Topic: Camping at Stony Bay by Doreen Oldfield

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Night and a thousand stars, the creek roaring under the bridge and the two tents straddling the flat...

Where else would you choose to be?

This was the summer holidays for our family for twenty years, this small space on the Bronlund farm at Stony Bay just south of Cape Colville. Here lay all the pleasures of the Coromandel: the sun, the rain – and how it rained – the floods, the climbing, the fishing and endless sunbathing.

We are told we live in a lucky country. I call us the lucky family, for we felt that nowhere else on earth was there such freedom, such beauty, such total relaxation. No cars, no worries, no blocked highways, only fresh fish for dinner most days ,and for breakfast who would not want bread going mouldy, toasted over an open fire fed with ti tree and old pohutukawa branches?

Pohutukawa lined the bay - and they still do. Only now the Department of Conservation owns the farm and the Bronlund pioneers have gone to greener pastures. They were our relations in a way, and to them we represented the 'townies' from a world apart. They knew every fishing spot, every mountain trail, every slipping gully.

We invaded their silences with shrieks from swimming children, songs around the campfire at night and radio aerials strung to the old puriri tree. On waking we tested the wind for taking out the boat, or dipping naked into the creek for the morning bath - the creek that wound around myriad bends of that hilly country. Looking out to sea we could tell if the Great Barrier was clear and predicted a fine day for us, or gaze up at Moehau from our tent flap to gauge the amount of overnight mist before the big ascent.

Climbing Mount Moehau (3000ft) was a must to blood the children as they reached teenage years. Uncle Ernie, the youngest Bronlund at fifty, would lead the party up the steep climb - a day's outing. Footsore and weary they would tumble into camp for dinner, on the way falling fully clothed in shorts and T-shirts into the homemade pool.

The pool, always number one topic on the journey in, was uppermost in the kids’ minds when they leapt out of the old 1952 Ford on arrival, no matter how sick each child had been coming over those three thousand bends from Thames.  The pool needed to be rebuilt after the winter floods had swept away prototype one or three or seven from previous years and returned the creek to ankle depth.

Still, stones abounded wherever we looked: stones to lie on in the sun, massive boulders, and stones swishing and sloshing in and out with the tide. Stones on the hillsides, rearing their heads above the ti tree. The 'Big Stone' was our landmark as we came into the bay by boat. There on top of the hill, a sentinel rising, guarding the Bay, embedded in the rocky soil. In later years when we were able to drive in via the new road, this landmark was a splendid relief. We knew the car sickness was over and down in the Bay Ernie's wife, Irene, would be spreading the welcome scones with homemade jam.

We were always welcome there - Irene is my sister - and how grateful we were to be invited every holiday to set up our tents in the home paddock.  We shared this with black and white cattle; even the old bull rubbed his posterior on our tent ropes. We shared the paddock, too, with an old shepherd's cottage where one of the other brothers lived when not away fishing. Once he shared it with us when the creek rose to very edges of the banks and threatened to inundate us. We quit our tents like Arabs in the night and scurried to take shelter with Abe.

When it rains up in the Moehau, it buckets down, not just for one night but ad infinitum. Or so it felt for us as we huddled in our ever-increasingly mouldy tents, waiting the moment we could safely cross the frothing waters and head for civilisation. Then out would come the sun and out would come the sleeping bags and all else, while we played helicopter parents over the children on lilos, sweeping down the swollen creek to imminent destruction.

Following the storm, the sea smashed huge waves on the shore, so inland hiking was the order of the day - and where else but the old kauri track? Up past the sagging old homestead and the sheep yards into the shadow of the bush, where long ago the mighty kauri reared its head. Far up the gully a few still stood, but the track was a reminder of the logs dragged out to build boats as the Bronlund brothers did when they were young men.

Sturdy boats they were, to take the wool clip up to Auckland and bring back a six months’ supply of food and farming needs. We stopped to admire the pit where two men stood pit sawing timber, a hard and dusty job. The smaller children   thought they were getting a bit dusty too, and moaned and groaned, even though father tried to interest them in ferns and ‘the old man of the Moehau,' who supposedly lived in the surrounding bush. 

Eventually the stream pooled in a sunlit spot and it was off with their clothes and, joy of joys, a slippery rocky slide and waterfall sweeping them down to the pool below. Forgotten now the tired legs, the deep thirst, the mutterings of “When are we going to get there?”

The afternoon drifted into sunset and, shivering slightly, we were glad to hit the trail for camp.

On cooler days a picnic would be the order of the day. This entailed a steep plod up the Shag Bay track; no need to hurry - the tide would wait for us. The view from the top through punga and nikau was worth the climb, but no lingering. The children would race down the steep and shingly sheep track to hurl themselves into the sea and surf.  It was a picnic, an adventure. 

A slower return to camp and time to get the bonfire ready for the pancake fry up. Only then relaxing to read books. No wonder old Lou, the eldest brother called us the ‘lay readers.’

The lay readers needed adventure, so a seven mile trek was on. Up and over past Shag Bay, Billy Goat Track, Poley's Bay, with only the ridges to follow. Uncle Ernie led the teenagers, striding out with a measured pace, while his impatient group shouted, “Hurry up.”

Uncle Ernie never hurried. Experience and time had taught him slow and steady wins the race. What's more no one was allowed to drink from every passing creek. That was saved until the midday break, when they collapsed on the top of the range, brought out their bread and jam and hoed into ageing Christmas cake. Then, and only then, were they allowed a good long drink.

The hills were dry and burnt from the long hot summer, and the cattle hid in the lower slopes of the native forest. Ernie sent out his dogs and trusty 'sidekicks', the adventurers, to rattle the steers and bulls from the shade and herd them off toward the homestead.

Our young ones throve on this outdoor life, thrilled to find the old shanty full of rat droppings, the rusty roof falling in. It was more romantic than Star Trek.  Standing on the hill at the westernmost end of these Bronlund acres, looking out over the Pinnacles (jagged rocks beyond Fletchers Bay) and watching the waves curl in from Cuvier Island, enlarged our children's vision, as it must have done for the original owners all the way from Norway, one hundred years ago. 

These hardy men and women planted the pohutukawa, cut the forest and scrub, fertilised the soil and scraped a living for their generation. The days were long and hard for people bringing in the land. To us, it was pure recreation and fun, good fresh snapper and garden supplies from Irene’s garden.

A time in their lives that even as adults, whenever we ask our family what was the best time growing up, the answer is invariably, “Camping at Stony Bay.”


‘Camping at Stony Bay’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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