Topic: Puketui, Coromandel (1942) by Robert Vieira

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81-year-old Bob Vieira remembers Puketui, Coromandel, in 1942. A 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry by Robert Vieira

Archived version here.

In 1942, for family reasons, eleven-year-old Robert Vieira was placed with his paternal grandparents on their subsistence farm at Puketui in the central south Coromandel. Now 81, Bob remembers those days:

For several months I walked to Hikuai School. It’s 4kms (I’ve measured it) but we thought of it as four miles. In any case, that is what you did in those days: no argument. I don’t remember ever being late except once, after Dad sent a bike, when I got a puncture in the pouring rain and the local roadman fixed the hole for me. Every few miles in those days there was a roadman who kept his section of the road free of potholes and kept the water channels open. His tools were a wheelbarrow and shovel.

My bike was a ¾ size reconditioned unit (bikes were made into machine guns so no new ones were available) and was the most beautiful thing you ever saw.

At first I couldn’t ride it.

I found a slight hill where I could travel down to get my balance but I couldn’t co-ordinate pedalling, steering and balancing at the same time. When I got to the bottom of the slope I would slow down and eventually fall off. From day one I took the bike to school – pushed it most of the way but glided down all the slopes and at the base of every down bit there was always an edge I could steer to, to save falling off.

Perhaps a week, maybe two, went by and I had it licked!

Now I wanted to see how fast I could go. I got to school in a few minutes, went almost to Tairua some days and up to McBeth’s hill on others. I had to judge time as I had no watch. One day I decided to become a four-ton lorry. In those days if one wanted to describe something large ‘It’s as big as a four-ton truck’ was a common saying. I could not become a four-ton truck – that’s just stupid – but I could make as much nuisance as one by tying a tea-tree to my bike with rope and riding flat-out to create as much dust as possible. If anyone had seen me doing 40mph down the stretch we called the ‘half mile straight’, towing a log of wood, I think my grandparents might have got to hear of it.

All this mucking about wore my tyres out. New ones weren’t available except if you filled out a form stating how far your daily travels were and got it signed by your teacher. Evidently teachers were held in high regard in those days. In the meantime my tyre had split and the tube was showing. Uncle Joe made up a patch out of something and inserted it behind the tyre cover and sewed it up with wire.

Another time I happened to be at Auntie Ivy’s house about half way to Hikuai from Puketui and she asked if I would take Uncle Les’ afternoon tea to the milking shed where he was working. The tea was in the billy so I rode with one hand. The shed was some distance from the road and as usual I was travelling at maximum RPM, not only to get there more quickly, and because that was my normal cruising speed, but also because I had to cross a culvert and needed to get up sufficient speed to pedal up the gradient on the other side.

There was a noise like muted thunder and a quick look back ascertained that about 50 yearlings thought this looked like fun and were attempting to overtake me. It was about this time that I struck the Number 8 fencing wire that Uncle Les had strung across the culvert at just below handlebar height. I went right over the handlebars and over the wire and fell heavily. I never hurt myself and never spilt a drop of tea. Not that anyone believed me, to this day.

Every Saturday morning Morrison’s truck made deliveries up the road. This was exciting as there were lots of beaut smells, like fresh bread, and we got the Weekly News. This was the best paper ever printed in New Zealand. It covered all the national news, not just provincial. In the centre of every Weekly News there were glossy pages, photos of what was going on in New Zealand and a lot of war scenes and photographs of military personnel killed in action. One day Grandpa let out a loud yell: there was a large photograph of Horta Harbour on the Azores island of Faial. This was Grandpa’s first view of his homeland since he left, maybe 60 years earlier.

Now I want to tell you about Dinny O’Connor the hermit. I don’t know if he was a hermit but he lived on his own, just over the Big Red Bridge in thick tea-tree, so I expect he would just about qualify. He was very hospitable and made walking sticks and cups of tea. The walking stick he made me has long disappeared and I’m now almost at the stage when it would become useful – but the cups of tea are legendary.

Danny’s water system was a 44-gallon drum on edge with the end knocked out and filled by a downpipe off the roof. As often as not the drum was the home of a myriad of mosquito larvae. Dinny kept a dipper next to the drum. It was ‘de rigeur’ to thwack this dipper on the water. The larvae would sink temporarily and the clear water could be skimmed off. Far from being dismayed by this we (the young visitors) thought Danny was one smart cookie.

As the Second World War dragged on the lack of guns, ammunition and young men to take up hunting was causing a problem on back country farms. Wild pigs were increasingly out of control. It was a real problem on Uncle Joe’s farmland over the (Tairua) river. Pigs could root up half an acre of grass overnight. Someone must have complained because guns became available to farmers.

Uncle Joe said they were from the Boer War, they were so ancient, but he managed to get one and some ammunition. He did have a shotgun, which was not required by the army, and some cartridges.

He removed the shot from these and made lead balls by measuring and melting the lead and hammering these with a minute hammer (perhaps a tack hammer?) and with infinite patience was able to make them surprisingly spherical. He placed the ball in the cartridge cage and sealed it with candle wax. These were only accurate at short range as shotguns are unsighted and in any case the slightest imperfection could send the balls anywhere.

When he received the Boer War rifle Uncle Joe reckoned the sights were shot so got to work to fix them. Once we were up at the 4th Branch (of the Tairua River) and came across a herd of wild cattle. He put me in a hollow tree in case they charged and fired at an animal standing side-on very close – perhaps 30 metres away. With this magnificent gun he managed to miss the animal completely!

During the Depression the Government opened up old gold mines to give work and two, perhaps three, of these mine tunnels in the rock cliffs could be seen from the front of my grandparents’ home. These have now disappeared – perhaps blasted shut for safety reasons.

Past the big cliff, Puketui Valley Road veers right and follows the river upstream. I was told that this is where the Vieiras – and other Portuguese immigrants – used to live. The last to leave were the Sylvias – maybe the Da Silva originally – but of Portuguese descent. There were grapes growing in here and they didn’t taste too bad.

Today we know the area as the ‘Gem of the Boon Creek’ settlement where miners lived and worked in that mine, and also in the one a short distance up the road called ‘Broken Hills’. Even today the signpost at the ‘White Bridge’ at Hikuai, which used to be the only way to Tairua but has been bypassed by a two-lane bridge at Prescott’s garage, carries the sign ‘Puketui Broken Hills’.

The valley is ancient; the bush on the ranges untouched; the river still rushes past; the views are sublime and the house still nestles under the waterfall. But in a commercial sense the land is valueless. Those whose life 70 years ago was a back-breaking struggle to gain a living from the soil have turned their back on this valley, this retreat, this magic place.

Nowadays a character who calls himself Kiwi Dundee takes visitors into the area to experience this magic.


A Note by the Author:

When my grandparents died during the 1940s their youngest son sold the family farm, moved to Auckland, married and had two children, Heather and Geoffrey.

Recently another cousin, Myrtle, wrote to Heather, whom we’d never met, wishing to correspond. Consequently we discovered that Heather has cancer and is anxious to learn of her late father’s youth, which he had refused to discuss.

As I am the only living person with this knowledge I immediately penned my thoughts in a light-hearted fashion to cheer her up.

These words are an excerpt from what is developing into an on-going assignment.



This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:


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