cast as far with it as he has seen the men cast with their flashy rods bought from the sports store, it is sturdy enough to crank in a good sized snapper hooked in the gullies and channels off most beaches around here. He is very proud of that rod. When his brothers’ girlfriend sat on it and he had to take ten inches off the tip where she split it open, it was some years later before he could bring himself to speak to her again for committing such a heinous crime. Such is the hardness of a young mans heart, who being of an age when matters of the heart are still latent and yet to rise over his horizon, when it comes to major concerns regarding his prized possessions.
Once again navigating around his siblings who were ineffectually splashing about in a rock pool, and in any event probably pretending not to see him skulking through the gorse and wattle by the shore, he is back this time at the rocky point. At low tide from the cottage window earlier he had observed a nicely curved deep and riffled channel carving its route around this point and reckoned any snapper excavating its way after crabs into the bay would come up this channel. Into his second cast now, gazing around and sucking it all in, thoughts of the new term and school completely on another planet, he feels the wary snapper pick up his bait and begin to move off with it. He knows not to strike too soon as the fish will drop the bait instantly. He has to wait for it to swallow the squid and hook past its immensely strong and bony jaws and into its stomach. Breath held tight while letting him spool off several metres of line from the reel, he lifts the rod tip and gives a mighty tug. His young arms feel as though they have hit a brick wall and immediately the snapper fights back with his familiar thrung thrung coming up the line and into every taut fibre of his body. Adrenalin pumping at around five thousand percent, his knees almost give way in his excitement. He is close to peeing in his pants, but somewhere in the recesses of his mind a warning signal lights up reminding him that childish indiscretions such as that are supposed to be behind him now.
Keeping the rod tip up and letting the fish take line when it wishes, he works it slowly around the rocks and toward the beach. Not having a gaff he has to get back to the beach and bring it up onto the sand. Jumping off the last of the rocks to the point he steps carefully a few yards along the beach, all the while bringing his prize closer. The battle is not over yet as the mighty jaws of the snapper could grind through his line at any moment and gain his freedom. But the line holds and by just keeping the tension on and walking slowly backward he lets the flapping fish beach itself. A fat and very pink eight pound beauty lies exhausted at the end of its track in the sand, staring up at him with one baleful and accusing eye – no doubt most put at being hauled out of his natural element by this whippersnapper of a boy. Dashing back to the rocks he grabs one large enough to put the animal out of its misery. He will gut it later when he gets back to the bach and can slice it open to retrieve his hook. With the adrenalin subsiding and that weight hanging on the end of his arm, he is quite tuckered out by the time he gets back up the track to proudly display his catch. Large enough to feed the whole family, it is promised to be made into the families’ famous and much loved fish pie.
Kudos fully restored, he is content to sit on the edge of the cliff, bare legs dangling and staring at the summer haze across the bay. With the last of the afternoon sun warming his back and the light swirling breeze tugging at his cotton shirt, he is about as happy as any young man has a right to be. Dad will be arriving tomorrow for the weekend.