At Murdering Beach

Driving through a mob of sheep on the high gravel road
getting caught midway and stopping to yarn with a farmer

till the sheep moved on to another track and the way was clear
down to the beach where, what seemed to us to be seals

rolling in swells, were men floating on boards in black suits
near green-black rocks. Expecting to see a row of canoes

and a beach strewn with axe-heads and shells (the farmer
said it was a good shell beach), found nothing but

unburdened sand and a few live stilts and oyster-catchers
and a dead penguin, its head bent back and throat cut full

of flies half buried in kelp and sand . . . The boy sensed
something: wouldn’t follow the ball into the slimy creek,

wouldn’t go behind flax to pee; preferred to make holes
in sand, then ran naked to the far end of the beach muttering

to himself, wanting food, water, while we looked for traces
of blood, took photos of air and pretended to be somewhere

no one had been before. Wandered through lupins imagining
houses, domestic arrangements, gardens where a village

once stood in the midst of fire. Found blackened stone, pieces
of dinner-plate with blue Chinese Willow design, and holes

where long-beaked birds had dug for maggots under sand
covering some horrible thing.

We had the simplest of picnics: boiled eggs, bananas, fresh
white rolls—threw scraps to sparrows, scanned the hills for tracks,

watched the surfies grind up the gravel hill away from the beach
in their fat green vans loaded down with dripping skins.

Peter Olds was born in Christchurch in 1944 and lives in Dunedin. When he has worked, it has been as a window dresser, tobacco picker, hospital orderly, and in the wool and meat industries. In his younger days he hitch-hiked the length and breadth of New Zealand and spent some time at James K Baxter’s Jerusalem commune on the Whanganui River in the early ’70s.

He likes gardening and walking and solitude. His poems have appeared in IslandsLandfall, the NZ ListenerGlottisOUSA Review and the Otago Daily Times. Since 1972 he has published seven books of poems. The latest, It Was a Tuesday Morning (Selected Poems 1972-2001), was published by Hazard Press in 2004.

Olds comments: ‘I love to go to places of interest where people once lived in pre-European times. I like to imagine what it was like for those who had only a bone and stone technology between themselves and extinction.

‘In the year 2000 & something, Murdering Beach (Whareakeake) is not a bad place for a picnic and a swim. Some surfers find good swells out among the black rocks beyond the cliffs at the ends of the beach.

‘In pre-European days there was a large Maori village (some 300 houses) at Murdering Beach and greenstone manufacturing on a large scale took place there: one of the biggest sites in the country with processing conducted on a “phenomenal scale”. The name Murdering Beach came about as a result of a feud between pakeha sealers and Maori in the early 1800s.

‘It seems a “common sealer”, William Tucker, antagonized the Maoris at some earlier date by stealing a preserved tattooed head (a serious offence) and, as a consequence, had utu (revenge) placed on him. He was eventually killed and hacked to pieces on the beach along with some of his fellow sealers. Each subsequent reprisal (resulting in many deaths on each side), “called for another, long after the original cause had disappeared from sight.”

‘Murdering Beach in later times, due to the greenstone manufacturing activity of its past, became a great scource of artefacts and was systematically dug for at least a century by professional, as well as amateur, archaeologists.

‘Today the name Murdering Beach is out of favour and its original name, Whareakeake, is preferred.’

(Source and quotes from Behold the Moon by Peter Entwistle, Port Daniel Press, Dunedin, 1998)

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