Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wally Brown (2) - The Island That Didn't Exist

If I was a pirate I would probably be looking at a map of an island with a big red X marks the spot on it. X being the spot where the treasure is buried. But I am not a pirate (yet). I am a small boat sailor and all my charts have a multitude of X's marked on them. The X's are like kisses at the end of a letter or an email to someone you love. These X's on my charts mark special places, special anchorages, special memories. These anchorages are enduring places, always waiting for the happy sailor to return to. But I do know of a chart that has a very big X marked on it - just like the one a pirate would be looking at, and the treasure that X marks is both a geographic place and an enchanted memory.

I am looking at a chart at the moment (NZ 6321) of Lyttelton Harbour. If you use your index finger and start at the quays in Lyttleton and trace your way Eastward towards the Pacific Ocean turning around Adderley Head on your starboard hand (right for landlubbers) you will find Port Levy. Ease the mainsail and the jib sheet now and sail your finger about half way up the bay and to starboard of your finger you will find a tiny little island called Pukerauaruhe. Years ago this island was called Browns Island as it belonged to our old shipmate Wally Brown. It also had another name written but unspoken in the sensibilities of a young sailor boy - its name was Enchantment and the young sailor boy was me.

If you look in the above photograph you can see Browns Island (Pukerauruhe) on the port hand side (left for landlubbers) out towards the head of the bay. It appears as a small dark little island close to the shore.

Many many years ago circa 1920 a young Wally Brown had been sailing his little 20 foot yacht the Senorita around the bays when he came across the island. It is easy to miss as you sail up the bay because the island is close to the shore and tends to merge in with the background hills. But Wally was sailing close by. He liked what he saw and immediately anchored and went ashore. Already his imagination was soaring with ideas and plans - a cascade of 'what ifs'. He knew what he had to do.
On Monday of the next week Wally went to what was in those days the New Zealand Lands and Surveys Department and inquired about purchasing the island.
"Can't be done" said the sharp little clerk.
"Why not? " said Wally.
"Because" said the clerk looking towards the queue of people waiting, "The island is not on our Lands and Survey map therefore it doesn't exist! - Sorry, next! "
" Now hang on a minute mate," said Wally. "It does exist, I know because I was standing on it two days ago - yes that's right, I was there. An island is an island, it just doesn't up anchor and sail away you know - the island exists all right"
"Ok," said the clerk, who despite his sharp manner, the shiny bottom on his sit-a-lot clerk pants and his rather frightening moustache (that made the pencils on his desk stand to attention) was sensing an out of office experience.
"If you can show me the island, I will see what I can do."
They sailed the next day for Port Levy. ("Can't go on the weekend, must take mother shopping and finish my book on Canadian Grain Silos").
The outcome of all this was that a very long lease was taken out on the island and Wally began building his little bach - transporting all the materials down the harbour on the little ship Senorita.
The irony of the all this is that when Wally passed away many, many years later (he was nearly a hundred - which shows that sailing, having a house with a gorgeous little attic room, a real dosey of a blokes shed, a ships mast in your front garden to fly flags on and an engine in your boat with no gearbox correlates strongly with longevity) --- as I was saying the irony of all this is that when he died and his sons wanted to renew the lease, they were refused and a long and convoluted explanation, liberally and inextricably interwoven with large amounts of goats mature was given as to why the authorities had to tear down the bach and return everything to it natural state - ironic given that in the beginning the island was deemed nonexistent.
This is Wallys island which I photographed with my trusty little camera from the Murare's dinghy. With the tide fully in there was not a lot of land area. All the trees and vegetation were planted by Wally. You can see his little bach in among the trees. The windmill on the right was used to charge truck batteries which were used for lighting purposes. Beyond the windmill and out of sight is a long jetty. At the head of the jetty was a big wheel with a crank handle. When he left the island Wally would crank the jetty up like a drawbridge.
The island in the early 1930s. A rudimentary jetty can be seen and the beginnings of pine tree growth which years later dominated the island and provided shelter and pine cones for the open fire.
If you look closely at the roof you can see that there are some very big rocks on the roofing iron. These rocks were used to help hold down the corrugated iron roof in furious winter gales.
The inside of the bach was very rough and rudimentary. The walls were covered with newspapers, glued on the walls as wallpaper.
From the right the people are My dad, Wally Brown and an unknown friend of Wallys. I took this photo myself some time in the 1960s.

The island is still there in Port Levy. An island doesn't up anchor and sail away like a yacht. So maybe one day when I am a pirate I will look on map NZ 6321 and see a big red X drawn on Browns Island and remember that heart beating enchantment of a young sailor boy. I will sail there in my little pirate yawl called Crackling Rosie and wade ashore with my peg leg and my parrot called Malarkey cussing on my shoulder. I will raise the skull and crossbones on a replica of the mast Wally once had in his front garden to fly flags and claim the island as an independent state.
I shall live there and entertain wandering Sirens, mermaids and assorted dusky maidens - I think that's the most a pirate could do in the circumstances.


Delwyn said...

Ahhhh me Heartie - you are a good story teller, that you are...

I used to go out around the bays a litle when I was in high school. A friend's family had a place there. Later Jim's uncle had a place in Le Bons Bay. He was a fisherman- dentist. Boyd Boyd-Wilson was his name - son of Jim's grandfather in my Fais ce que voudras story.
Boyd's daughter is Donna - a very good musician flautist - recently over here laying down a record.

I really enjoyed your Wally stories - keep em coming Sailor boy.

Kathryn said...

Is this going to be a serial?
Wonderful! I love Wally already and look forward to more instalments of the story.

Alden said...

Delwyn- I know Le Bons Bay and Little Akaloa Bay well. Unfortunately as you head south around Banks Peninsula the only safe anchorages outside of Lyttleton Harbour are Port Levy and Pigeon Bay. All the other bays are very dangerous for small boats in anything but very settled weather - but they are wonderful places to visit by car and the whole of Banks Peninsula is now covered in walking tracks.

February 23, 2009 1:32 PM

Alden said...

Kathryn - there are a few more stories about old Wally which I may post some time in the future - glad you enjoyed reading my stories about him - he was an interesting and inspiring man.

Katherine said...

Fabulous yarn AUCK! Pieces of florin!

Kim Browne said...

Hey Alden, This is great. Wally was my Grandfather. I remember sailing out to the island and the amazing drawbridge, planting, shack etc etc. I guess I was too young to really appreciate what Wally had done. My understanding was that it finashed with Wally being pissed off with vandals visiting the island and he set fire to the lot and left it as he found it....I'll have to check this with the family. Yes, my memories of his house are the same.
Being very young it was the attic and workshed complete with steam train set and musty smells which stand out. Kim Browne

kim browne said...

Hey Alden...well told...I am one of Wally's grandchildren. I remeber sailing out to the island and the amazing drawbridge, big pine trees and shack. It truly was a boys own island. I had thought he first spotted it from a ship going up the harbour when he was a merchant sailor. Also, I was told he burnt everything down because he was annoyed at vandals visiting the island...I will check with the family. It is now in the same state as he find it...a rock.

Yes, Wally's house was everything a young boy wanted...the attic, the musty smelling workshop with the steam train set...oh...and the amazing grape vine covering it!!!

Alden Smith said...

Hi Kim, so nice of you to comment on Wally. He was a great character and a big part of my young life. My dad used to crew for him on the Murare for years. I didn't know about the steam train? and I don't know how the bach on the little island ended, I would be interested to know. Do you have any photos of the island?? I only have a couple and would like some more of it in its heyday!

Linda Stratton said...

Hi Alden. I am a grandaughter of Wally Browne and what a pleasure it was reading your story. I loved it. I too have fond memories of a boating childhood and times spent on Browne's Island. Grandad's house also was such an exciting place to be. Like Kim I remember the attic, the shed and the overgrown grapevine. Cora (Nana) wrote a book called An Island of our Own and in it she writes about the island being vandalised. The doors were smashed in, the basin and toilet broken,chairs taken outside and burnt and the wharf cast adrift. Wally was so disgusted he set fire to the bach. He said "if they want somewhere to sleep they can build a house of their own"
Linda Stratton (nee Browne)

Alden Smith said...

Hi Linda. So nice of you to comment.I do remember the book that Nora wrote, Wally loaned a copy to my dad and I read it. Wally Browne was a big influence on my life growing up. I didn't know he burned the bach down! but I do remember him saying that he always had trouble with people trying to break into it. All a long time ago now - but I treasure the memories. Thanks again - : > )