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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Jane Robertson talks about Living Between Land and Sea

Dr Jane Robertson has lived in Governors Bay, at the head of Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour, for 20 years. She has taught history and English, and has worked as a teacher-educator, a researcher in the field of higher education, and an editor and local history researcher/writer. Jane talks to NZ Booklovers

Why did you want to write this book? Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour is my home, the place I love, my tūrangawaewae. I wanted to understand this place better and then share that with others. When I completed Head of the Harbour: A History of Governors Bay, Ōhinetahi, Allendale and Teddington, in 2016, friends and local residents were interested in what was to follow. (I wasn’t, I just wanted a break!) When I was ready to write again, I started thinking about the Governors Bay and Teddington jetties, whose stories had so intrigued me. I thought I could extend that curiosity to all the jetties in the harbour — those still extant, those now derelict and those long ago dismantled and/or swallowed by the sea. While jetties were the physical starting point, I realised that they were just a portal — a way of stepping back into harbour communities whose reliance on the sea was so much greater than ours today. I also believe strongly in the value of local history, of capturing voices and memories before they are lost for good.

It is clear that you have a thing for jetties . . . The appeal, for me, is multi-layered. Jetties conjure up very happy childhood memories of wonderful times spent in Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour. As an adult, I find them both beautiful and poignant: they have wonderful textures and shapes and they represent a way of life that is largely gone. I like jetties for their role as a gathering place, a site of community activity and identity, a place of arrivals and departures. They constitute a liminal space in which the land extends over the sea. We walk to the end, turn around and view the land differently. What do you hope readers will get from the book?

Something of the same pleasure that I got in writing it: a better understanding of the place, in particular its social and environmental history. I hope that in searching for the familiar, as so many do with a local history, readers may also be led down unfamiliar paths. And I hope it will be a great reference book, especially for local families and children exploring their local history. For such a small geographical area, it has a rich and fascinating history. Were there any surprises that your research brought to light? When I was quite young, local friends took us out to the harbour heads in their motor boat. We called in at Waitata Little Port Cooper, the last bay on the southern side of the harbour. Just above the foreshore there was a solitary building — an old schoolhouse (it is still there). There was no jetty and no public road access. Finding out how and why this schoolhouse came to be in such a remote bay, and that there was once a very long jetty servicing a thriving settlement, was one of the biggest surprises and pleasures of my research. On the other side of the harbour, at Awaroa Godley Head, I was equally surprised to discover that once, at the bottom of an almost perpendicular cliff with no foreshore to speak of, there was a jetty that serviced the lighthouse settlement above. What surprised and continues to surprise me is how speedily the physical evidence of human settlement and endeavour can be erased. Without people passing on their stories and/or documenting change, this erasure can easily be read as the way it always was. Do you have a favourite story that you uncovered? I loved writing about some of the launches that serviced the harbour over the years. Many locals had vivid and happy memories of individual boats and these hard-working little vessels were fondly regarded. I also love the stories of early settlement and what they can teach us about resilience and survival in a distant land without the support of family and a familiar community. One settler, Eliza Hunter, arrived with her husband Arthur. Unhappy in the confines of crowded west Lyttelton, she found a cottage and 47 acres for lease across the harbour in Kaioruru Church Bay. Apart from moving their belongings and fence posts and other equipment for the farm, one afternoon she carried half a ton of potatoes in seven loads from the beach up to their cottage as she didn’t want Arthur to have to do it after work. Anyone who knows the distance between the Church Bay beach and the Hunter cottage, as well as the steepness of the climb, will appreciate just what a haul this was, not least since Eliza was five months pregnant. What do you enjoy most about living at Ōtoromiro Governors Bay? I grew up and lived for a significant proportion of my life in Christchurch but always had this dream of living in Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour. What drew me there (I moved to Governors Bay in 2003) was the beauty of this long narrow sea inlet wrapped by high hills — an ancient volcanic crater. Cross the physical barrier that is the Port Hills and it is like entering a different world. I loved being part of the otherness of Te Pataka o Rakaihautū Banks Peninsula, which, to me, still feels like the island it once was. Living in Governors Bay offers proximity to hills and sea, a wonderful peace, access to native bush (once razed from the harbour but now returning both naturally and thanks to many planting projects), the opportunity to develop a large hillside garden and the constant company of native birds. There is a strong sense of community at the head of the harbour. Also, 15 minutes’ drive around the bays, we have the bonus of vibrant Lyttelton township and port. Do you have a family connection to the area? Not as such but there is a strong connection nevertheless. I grew up in Opawa, Christchurch. My childhood and adolescent summer holidays were spent in various rented baches in or proximate to Church Bay where our friends, the Sinclairs, had a holiday house. Until I was 12 we didn’t have a car so going on holiday involved catching the train at Opawa railway station and travelling through the tunnel to Lyttelton. Then there was a scramble across the railway lines to catch the launch to Diamond Harbour where the local postmaster, Clarrie Paine, would pick us up in his taxi. These annual holidays, shared with the Sinclair family, were a huge and much-anticipated part of my young life. So, although there is no family connection, there is a very strong emotional attachment to people and place. What are the main issues facing Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour? Something that was thrown into stark relief for me as I worked on this book was the extent to which we have plundered the resources of Whakaraupō. What native bush existed in the harbour was all but razed as a result of human settlement, causing loess from the exposed hills to wash down into the sea. The resulting sedimentation has been, and continues to be, a significant problem. The sea floor was raked for shellfish and has been dredged to create channels for shipping. Everywhere the cliff faces have been quarried for ballast, building, road maintenance and reclamation. Until very recently treated sewerage has been released into the harbour. So although Whakaraupō is a place of great beauty, our approach to it has often been carelessly exploitative. What is heartening now are the efforts to reverse some of this damage. The mountains and hills are slowly greening again. The Summit Road Society, the Ōtamahua Quail Island Ecological Restoration Trust, the Rod Donald Trust, Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke partnered with Living Springs are contributing to this transformation as are many individuals and families on privately owned land. Such initiatives are gradually advancing the Whaka-Ora Healthy Harbour vision of restoring the ecological and cultural health of Whakaraupō/Lyttelton Harbour. The book is richly illustrated. How important was it for you to include so many images? The images are an integral part of the book. I really want readers to understand how historical images can be ‘read’ (in the same way text is read) for further information and greater understanding. There is a wealth of visual material out there. For every image that appears in the book there are at least another half dozen in my iPhoto collection that didn’t make the cut. However, sourcing images is time consuming and sometimes very frustrating. The majority I’ve used are drawn from public collections, but an equally rich source of old photographs has been the private collections of harbour residents. I’ve had the most amazing support from locals who’ve given me open access to family archives. The rebuild of the Governors Bay jetty is nearing completion and the Diamond Harbour jetty has recently had a makeover. What is the value of preserving jetties in an age of road transport? The Lyttelton Harbour jetties were built to transport people and produce using the sea as the most convenient highway. And they were used recreationally by generations of families enjoying a day out at one of the Lyttelton Harbour ‘pleasure resorts’. They were (and are) fished off, jumped off, walked along. Jetties are an important part of our built-environment history, unlocking important memories. They deserve preservation, restoration and reuse in the same way as an historic building might do.

Massey University Press


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