Golden Days at Big Bay

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Legge bach at Big Bay, 1948

The years either side of the Second World War have been called the golden age of baching. It certainly felt that way for Waiuku-born Nola Smith who spent all her childhood summers at the family bach at Big Bay on the Awhitu peninsula. It is not so much the bach she lovingly recalls, but the community – a safe, homely environment that provided a strong sense of identity and a warm feeling of belonging.

Nola, who still co-owns a bach at Big Bay, hates the thought of this vibrant part of New Zealand’s social history slipping away unrecorded, for little seems to have been written about the details of the bach life of that era. So, with the help of her tape recorder, note book and husband Nigel, she set out nearly a decade ago to track down over 20 of her friends and summer-time neighbours from the past. The result, “Baching at the Bay” has just been published.

Just building those baches was an achievement for it was a time of modest budgets and restricted availability of building materials. Derelict homesteads, and even chicken coops, were cannibalised and carted to the bay. Ex-army huts were plentiful, however, and provided a starter bach for lots of people, as did the redundant bus that was three-year-old Nola’s first baching experience at Big Bay in the mid-1940s.

As for domestic conveniences – forget them. Food storage in a hot summer was especially tricky but drainage pipes set into the hillside, or sometimes vertically into the ground, provided a partial solution. Meat safes attached to the walls, or hanging under the trees where they would catch the breeze, were another. And who needs bathrooms and showers when there’s a great big harbour out there, or a tin tub where you performed the time-honoured ritual – wash up as far as possible, then down as far as possible, and then wash possible.

The mention of long-drops, or worse, brings a story from almost everyone. Going to the dunny was always good for a practical joke or two – firecrackers under the back wall as folk sat in quiet contemplation, rocks thrown onto the ancient iron roofs showering the occupants with rust, kids poking long stalks of wiwi grass through the cracks in the walls to tickle their siblings. For others it was sometimes a scary experience, especially at night with possums and weta lurking all around. “I was always scared something would bite my bum,” remembers one bacher of her childhood holidays. This certainly happened to one adult who promptly built one of the earlier indoor toilets.

This is also a tale of an abundant harbour. Snapper were huge and plentiful back then – Baching at the Bay provides ample photographic evidence. And flounder! Nola’s cousin Judy once cooked 80 in succession at a bible class camp – which put her off fish for life. It would be cruel to mention the scallops in too much detail – let’s just say they were gathered by the sackful but with scant regard for the safety precautions we’d think necessary today. With much more sea food being caught than could be consumed (and with no freezers) the surplus was just given away. New arrivals at the bay might get a knock on the bach door and someone they had never met would give them a snapper – or three.

There was the occasional shark out there too! These were mainly relatively harmless school sharks but some whopping Mako were landed at Big Bay back then. Local boat owners – Fred Vickery with the Callie and Cliff Jones with his Bonita – often took dozens of their neighbours fishing, or over to Cornwallis, the nearest source of ice cream – just for the fun of it, at no cost.

For kids there was the freedom to roam and adventure that is now, sadly, much more restricted. Off they went in the morning – exploring along the bay and on the wharf, messing about on the harbour, or catching minnows with bits of a spider’s web on the end of a reed (amazingly it worked) – and then returning for meals on the sound of a parental whistle. Sometimes makeshift “warfare” broke out between rival gangs of kids from the opposite ends of the bay, complete with mud pie hand-grenades and well-planned pincer movements – but then there was possibly a sing-along and pipi roasting around a bonfire in the evening.

It’s the kids of yesteryear that say it all about the freedom and joy of baching. Talk to them over half a century later and they are unanimous that they were blessed indeed to have such quintessentially Kiwi holidays

More Info

“Baching at the Bay” is available by contacting .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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Big Bay baches


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Harding bach at Big Bay, 1930s Harding bach at Big Bay, 1930s
Jones Bach at Big Bay, 1947 Jones Bach at Big Bay, 1947
Piwa perched