Just two and a half hours from Christchurch, Lake Coleridge is an area in the backcountry of Canterbury that fisherman and their families have been flocking to for decades. My family has been visiting the area since the 1950’s and once you get there, it’s not hard to see why. The scenery is majestic and breathtaking. Huge mountains covered with a forest of trees frame the lake and wild flowers grow in abundance on the shores. The fresh water is home to salmon and trout, and although in recent years the catches have been few and far between, over the years it’s provided a more than decent meal for the many people who fish there.
It’s very rare to find a place like Lake Coleridge in New Zealand today. It was not for a bunch of fishermen drinking and swearing on weekends, it was a place you could bring a family. It was a real community where people helped each other out and looked after, not only one another, but also the land around them, making sure things like fires were put out and the area left tidy. Lifelong friendships were formed through a love of the area and fishing on the lake. Although white lies were told about where fish were caught, or whether or not any were being caught at all, you could always guarantee that there was someone to help if the engine on your boat stalled, or something broke on the caravan, or you simply ran out of butter to cook your fish. It had a real sense of camaraderie that unfortunately is very rarely seen anywhere today. Even amongst all the friendly fishing banter, one relationship bloomed and the couples’ wedding was held in the community of caravans and huts near the lake with the family and all their fishing friends invited to share the day with them.
My Grandfather was first introduced to Lake Coleridge by a work colleague who took him to fish on opening weekend, the first weekend of the fishing season each November, which was not only a chance to catch some fish, but also an opportunity to socialise with the other families and fisherman that graced the shores of the lake.
From that very first visit, he fell in love with the area, and kept returning for decades, first sleeping under a tarp with my then five year old uncle and fishing from the shore. Then in the later years, he bought a jet boat and a caravan and would tow them to the lake for the weekend with my grandmother’s help, over the hour long corrugated shingle access road which took no prisoners in terms of trailer, boat and car undercarriage damage!
In the mid 80’s, there were a few families who would leave their caravans at the lake and return frequently on weekends without the hassle of having to tow everything home again. My grandparents had seen an old cabin amongst the others that never seemed to be used and was slowly over the years becoming more and more dilapidated. This cabin had character, it looked like an old gypsy wagon, it’s chassis from a 1933 Bedford bus, and as my Grandfather was a builder and could easily bring it back to life, he was keen to find out who owned it and if they would be willing to sell it. After a few enquiries, they had the name and addresses of two brothers, one living in Springfield and the other in Queenstown, who owned the cabin, but due to a family rift had stopped using it. They sold it to my grandparents, and although my grandparents offered it to them to use anytime they wanted to return to the lake, neither brother ever did.
In 1985, my grandfather and his best friend spent a week at the lake bringing the cabin back to life and many more weekends of work were to follow. It was in a sorry state, full of holes and rotten at one end and inside the old kapok mattresses that sat on the bunks were full of mice. The boards on the outside were removed and the cabin was wrapped up in building paper before the boards were replaced. A new door was needed and my grandfather enlisted the help of the fisherman, who was also a joiner in the caravan next door, to build a new one. Furniture was bought out to furnish the newly renovated cabin, and blinds were put up and carpets laid to keep the inside warm.
In 1989, my grandfather extended the cabin, widening it and also building a porch with stairs out front, which was used to hang the fish to dry and a cosy place to sit outside for a drink or a cigar when it was wet.
Many memories were formed over the years. Fishermen in the camp recall my grandmother, a drink of something in one hand, cooking for the masses with the other. Grandma’s seafood chowder seems to be legendary amongst them all. One fisherman recalls a day when she was cooking up a pot of it, but had forgotten to bring the secret ingredient -semolina. She went rushing over to his caravan to ask for some, saying she was sure he wouldn’t have any. But low and behold he did, as it was one of his favourite things to eat. There were many New Year’s Eves spent at the lake, and a rainy one in particular that saw about 30 people in my grandparents’ small cabin. People sat on the bunks like birds on a wire, and everyone was squashed in so tight that they could barely escape to head off to the ‘long drop’, but a fun night was had by all. Everyone recalls the lake in different ways: turned silver by the lightening of a huge storm, calm and mirror- like on a glorious sunny day, rough and full of waves blown by a big Norwest wind, or emerald green in colour from the sediment mixed in that had been disturbed by an earthquake.
Although there is a real fondness for the area, every fisherman talked about close calls, mainly involving the rapidly changing weather. One of my grandfather’s first impressions was of the awesomeness of the huge mountains surrounding the lake. He remembers thinking if they could talk they would be saying, “You little nothing, we have been here for thousands of years and will be here for thousands of years after you’ve gone”. He got the message loud and clear, and was always very careful on the lake and aware of the dangers that could arise very quickly. He was lucky enough to enjoy the lake over the years with no major incidents, but there were several that weren’t. There were a few boats which disappeared whilst out on the lake and neither the boat nor the people on board were ever seen again. Accidents on the lake also claimed some lives including that of Ted Porter, a ranger from the area, who wrote a book with his wife Grace, about their life at Lake Coleridge, called ‘Under the Norwest Arch’. My grandfather’s cabin is mentioned in the book as it was towed to Lake Coleridge by draught horses and was a sight to be seen arriving at the lake.
I first got taken to Lake Coleridge when I was six months old, and although I don’t remember the early days, I do remember visiting when I was 19 and singing and laughing around the campfire with many of the other families. After finally crawling into bed in the early hours, I was barely asleep when I was woken by my Grandfather to head out onto the lake for an early morning fish. At 19, and with a sore head and very little sleep, this did not meet with much enthusiasm but I dragged myself up and onto the lake we went. The thing I remember most about being on the lake was the temperature. Before dawn, it’s so cold that my whole body was shaking and numb, and then after the sun rose, the temperature soared and I stripped off layers of jumpers and scarves and gloves to sit in a t-shirt in the warm sun. I visited again about 6 months ago, and it was a different atmosphere then; my boyfriend and I were the only ones there as it was off-season, so no fishing to be done. We had the camp to ourselves, which at night was rather eerie, the trees making strange noises creaking in the dark. I had to take him with me to the long drop at night, just in case something was hiding in the bushes to get me! The silence was overwhelming though and I had forgotten just how beautiful the lake could look both on a cloudy, rainy day and when the sun was shining high in the blue sky.
The lake, although beautiful to look at, was never a huge draw card for swimmers. It is fed by snow melting in the headwaters of the Wilberforce and Harper Rivers and therefore the water was always bitterly cold. A mere four degrees in winter and only nine in summer which, even on the hottest of days, would numb any part of the body that touched the water. My uncle recalls days when his hands were so numb that he could not feel them and gutting the fish was a mammoth task. A small knife was not an option as his hands were so swollen from the cold after the second fish. By the time he had gutted his quota of fish (and in later years my grandfather’s too), they had turned clammy white and were twice the normal size and he wondered if he would ever get feeling back in them again. This was not fishing for the fainthearted. It was what distinguished the men from the mice, and was almost like a right of passage for some who fished there.
Unfortunately in recent years, things changed dramatically at the lake, and the fishing community came under threat. People had been leaving caravans on the land, which in the early years was owned by the Government and then later on by Trust Power. This had never been a problem as strong relationships had been formed over the years with, not only the farmers and farm workers, but also with the electricity company workers. Fisherman visiting for the weekends would bring up food and supplies for the workers as it was often difficult for them to get into town. Fish would also be shared and workers would be invited to spend evenings socialising with the fishing group and their families. The bulldozer that the workers used to keep the river on course was willingly used to shape what is known as “the boat harbour” near the Harper River mouth, for the fisherman to launch their boats. These were the good days. It was around this time though that people started to build more permanent structures on the land in the area. Caravans that could easily be removed were now joined by more permanent buildings, and this is where the problems began. The farmland around the area was sold to overseas interests, and the new owners wanted the structures removed from their land. Unfortunately there was an instance of farming vehicles and equipment being vandalised, and although no one knew who was behind this, relationships that had been decades in the making between the fishermen and the farmers, were now put under strain, and it was a contributing factor towards the end of the community at Lake Coleridge as we knew it.
Around this time, the Government brought in a ruling that made company directors personally liable for any accidents that happened in their business. This was applicable not only to employees of the company, but also (theoretically) in the case of Lake Coleridge, fishermen and families camping on the land. Trespass notices were posted up on the cabins and caravans, ordering people to remove them from the land. In New Zealand law, there are no squatters’ rights, so the fishing community got together to discuss what to do. They formed a group called the Harper River Habitat Protection Society and decided to contact Trust Power with a view of trying to negotiate an agreement with them. This was fruitless as without squatter’s rights, one had only the weight of public opinion on their side. This was going nowhere so, as the big day loomed, one of the members of the Harper River Habitat Protection Society penned a personal agreement with Trust Power to break the impasse. This agreement committed Trust Power and Selwyn District Council to work with the fishing community to provide a camping ground where mobile caravans could be kept at times of peak fishing activity – mid winter and the season opening in November.
There was talk of moving further away from the lake to an area of land near the pine forest. This however, had its issues as a man had already died in an accidental fire there and was, in the opinion of most, a much more dangerous piece of land to look after than where they were currently located.
In late November 2010, it was the end of an era, a very sad time for all, and although some were reluctant at first to move and wanted to fight the cause, it seemed like a losing battle as no compromise had been met. On opening weekend, there was a dollar sale of anything and everything from the camp including the long drops and although the community was together again for the occasion, it had a very different feel to it.
My grandfather sold their cabin. He had not been to the lake for over a year, as his eyesight and hearing were deteriorating, and he no longer enjoyed it as much as he had in previous times. People, who loved the look of it and wanted to preserve some of the history of the area, bought the cabin. It was a sad day when they moved it to their property not far away in White Cliffs and although I’m glad that it is still around for them to enjoy, it is sad to think it’s no longer on the lake shore amongst the little village of caravans, with the fishing community that had been formed over many years.
Trust Power and the Selwyn District Council are going to set up a camping area for people to be able to enjoy the lake but is it too little too late? The community that grew up around Lake Coleridge was self-sufficient; everyone had their own long drops and would help clean up and put out fires, but who will do this now if the new camping ground is formed? Will toilets be installed and if so, who will pay for them, and who will clean them? Who will oversee the area and make sure that it is left clean and safe for others to use? There are other rumours floating around that everyone had to move because the power company wanted to raise the level of the lake. They say this isn’t the case, but who knows if this is true or not? I guess now it’s just a case of wait and see. It’s just a shame that this community formed over so many years has been dispersed and is likely never to re-form again.
Unfortunately in modern day New Zealand, we are seeing more and more of this old Kiwi way of life disappearing. Commercialism is slowly destroying the heart and soul of old New Zealand. It’s killing off these communities and a way of life that formed over decades, where people relied on each other and accepted everyone for who they were. Whether they were VC heroes or working people, they were all drawn to Lake Coleridge, looked after this land, appreciated it and created something from nothing and expected nothing in return.