Swallows and Amazons

A chance discovery in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands

Urupukapuka is the largest island in New Zealand’s aptly named Bay of Islands. During a recent kayak trip (see Paddling the Bay) I had the opportunity to explore Urupukapuka, and climbed the grassy walking track to the Island’s highest point. I was rewarded with an amazing view over the area’s myriad bays and coves, peninsulas and isthmi. Whilst taking in the spectacular scene, the phrase ‘Swallows and Amazons‘ suddenly popped into my head.

I stood on the hilltop. Swallows and Amazons. What was that? And why had I suddenly thought of it? Hang on…let me think… Boats…camping…exploring… A kid’s story…. Yes that’s right – it was a children’s book! Something about a group of kids that had holiday adventures on some lakes somewhere.

Urupukapuka Island
Urupukapuka Island

I have a theory that inside my brain there resides a storeman who wears an old-fashioned grey dustcoat over a green cardigan and dark workpants. He is bald on top but still has white hair on the sides of his head, and pushes around a librarian-style trolley full of manila folders. It’s his job to rummage through all the memory files and thoughts in my brain and recover the ones that I might need at any given time. This poor man works ceaselessly, trying to make sense of the jumble and junk contained in the rows of shelves and filing cabinets inside my head.

Perhaps I had a clear, quiet mind at the time I looked out over the beautiful Bay of Islands. Perhaps it was enough down-time for the storeman, not busy with one of his usual frustrating goose-chase errands, to present a manila folder to me that I hadn’t consciously requested. ‘Say Jim, I thought you might get a kick out of this. Here.’

I had a chuckle. ‘How about that eh? Swallows and Amazons. I haven’t thought about that story in decades.’ I headed off, following the track back down the hill to the campground. The book title and associated thoughts were taken from the forefront of my mind by the storeman, wheeled away on the trolley, and put back in their files.

The following day I returned from the kayak trip, and booked into a cabin at a campground in Paihia. It was a rainy afternoon, and I needed somewhere to dry out my camping gear and launder my salt-encrusted clothes. Like many New Zealand campgrounds, the complex included a large communal lounge area attached to the kitchen. Whilst making a snack I was drawn to the shelf of books beside the TV. My eyes worked across the titles – the usual collection of airport paperbacks all purporting to be the ‘New York Times Best Seller’ – until a familiar green and white dust jacket pulled me up with a start. Hey is that… It couldn’t be! Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. No way!

Swallows and Amazons
What are the chances of that?

I picked it up, stared at it, and in the midst of the communal lounge was transported back to childhood holidays.

Swallows and Amazons
The dust jacket design hasn’t changed since I was a kid

Our family were caravaners. Not in the Roma sense, but in the Australian family holiday sense. Kingswood sedan, caravan, Mum, Dad, the kids and the dog. Dad was a teacher, and so shared the same holidays as us kids, and we’d head off for weeks at a time in our beloved caravan. When we were young, and tucked up in our bunk beds for the night, Dad would read to us.

Swallows and Amazons
The treacherous, pirate-infested waters of…well…the English countryside…
Ransome based the stories, characters and locations featured in Swallows and Amazons on his own childhood holidays in England’s Lake District

He would sit on the caravan’s brown vinyl bench seat, his long legs stretched out under the faux marble-topped table. Resting his forearms on the table, he would read us funny stories about mischievous delinquent kids, or tales of adventure including Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons.

I took the book back to my cabin, keen to rediscover what the stories were all about. Swallows and Amazons was the first in a series of books which centered on a group of siblings – Roger, John, Susan, Titty (the books were written in a more innocent time) and Bridget Walker – who comprised the nautical gang ‘The Swallows’. They sailed and camped and adventured around a ‘wilderness’ of lakes and forest during their holidays. They were joined by ‘The Amazons’ – sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett – in combat, competition, and periodically, uneasy truce.

We would listen to Dad read of the gangs’ escapades (which had a distinctly piratical and Caribbean flavour despite taking place in a landlocked lake area of Old Blighty) – until we fell asleep. I had a habit of falling asleep first, and fairly early on in the piece, which I would be ribbed about the following morning over breakfast.

Swallows and Amazons

Paddling and exploring the Bay of Islands had triggered my memory of Swallows and Amazons, and dear old Dad reading it to us when we were kids. A coincidence indeed to discover Arthur Ransome’s book there on the shelf at the campground the very next day. Yet perhaps it’s not so surprising to find it there. What a perfect story to read to kids who are tired, sunburnt and content after their own Swallows and Amazons holiday adventures in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.

Swallows and Amazons

For more on the Bay of Islands click here

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like Bay of Islands, Te Paki Coastal Track

Subscribe to Midlife Crisis Odyssey

Subscribe to receive new post alerts and a free monthly newsletter


2 responses to “Swallows and Amazons”

  1. Vicki Avatar

    It’s true! You always fell asleep half-way through the story and you never believed me! Haha!

    But what are the odds of that book being in the lounge? Freaky! Tho maybe if it’s a popular place for families to mess about in boats they might enjoy reading about it after a long day exploring caves and coves.

    Really enjoyed this post!

    1. Jim Clayton Avatar
      Jim Clayton

      I never fell asleep! I deny it! Never happened! Hope the post jogged a few memories for you too 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *