Topic: Waiotahi Images by Tony Walsh

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A Tony Walsh entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

You might not have called it cannibal country but I’d been working as a volunteer in an area of Papua New Guinea that had only recently been opened up to Europeans under Australian administration.



I met Chimbu people who never before had seen a white skin. I set up a school and trained teachers all for the princely sum of £5 a month and keep. For several months I had not set foot in a vehicle. Far from civilization, homesickness finally caught up with me and I returned to the Bay of Plenty.

Once back, I applied for and was appointed to a position at Waiotahi Valley School, which served what, even for those times, was a remote community. Our most distant pupils came from the Kahikatea district at the head of the river road. There lived the Te Whenua, the Ihe and Wikotu families whose children had a lengthy daily journey to school. They left home early in the morning on horseback, two or three to a mount, making two fords of the river before they arrived at the bus shelter at the end of the road. Once there they tied up the horses securely and changed into their school clothes and awaited the bus to their education.

There was no electricity to their community at the time. Pake and Johnny each milked a small herd of cows and separated the cream with power from a diesel generator.  Barney and his wife lived in a punga whare with a clay-trodden floor. They had no running water. I recall Barney Junior’s first days at school when he discovered the tap over the basin inside the classroom foyer. He’d turn on the tap, watch the water run down the plughole, then race outside to see where it was going then back in again to turn it off.

Toilet paper was also new to some of our students and disappeared at an alarming rate, so much so that Mr Jeromson our principal announced at assembly there was a limit of two or three squares to a toilet visit. The edict did not have any noticeable effect.

Nearer to school was the Waiotahi marae where Fred and Lemon Bush had their home and raised their family. On the hillside above dwelt the Te Papas and their three irascible daughters: Nanny, Norma and Nola. The latter two were twins and Nanny the scatterbrain. Most days they arrived at school on a big grey, part-draught horse. They had no saddle or bridle and the front rider on the horse’s back guided it with a twig in either hand to touch its face and steer it.

I rented an old farm cottage from the Watson clan that was set in an orchard on a bend by the road. I had my vegetable garden under the fruit trees. At the boundary there was a large tombstone which beautifully reflected the moonlight. Occasionally in the darkness on still nights I’d hear a horse or two coming up the road at a steady clip clop, clip clop. As the steps approached the corner and the moon-illuminated headstone the pace would increase and gravel go flying until, once past the kehua - ghostly spirits - the old clip clop once again resumed.

The Watsons had four sons, all great community people. Bruce was the lad at home then, milking the family herd in the traditional walk-through shed. Once the herd had left the shed at the end of milking boiling water from buckets had to be passed through the milk line to sterilise it. On one occasion Bruce somehow managed to tip the boiling water into his gumboot and cooked his foot. Whilst he was disabled they asked me to milk the herd morning and night before and after school.

I was young and single at that time and enjoying life perhaps a bit too much. One night I did a Cinderella and overstayed my welcome, arriving home just as the early dawning light began to penetrate the darkness. It was time to change and go to the shed. I recall part-way through milking, jolting awake leaning into the warm side of a quiet cow. I’d fallen asleep stripping the last of the milk from her udder. School that day seemed never-ending.

1964 was the year of the Great Flood. My vehicle was parked for the night on the track to the lower terrace by the river. When I awoke in the morning only the top of its green cab was showing. The entire valley floor was a moving sea of murky red-brown water. There was no way I’d be getting to school that day.

Bruce Watson arrived on his tractor and we hauled out my little utility then went sightseeing up the road. Spotting a deer on the hillside we hared off home and picked up my rifle and the dogs. It might have been a flood disaster but we ended up our day with a young stag.

The Waiotahi River has its beginnings under Kaharoa Mountain way back in the Ureweras. An hour’s hike past the Kahikatea Pa a strong middle ridge leads southwards. This traditionally was the autumn hunting ground for native pigeons feeding greedily on the berries of the miro trees, which grew in abundance there. Later, when deer became prevalent they, too, found the ridge attractive for its easy terraces and roaring sites in the rutting season. I spent a wet Easter there one year camped on the ridge under a miserable scrap of polythene when the rain never let up.  All the sensible deer had found sensible places to lie up in.

Ned, my hunting mate, and I took a group of boys through that country too and continued  further south to where  we came on to a high flat top of stunted trees, a dreadful spot where we had to wade through a black peaty swamp, slush up to our calves and each step exhausting . Wild cattle somehow scratched an existence up there and they were stunted too with high shoulders sloping off to their hind quarters. It’s not a place to be caught in when the clouds come down and there is no sun by which to orient oneself.

By the time we had negotiated the swamp the boys were done and so we dropped off on the Waioeka side in the now-growing darkness and found a camping spot under the bole of a forest giant. There we erected a shelter and got a great blaze going. Leaving our weary crew to mind the fire Ned and I took a billy each and scrambled off down the steep side to try and locate water. In the bottom of a narrow gully we found a trickle and then began our assault on the hillside. With a full billy in one hand and in the all-enveloping blackness it was not at all easy. We called but there was no reply. Only the faint flicker of reflected firelight on the leaves above existed to guide our climbing footsteps. Stumbling into our shelter it was with little surprise we came on a quartet of our sleeping exhausted charges.

‘Iwi Roa’ is the Long Ridge if you like and it surely is just that. For the most part it has a gently rising crest climbing from the floor of the Waiotahi Valley before turning eastwards for the last steep pinch through the native forest to the peak of Puke Nui.

On one of our outings there was just the three of us: Ned, Eddie and me. We’d left early to try and catch a porker on the grassland of the lower Iwi Roa but being unsuccessful had persisted with the climb to the high top of Puke Nui, where there’s an extensive level terrace. Pigs wallow in the swampy parts occasionally and sometimes we’d come on an unwary deer. With no significant landmarks every which way seems the same. Easy country in which to lose your sense of direction.

Anyway after the long haul up the hill we decided on a bite and a billy of tea before we went further.  We kindled a fire. From his pikau Eddie pulled out a can of beans and stood it in the embers beside the flames to warm. Ned sliced bread for toast and I wandered off with the billy to find clean water.

Suddenly back where I’d left my friends the stillness of the forest was shattered by an almighty BOOM. Fear lent speed to my footsteps as I raced back to our campfire.  Brushing aside the last of the shrubbery I beheld Ned’s gory face, blood dripping to his chin. With one hand he held Eddie by the scruff of the neck, the other hand clenched ready to strike.

“You shot me, you bastard,” he roared.

“Look,” stammered Eddie. “It’s all beans. I - I - I forgot to punch a hole in the can and it exploded.

One hairy hand plucked a hot bean from the point of a nose. The other palm wiped off the worst of the ‘gore.’

“It’s tea and toast then I guess.” said Ned, grumpily pushing together the scattered remnants of the fire.

From the remote bow and arrow country of Papua New Guinea – back home to civilization I said – but that was the Waiotahi as I learned to enjoy it.

About the author:

Tony Walsh has been married for 44 years with five children and seven grandchildren. Most of his working life was spent as a teacher and a school principal, during which he spent a great deal of time hunting and trout fishing in the wild. Since his retirement and as his legs got slower, he now fly fishes the rivers, tying his own flies. He published The Black Singlet Brigade with XLibris in 2013, an essential read for any bush adventurer, actual or vicarious. Tony presently edits the local Trout Fishing Club monthly magazine. Now retired, he lives, writes and resides by a trout stream. He describes this as Heaven on earth.


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