Stories & Poetry
Memories from the cradle of my ancestors
Trips to Akaroa left me confused. Living on the plains, I loved staying at French farm: I hated it too.
Banks Peninsula started near Little River for me. This is where dread began, and despite all the tricks in my parents’ child-rearing toolbox, I had every reason to hate the trip.
I sat in the back seat; I sat in the front seat between mum and dad; I even sat beside the window; magic straps were attached to the rear of the car to remove static electricity; I chewed gum, I ate breakfast or I fasted: no matter what, I threw up.
‘It’s not fair,’ my siblings cried when I, again, sat in the front, leaving them fighting in the back of the car.
‘It’s not fair we have to drive over the hill when I’m always sick’ I cried back. But on we drove, and on and on I vomited. Sometimes I refrained until nearly at our destination, and as we reached flat ground, at sea
level, we turned right, and just as I was being congratulated for surviving the hill, I would regurgitate.
At WAMP cottage (named for War AMPutees Association) my pain, bad taste and the nasty smells were
forgotten and I was in childhood heaven. Our bedrooms had dormer windows – just like in picture books I
enjoyed – a macrocarpa hedge to climb and bounce on, oysters to eat from the rocks, a dingy to use in French
bay, catching fish that went straight from sea to pan: and to his consternation, magically making our
youngest brother disappear. And, best of all, very little adult interference in our innocent fun during those
quintessential kiwi summer holidays.
Barry’s Bay cheese factory was a favourite destination. Walking there we would be given a bag of cheese
off-cuts that fuelled us along the quiet road back to our French Farm holiday home.
While I was impressed that twin volcanoes had formed the peninsulas’ harbours and bays, and was amazed at
the story of Te Rauparaha and his defeat of the local Maori at Onawe, it’s the sea rather than the surrounding
hills that informs my memory of this part of Banks Peninsula.
Learning to row, feeding a drag net over the back of a dingy then pulling it ashore with its always-exciting
catch; using land sites to find our special, lucky, or ‘best’ fishing spot; and of swimming in the harbours
Official documents record deaths such as ‘accidentally gored by a young bull’, and wedding certificates of
my ancestors – who have lived on the peninsula since the mid 1800s – provide a roll call of local place
names; Robinson’s Bay, German Bay; Lyttelton, Akaroa, Round Hill, and occupations that range from
labourer, sawyer, farmer, shoemaker, farrier, and stockmen. Apart from a tailoress, and midwife, the women in my family are recorded as spinsters or married: only existing officially through their relationship to men.
As years went by, collecting gemstones at Birdlings Flat with its wild and sometimes rogue waves, has been
added to my list of memories; then with my Maori husband and children, camping at the Kaik, and eeling at
Wairewa (Lake Forsyth)
On full moon each March, with a one-month permit from local iwi, we would dig our ‘drain’ into the shingle
bank that separates the lake from the sea – inviting the migrating eels to use our shortcut to the sea – then
spend most of the night hooking out the plump juicy delicacies out and into a hole we’d also created.
Securing our catch in tied sacks, to which salt was added to make sure they exuded their protective slime, we’d
sleep on the stony ground, in our tent, then, on waking, clean the eels, hang them to dry, repair the drains and
as darkness fell, began eeling again. Back home, I would smoke some in a 44-gallon drum, freeze others and
give some away.
And still I add to Banks Peninsula memories: the annual French Festival, and over Easter, a fund-raising trip on the sailing ship, the Spirit of New Zealand.
Leaving Lyttleton harbour, where my ancestors had landed, we sailed around the peninsula, under the gaze of long-extinct volcanic cliffs and denuded hills, through the kilometre-wide Akaroa Heads and into the harbour, habitat of the Hector’s dolphin. There, in this home of my ancestors, cradled by the hills, and on a wind-powered ship such as they had arrived in, I learn to haul sails and tack under clear blue skies: my sailing much safer and shorter than theirs: the harbour still breathtakingly beautiful.
© Heather Hapeta ‘‘Memories from the Cradle of my Ancestors’ features in Land very fertile, Banks peninsula in poetry and prose (CUP 2008). Banks Peninsular is the nearly French settlement on New Zealand’s South Islands’ east coast.
“They grow oysters on trees up here.” Nga-bush-land, Texas of New Zealand, where everything is
bigger, brighter and better; and now they grow seafood on trees. She doesn’t believe him.
He’s returning home. It’s years since he’d been ‘up north’. He left Paremoremo, changed his name,
headed south and stayed there. She’s Pakeha, knew only one Maori at school in her white city. Now
he was taking her home, to meet his father. His dead father and numerous brothers and sisters.
“All halves” he said, “except one”. He is the baby, his mother died on a pedestrian crossing near
Paddy’s Puzzle. She knows so much and so little about her tattooed lover.
“Nearly there. Here’s the part they mend the road with clay and shingle.” She laughs, “Sure.”
“That’s our old marae. See those totems, I was really scared to go past that cemetery when I was a
kid. We used to go slowly until halfway then kick the horses and go like mad. Dad will be buried
At last the current marae is in front of them. Nervous, holding hands, they enter the ancestral home,
stepping over drowsy bodies to greet and be greeted. Warm bodies shuffle closer to each other and
She is the only white face. The old kuia, auntie, auntie and auntie, sit beside her at the coffin.
Thoughts wandering, she gazes at this man she didn’t know. She talks in mind-time to her father by
marriage. Why couldn’t you wait until we arrived? I want to talk to you. I want to know you. The
net moves above his face. Perfect breathing rhythm. Fearfully she realises she’s the only one who
knows he’s alive. She talks to him. Silently telling him what a good father his son is, a great
husband. Not the black sheep he last saw. Her just-met-sister sits up, the one that’s not a half,
stops plucking the net, he stops breathing – she re-starts.
An early breakfast is cooked over the open fire in the wharekai. Cold showers, then all are ready.
Black clothes; greenery in their hair; a final karakia and the coffin closed and he is taken to lie on
the side of the hill opposite the old marae.
Back ‘down south’ they dream of living in the valley, near the harbour where oysters grow on trees.
Four years pass then she rings her family ‘up north’. He’s dying she tells them. I’ll take you home
she tells him. He says home is here with you. He dies in her arms, at home with the children holding
They fly up north she and he. She’s taking him home: home to the oysters and clay that mends the
road. His body blesses the old school and makes it a marae – their gift to her family ‘up north’. He
lies beside his father and heart-prints rest softly down south.
© Heather Campbell Hapeta
This true story, about my husband Danny Hapeta, was first published as “Up North’ in Home: new short short stories by New Zealand Writers (Random)
- And, although I do not consider myself a poet, two poems have also been published in the Christchurch Press – a converted placing as only one poem is published weekly.
Homage to Otago in April
Trees draped in orange,
as if Buddhists Monks
Meditating like thin
explanation marks and
fat full stops.
Foreign-born exotics: foil
to green natives.
Strangers living together,
Published April 2009. Christchurch Press