Topic: Whakatane by Sheila Armstrong

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"Whakatane" is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry by Sheila Armstrong

Archived version here.

If we hadn’t stayed in Whakatane for a night in 1949, our lives might have turned out differently. What a catalysts Whakatane was!

Allan and I, with our year old son, had just arrived from Gisborne on our way to the Waikato to look for a farm we could buy. We stopped at the Whakatane Hotel and Allan got talking to a man in the bar who happened to be an estate agent.

“Why are you thinking of the Waikato?” he asked. “The Bay of Plenty has some good farms, and land here is much cheaper. I could show you around tomorrow if you like.”

That was that. We were hooked.

The agent took us to see a few farms and we decided we liked the Bay of Plenty. We were in no hurry, so we stayed in Whakatane for several weeks, trying to make up our minds and fighting our way through red tape.

The Land Sales Act was in force and farms were remarkably reasonable in price. The outcome was that we eventually bought a farm in Manawahe up in the hills. It was a comparatively young farm - about thirty years from standing bush - so there was much to do and much to learn. Neither of us had much experience of dairy farming.

Whakatane was our nearest shopping centre, with one short main street, The Strand. It was a day’s trip between milkings, so we only went in twice a week. I packed a picnic lunch and a bottle for my new baby. We sat in the shade of a pepper tree on a patch of grass at the end of The Strand and enjoyed ourselves while Allan was buying our farm needs.

I was intrigued by the elderly Maori women with moko on their chins, who gathered in an area at the end of the street, sitting together and chatting.

Sometimes we ventured further, much to my son’s excitement. Anthony would take of as fast as he could go, darting into shops, while I tried to keep up, pushing the pram. Cars were scare and difficult to buy, so traffic and parking were not a problem.

Occasionally we’d treat ourselves to a meal. There was no choice then. The restaurant was a bare room with fixed tables along one side. You got fish and chips, a thick slice of buttered bread and a strong cup of tea. How we would have enjoyed the cafes which now provide coffee at outside tables or the Indian and French restaurants with their interesting menus.

Another shop I remember well was the chemist. There was a high counter with rows of little drawers behind it. The assistant was busy serving a customer. Little Anthony dashed off behind the counter. As I went around one way, he’d run off chuckling in the opposite direction and start pulling out the drawers. Finally the assistant was free and between us we managed to capture him before he did any damage. In the end I had to buy some reins for him, much to the horror of my modern grand-daughter when I once mentioned it. But it made life a little easier.

In those days Whakatane town was separated from the river and the sea. In fact, I didn’t even realise they were there. In more recent times such assets have been appreciated and the area opened up, I am impressed by the improvements and especially the river walks. The energetic can go as far as the river mouth and watch the fishing boats come in, and the statue of the Maori maiden, Wairaka, perched on a boulder. She it was who saved the Maori canoe by acting ‘like a man’. Hence the name: Whakatane.

Glancing out to sea one can see Whale Island, a famous landmark. There are expeditions to White Island, with its active volcano, about 50km offshore. Sulphur was mined on the island at one time before an eruption killed several workers and it was closed down. The rotten egg smell pervades the air, steam rises from fumaroles and mud boils and spits in this exciting and dangerous place.

I love going back to this small town and feel nostalgic for those days. The Strand has now grown in length. The Whakatane Hotel is still there with the vestibule and staircase preserved. Tables now spill out on to the footpath and it’s well patronised. The town spreads out between the river and the mountains, and its citizens are as friendly as ever.

The patch of grass and the pepper tree we sat under are still there, and possibly original. Whakatane is a lovely town with as good a climate as anywhere in the world.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/3MFU-JX6L

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