On December 30th 1994 we left behind the caravans and house buses and house boats and abandoned hospitals and general gypsie lifestyle and moved over the hills and far away to a place called Helena Bay
Helena Bay, also known in the Maori translation as being Te Mimiha Bay, sits on the cusp of the Bay of Islands in New Zealand.
Our new home was purchased with the money we made when we sold The House (which you can imagine was substantial because as you remember Annie had sold it to us for only a few thousand clams as revenge on her bastard husband)
Our new home was the colour of lime milk; rather unsightly but better than the colour of hospital.
A hedge ran the full length of the property as did Pohutokawas. In the back yard: Fejoia tress, Paw Paw, Lemons, Mandarines, Apples.
Also in the backyard: a heavy red gate framed with more hedge led to a vast farm belonging to our neighbors which we adopted as our own land. A river ran through the property opening its large mouth into water holes where we would spend long summer days skinny dipping and lounging in the grass with fruit picked as we dashed bare foot past the fruit trees. We would drag pup tents to the waters edge and camp under the trees and make little fires on the shore of the large water holes and though we were young our parents let us go because we had permission to seek adventure.
Oh, and I must tell you about the wasps.
There were wasp nests in the bush somewhere nearby and they must have been enormous because thousands of dear little waspy’s would travel to our backyard in the summer time and eat our apples. They would nibble a little hole into the side and then just crawl right on in and eat that damn apple from the inside out. As the hole got bigger the wasp would invite his little wasp friends in too and it would be a little wasp party, right inside an apple hanging on our tree.
In the peak of summer you might find that half of the apples on the tree would contain wasps and Dad hated it so he bought a second hand vacuum cleaner and a long extension cord and added vacuuming the wasps out of the apples to our jobs list.
In the summer time you would find one of us out the back with the retro vacuum cleaner in the grass under the shade of the apple tree, just vacuuming wasps right out of apples.
Helena bay sat in a valley.
From behind our home we were hedged around by mountains which stood proud cloaked in bushland every shade of green that green could be known by but in front of our home: The sea. Our sea. Helena Bay.
We shared Helena Bay with our neighbors to the right: Rosy and her children – Tui, who was Nellys age and Jessie, who was mine. On the beach in little batches lived Bill who lived with his sister, Aileen and a few meters up their other sister, the ‘wild Bunty’ who we would visit regularly and had the biggest collection of Mills and Boon that a single person has possibly ever had. When Bunty would go away we would feed her animals and hang around her house listening to Dolly Parton and drinking her cows milk because mum raised us with soy and we stole it at any chance we could get.
Helena Bay was sandy for only a few meters before the sand disappeared under beautiful smooth, black pebbles which would heat up in the summer sun and would become imprinted by the wet shadow of us girls after we would swim and swim and swim and then collapse on the pebbles, dripping wet and we would melt into the heat and it was happiness.
On one end of the beach were rocks which you could walk around to the next bay over, Teal bay. At the other end was the lagoon.
The stream which snaked its way down the mountains and through the fields emptied into this lagoon, which was partially shaded by the bush which rose up around it. The shape and depth of this lagoon would change drastically every time there was a storm, as the waves would pound at its boarders mercilessly until the morning light would unveil a whole new lagoon.
We grew to know that beach inside and out which afforded us some unique benefits. For example: Occasionally I would watch various people come down to the beach with potato sacks and chip away at the tiny mussels on the rocks trying to fill up their sacks with these tiny little baby shells and so I would walk home and grab my gloves and knife and diving bag and swim out 40 meters off a particular point on the beach and dive down to a secret rock formation which was hidden deep underwater but was blanketed in mussels larger than your feet. As one of the few valuable things my father actually took the time to teach me happened to be how to free dive, I would spend several minutes underwater with my legs wrapped around a rock filling my bag with the deep green shellfish. Once I had surfaced I would swim to the closest rocks and climb up and from around the corner I would come and walk past those people, pillaging the undersized shells, with this heavy sack of gigantic mussels slung over my shoulders and it would drive them nuts because no matter how far around those rocks they went trying to find where I had come from, they couldn’t find out where I was finding those darn shells and it pleased me no end.
This knowledge I owe to Bill who was born in Helena Bay and at 80ish was still living there, in the very same house he was born in and one day he whispered to Dad the location of that rock for which I, like any other person who frequented the bay would never have known of otherwise.
We would often stop off at the Eels on our way home. The same stream which fed the lagoon would open up slightly and was home to about 40 eels. They varied in size and shape.
King George was our largest at a few meters long and so thick you could not fit your hands around him. Misty was one of our smallest, a little grey eel and secretly my favorite. We would sit on the pebbles on the edge of the stream and feed our eels and they would slither up the pebbles and nearly onto our laps to get our attention if we got distracted and they grew impatient and wanted more bread. They were slippery and black like midnight and completely harmless.
Well, nearly completely harmless. Sometimes if they were sucking on your toes or wrapping around your legs they may get excited and throw a bit of a bite but they had no teeth and blood was rarely drawn.
Follow that stream even more and you would pass under the road and into the bush which ran along and behind the tiny local school. Follow further and you find yourself very quickly in deep, thick, native New Zealand bush. Ribbons of light would fall through the branches of ancient trees and as long as you stuck to the stream, you wouldn’t get lost. We would venture up stopping under the walnut trees to grab a handful of nuts and after bashing them between two river rocks would enjoy a quick snack of sweet, juicy walnuts.
We never drank from the stream because we knew that somewhere further ahead there would probably be a dead and bloated sheep or if we were lucky, a cow. The cows were the best because their stomachs bloated so much more and if you hit at them with sticks it sounded a little like a bongo drum.
Follow far enough and you would finally come to the waterfalls.
The water was icy because it had just come out of the mountains and the bush was too thick to allow much light in and so the water would remain as cold as the stone that had harbored it until it would reach the stillness of the lagoon and warm up under the full exposure to the sun.
My sister and I attended Helena Bay school which was right across the road from our lime-milk-green home. Being a part of a predominantly maori comment we were at times the only white faces in a sea of little dark skinned, barefooted maori children from far and wide across the district.
But I got involved and it was a beautiful thing, what with my blonde hair and blue eyes and fair skin and freckled nose.
I learnt how to swing a poi and say my mihi in fluent Maori and I would audition side by side the older, broader shouldered dark haired Maori girls for the Maori Culture group so I could join them in competing against other local schools in Maori culture performances. The local elders enjoyed a good belly laugh and knee slap at seeing such a weedy little blonde thing like me getting up to audition and I never make the cut but to this day I can still swing a poi and I remember most of my Mihi.
Living across the road from school afforded us the luxury of being able to walk home for lunch but every second wednesday while Mum and Dad had gone to the city to do the grocery shopping we would be followed home by a handful of older Maori kids who knew our parents schedule and knew we would be home alone.
Our options were A) allow them to come over to our house and eat out of our cupboards or B) ‘Get the bash’.
Seeing as Nelly and I were rarely in the mood for a fist in the mouth we let them in and they ate what was left of our food and stripped our trees of their fruit and would walk back across the road to school when the bell sounded with a friendly single finger raised in the air at us to say thank you.
Such nice kids.
We were rather isolated living in that big valley. The city was 45 minutes drive away over the huge Helena Bay hill and with only 3 channels on our television we had to create adventures in the playground of the farmland, bush and coast. A typical summer go a little something like this:
Up with the morning light Nelly and I would often leave the younger sisters behind and drag dads boat down the beach and row around to princess bay.
Princess bay was a tiny little sandy paradise that was inaccessible at high tide but was a perfect place to take a picnic or a friend who was staying for the weekend.
It was a hefty journey though and one that took you past precarious rocks which took a lot of upper body strength to steer clear of if there was a swell. I have lost count of how many times we would head around to Princess bay on perfectly still waters in the beaming sun, only to see the weather turn on a dime and we would have to face rowing home under blackening skies in huge swells and raging winds, trying to keep our little 12 foot tin boat away from those rocky teeth which would have chewed your skin and grinded your bones had you fallen prey.
Nelly was a dictator back in those days and I will admit humbly enough that I would do just about anything Nelly told me too because she was persistent and bossy…a little blonde tyrant. (She used to make me eat sand for her own enjoyment and once I was publicly humiliated when she made me ride my bike home up and over Teal Bay hill wearing nothing but a clear plastic shopping bag. She was the law.)
One afternoon I was rowing back from Princess bay with Nelly and her friend Emma. Delirious from the overexposure to a full summer sun, Nelly and Amy were chanting like a broken record ‘row faster, row harder, come on Vanessa row, row, ROW’ I was exhausted as Nelly refused to take over the paddles and I said ‘If you don’t quit those damn demands and shut up, i’m going to go right ahead and jump out of this damn boat and swim home and you can find your own way back.’
Nelly, being Nelly, and not believing I would risk my life swimming a few miles home didn’t let up ‘Row Vanessa ROW!’ So I let go of the paddles and went right ahead and jumped clear out of that boat and you should have seen the look on Nelly’s face as she just sat there in that boat bobbing up and down on the water watching me swim out into that big blue ocean leaving her and her little weedy arms to row herself home.
In New Zealand, Possums are not protected as they are here in Australia. They are pests and are destroying our bushland. To protect our native Puriri trees, sheet iron would be wrapped around the base of the trunks to stop the possums from being able to claw up and into the branches. Our neighbor had a boyfriend for a few years named Tommy and he resembled Tom Hanks after he got left on that island all those years in Castaway. Think long wild hair, wiry beard and missing teeth. One day wild old Tommy found another use for the sheet metal and built a water craft. I chose on purpose not to call it a boat, because with its old salvaged sheet metal hull, held together with old wooden beams and nails here there and everywhere, it was not a boat as we know a boat. But it did look similar to an indian canoe, and it actually stayed afloat. He named it the Super Tom and made sure we all knew it by painting the words on the side of the hull.
Tommy kept his pride and joy moored in the lagoon, tied to a tree, and we were not to touch it. But we did. We did touch it. We touched it all the time and we would untie it and row it all around the lagoon, and then tie it up again and hairy old Tommy would be none wiser. One day Nelly had the idea to take it out into the ocean. ‘Oh why not’ I thought ‘life is short, you only live once, lets do it, lets take this titanic out into that big free ocean. I mean, its not like its going to SINK or anything’
Row, row, row your boat, gently out to sea, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
Once we got the Super Tom far enough out to sea to make it a real problem to swim home should the boat, oh, I don’t know, sink, It sunk. Just right out from under our feet it suddenly disappeared beneath the deep, dark water and we were left in the middle of the pacific bobbing up and down staring at each other in the horrible reality that we had just sunk a boat that we didn’t own, in the middle of the ocean. She didn’t have to even say the words, I could see what she was thinking ‘We will never speak of this again… to anybody’ That was 13 years ago and we have never spoken of it until now. Yes. We did it okay. We sunk the Super Tom and never told a soul.
The summer would also bring the cyclones. Being in a valley, facing the ocean meant we bore the full brunt of the angry weather and those placid, sparkly streams and rivers would begin to swell and break the banks and spill over into the farm land and the ocean would advance upon us, throwing mist and salt and creating thunderous noise as it threw its body upon the sand and pebbles and rocks in wave upon wave as if it were stamping its feet and throwing its head back and screaming to the skies in a unrelenting salty tantrum. Our house sat on the slightest of hills, not enough to notice we were established on higher ground but enough to keep us dry above the flood waters that would engulf the gardens and sheds and homes of our neighbors. If the cyclone should coincide with a king tide, then the waves would burst up and over the banks and eventually onto dear little Bill and Buntys batches. So with their greying hair and weakening bones, they would have to fight the brown murky water from the flooded rivers and the angry, salty water from the sea.
Heading out in a cyclone was not only a wet exercise but a dangerous one. But we could care less about neither danger nor rain and so we would seek out any device you could inflate with air, you know the ones: they have ‘Not to be used as a floatation device’ on the side in 10 languages?
Yes, we would arm ourselves with such things and jump the fence and jump straight into those flooded rivers which now covered acres and acres of farmland and we would get swept past fallen trees and stranded cows and through felids gripping tightly to our lifelines filled with air and yes we would be thrown against banks and broken branches and unseen fences would cut our legs but the adrenaline was powerful. The skies were raging, the wind was dancing, the seas were exploding and the energy in the atmosphere was contagious and you never felt as alive as you did in those flood waters, being hurled faster than you could run through the land until you would be spat out in the lagoon and would have to try and make it to the other end of the beach without being stolen by the sea. It was fabulous. It was dangerous, it was another example of why I feel so blessed to have had a mother like ours who, though she loved us to utter distraction and would perhaps have preferred to hold us tight and wrap us in cotton wool should she ever lose one of us, also loved us enough to let us live. Many summer mornings we would disappear after breakfast and she would not see us again until sundown, and she trusted we would be ok and because of this wild and unconventional style of parenting, we enjoyed 5 years of good, honest, barefooted, suntanned, border-less, TV free, wild and 100% pure life.
I learned how to shoot a gun, drive a car, swim in waters in any condition, catch fish with spears I made myself and bike ride down one of the most precarious and winding hills in our valley with no breaks…..and no hands.
Mum would often find her sieve had gone missing from the kitchen cupboard and while she is standing in the middle of the kitchen scratching her head over where on earth it walked off to, Nelly and I would be a few fields away using it to trawl through pond weed for sprats. Once we had a decent haul, we would sit in the water and just eat away at those little sprats. Raw, cold and spratty. This was our life, with a diet that mainly consisted of produce we scavenged for ourselves off trees and from rivers and off deeply hidden rock formations. There were now 6 of us girls and mum insisted we each had the freedom to explore life.
She was wise of course, our adventures rarely crossed over the boundary into being terribly life threatening, she simply knew how let us live without the enforcing restrictions upon us born out of an irrational fear that so many mothers surrender to.
When you imagine 5 long summers over 5 long years, you can imagine that the stories I have just shared with you are only a few of thousands that are now a source of remarkable reminiscence. Growing up in New Zealand, as we did by the sea and surrounded by farmland and native bush was an incredible blessing and caused a ribbon called closeness to grow longer and longer with every month and eventually wrap around myself and each of my sisters, pulling us in tightly and binding us together. Though we are now spread out all over the world, from France and South Africa to New Zealand to here in Australia, we remain remarkable friends and remarkably close. These stories are the inheritance my mother passed down to us by allowing us the freedom to explore, just as her parents had passed that freedom down to her.
So now I have set the scene of Helena Bay suitably enough, you will be well ready for me to tell you a very scary story. But that will have to wait a few days.