Take a tour of the historic Bull Creek cribs in Otago

Sunrise warms the homes of holidaymakers.

Kith and kinship are at the heart of the happiness found in a tiny holiday community on the South Island’s south coast.

Walk Japan

This article first appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of NZ Life & Leisure.

Words: Lisa Scott Photos: Sharron Bennett

Bull Creek comes suddenly upon you. One minute you’re trundling through farmland, past paddocks of swede-munching sheep and nosey lowland cattle. Next, the green land simply unravels into the sea like a pair of rolled-up trousers falling down onto bare rock feet, small sandy bays between their toes.

“How did you find it?” asks full-timer Ken Lane. “It’s a secret. We’re not in the phone book.” Equally shrouded is the origin of the place name. From a 1904 report in the Otago Witness of a wild bull meeting a grisly end to a fictional character called John Bull, the truth is hard to pin down.

“There’s a lot of bull,” says John Auld. Aulds have been coming here for six generations. “We’re either a very stable family or a very boring one,” says daughter Shelley.

There’s something Brigadoonish about Bull Creek. It could well be a mysterious Scottish village that appears out of the mist once every hundred years. A memorial set into a lichen-covered boulder by the seashore reads: “People past and present have enjoyed the pleasure of Bull Creek. Our wish is that these pleasures remain the same for future generations.”

Ally Campbell and Robin Gamble carry out running repairs.

And little has changed since the 1890s when five bachelors biked the 13 miles from Milton every weekend to clear the bush around a hut on skids. Putting in ₤5 each to purchase it and never for the life of them thinking they would, they made a pact that marrying meant the loss of their share. So it was that Grant Devlin’s crib came down through the last marital hold-out.

A bachelor himself when he first brought wife Fay here in a girlfriend-suitability test (she passed with flying colours), light in those days was from candles or kerosene lamps, food cooked on an old coal range.

Bull Creek cribs, hunkered down in the lee of the land and sheltered from the prevailing sou’-wester by broad stands of gnarly macrocarpa, are still unpretentious pioneer constructions bearing no resemblance to today’s beachfront palaces.

Sunrise warms a veranda.

Cobbled together from bits and pieces (the Devlins’ gate was made from the wheel of the Marguerite Mirabaud, wrecked three kilometres away at Chrystalls Beach in 1907), their verandas look out onto a silver sea corrugated by swell, corduroy to the horizon. Container ships tootle up the coast to Dunedin and at night the pink lights of squid boats blink at the morepork’s call.

Holidaymakers contemplate doing something close to nothing at all.

For more than 100 years the 44 crib owners have relied upon a nod-and-handshake arrangement with the landowner. Now they have 33-year leases thanks to Mrs Lane, widow of Powel “Pal” Lane, a chemist turned farmer who also wanted Bull Creek to stay the same. Cribs must be kept neat and tidy; leasees are entitled to “quiet enjoyment”.

Holidays on the south coast mean parkas and wet feet. Struggling to light a fire in the teeth of a gale. Sword fights with claddie sticks (dried stems of flax flowers). Sheep poo. Children seen and not heard and rarely seen. Gone all day: swimming in the rock pools, eeling in the creek, shrieking as they high-step the small, safe waves of the creek mouth. Climbing the iconic Bull Creek pine, a leaning tower of a tree crowned by a bushy afro. Building huts. Possoming. No screens, no devices, no texting – no coverage.

John Auld has a bit of a think.

“You can come here and do nothing,” says Grant, “or you can do as much as you want. There’s quite a bit of socializing. Everyone’s known each other their whole lives. Barbecues are always huge. When the Shearer boys are here, the barbecue shuttles between the two cribs.” At the end of the holidays a great inter-crib cutlery sort-out restores peripatetic forks to their rightful drawers.

When Grant was a boy, crayfish were plentiful. “Mum used to crochet a bag to catch the crays. We used to get so many, we’d have them in our school lunches. The other kids would turn their noses up.” Grant’s father, Dick Devlin, would hire an old car battery from a garage in Milton for half a crown a week to run the radio. In those days dropping a line off Big Rock, Bremner or Hissing Rock would pull up kahawai, gurnard, groper, barracuda, red and blue cod.

“Now you’d need a boat and have to go further out.” But there’s still a profusion of paua; masses of mussels. A clean beach, a forest of ruby-red rata in the Bull Creek Scenic Reserve, bellbird songs. “We’ve been given something pristine,” says Fay. “We’re just looking after it for those to come.”

Bull Creekers are fiercely competitive, if not feudish, people and this comes to the fore in the summer with family pitted against family in a dizzying array of events timetabled in the Bull Creek Newsletter published by Coral Butler: sandcastle competition, most unusual fish, wheelbarrow race, caber tossing, scavenger hunt, the Moanariri Talent Quest – all capped off by the annual home-brew competition. Paper-plate trophies are proudly displayed on the walls of every crib. “In 1993 I won the ladies’ gumboot toss,” says Fay. “It was a fluke.”

The Nemo trophy in the Devlins’ kitchen proclaims them champions of the Chowder Bake-off (the losers receive a seagull statue and must display it prominently so people can witness their shame).

In an age of talking to ourselves or to no one, tweeting into the void, Bull Creekers are all the more remarkable for choosing to come together as a community, working to provide the amenities all enjoy. They’ve done so ever since gangs of fathers and sons went out on bad-weather days in the 1930s and ’40s, toting picks, shovels and rock drills to work on the road, saws and axes to clear the forest track.

There’s a sense of camaraderie. A can-do attitude reminiscent of London in the Blitz. This year’s mayor, Gordy, clanks with the gravity of office, the mayoral chain a collection of bottle tops, a plastic dolphin, a screwdriver and an old cocoa-tin lid, fastened to a dog chain.

“Bull Creek is what family holidays used to be about.” Ally Campbell has been coming back here every summer for 50 years. “It’s just a nice, decent place. Kids today can’t do bloody anything. Here, they fall over and get a black toenail – it’s all part of growing up. Mind you, there are sea lions down there; they scare the kids a bit.” The beach in front of the Campbells’ is called Grays Beach after his grandmother who swam there every morning, well into her 80s. “I’m usually sprucing up the crib,” says wife Lin. “But I’ve got as far as I can get without a bit of manpower.”

Unfortunately her manpower is out in the shed with his best mate Robin Gamble, changing the head gasket of the Fordson tractor. “You can hardly move at our place,” says Robin. “We’ve got three generations there at the moment. Bloody kids and grandkids everywhere.” He has a roguish, cowboy air. “I was only on screen for a minute before I got shot,” he says of his appearance in the Western Good for Nothing.

Robin Camble’s grandsons run amok.

“A real shot in the arm” when it comes to working bees too, Robin is Ally’s arch nemesis in the yearly Gamble versus Campbell golf tournament, teeing off from their respective front lawns, aiming for a hole about 90 centimetres round down on the beach. “Standing next to it is the safest place you can be,” says Ally. Campbells won last year. “Only because he got a whole lot of ring-ins,” says Robin.

New Year’s Eve is the biggest event on the Bull Creek calendar. The children’s bonfire is at 9.30pm, the adults’ at midnight: a magnificent pyre probably visible from space. After which begins the First Footing, where locals go crib to crib with a lump of coal and a bottle of whisky. It’s an ancient rite to welcome the coming year, drinking a cup of kindness to the ever-present ghosts of forefathers who hailed from dreck and stony climes and became New Zealanders here by the seaside.

Reaching out to auld lang syne (the long, long ago) while relishing the rich repetition of children growing up and having children, honouring tradition but making their own family histories. “I hope you like our little place,” says Ally. “We do.” And no wonder.


New Year’s Eve sparkles for the young ones (thanks to Coral Butler for the photo), due to the combined efforts of the crib owners.

This custom dictates that the first person to cross a house’s threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve will determine the homeowner’s luck in the new year. The ideal visitor bears gifts: whisky, coal for the fire, small cakes or a coin and is a man with a dark complexion, a tradition hearkening back to the eighth century when fair-haired Vikings invaded Scotland and a blond man at your door was NOT an omen of good times to come.

Favourite fish dish: chowder or smoked fish pie. However, due to the annual Shearer versus Devlin Chowder Bake-off (where the dog is sent down with a challenge tied to its collar), recipes are a closely guarded secret and the gathering of ingredients is considered to be a covert operation. “Winning requires creativity,” says Grant.
Favourite game: Kings and Arseholes. This card game had to be discontinued as it “got a bit rough”, with Fay being required to eat a lemon and Grant spending a considerable amount of time with his hand taped to his face. “Which is quite painful after a while.”
Favourite music: the Shearer ukulele orchestra.
Favourite dance moves: the stagger.
Favourite event: New Year’s Eve bonfire.

Favourite fish dish: blue cod fresh out of the sea and onto the barbie. Less is best. Maybe a little bit of flour, salt and pepper.
Favourite game: Shanghai, a Bull Creek game based on 500. The old locals went round each others’ cribs and played this.
Favourite music: the sound of the ’70s, the Beach Boys, Charlie Pryde, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Favourite dance move: the shuffle.
Favourite event: sports day is a good day. And the pre-New Year’s Eve drink, up the creek at the waterfall, before the bonfires.

To reach Bull Creek you must first drive 40 minutes south of Dunedin to the township of Milton. Milton’s main street is dead straight as it runs across the Tokomairiro Plain and through town, then suddenly and violently swerves. Set out by two surveyors, one moving north, the other south, each set the road out to the right of their line, resulting in the Milton Kink. Turn left at the kink and Bull Creek is 15 kilometres to the east.

This article first appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of NZ Life & Leisure.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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