Two rivers and a baby

Christchurch photographer Joe Harrison documents the waterways of his home city.

Written by       Photographed by Joe Harrison

Joe Harrison

New parents spend a lot of time out pushing a pram. When Ōtautahi/Christchurch’s Joe Harrison became a dad, he naturally gravitated towards the nearby Ōpāwaho/Heathcote River for morning strolls. Spending that much time walking a sleeping baby, he also got bored. He started taking his camera along, shooting whatever caught his eye. Then he got more ambitious: for the next year, with baby Mick strapped in the pram or on the back of his bike, he systematically explored the Ōpāwaho and neighbouring Ōtākaro/Avon River.

Harrison is self-taught, but he’s been playing with cameras for 20 years. (He was a finalist in our Photographer of the Year competition in 2021, and again this year.) This project was a good counter to his day job as an environmental manager, he says, in which “it’s easy to get bogged down in data, reports and regulations and forget what the actual point of it all is”. It was also the first time he’s worked with a baby.

“More than once, I worried Mick would roll into the river, so I had to be really careful to lock the wheels. Luckily, he wasn’t walking then. It’s harder now he’s two.”

The Ōpāwaho and the Ōtākaro are two of five key rivers flowing through the city. Their human history began as pathways for Waitaha, Ngāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu waka and foot travellers moving between mahinga kai (food-gathering places). Later the rivers became willow-lined respites from the city’s colonial grid. Today, the Ōtākaro winds through the Red Zone, which is soon to be landscaped into a network of paths and wetlands but is currently a non-place of grasslands, ghost suburbs and fledgling community gardens. It’s here—sometimes shooting at a distance, getting permission through a nod or smile; sometimes stopping to chat—that Harrison encountered sand artist and poet Peter Donnelly.

A wetland redevelopment aims to reduce runoff into the river, which should ultimately help fishers at the estuary mouth.
Saul Sender gets air over the Ōpāwaho after a day spent mountain biking on the Port Hills.

Donnelly became locally famous when, after a breakup, he started making sand art: huge mandalas briefly visible from the New Brighton pier, then erased by the sea. Over 20 years, he created 1200 pieces. It was physical work. Now in his 70s and with emphysema, he visits the Ōtākaro river mouth every evening instead. He watches the sun setting over the Alps, studies the rich birdlife, throws chips (“I’m a champion chip thrower”) and writes and reads poetry. He calls his art and poetry “tributaries” to the river and sea.

This day’s catch was lighter than most, but Allan Parkhill is philosophical about it—he has been whitebaiting on the Ōtākaro/Avon River for decades, through bumper seasons and bad. Whitebaiting here is not as territorial as on the West Coast, because no permanent structures are allowed in the river. On the nearby Ōpāwaho/Heathcote, a new container storage yard recalls the river’s recent industrial past.
Rebuilt post-quakes, the central city has turned to face the river—these steps are a favourite spot for kids to feed eels.

Donnelly’s partly drawn here by his family history. His mother’s beautiful sister drowned herself in the Ōtākaro the year after his birth, in 1952. He says another of his ancestors, a patient at Sunnyside psychiatric hospital, drowned himself in the Ōpāwaho at the turn of last century, believing his head was on fire. (Recently, Donnelly nearly fell in the river himself, trying to stop the wind blowing his trademark fedora into the water.)

Good street photography requires persistence, skill and luck to get beyond the obvious. Although there are infinite dog-walkers, Harrison focuses on those more seriously engaged with the rivers: fishers out at Ihutai, the Avon Heathcote estuary; urban whitebaiters working their stands throughout autumn; kids, like Jackson and Lily Faulks, who play along the Ōpāwaho’s banks most days. These are the people who notice the rivers—and the rivers’ health.

The owner of this ute turned up while Harrison was shooting; he’d woken up to find it stolen, and a mate called to tell him he’d seen it in the river.
In 1956 the reserve was confiscated under the Public Works Act and sewage discharged into the water, replacing a sense of connection with one of disgust. Jaxon and Lily Faulks live in Avonside; the bridge is a favourite place to play.

The Ōpāwaho takes its rise in the Port Hills to the city’s south, where it’s fed partly by underground springs and partly by sediment leeching off new subdivisions. Its rambling course provides places of quiet reflection and passes through the old industrial area of Woolston. After heavy rain, it resembles not so much a river as chocolate soup. It’s subject to sewerage overflow; on a council report card ranging from A to E, it scores a D for water quality. The Ōtākaro is the same.

A recent study of other nearby waterways found mahinga kai like watercress and cockles contained up to 60 times more faecal bacteria than the water they lived in, and one in five of those bacteria was resistant to common antibiotics.

Justin Galligan grew up playing in creeks in the hills around Perth, and rates fishing and riverside camping among his favourite things. He’s been in Ōtautahi for 23 years, where he works as an artist from his cottage beside the Ōpāwaho. Harrison found him and his son, Johnny, scooping rubbish out of the river with a homemade net. Four years ago, Galligan visited Fiji and was devastated by the amount of plastic on the beaches. He’d also seen documentaries about fledgling seabirds with bellies full of the stuff. He regularly trundles his bin down to a river barrier 30 metres from his home, where rubbish collects. “Johnny comes round to my place every other weekend. When I see the tide’s right, I say, ‘Come on, let’s go and save Fiji.’”

Te Ihutai, the Heathcote/Avon Estuary, was famous for tuna, kanakana, inaka, pātiki and pipi. From 1868 a Māori Reserve here made it possible for Ngāi Tahu whānau to continue gathering mahinga kai.

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