The Island by Wendy Montrose
Ohakana Island lies on the Ohope side of Ohiwa Harbour, a fertile oasis covering just over a hundred acres in ten-acre lifestyle blocks. Its back runs parallel to the Ohope Spit in an unbroken curve but on the western side, long arms straggle away to form three small bays. Tucked into the north-western corner looking over the oyster farm, a sizeable home sits at the foot of a low hill. Built in the mid 1990s, the house replaced a modest bach that had been there for over forty years.
Wally Quigg built the bach on a shoestring in 1952. New Zealand was enjoying the post war boom but Wally and his wife Cecelia barely made ends meet. With their seven children though, they were a strong family unit and in the 1940s, camping at the edge of Ohiwa Harbour was an annual treat. They stayed for weeks and the children had absolute freedom, wandering over the Port Ohope hills, sustaining themselves from wilding fruit trees. Peaches, plums, blackberries and wild raspberries grew there but the prize was a grove of cherry trees. In time Ohope outgrew them. Wally wanted a more peaceful and permanent campsite and in the harbour, Ohakana Island beckoned.
At the time, Ken Goodwin ran a dairy herd on the island, striving to make a living rowing the cream across the harbour in all weather. In the summer Wally milked the cows when Ken wanted time off and they soon became friends. When Wally wanted to build a bach on the island, Ken granted him a twenty-five year lease, giving the Quiggs a piece of paradise.
In the 1950s, the island was covered in pasture and low scrub with a protective fringe of pohutukawa trees. Wally chose a sheltered corner close to the deep channel to build his bach. He didn’t own a car so begged and borrowed transport to carry fibrolite sheets, corrugated iron and timber from Whakatane over the hill to Goodwin’s Crossing. He made countless journeys across to the island in his overloaded dinghy, often fighting the tide or a westerly wind.
He wasn’t a builder but he was a practical, self-sufficient man and that first summer he knocked together a one room windowless bach. A complicated rope and pulley system carried pumice and sand down from the hill to make concrete, which he mixed by hand and poured for a floor. Fifteen years later the bank he dug into was still raw and exposed and an irresistible playground for one young grandson who hollowed out a cave that grew deeper each time he went to the island. The door he made out of timber odds and ends kept curious cousins out and his secrets safe and still causes all kinds of speculation as to its origin.
Over the years, Wally improved the bach adding windows and an extra room for visitors. In 1959, when their children had all married, he and Cecelia moved there permanently. For five years they lived a simple life, growing their own vegetables and gathering the harbour’s gifts. They had no electricity but after years of camping, adapted easily to their new lifestyle. Cecelia turned the bach into a home. Flowers lined the path to the long drop and the perfume of her buddleia hedge mingled with smoke from the cooking fire. The door was always open to family and friends and there was no shortage of visitors. Their many grandchildren spent holidays and weekends shadowing Wally whenever he would let them and soaking up the wisdom he shared. He taught them well and when he left they carried on the island traditions, boating, spearing flounder and netting.
The front door of the bach opened into a living room with a bunkroom attached. In the main room a sink bench, kitchen table and coal range filled one end while a built in double bed with bunk above was at the other. How hot it was up there under the low ceiling with the hiss of a kerosene lamp and the murmur of familiar voices lulling the lucky youngsters to sleep. There wasn’t much room for the flood of summer visitors and competition for the top bunk was stiff. There were always mattresses on the floor too; no one wanted to sleep with the rats that invaded the bunkroom at night.
To the left of the bach an ancient pohutukawa reached gnarled arms towards the opposite shore. It offered welcome shade to the aunties gossiping as they cleaned the nets and hid a tree hut in its centre. On the right a line of pine trees whispered and swayed in the sea breeze. Behind the pines the hill tumbled to a steep bank where the kids made a water slide. They lugged buckets of water to the top and slid down on one of Wally’s old coats. The top of the slide was frighteningly steep, a vertiginous drop that gave enough momentum to make the exhilarating splash into high tide. Their backsides carved out a deep trench over the years and must have deposited tons of soil at the bottom of the hill.
Until the 1970s, the island was almost uninhabited except for Bertie Cottrell’s place at one end and the Quigg’s bach at the other. To the young visitors it was a desert island. They roamed at will, castaways living an adventure with the sound track provided by the prolific bird life and the constant slosh of the tide against the hull of a boat.
Wally and Cecelia left the island for other adventures in 1964 but their descendants continued to use the bach until 1977. The youngsters grew into teenagers but the island never lost its appeal. They brought their friends to the bach and introduced them to island life.
The idyll came to an end when the lease expired and the land was sold. The family’s tenure of the bach was over and they cleared out the accumulation of personal effects. On that last visit, Wally’s daughter and grandson burnt everything they couldn’t take off the island on a bonfire below high tide mark. With heavy hearts they watched flames devour the scraps of their past and as they left for the last time, the harbour swept the ashes away.
It wasn’t their place any more but new landowners used the bach for almost twenty years after they left. Nature struck the final blow to the bach; a storm brought one of the pine trees crashing down, reducing it to wreckage. Fire removed the ruins, making way for the new house but nothing could erase twenty-five years of memories for three generations of Quiggs.