South Island Visits & Day Trips – part 3: Swedes, Shipwrecks, Lighthouses & Flying Machines

It has been awhile. Covid restrictions and a new job have severely influenced my blogging. Basically the lack of time has not allowed me to sit down and write, but here goes. Back to February 2020 and my trip to New Zealand (NZ).

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My time in the South Island was drawing to a close and it was time to say more goodbyes and move on heading further north. Leaving Oamaru and continuing along the east coast of the South Island to Ashburton to overnight with family before heading to Christchurch to catch a plane to the North Island. Along the way would be two important stops for different reasons. One in Timaru and one in Temuka.

The first stop was at the Timaru cemetery. A little odd you may say, but here I was able to connect a relative to the country I now live in. A visit to the grave of my grandmother’s Swedish grandfather John Fredrick Ericson (or more correctly his Swedish name Johan Fredrik Ericsson). A Swedish immigrant from Masthugget, Gothenburg (Göteborg). He grew up there and later went to sea serving on several ships including the largest one ever built in Sweden, the “Kronprinsen”. This ship was later wrecked in North Sea where John spent 48 hours in the rigging clinging to the ship before being rescued and taken to Plymouth. He completed 4 trips around Cape Horn before boarding the “Star of Brunswick” and heading to Australia and subsequently from there on the ship “Rona” to New Zealand (NZ). He arrived in NZ in 1864 aged 22 and decided to go gold digging on the West Coast of the South Island but upon arriving in Greymouth he discovered you had to cross the Grey River to get further south to the gold fields. He instead ended up building a boat and starting a ferry transport service across the Grey River for those heading to the goldfields, becoming affectionately known as Fred the Boatman. While there he became friends with Richard “King Dick” Seddon who would later become the 15th Prime Minister of NZ and the longest serving at 13 years.

While on the West Coast, he married an Irish girl and returned to the sea. With his Master Mariner tickets he began sailing and piloting ships around the coast and later became the head pilot on the treacherous Wellington harbour. It was here he started and began to raise his family. Later he would decide his life as a pilot in these waters was too dangerous for a man with young family and return to the land as a lighthouse keeper. His work as a keeper took him to many of the major lighthouses around the NZ coast (Wellington, Taranaki, Banks Peninsula, Southland and Canterbury) while raising a family of 11 children. The rugged coast of NZ became the graveyard of many immigrant ships arriving in NZ and John was often sent to remote corners of the country to construct and man the lights. Some were so remote that they only received visits by supply ships 3 or 4 times a year. For example, Puysegur Point see below.

While John lived at most of the major lights around the south coast of NZ, I remember him for the one he was involved in building in 1881 at Waipapa Point after the wreck of the steamer SS Tararua. The SS Tararua was a passenger steamer that struck the reef and sank off Waipapa Point on the south coast of the South Island during the night of the 29 April 1881. It was on its way from Dunedin, NZ to Melbourne, Australia. It is the worst civilian shipping disaster in New Zealand’s history with the loss of 131 of the 151 passengers and crew on board. Most died within a 100 metres of the shore as attempts were made by crew and passengers to get ashore in the heavy seas over the 20 hours the ship was stranded on the reef before she broke up and sank. The stormy surf prevented locals getting out to the ship. The boiler of the ship was visible on the reef at low tide for almost a century after the wreck before it disappeared. Nearby in the Tararua Acre are buried 55 of the victims.

John arrived to assist in the construction of the lighthouse and is recorded as the first keeper. He remained at the light for a further 11 years before moving on to others and finishing his career at Tuhawaiki Jack’s Point lighthouse south of Timaru (1904-?). He died at the ripe old age of 80 in 1932. From where he is buried today you can see the lighthouse at Jack’s Pt. While at Waipapa Point some of his sons and son-in-laws while beach-combing found a large piece of ambergris, a substance produced in the stomach of sperm whales and excreted but when it has solidified it was highly prized by perfume makers as a fixative. They knew what they had found was valuable and when it was sold it provide enough funds for the 4 men to buy farms next to the lighthouse. The farms had remained within the families until recently.

Having acquainted myself with my Swedish relative and reciting some Swedish words for him, probably the first he had heard since leaving Sweden, it was time to hit the road for my second point of interest today.

Hidden outside the little South Canterbury community of Temuka at Waitohi is a memorial to a much debated incident in history involving who was the first man to make a powered flight. It is claimed but unrecognised that possibly Richard Pearse (1877 – 1953), a Canterbury farmer and inventor, made the first powered flight on 31st March 1903. According to witnesses he flew a 100 metres along a road before landing unceremoniously in a gorse hedge. This was nine months before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, USA. Documentary evidence for these claims remains open to interpretation and dispute. While the original aeroplane has not survived (possibly due to Pearse reusing or re-purposing some of the parts) it was of a monoplane configuration constructed of bamboo with wing flaps, a rear elevator and tricycle undercarriage with steerable nose-wheel. Pearse is also credited with several far-sighted concepts including a propeller with variable-pitch blades. Pearse continued his flying experiments until about 1911 attempting to develop a vertical take-off and landing aircraft, and a rotocraft. Later in life he became bitter and paranoid and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1951, where he remained until his death in 1953. The memorial to him is located near to where his farm was located and where the alleged first flight was to have taken place.

My journey continued on to Ashburton where I overnighted and the got the chance to catch up with my Uncle & Aunt and their family before heading to Christchurch the next day to catch a modern 21st century jet to Auckland & the North Island to continue my trip. I wonder what Richard Pearse would think of our modern air travel and the jumbos of the skies.

Whittakers Chocolate, Best chocolate in the world, Christchurch Airport

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