“A bach (pronounced ‘batch’) is a small, often very modest holiday home or beach house.”*
This summer we were lucky enough to score ourselves a bach holiday in Scandretts Bay, about one hour’s drive north from Auckland. Four nights, right on the water, in two simple dwellings with bunk beds, linoleum floors, formica tables, cupboards reserved for old books and board games with dice missing and mismatched furniture sourced exclusively from garage sales and secondhand stores. Getting the booking for eight adults and our three associated kidlets was essentially a lottery win as the baches are managed by the Auckland Regional Council who maintain a complicated booking system which defies logic and leaves ninety per cent of interested parties bereft. On the day that bookings for summer opened (six months earlier, in winter) my Mum was lined up outside the council offices at the crack of dawn and I was at home, on the phone, listening the soothing sounds of nineties pop music, the same three tracks on repeat.
Finally, I got an answer from a real, live person and the booking went something like this “Scandretts Bay! Any time in December or January! We don’t mind which baches! We don’t care how many days!” Time was of the essence as other customer service reps were booking at exactly the same time. The woman I spoke with looked up option after option, with many a “Oh, that might work! Oh no, it’s just been taken.” Finally, after much problem solving, we had our four nights. I promptly called Mum who had been less lucky. By the time she got to the counter just a few minutes later all the available bookings had vanished. That we’d secured two whole baches for four whole days was cause for much whooping and cheering.
“Baches are an iconic part of New Zealand history and culture, especially in the middle of the 20th century, where they symbolized the beach holiday lifestyle that was becoming more accessible to the middle class. Baches began to gain popularity in the 1950s as roads improved and the increasing availability of cars allowed for middle-class beach holidays, often to the same beach every year.”
Why is a bach holiday so coveted? Mainly because the locations are no longer available to the average person. Beachfront property is prized and expensive, smaller allotments of coastal land (especially those for lease) just don’t exist anymore. The Scandretts were a farming family who obtained their coastal property in the late 1880’s, when the only access was via the sea. Suddenly, during the 1950’s, post war, things were looking much rosier for the average New Zealander and having a bach was the height of success. However, the baches themselves were far from luxurious. Tiny, basic and built with cheap and recycled materials they were, in essence, a kind of snazzy version of a tent, a small step up from a caravan.
“They are almost always small structures, usually made of cheap or recycled material like fibrolite (asbestos sheets), corrugated iron or used timber. They were influenced by the backwoods cabins and sheds of the early settlers and farmers.”
The Scandretts leased out a section of their land to bach-owners until the nineties when the Auckland Regional Council bought the entire farm, baches included. The original plan was to bulldoze all the baches in the bay, clearing the space for picnic tables and day visitor facilities and ensuring the preservation of the natural environment including fish, birds and other wildlife. But the council soon decided the man-made environment was worth saving too. They cleared most of the land, as planned, but left three baches remaining, which they then restored. They are Coldham, Graham and Moonlight; named after the original owners.
Bach-life (if there is not already a hashtag I am hereby inventing it) matches the decor. It’s relaxed and simple and not always 100% hygienic. If the sausages are a little undercooked or you don’t shower for a few days, so be it. You sleep in small bunk rooms with sand in the sheets and mosquitoes feasting on your ankles. Lunches are hodge-podge and throw-together. No-one wears makeup, washing your hair with shampoo is considered a bit fussy. There are no dishwashers, hair dryers, certainly no televisions or air conditioning. In the mornings everyone smells like sweat and damp sheets and no-one cares because you’re all in exactly the same rowboat. You take turns cooking meals, fishing, napping and reading, though the same person always seems to get out of doing the dishes because that’s the way groups work. A joke made on the first night is recycled night after night and many a nickname is dolled out, some that will stick and others that won’t. Summer fruit keeps blood sugar levels up – plums, apricots, peaches and cherries that were gifted by a friend who went to Otago for Christmas. If there is a freezer then hokey pokey ice cream should be in it. Whittaker’s chocolate for the win, please. The person who avoids the dishes also seems to have scored the best bed or biggest room – how does that happen? Clothes are worn and re-worn till skin and fabric smell identically terrible; togs / swimming costumes make a great an alternative to underwear. You bring your own linen, remove your own rubbish and sweep and mop before you leave.
By the end of our holiday our hair was filled with sand and stiffened with salt. We’d eaten most of the food we had brought with us though my brother and his girlfriend had hokey pokey ice cream straight from the tub for breakfast on the morning we left before the next guests arrived. There were no more clean clothes. We could barely remember what clean clothes were like. Matt went into the rugged and treacherous wildness, bounty hunting, for the final time (aka. fishing in the bay) and bought back two snapper to take home with us as edible souvenirs. The girls had been read the same books over and over, falling apart Shirley Hughes picture books and chapters of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. They had learned to spot dotterills, pukeko and tui and their rugby passes were significantly improved, same too for their immunity. They had coloured-in, treasured-hunted, feather-collected and lizard-trapped.
Despite a couple of days of rain, our brief bach holiday was a resounding success. My heart runneth over watching Dad tell the girls the same stories he’d told us as kids, Mum on the couch with a daughter under each arm, my niece dashing about bare rear covered in sand, siblings and partners round the table in fits of laughter, chuffed husband with silver-skinned snapper in hand. Plus, on returning home, our creature comforts seemed even more comfortable and we were grateful and ready to fall into clean, cool, sand-free beds. All of which makes it absolutely worth it to try our chances with the baffling booking system again next year.
Which are your favourite kinds of holidays?
PS. A short and sweet poem I found entitled Bach Life. Sums it up nicely.
* Italicised quotes from Wikipedia.