Over The Hill

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On the northern edge of the Banks Peninsula, but still close enough to be labelled part of Christchurch, sits Te Onepoto/Taylors Mistake. Kathy Catton investigates the charm of this idyllic Christchurch beach.

Story Kathy Catton Photos Stephen Goodenough

At the south-eastern extremity of Christchurch lies Te Onepoto/Taylors Mistake. Quite who Taylor was or what mistake he made remains unclear, but this popular swimming and surfing beach is oozing with Kiwiana and is one certainly worth exploring.

As well as the name, the early history of the bay is also uncertain. Ngā Tahu lay claim to a defensive pā on Awaroa/Godley Head, looking down into the harbour side, most likely to see who was arriving. Boulder Bay (approximately 1km east of Taylors Mistake beach) and Taylors Mistake were seasonal hunting grounds, but with no reliable freshwater they were unlikely to have been settled for long. In 1850 the Euro-peans started to arrive, and Lyttelton grew as a thriving port. A road track was formed to Taylors in 1910, and by 1920 there was limited car access.

Your first sense of Kiwiana comes from seeing the baches in the bay. Held close to their owners’ hearts, these 45 small, century-old baches remain nestled on this coastal strip, between Hobsons Bay to the west and Boulder Bay to the east. These dwellings are Kiwi icons, and their histories are representative of our country’s past and provide a window on a bygone time.

 

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“Many of the older baches began as simple dwellings built by men eager to overnight at their favourite fishing spot around 1900,” says Janet Abbott, art historian and Taylors Mistake bach owner, who has dedicated many years of her life to researching and documenting the history and heritage of these homes.

“Several of the baches were built from dunnage, the Indonesian hardwoods that the ships discarded as they left port,” says Janet. “These materials washed up on shore a few days later, and so the Kiwi ingenuity started.”

Some of the baches provided a safe haven for returning servicemen following World War One and Two. Some were cave baches, others were small huts that grew to grandiose structures to house holidaymakers and their families from the late 1890s onwards. Precariously perched between the land and the sea, these dwellings are treasured snapshots of our past. Sadly, in the late 1970s, some of the original 72 baches had to be demolished or dumped into the sea when the local council insisted that electric toilets were required for all inhabitants.

 

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Documented in a series of books, Janet plots the history of the Taylors Mistake baches and highlights the significance of this tucked-away bay. “I love the wildness of this coastline. It’s a spectacular part of the country, largely untouched,” she says. “It was a magical upbringing for me. As a child, I loved the excitement of catching a fish and climbing the cliffs.”

The heyday of the baches came in the 1960s and 1970s, with plenty of partying had by residents and visitors alike, but in recent times the baches have been under threat of demolition. Only in the last year, following negotiations with the Christchurch City Council, have the baches been recognised as heritage assets by the council.

So ‘cutesy’ are the baches that many appear in works of art, including the iconic 1956 Bill Sutton painting Untitled (Taylors Mistake) held at Christchurch Art Gallery.

Malcolm McClurg, a long-time resident of Taylors Mistake, first came to the bay as a young child. “My parents purchased a bach in 1960 when I was just five years old,” he says. “We used to visit every weekend and each school holiday. After graduating from university, I came back to Christchurch and moved into the bach full-time.”

Malcolm’s love of the bay runs deep, and he has since bought a house further up the hill and still visits the beach most days. Describing his childhood at the bay as “feral”, Malcolm fondly remembers the times of exploring, playing and being on the beach. “We could do anything we liked,” he smiles. “It was a great place to grow up. The adults were all very social, and as kids we could disappear for days. It was safe, and with no cars, it was ideal.”

 

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The focal point of the bay today is undoubtedly the Taylors Mistake Surf Life Saving Club, established by bach holders and landowners in 1916. Malcolm and his family have been significant players in this club.

The first lifesavers’ clubhouse was built in 1916, and after burning down in 1954, was rebuilt with the assistance of the city council. The building suffered substantial earthquake damage, and after seven years of fighting with the insurance company and then five years of designing and construction, the new surf club was opened in February this year.

“It’s a stunning, fantastic facility,” says Malcolm. “All my friends are there, and we have a growing membership. Last year I completed 50 years of volunteering. I guess you could say I’m an active recreationalist.”

The club has some of the region’s most qualified and experienced lifeguards, who patrol the beach on weekends and public holidays from November to March. Fully engaged with the competitive aspect of surf life, the club sends athletes to compete in local and national competitions.

“Competitions are predominantly craft-based, alongside the swimming and beach disciplines,” says Malcolm. “We have a junior surf programme as well as an under-17s and under-19s squad, then there’s the open division, and masters like me.”

It’s young and old who are drawn to the club. “When you go over that road and see the beach and the waves breaking, it’s something special,” says Harrison Reid on the club’s Facebook page. He started as a volunteer lifeguard at Taylors Mistake and is now working as a full-time lifeguard at Bondi Beach in Australia.

The club promotes itself as family-friendly and, as Malcolm says, it’s heart-warming to see members returning with their own children, once they have been away studying and then returned. Many European families are also attracted to the club, wanting to immerse their kids in the Kiwi way of life.

One such family is the de Beer family from The Netherlands. Emigrating to New Zealand in 2008, Patrice and his wife Yvonne, along with their two young children, were scouting out the area and saw a sign outside the club promoting an open day. Before long, the family became members and haven’t looked back.

“My children are now adults, but they were active lifeguards through their teenage years, and are still, and I’ve held various roles at the club,” says Patrice. “Currently, I’m one of the patrol managers who organise the volunteer lifeguards, and I’m also a search and rescue coordinator, so I respond to any incidents.”

 

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It’s this sense of being part of the community and the sense of belonging that brings meaning for Patrice and keeps him coming back, saying, “It becomes part of you.” He also enjoys that people are grateful for what the volunteers at the club do. “I recognise as life-guards we save lives. It’s a little thing you can do. And it’s a great thing you can do.”

Exploring the bay is accessible for all. The Awaroa Godley Head clifftop loop is a spectacular track to see the whole area. It’s an easy-going, wide path that offers expansive views out to the ocean and the beach. You can start the walk from the Taylors Mistake carpark (with toilet block) and head past the ‘Rotten Row’ of baches before gently climbing onto the track. The entire walk is 8km.

Although there is no campsite at Taylors Mistake, you can rent out some of the homes via the network of owners or other providers. Or you can camp at Awaroa/Godley head DOC campsite, in the middle of a World War Two defence battery site with great ocean views. The Māori name Te Onepoto means short or little beach. Although it remains a mystery to this day as to what mistake was made, the English title has been current from around 1853 and, according to New Zealand History, is believed to refer to a ship’s first mate, Mr Taylor, who mistook the bay for Lyttelton Harbour. We could maybe forgive him his mistake, as the story goes that his captain, Mr Davidson, had thrown himself overboard in an alcoholic fit. Whatever the origins of the place name or whichever of the myths about the name are true, this is one beach you won’t want to miss. 

Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine. 

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