Spirit of peace at Aramoana

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009
Magaret Agnew
ARAMOANA: View over the headland. There is little to remnind of the gun rampage which left 13 people dead.

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Long days in the shop Where the river runs through A place of inspiration Finding heart and soul Long journey to Haast Spirit of peace at Aramoana Winter sports lead Naseby renaissance Harnessing the wind at Lake Mahinerangi Inchbonnie giving up its quiet isolation Rolling with the valley's ups and downs

The attraction of Aramoana is the beaches, not that horrible event.

The flag of Scotland flutters bravely over a house at Aramoana, round the corner from Plucky Street.

Bravehearts are working on two building sites in this settlement at the seaward end of Otago Harbour.

The workers endure freezing wind off the sea, in the knowledge the weather will later turn, bringing rain and hail.

One project is a new house. It will join a handful of impressive homes that stand out among the empty sections, decaying shacks and derelict buses and caravans.

On the other building site, a partly demolished house is being rebuilt. It will join a medley of ad- hoc and add-on structures in this place.

Scrub-covered sand dunes are Aramoana's dominant feature. Quiet peace is its spirit. Beaches are its attraction.

There is little that harks back to the rampage of resident David Gray, which left 13 people dead, 16 years ago this week. A sign on the main road welcomes visitors to "Aramoana, Pathway of the Sea". A map mentions a memorial, with a vague indication of its whereabouts.

It could be a memorial to the victims of the crazed gunman. I look around the area indicated but see no sign of a memorial. Surmising it may be in the sandhills, I head up a track through the lupins. And there it is - a modernist tribute down in a hollow, invisible from the road.

I pay respects and return to the road. Two women are butting into the wind. One carries a plastic shopping bag full of pine cones.

They are getting a bit vexed with the number of visitors nosing around and asking questions about Gray. Recent release of the movie Out of the Blue has reignited interest. One woman says she doesn't venture outside at weekends any more because so many people are about.

They argue over whether the film should have been made. One says it was too soon after the event. They don't want to say more. They suggest I visit Lina Davis.

I knock on Davis's door. She assumes I have come to talk about "the massacre". Well, residents talk about it among themselves but not among strangers, she says. They deplore their prurient interest and brazen requests for directions to Gray's house.

The movie has divided the settlement, Davis says. Even her family is split over it. She has seen the movie. Should I see it? I ask. She says I should.

Davis is a sprightly 88-year-old. She first came to Aramoana when her father built a crib (Otago-speak for bach) here in 1925. She has lived here most of her life and is recognised as the local historian. She has scrapbooks of newspaper articles, as many relating to the 1970s proposal for an aluminium smelter as to "the massacre".

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Defeating the smelter proposal was Aramoana's greatest day. People came here for the peace and the bracing air and sea. They did not want a giant factory at their backdoor, she says. They did not want the birdlife, fish, wetlands and beaches threatened.

Davis's family crib was the 19th in what was then a remote retreat. Many more people came when the then Otago Harbour Board rebuilt the mole - a solid breakwater that prevents sand build-up in the entrance to the harbour. A row of bleached, skeletal timber frames beside the mole is a relic of the railway line that carried wagons of rocks for the mole.

Barracks housed single workers during this late 1920s project. Some workers later built cribs and kept coming back for fishing and relaxation. Some moved in permanently.

The settlement had a short boom. It even sported a shop for a while.

The trouble was, says Davis, the land was leased from the harbour board and leaseholders could be pushed out at short notice. When the smelter was proposed, residents thought they would be forced to leave. They neglected maintenance on their houses (many of which were built on skids so they could be moved).

Aramoana began its decline to delapidation, a state from which it is, even now, only slowly emerging.

Dunedin City took over the land in 1989 and the Department of Conservation declared the wetlands an ecological reserve.

Freeholding of titles from the mid-1990s gave residents incentive to smarten up the place, though they continue to rely on rainwater and septic tanks.

Sea winds still whisper tragedy, at Aramoana. Some people moved away to escape memories of the massacre. The settlement languished for a while. Then new people moved in.

A windsurfer scudding along the breakers beside the mole could be a symbol for the future. As I watch, the wetsuited figure takes three dunkings. Each time, though, he scrambles upright again. And, as gusts fill his sail, he flies free.

- The Press

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