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The Darling Bays of Mud

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

Well do I recall those halcyon days of the early 1920's when as a little fellow of three my parents used to take my sister Averille, who was six years my senior, and myself camping at the newly opened estate of Beach Haven situated on the upper reaches of the Waitemata Harbour. There, my father who had purchased a number of sections, used to pitch a tent amidst areas of large kanuka, manuka, pines, and a particularly prickly gnarled small tree which I believe was called Hakia- possibly Salinga.

Here on the shores of Hellyers Creek ‘Oruamo’ in Maori, my sister and I would ramble, discovering, clematis with its garlands of white flowers, pohutukawa, or Christmas tree with their brilliant red brush-like blooms.

We would often come across hidden pools of water, dark yet clear water, legacies of early kauri gum diggings. Often we would stumble down cliff faces through native mingi-mingi and oleria, with its tough grey-green leaves and clusters of tiny white daisy-like flowers.

Down we would scramble to the water's edge, where we would collect pipis, cockles, or on rocky outcrops periwinkles or cat eyes, and in pools left by the receding tide, shrimps.

On occasions we would trek in single file through narrow slippery tracks to the Birkdale Wharf. Here was a view of the sparkling Waitemata Harbour, and in those days it was sparkling. A fishing line and a few bits of raw meat would provide, in a couple of hours, schnapper and gurnard sufficient for a couple of days of fish meals.

There was a regular daily launch service from Riverhead to Auckland. These were the green ‘Hunters’ launches which were always an ‘event’ for both young and old alike.

The wharf boasted a wooden jib crane, which was used extensively in these earlier days for loading of fruit from the Birkdale orchards. These were transported to the Auckland City markets.

Swimming was always popular from the wharf in then unpolluted waters. Brave young men would climb the jib and dive off the end. When the tide receded the little sandy beaches became large areas of mud, which virtually moved with scurrying crabs, and always there was a peculiar clicking noise. This sound was present too in the large area of mangroves, which grew in those little bays of sand and mud.

I personally disliked bathing but was always quite at home in a boat. Needless to say an old sheet of roofing iron bent to resemble a canoe became a popular though dangerous toy. The tin canoe was, to say the least, quite dangerous and-would have to be replaced with some safer craft.

On many weekends, 'Hunters' launches would arrive with a party of land agents and salesmen who would gather at the top of the wharf hill where they would loudly proclaim the virtues of various sections of land available in the newly opened estate of Beach Haven. The air would be filled with smoke from fires burning ti-tree, and pine from freshly cleared sections. Roading was being formed with the use of horsedrawn scoops, which resembled huge shovels with twin handles.

In this era there were virtually no automobiles in the area, Birkdale boasting probably five. I recall a Bean, a Ford T, a Hudson, and a Chevy.

At the top of Tui Crescent (now Rambler Crescent) a Mrs Malcolm had a small portable stall where she used to sell ‘Austrella’ ice cream.

One day when I was about three, my parents took us down to one of several fresh water streams to replenish our supply of drinking water. In those days that water was crystal clear and sweet tasting. We would collect a bucket of water and carry it up to the tent. On this occasion it was not the bucket of water carried up to the tent but I, who had slipped into the large pool.

Out from Birkdale wharf, some two hundred yards, was an outcrop of rock marked by a beacon. This was in the form of a tall iron standard topped by a red diamond shaped frame. This area was renowned for fishing. Around 1930 the rock was dynamited to bring it below the surface at low tide and the beacon was replaced with a black and white buoy.

A small shed constructed of motorcar cases eventually replaced our tent. These car cases were becoming available in ever increasing quantities, and many were used to build quite attractive baches or weekend dwellings. As land began to sell, buildings of better standard started to replace tents and my father was amongst the first to erect a more permanent structure.

While he toiled at this weekend work, [weekends were Saturday afternoons and Sunday], my sister and I played down on the beach or squelched through soft grey mud through mangrove areas .We built sandcastles where there was sand, or scrambled up and down cliff faces, often finding nesting kingfishers, who would fly screeching, from holes in the cliff face where they had young.

Many dark evenings we would go ‘flattying’. This adventure was spearing flounder. The spear was usually made from a piece of number 8 wire fixed to a ti-tree [manuka] handle and sharpened at the tip. For a light we used a couple of candles set in a shiny four gallon kerosene tin, a very common commodity in those days, which was cut open corner to corner and fitted with a number 8 wire handle.

As the population grew an enterprising couple, Mr & Mrs Blanchard built a cabaret and a store just up from the wharf. This versatile couple entertained the growing population on Saturday evenings with music and dances. The Blanchard’s played many rare instruments such as musical bells, xylophones, tubular bells and others. Occasionally the Neville Carlson Revue Company would entertain with dancing troupes, magicians, and comedians.

A few of the early residents' names that I recall were Bauer, Souster, Ovendon, Williams, Solomon, Mayall, Carter, Hannan, Pilcher, Hewson, Burrell and Brody.

The desire to travel further afield continued to grow stronger. Then in the coloured pages of the ‘Auckland Star’, or the 'Star Twinkles' as they were called, there was published the exciting plans for a simple seven-foot yacht and was the predecessor of today’s P Class.

By now I was at school and being reasonably clever with my hands, my father saw fit to encourage me to build this wee boat. He purchased the required timber [kahikatea] and gave me the use of the strawberry shed. The shed was a rough shelter in which strawberry growers collected and packed into chips [now punnets] the strawberries, which they grew for market. Imagine if you can, hand digging with a spade, an area of heavy loam of sufficient area to plant ten thousand strawberry plants and then hand hoeing it into fine friable tilth. This in most cases was extra to and above six and half days working in Auckland City.

Back in 1924 I had seen, from Beach Haven, smoke curling high into the air, from the potteries where there were made bricks, containers of all sizes and shapes, and pipes. These Potteries were the first of the well-known Clark brickworks.

After many hours of toil and tears, with the help of my father and a local carpenter friend, who had planned the mast and boom from 2 inch by 2-inch Oregon, the little Tauranga Yacht slowly took shape. An elderly T class yacht owner kindly donated a sail, and modified it to suit on his mother's sewing machine.

A few troubles manifested themselves during the construction. At one stage I developed ‘Urticaria’ a form of nettle rash, caused by red lead paint, which I had used extensively on the kahikatea timber. That tiny yacht must have given my parents much worry and probably grey hairs, for I would spend most of my weekends sailing that craft in and out of the muddy estuaries. As I was a non-swimmer and life jackets were unheard of, the answer was not to fall out, but in the event of a capsize stay with the craft, which had water tight compartments [I hoped] and drift ashore, where it was possible to right the wee craft and set sail once more.

Thus the little seven footer became the means of transport to more adventure, as one or two of my friends had small boats and we would visit bays further afield, where in the muddy estuaries we would find some small sandy patch and set up camp. Now, a teenager, I was allowed freedom which gave me access to many muddy little coves.

Now I was able to sail across the harbour and view more closely the Air Force 'Hobsonville seaplane base'which had been built in 1928. It was exciting to view, at close quarters, the huge concrete slipway that curved slowly into the thick grey mud, alive with scurrying crabs. This slipway was at that time used to launch one seaplane, a Faery three F biplane and one flying boat known as the ‘Cutty Sark’. This was a monoplane with the motor mounted above the hull and wing and the propeller pushing the craft. In those days it was always a thrill to watch either of those aeroplanes take off or land at close quarters.

One day the Faery three crash-landed and pieces of the damaged craft drifted ashore. I became the proud owner of a small piece of the balsa fairing. I also possessed at a later date a small piece of fabric off Sir Charles Kingsford Smith's ‘Southern Cross’. This came from one wing tip, which got damaged when the ‘Southern Cross’ was being moved into number one hanger.

One of the first trips across Hellyers Creek from our campsite at ‘Christmas Tree Bay’ [Tui Beach] was to the area of high land known as the ‘Devils Back’. At low tide one, could actually walk, did I say walk, across Hellyers Creek, through clogging mud, and make the return trip before the incoming tide made the channel too deep to wade across. One year after an extremely heavily rainfall a huge landslide occurred on the ‘other side’, as it was locally known. The enormous weight of earth, boulders, clay and trees, forced a veritable mountain of mud up into a huge cone, so that we had our very own Rangitoto. Thirty years later the remains were still visible.

Trips in the seven footer ranged further afield, and our favourite weekend would be a trip to the old abandoned pottery and clay brick works at Hobsonville. All along the low-lying coastline for thousands of yards were shards of rejected broken pipes, bricks, and terracotta, covering the once sandy shores. Abandoned around 1926, the huge corrugated iron buildings, black with a coating of tar, and quite well preserved stood silent, slightly sinister, like ghostly sentinels. They were to us, huge and towering, two stories high. In the middle of this complex stood an enormous engine. We presumed it was a steam engine and it had powered the entire works through a series of shafts and pulleys coupled by belts. The main drive flywheel was probably 15 feet in diameter, and the belt, which transferred the power to lesser pulleys and shafts, was lying on the floor. Like a huge carpet it laid doubled, 30 or so feet long and 12 inches wide. It must have been an awesome sight to watch all that power and motion when it was in operation.

In a small sandy cove nearby lay the original scow ‘Hobsonville’, a large flat barge, and a solid towing launch complete with engine. These vessels, particularly the scow, soon became our ‘camp’, where we ate and slept, until one night, we turned on one of our powerful torches, to discover the place overrun with large water rats, who had been eating our bread. From then on we were much more cautious about where we slept.

Flounder abounded in the tidal creek and we lived on flounder scooped up with the hands in broad daylight. These we would fry in butter and swamp with tomato sauce.

All good things come to an end and the need for a larger craft became apparent. My father, I now believe in the interest of safety, purchased from the then ‘Devonport Steam Ferry Company’, a large heavy lifeboat. It was 13 foot long, a heavy kauri rowboat in sound condition. I am unable to recall the price paid for this very safe and stable craft.

The miracle to me was the feat performed by my father. Not particularly athletic, he single handedly rowed that heavy craft, using a small pair of oars, from the ferry buildings in Auckland, to Beach Haven one Saturday afternoon. The distance I have had verified at six miles. Fortunately it was fine weather and the tide was incoming, never the less he finished the trip with large blisters on more than his hands.

The dinghy was a complete surprise to me but the dinghies must have been favourable for who would not want a 13 footer with the potential to convert to either sail or motor power. With a new coat of paint and a larger pair of oars I soon became an efficient rower, despite being a skinny little fellow, but chest and shoulder muscles soon doubled as I rowed further and further afield.

I tried a mast and sail pilfered from the 7 footer, which soon became the dinghy for the larger craft. Sailing was not very successful with no centreboard, and some clumsy attempts were made to use leeboards. Rowing against the wind and running with the wind was partly successful. Great if it took one home. I think my father enjoyed that boat despite the blisters, as we did have some fishing trips in her.

The desire for an engine became a reality when one of the original settlers, Mr Jack Williams sold us an outboard motor which suited the boat admirably. It cost my father five pounds [about two weeks pay]. It was nearly twenty years old, an ex-admiralty outboard, and being rigidly fixed to the boat possessed a separate rudder which was wonderful for controlling the boat from a steering wheel well forward. That old motor took me many miles and though I never understood its working, that old heavy cast iron and brass, water cooled, two stroke never let me down. Now with motor power, mid mounted steering wheel and windscreen, life on the ocean wave took a new turn.

The skipper was now decked in white, ex-naval, bell-bottom trousers and peaked cap, which replaced the tatty ‘pork pie’. Occasionally dad and I would do a day's fishing, but mostly I was the one who lived my weekends in a remote muddy creek camping on a small sandy cove anywhere from Albany to Chelsea. We used small methylated spirit stoves for boiling, frying etc, and there were tins of beans, spaghetti, herrings in tomato sauce, sardines, pineapple, butter [which was mostly grease] and the inevitable 500 cigarettes, tobacco papers and matches. I often wonder how we survived to tell this tale.

I travelled many miles in the ‘Void’ as I had named my boat. One Saturday morning a friend and I chugged our way up to Chelsea Sugar Works where we moored the boat beside a jetty. After tea we walked a couple of miles to the hall at Highbury where there was a picture show. This ended round eleven thirty and we made our way back to the boat only to find the rising tide had filled the vessel with water, as it became trapped under a wharf beam. Our double mattress and bedding were still floating, so we collected what was dry and moved them up on the wharf.

Fortunately a lone gentleman [I recall his name as Val] kindly offered us his large yacht to spend the remainder of the night in. The next day being hot and sunny we were able to dry out our wet gear and resume our trip. The harbour coastline was dotted with these small inlets, with, at high tide, small sandy beaches.

Boat building was still in my blood and several fellows I knew had built their own. I had found a part-time job with a coachbuilder, and was acquiring skills, which gave me the confidence to consider building a sixteen-foot cabin runabout. I secured plans and began searching my bays for fallen branches of pohutukawa trees with bends suitable for knees.

One day with a spring tide, the dinghy was paddled and pulled around cliff faces and promontories searching for material suitable for knees. When in about two feet of water, then in the shadow of the dinghy was the largest flounder I had ever seen in broad daylight, and around 11 am. All I had was a spade which I carefully lowered into the water. When the spade was within an inch of that fish it suddenly shot away. Much to my surprise the sandy bay was literally carpeted with flounder of all sizes. Despite a hurried trip ashore where a sharpened stick was procured, an hour was spent in a frustrated effort to spear a flounder or two without success.

With the start of the cabin runabout, which was to be of V bottom seam batten construction, the building of the boat was a long and arduous task. My dad became a willing helper, holding the steel dolly while I drove on the rouves, cut the copper nails and riveted them over. The boat slowly took shape, and with many hours of sawing by hand and much spoke shaving a rather pretty looking boat started to take shape. I had built a steam box to enable me to keep a smooth curve to all planks. The cabin had thick plate glass windows and was of very modern streamlined design.

One day the final painting began and by the following weekend all was set to move her to a launching place. I had joined the workforce by now and was in a position to purchase a powerful outboard motor. I had also fallen in love with a young lady who later became my wife. The launching took place one Saturday in the Kaipitaki creek and those aboard were my Father, my Uncle, and my Girlfriend and her Father.

Several weekends of that summer were spent cruising the well known in-lets, yet the former thrill of rowing, sailing, or just chugging along seemed to be missing .The following year my father passed away, and I sold the runabout.

I had built for my future brother-in-law a canvas kayak, and this lightweight craft became so popular that I built two more, so my girlfriend and I once again began exploring the DARLING BAYS OF MUD, and sand. But the outbreak of war in 1939 changed lifestyles in many ways and paddling our canoes became history.

Subdivisions and roading have polluted the upper harbour, and what were once crystal clear waters now more closely resemble vegetable soup. I even doubt that there are now small children who would find any excitement, thrill, or pleasure, from paddling, or sailing a tiny home made craft from inlet to inlet in search of peace and natural surroundings.

Here I am today at 76 years of age reliving those happy memories of days long gone and I hope someone might read these lines and relive the happy times I had in those DARLING BAYS OF MUD.

The author of 'The Darling Bays of Mud' wishes to apologise to the author of 'The Darling Buds of May' for any resemblance between the two titles.

- Errol L Collins, 2005


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