Topic: Dam Memories by Deryn Pittar

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Dam Memories are the subject of Deryn Pittar's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

The Waikato River has been harnessed by many dams and I have personal ties to three of them.

These iconic dams stand as a memorial to the dedication and hard work of the many men involved in their creation.  The workers are all now dead, as is my father, who worked as a welder on the sites of the Maraetai, Whakamaru and Atimuri Dams in the late 1940s and early1950s.

We moved to Mangakino when I was seven and left seven years later. The Waikato River, when we arrived, raced and danced through deep gullies and between towering rock cliffs, giving the fish it nurtured places to rest and hide from the keen fishermen of the district.

The winter days were cold, dressed in frost and fog, ideal weather for jumping into ice-topped puddles or crunching footsteps into the raised hoar-frost ground. The fog lifted at 10 a.m. and began thinking about returning by 3 p.m.

In contrast the summer days were hot with the sun reflecting off the pumice laden soil.  My mother’s roses loved it there. Mulched and watered they thrived in a riot of enthusiasm.

The town was created to build the dams and was supported by the government by rewarding ambitious teachers with doing their country service there. We benefited from their dedication and skills.

National theatre tours visited the town. I saw both Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice by the time I was twelve. There were the movies on a Saturday. The weekly episodes of the current running serial; the cartoons;  Hop-a-long Cassidy, Robinson Crusoe and a never-ending supply of adventure and cowboy films - all for 6d. If you bought a passionfruit you could make it last the length of the movie eating it pip by pip.

Any club and service you could wish for thrived in Mangakino. For the   energetic sportsmen and work accidents, we had a hospital. For the ever producing mothers of the day (no pill available then) we had a maternity annexe.

The single man’s camp, a large collection of small huts, spread itself down a distant slope and was the place you were warned never to go near.  I often wondered, in my innocence, whatever went on there and felt sorry for all those men who weren’t allowed visitors.

On open day the workers were allowed to take their families onto the Maraetai Dam site. (OSH would not allow such a carry-on today). My father took me into the penstocks to see where he worked.  The huge pipes sloped from the high lakeside intake of the dam down towards the front. We walked down there and bent over to walk through the narrowing pipe in a complete circle, before exiting to stand on the downside wall of the dam, high above the ground.

My father explained how the force of the water coming down the pipe and roaring round in a circle would turn the turbines to create the electricity.  He showed me the strength of a curved dam. How hunched shoulders were stronger than a straight-standing back. I can still see in my mind’s eye the view from the penstock’s exit, looking down to the diversion race on the left and the stagnant water directly below.

Many an evening we went trout fishing below the dam. It took the trout a while to find the route up the fish ladder and on through the diversion tunnel, so there was good fishing to be had. Our fox terrier would become so excited when a fish was hooked he would wriggle closer and closer to the water, finally getting his bottom wet and the fish bounced into the fishnet, his teeth close behind. You had to spell the word ‘fishing’, because if he heard you say it he would race and drag the fishing bag out.

My brother and I cycled out to Whakamaru one sunny morning, to watch the river being diverted.  We stood high above the river on the cliff edge and saw the last piece of bank blocking the diversion race dynamited away and watched the river  change its course as bulldozers moved in to block its access to the ancient river bed.

Over one long summer the Maraetai Lake filled, killing trees and manuka, seeping into old quarries and smothering land marks. A creeping, unstoppable tide.  I remember that hot summer as the lake rose. The smell of rotting vegetation and how I nearly drowned; caught in a bottomless hole just feet from the bank. I remember thinking, as I rose the second time, “If I go down three times I’ll never come up again.”

I remember the beautiful rainbow trout; the enormous manuka spiders and iridescent green beetles; ‘Pommy Ridge’ where the English immigrants all lived and the polio epidemic that paralysed a friend down the road.

A trip to the dentist meant a bus ride to Putaruru. The school dental nurse had a pedal drill that ground mercilessly, varying in speed and pain as her foot tired.

Then there was the excitement of a huge ‘tomo’ appearing at the intersection by the Presbyterian Church, capturing a large truck in its gaping maw.

I remember being in bed with pneumonia, three winters running, with horrid faces in the curtains peeping at me as my temperature soared.  I see my father slowly feeding me whisky and milk, a teaspoonful at a time. I recall his satisfaction as we finished and my despair as it all returned. I can still feel the hot poultices on my chest, cut-off socks for extra warmth on my elbows and knees, and my legs covered with long woollen stockings.

When the dams were finished we moved to Kawerau.

“No more freezing winters,” said my mother.

Years later we drove to Mangakino, through paddocks along thin tar sealed roads. Hundreds of homes had been removed. There was no sign of my mother’s roses, Mrs. Cunningham’s apple tree or Billy Blair’s house.


About the author:

 Deryn Pittar (nee Brittain) lives in the Bay of Plenty and now she’s retired has time to devote to her love of words and how they can be arranged into various forms of poetry, novels, short fiction and historical records. Her work may be viewed at the following sites:

Poetry on:
Novels under her pen name:


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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