In The Interests of Science

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

A man walked along the shores of a lake...

In the Interest of Science

Southwest of Banks Peninsular, there’s a lake, Lake Ellesmere, which is in fact a shallow lagoon that’s protected from the ravages of the Pacific Ocean by a narrow sand and gravel spit about 25 kilometres long. It’s not quite pristine now, but back in the day, near the water’s edge, the water was clear as a bell, however, the ferocious storm that sank the Wahine of 1968 took with it the lake’s unique vegetation. It had happened before and had regrown, but this time regrowth seems painfully slow. I’ve a suspicion that the runoff from farms has altered the pH of the water.

Exactly a hundred years ago, at the time of writing this, Lake Ellesmere was known to local Maori as Te Kete Ika o Rakaihauta, the food basket of Rakaihauta. He was the captain of one of the first migratory canoes, according to their oral history. Aptly named, there were many food sources from the lake, among the two species of eels. The long finned eel is endemic to New Zealand and they are big, two metres long and some weighed as much as 20 kilogrammes. Their young climb through wet grass on their way to inland waterways and grow on for sixty years, but these days they have become rare. The short finned eel is smaller and thinner with silver bellies, found also in other parts of the world, they thrive in water wherever there’s food for them, and they too can travel overland. Although Maori didn’t understand the same terminology, eels are only found in rivers during the months with r in them, but they were well aware of nature’s cycles.

Flounders or whiti were abundant in the lake and by the 1920’s settler fishermen had elbowed Maori aside and were supplying the fish to the Christchurch market. There were also groper or hapuka to be had out in the open sea and fishing camps were set up at Birdlings Flat where kontikis were sent out with baited hooks attached. By 1920 black swans were back on the lake, they became extinct after the Maori arrived because they were an easy food source but when the colonists arrived, they brought black swan stocks from Melbourne, Australia, so even now black swans are easily spotted in estuaries, ponds and grace Lake Ellesmere.

The vegetation washed away by the 1968 storm comprised hardy shrubs, raupo, toetoe, and other small rushes, there were sedges, and grasses as well as NZ flax, or harakeke. Flax was useful to Maori because its long blades could be stripped and weaved into clothing, baskets, traps, nets, rope, and waterproof capes.  Bullrush or raupo was useful for building rafts, sometimes adding the buoyant seed stalks of flax, which were 2 metres long and 20 centimetres thick.  Raupo was also used for thatching, but by 1920 there wasn’t so much need for the traditional use of those plants. Near the water’s edge though, was a breeding ground for fish and other aquic life as well as insects and birds all of which were integral to the ecology of the lake.

Curiosity contributed to the demise of the weka in the area because it was a good eating bird, unlike the pukeko, which was as at home wading in the edge-waters of the lake. The striking pukeko with its Union Jack plumage made tough, stringy chewing so was less preferred, nonetheless, when hunger strikes… But the raupo, toetoe and grasses were ideal nesting places which provided another source of food for early Maori.

The spit, which these days is opened periodically to flush the lake out, is about two kilometres wide. It is effectively a beach where seals, and sea elephants visit from time to time and is a nesting place for seabirds such as terns, oyster catchers, pied stilts, and dotterels, and their eggs provided yet another food source for Maori. Parts of the spit are held together by the shrubby tororara, it is a low shrub and sometimes is sometimes prostrate. As a ten year old, I found it could be lifted like a carpet where it was the home of lizards… there were big, fat, shiny skinks and delicate geckos. Although I knew they were protected, I was sorely tempted to take one as a pet, but fear of my capture kept me legal. However a feral cat was trapped on the spit recently and it was found to have 17 lizards in its stomach! Which shows the vulnerability of our ecosystem.

Halfway through December 1920, a man was walking along the spit. We don’t know who he was, although his name will be recorded somewhere, but we do know he had a firearm, so he was no doubt hunting something. Maybe rabbits, because in those days rabbits were sold by butchers in pairs, so some profit was to be made hunting them. We can’t discount that he was after a seal, because times were tough and there’d be a lot of meat on a seal. I’m picking he was carrying either a .22 or a shotgun. He must have known the area well because he spotted a bird, a species he hadn’t seen before. It was dark brown with buff edges to its feathers, its abdomen was white, its bill was brown and legs yellowish brown. Unusual he thought. So he shot it!

He took it to the Canterbury museum, which I suppose allows us to forgive him, and the museum staff identified as a Pectoral Sandpiper, the very first one ever sighted by a European in New Zealand! The Pectoral Sandpiper migrates from North America to South America, or from Siberia to Australia. Even today only a handful arrive in New Zealand and are always seen among flocks of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers.

So for better or for worse, I’ve had my own little celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Pectoral Sandpipers in this fair land. And I suppose, we’d never have known if that man hadn’t taken it to the museum.


There’s a video worth looking at about Restoring Hart’s Creek, which flows into Lake Ellesmere. At the end there’s a poem, a worthwhile poem.

Submitted: December 19, 2020

© Copyright 2021 moa rider. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:


LE. Berry

Very informative moa.

Sun, December 20th, 2020 12:20am


Thank you LE Lake Ellesmere is very close to Lake Forsythe, which I've already written about. The changes in seventy years are remarkable. Usianguke

Sat, December 19th, 2020 5:45pm

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