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The cover photo on Jeff Taylor's new book shows a merry throng of young persons splashing and swimming at Hamilton Lake, and the vintage image has attracted plenty of attention from those who never dreamed such things once happened.
Taylor's had people say to him, "What, they used to swim in the lake?" They surely did. The photograph was taken on a hot summer day in 1927, when the lake was a favourite place to cool down. Nowadays it's a no-go zone for swimmers - has been since the mid-1960s, when the build-up of bacterial contamination from the lake's bird population saw Hamilton City Council discourage the practice of dunking yourself in its cool waters.
Taylor talks about this over coffee at The Verandah Cafe, at the lake (of course). He's become something of an expert during his work on Hamilton Lake, City Playground, the book he's just written and published, all about the gem that has attracted generations of families to its shores to play, walk, row and sail.
While the old concrete igloo and funny little concrete cars and boats in the children's playground adjacent to The Verandah may be gone, along with the miniature railway, there are plenty of new attractions for kids. The grounds are beautifully maintained, swathes of daffodils signal the approach of spring, there are picnic spots galore. All within easy reach of the CBD.
And, of course, you can walk right around the water on a hugely popular pathway, the result of a council decision that didn't sit well with some lakeside residents when the final southern stretch was opened 10 years ago.
Taylor documents this episode, and more. His research on Lake Rotoroa ("long lake") has taken him to archives and experts at Hamilton Library, Waikato University, Hamilton City Council, and to longtime residents for information.
He is a retired pharmacist, and a member of the New Zealand Society of Authors. He's lived and worked near the lake for 50 years, he swam there as a kid, and says he's had the project "quietly in the back of my mind" for a while.
When he sold his pharmacy early last year, it became his next thing. The book launch neatly coincides with the 150th anniversary of the arrival of British settlers in Hamilton, who embraced the lake as a social and recreational gathering place.
A couple of the best stories Taylor found are from the early years. After Waikato Hospital opened near the lake in the late 1880s, many patients were brought north by train for care and treatment. They'd arrive at Frankton Station on the early morning train, and the quickest way to get them to the hospital was to trundle them on a luggage trolley to the northern edge of the lake. They would be met by a house surgeon who would collect them by boat, and row back to the hospital.
Taylor looks across to Killarney Rd, which leads from Frankton to the lake, imagines that's the way the patients would be trundled. Lack of decent roading would have made the lake a viable shortcut, he says.
The lake could be busy at night, too, being a popular venue for parties in the early 1900s. Rowing boats were hired for one shilling, and young men rowed women on the lake, the boats lit only by Chinese lanterns. The book hints at romance: "Odd boats were occupied by couples who carried no lanterns but glided off into the dark. Most of the craft were painted white, but the few painted brown were more popular with young couples."
Row boats also featured in a report Taylor found of a party given by the Walter family at the imposing Lake House, on the southern ridge. Again, boats were lit by Chinese lanterns as people rowed from town to the party. Guests danced, enjoyed supper, and saved enough energy to row home across the lake.
Taylor's book is a blend of the social - with anecdotes such as these - and the scientific. He says that some people mistakenly think Lake Rotoroa is man-made. But it has an ancient, natural history connected to the ancestral Waikato River; it was formed about 20,000 years ago, along with more than 30 small lakes in the Hamilton Basin, and it developed over several stages from then.
He's delved into the lake's formation, its sediment, the fishing, hunting and gardening practices of Maori in pre-European times, troublesome exotic aquatic weeds, water management, fish and bird life, as well as the connection with Waikato Hospital, the landmark properties of Lake House and Windermere (both still standing), yachting, waka ama, and more.
There is a wonderful photo gallery, and a handy timeline marks major events and changes; you learn that Hamilton Yacht Club was established in 1937, a skating rink built in 1960, the road through Innes Common opened in 1963, and so on.
Taylor covers the controversial spraying to kill weeds which have potential to cover large parts of the lake bed. In 1959, the herbicide sodium arsenate was used, dumped in the lake from a helicopter, and it resulted in arsenic contaminating the sediments. Taylor's research showed that traces of arsenic are still present.
In the early 1970s, Liquid Diquat was sprayed on the lake to control weeds, and during a round in 1974 there was accidental drift from helicopter spraying that affected private properties stretching from the lake through the Melville, Glenview and Garden Heights area.
Council's Parks Department received about 80 complaints, and it was decided that helicopter spraying for weeds would never again be done on or near the lake.
Taylor says it is hard work to keep the lake functioning well, and he has great respect for council's efforts. "It's a shallow lake, there is no natural spring, it's governed by rainfall and run-off. It is a constant battle to keep it to a good standard, and there is no great solution (to water circulation)."
He's had much good feedback on his book, including a call from a woman in the United States, who once lived by the lake and was moved to ring him after she'd read it, seen photographs of landmarks she remembered.
He's specially grateful to graphic artist Richard Stowers, who generously did the book design voluntarily. Profits from the publication will go to Hospice Waikato, in memory of the Taylors' daughter Nicola Lye, who loved the lake, and died two years ago from a brain tumour.
Taylor's house overlooks Lake Rotoroa, and he never tires of what he sees. "Sometimes in the mornings it has a very eerie look, there is a wisp of mist on the lake, like a long layer sitting over the water, and it is clear above. It is an unusual effect.
"I love it in all its seasons."
Hamilton Lake, City Playground, $20, is available at The Verandah Cafe, Hamilton Lake, and proceeds go to Hospice Waikato.
- Waikato Times