In search of summer
More than a century ago, people were granted temporary leases to build baches on Rangitoto Island, and a thriving community grew around these rudimentary dwellings. But Rangitoto is public land. A debate over the legitimacy of private baches existing there began in the 1920s and continues today. Meanwhile, three of the historic baches have now been opened for public use, welcoming a new generation of people to the island.
It’s the demolitions that get to me most. As I stroll along the shell-and-gravel paths that trace the shoreline of Rangitoto, linking the island’s almost three dozen baches like a necklace, every so often there is a plaque on a post marking the site of one that’s been demolished. The plaques say when the bach was built and who lived in it, and tell stories of carefree holidays by the sea on Auckland’s most iconic island, and of a community of people who looked out for one another and shared a deep attachment to the place. The last line on each plaque is abrupt. “Pulled down in 1978.” “Demolished in 1972.”
Between the 1960s and 1980s, more than half of Rangitoto’s 100-odd baches were torn down and burnt. Their imprints remain: concrete steps that lead nowhere, fireplaces and coal-range surrounds, a tub that once held a copper, the cistern of a long-drop toilet.
The demolition sites are visually ugly but emotionally compelling. They bear witness to a conflict of values and ideals that persists today wherever the desire to preserve cultural heritage clashes with other agendas, such as the preservation and restoration of nature.
John Walsh, a former wildlife ranger in the Waitākere Ranges, saw two of his family’s three baches torn down. Walsh couldn’t return to the island for a decade afterwards, such was his grief over the demolitions.
Half a century later, the future of the remaining 37 baches is uncertain. Despite recognition of their cultural significance—the bach settlements have been designated “heritage areas”—they remain an anomaly: private residences on public land, their presence contrary to the legislation under which Rangitoto is governed. How has such a situation come to exist? And what happens next?
The volcano on Auckland’s front doorstep—a green disc seemingly afloat on the blue waters of the Hauraki Gulf—was bought by the government from its Māori owners in 1854. Māori never inhabited the island, but used it for hunting kākā that thrived in its pōhutukawa forest, and for burying their dead in its lava caves.
In 1890, the island was made a public domain under the administration of the Devonport Borough Council. It soon became popular with picnickers and day trippers, and by 1897, there was a wharf and a track from there to the summit, with its panoramic views of Auckland and the gulf islands, known to Māori as Nga Poitu o te Kupenga a Taramainuku, the floats of the net of Taramainuku.
To fund the provision of further amenities for visitors to the island (toilets, shelters, fireplaces for cooking), the council decided in 1911 to enable overnight stays by leasing camp sites for £2 ($4) a year or two shillings and sixpence (25 cents) a week. Three areas were chosen: one opposite Takapuna, by today’s red-and-white-striped lighthouse, called Beacon End, one opposite Saint Heliers, adjacent to the wharf, and one at Islington Bay, the waterway that separates Rangitoto from the adjoining island of Motutapu. (All three settlements still exist, although Beacon End is down to two baches.)
Initially, leaseholders erected tents on their sites, but after a few years, tenting was disallowed for sanitary reasons, and only solid structures were allowed. Building a bach on the island was no easy matter. Materials had to be transported from the mainland or scavenged from the shoreline or from ships that had been scuttled on Rangitoto’s northern coastline. Because the island is entirely volcanic, construction was arduous. Much of the surface is rough black lava rock that has the appearance of having been spat out of the volcano yesterday, not 600 years ago when Rangitoto erupted from the sea. Sites had to be levelled by pick, sledgehammer and chisel, and long drops excavated into solid rock.
Families rallied to the challenge, relishing the chance to carve out a place in the sun. Many were working-class people who would have been unable to afford a bach on the mainland. Construction was often a communal effort, with older bach residents sharing their knowledge with newer arrivals.
Almost as soon as the baches began to go up, the illegality of their presence on a public reserve became a point of contention. For two decades, the council turned a blind eye. Revenue from lessees trumped enforcement of the law. But by the 1930s, opposition to bach building on the scenic reserve had intensified. In 1937, the government stepped in, prohibiting the issuing of new bach leases and declaring that existing leases would expire in 20 years, at which time owners would have to evacuate and remove their buildings from the island. Nor could baches be added to, altered or sold. The effect, Walsh tells me, was that the baches became “frozen in time”.
As the expiry date approached, bach owners won a reprieve by arguing that they performed a useful custodial service, checking the spread of invasive species, preventing fires, and rescuing boaties in distress. They were the island’s eyes and ears. The government acquiesced, and leases were extended for the lifetime of their owners.
It was a stay of execution, but an axe still hung over their heads. Humble, do-it-yourself shacks might be a New Zealand tradition, but they were seen by some as an eyesore among the vistas of scoria and pōhutukawa. Advocates for nature preservation argued that the baches spoiled the beauty of the island and that bach residents were harming its natural state. And it rankled with some that bach owners could live on an island that others could only visit.
This time, as leases expired or their holders died, there was no reprieve. Baches that over time had become treasured family heirlooms were summarily toppled and torched. But even as the fires burned, public opinion was shifting.
The baches might be legally illegitimate, but they possessed a measure of social legitimacy. Rough and rude though they might be, they were heritage. Shouldn’t heritage be preserved? Especially since such enclaves of Kiwiana were disappearing from mainland beach locations, where traditional Fibrolite-and-corrugated-iron baches were being replaced by ritzy holiday homes. Baches were becoming an endangered architectural species.
In 1991, the island’s new manager, the Department of Conservation (DOC), declared a moratorium on bach removal. Six years later, determined to see a permanent end to demolitions, a handful of bach owners established the Rangitoto Island Historic Conservation Trust, with a mission to conserve the island’s bach communities for all New Zealanders. The trust has since restored three baches, which are offered for rent to the public, and turned one into a museum, winning a UNESCO heritage conservation award for its efforts.
One of the trust’s founders was Shirley Collins, of bach 36. I meet her there on Auckland’s Anniversary Weekend, when several of the bach families are in residence. Two of her daughters are with her. Linda doesn’t come often; she finds the bach lifestyle a little “rustic”. Angela, on the other hand, can’t keep away. She’s been coming here since before she was born, she tells me, and took her first steps as a toddler across the floor of the living room. Memories tumble out of her as she takes me for a walk to visit some of the other baches: the annual New Year’s Day swimming races, fancy dress parades and decorated dinghy competitions; the island’s wallabies that used to hop around the baches; endless summer days spent in the community swimming pool, cleaned with a chemical that turned her blonde hair green. The pool was open to the sea, filled by the incoming tide. She once saw a snapper in it.
John Walsh speaks of the “Rangitoto passion gene”. “It’s almost a spiritual thing,” he says. “Someone in each family inherits it.” They love the simplicity, are happy with the privations. No TV, so you do crosswords and play games.
“Living here is like being in lockdown,” Angela says. “You walk. You communicate. Every meal becomes an event.”
That’s partly because there’s no electricity. Until recently, Shirley cooked most meals on an open fire in the smokehouse. In the kitchen stands a glorious relic of times past: a kerosene-powered fridge. Shirley opens the ice compartment to show how effective it still is: the walls are rimed with frost.
The bach’s interior is painted the same cool sage green it always was, and Shirley will never change the colour. Six generations have lived in this bach. Shirley herself has been coming here for 60 years, since her early 20s. The place is full of memorabilia, every object with its story. In that respect, it is not dissimilar to the bach museum next door, with its kitchen table set with period china, crocheted covers for milk jug and sugar bowl, and Aunt Daisy’s Book of Handy Hints lying next to them, ready for consultation.
One difference between the museum (and the trust’s rentable baches) and a bach like the Collinses is the sense of an ongoing relationship between people and place. Showcase baches are curated; family baches adapt to the improvisation of their owners every time they take up residence.
A poem written by a bach owner and propped against a window of the museum speaks of an owner returning to the island—“a journey of time and memory”—and the joy of seeing “faces who have known me longer than I have them”. The poem ends with the line: “This is belonging.”
It is the feeling the bach owners want to preserve. What they want to celebrate is not just the baches, but the experience of “baching”. Not the structures themselves but the way they evolve with their inhabitants. Their authenticity lies not in the way they were constructed or in their decor, but in the way they express the life of their residents. Such a view emphasises continuity through time: families interacting with a place over multiple generations. Not the outcome, the process.
The physical details of a bach are almost immaterial, says architectural philosopher Tony Watkins. “It doesn’t matter what they look like. They are about connectedness of people to place. They’re about a simple way of life: non-possessive, non-demanding, touching the earth lightly, egalitarian, able to be shared. The bach settlements on Rangitoto aren’t a set of buildings, they’re a society. And society is what we have to protect.”
They’re a society built on frugality, resourcefulness, co-operation and making do, writes Susan Yoffe in her 2000 book Holiday Communities on Rangitoto Island, New Zealand, the best published collection of oral history from the island. In residents’ conversations with Yoffe, they spoke repeatedly about shared values.
“There was a sense that the community ethos was special and extraordinary,” she writes, “and was engendered through the experience of being on Rangitoto.”
One resident spoke of the sharing of fish: “There were some who couldn’t fish because they didn’t have a boat. And we would know them and you would have your barrow and it was nothing to see a person coming round with a barrow load of smoked fish. No one ever kept them all themselves. It was all incredibly communal.”
A significant endorsement of the Rangitoto communities was given in 2006 in a case taken by the bach owners against the Director-General of Conservation and the Minister of Conservation in the High Court. They argued that it is not just the baches that are entitled to protection, but also their residents. The case turned on the wording of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act, which requires that “the social, economic, recreational and cultural well-being of people and communities” be provided for. The bach owners argued that they were indeed a community, and the judge agreed.
The minister was ordered to reconsider the bach owners’ application for occupation rights. Fifteen years on, the outcome of that reconsideration has yet to be revealed. The bach owners remain in limbo. They do not know if they have a future on the island.
Their position is also affected by recent developments which take into account the island’s holders of mana whenua, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki. Ngāi Tai are one of 13 iwi and hapū who make up the Tāmaki Collective. In 2014, title to the island was vested in the collective, and then vested back to the Crown. While Ngāi Tai does not have a governance role in these islands, its interests must be recognised.
That requirement was spelled out in a Supreme Court decision in 2018 that related to the granting of concessions for visitor activities on Rangitoto—such as walking tours—to entities other than Ngāi Tai. The court found that the Department of Conservation had not given sufficient regard to the Treaty of Waitangi principles of partnership, active protection, right to development, and redress.
Ngāi Tai’s view is that its mana whenua status confers the right and responsibility to exercise manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga on the island. Its position is that while visitors are welcome, occupiers are not. The bach communities, they say, are illegally occupying public land. The iwi opposes the exclusive use of baches by those currently in possession, and believes there should be no extension of their tenure on the island.
On the other hand, Ngāi Tai applauds the work of the Rangitoto Island Historic Conservation Trust in restoring baches and making them available for rent. This represents “good manaakitanga for all Aucklanders and New Zealanders”, it says. And so it does, offering all comers a chance to experience baching the way the bach-owning families have. As baches are relinquished through changing family circumstances, or the death of lessees, they can be made available for the enjoyment of the wider public. The trust considers this to be a promising pathway for preservation, and a solution that benefits everyone.
In considering the future of the motu—and the fate of the bach communities—DOC must weigh three overlapping sets of interests, three claims to protection. Those of iwi, whose connection extends back to Rangitoto’s birth from the sea, as evidenced by human footprints found in ash that fell on adjacent Motutapu. Those of the bach communities, whose existence, though contrary to the law governing human presence on public reserves, has gained some validity through continuous occupation over more than a century. And the interests of the island itself: a predator-free sanctuary set aside for the preservation of a landscape and an ecosystem unique in Aotearoa, and therefore the world.
These layers of interest are strata in the island’s whakapapa. When visitors step ashore on Rangitoto, they make choices about which strata they wish to engage with. Most will head for the summit, experiencing the geological and biological heritage of the island: the lava caves, the chatter of tīeke in the pōhutukawa, the screech of a kākā winging overhead. A few will take a side path to visit the baches, and perhaps stop and chat with residents. All will pass under a waharoa, a carved gateway that silently asserts the motu’s status as an ancestral taonga.
Of these strata, these presences, that of the bach communities is the most tenuous. Their occupation is seen as incompatible with the island’s principal purpose as a showcase for nature. Incompatible, too, with iwi perspectives and ambitions. The bach owners have a toehold of legitimacy through the wording of an act, and, more broadly, the affirmation and admiration of many who care about retention of “Kiwi culture”.
John Walsh believes that DOC and iwi should regard the bach-owning families as part of Rangitoto’s ongoing story, not a historical anomaly that should be removed. They are the human dimension of the island’s architectural heritage, and offer an example of how to live lightly and connectedly in a special place.
I pause at the plaque that remembers bach 90, Wai Wurri, built in Islington Bay in 1925. The Kelly family of seven spent every weekend, school holiday and Christmas here, and during the polio epidemic of the 1940s lived here full time. The site is empty, but the hand-poured concrete path that led to the bach’s door remains. According to the plaque, the Kelly children would run down this path and jump into the bay at high tide. I imagine those running feet, and when I turn, I see fresh footprints in the sand.
Māori footprints in the ash; Pākehā footprints in the sand. Two layers of human heritage which converge in a landscape but diverge in their holders’ aspirations. Two layers of whakapapa that may not be equal, but are nevertheless real. And perhaps irreplaceable.