No power needed for simple pleasures

For the 26 families who make the annual Christmas pilgrimage to a 90-year-old fishing village on the Kakanui River, near Oamaru, there are no gaudy Christmas lights on display, no annual re-runs of Mary Poppins on television to suffer and no electricity to cook Christmas lunch - but that is the way they like it, and that is the way they want to keep it.

Land at Gemmells Crossing was developed about 90 years ago by the now defunct Acclimatisation Society as a fisherman's village and camp ground for about 18 cribs, all of which had no electricity - and although the camp has grown since then, to this day there is still no electricity supply.

Despite that, holiday-makers come back year after year, generation after generation. Gemmells Crossing Camp Committee member Colin Ballantyne said that was because the simple charms of Gemmells Crossing were enticing.

Mr Ballantyne, himself a 50-year veteran of the area, said he had frequented Gemmells Crossing every year at Christmas and New Year, ever since his parents built a crib there in 1958. Mr Ballantyne said he had seen a lot of changes over the years, but although the spot had lost popularity among campers, it was still a desirable holiday spot for those who owned cribs.

''It used to be heaps of people used to camp out by the river,'' he said.

''Lots of people used to come out from town, for swimming and fishing, but a lot of that doesn't happen now because the river has deteriorated and has got quite low.

''The crib owners themselves still enjoy it. It's a nice peaceful area.

''There's no electricity. It's a good place to go and relax and just chill out.

''A lot of the cribs have been in people's hands for 30 to 40 years and it's sort of passed down through generations. Not many come available; once people get them, they tend to hang on to them for a long time.

''There are even people there with cribs from Christchurch, Dunedin - all over. It's just a nice, friendly area beside a river.''

The crib built by his parents had now been passed down to his own children, he said.

''The extended family all go down there.''

He said his first memories of the place were of making bonfires on the banks of the river.

''It was a good place to run around and catch frogs and catch trout, swim. All the kids used to run around - and still do. They rule the camp more than anything.''

There were just 18 permanent cribs on the site when he was a boy and although there was still no electricity, many of the cribs had been modified slightly, he said.

''We don't want electricity there, and we only get marginal coverage for cellphones - it's good.''

The Department of Conservation took ownership of the land in 1990, but after a two-year process, the land was last year was given reserve land status as a local purpose reserve and the 26 crib owners were each granted a 30-year lease to occupy the land.

Mr Ballantyne said that meant the camp committee, made up of one representative from each crib, was the legal ''guardian'' of the land.

Heather McMullan has been visiting the area for four decades - ''40 years this year'' to be precise, she said.

Mrs McMullan said she started renting a crib at Gemmells Crossing because she could not afford to take her five children on holiday, but soon became enamoured with the community spirit of the place.

''We had a family of five and we really couldn't afford to go anywhere, and the kids love swimming in the river, which was really great in those days.

''We rented a crib down there and I think it cost us $12 a week, so we have five weeks down there, which was brilliant. Then we decided to buy a crib.

''With most of our family in Australia, they all come home for holidays at Gemmells Crossing, which we are going to have this year.

''It's just a good friendly community.''

She said the place's proximity to Oamaru also made it very handy, and although most of the regulars were Oamaru residents, there were a few families from Dunedin and Christchurch.

Not being connected to the electricity grid was not a problem, she said.

''We get nothing done for us. We have our own pumping system. We just run on kerosene lamps, but some people run on generators.

''Quite a few of the families that own cribs there are there even during the year, during holiday breaks. My family use the crib quite a bit, but I'm usually just a Christmas one.''