Topic: Positive Pitfalls by Bronwyn Elsmore

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Following our mother’s death, my two sisters and I closed the door of the family home for the last time, aware that not only were we saying goodbye to the house in which we grew up, but that a 60-year link between the family and our home town was ending.

The living link, because as we drove out of Wairoa we left behind the other half of our family – father, mother, and brother – in the hilltop cemetery.

Mother was first to arrive, coming from Whangarei as a young woman to take up a secretarial position. She was at her desk in 1931 when the Hawkes Bay earthquake shook the town apart.

Our father had survived the Murchison earthquake two years before. After leaving his home town, Feilding, he lived in several parts of New Zealand, cycling over much of it, before coming to Wairoa early in the 1930s. During the depression years he worked building the railway line between Napier and Wairoa, then opened a garden shop in the town, developing several acres behind our house into a nursery.

There they both stayed, marrying in 1939. I was the youngest of four children.

Our home was on the northern side of Wairoa River, which cuts the town in two separating the area of North Clyde from the main town, and our outlook was almost rural. On one side was the primary school and, across the road, paddocks and holding pens for the sale yards. On days before and after stock sales herds of cattle and mobs of sheep passed by, expertly driven by drovers and dogs. At night we slept to the sounds of mooing and baaing.

In the 1950s houses were not locked, and warnings about stranger danger unnecessary. We children roamed at will, trusting, naïve and unafraid.

At home we kept chooks – supplying ourselves and some neighbours with eggs. Cats were always in generous supply. Pet magpies, a guinea pig, white mice, geckos and skinks added to the mini-farmlike nature of our section.

Primary school was, literally, over the fence – we climbed a stile from our property into the school grounds. The side of our classrooms facing the playground was of glass folding doors kept open on warm days. They also allowed quick exit when earthquakes or drills demanded evacuation.

Each year we’d line up and bare our arms for a typhoid injection. It paid not to be seen nursing a sore arm next day, for the macho boys would administer a well-aimed punch. The district nurses visited for other reasons too – again we’d line up, for what we called cootie inspection.

The region was also known for other medical problems. Rheumatic fever was prevalent, and the hospital had a permanent TB ward.

As a toddler, I contracted diphtheria that had me fighting for my life. One night, as my throat constricted, an emergency tracheotomy was performed. I was left with two scars – in my throat and down my abdomen. Mother’s scars were emotional; she blamed herself that in looking after four small children she had overlooked the inoculations of the two youngest. Her own twin and another sister had died in infancy, and Dad also had a sister who died – they were thankful history hadn’t repeated itself.

School photos confirm that classes were large, two years showing 43 children. With a largely Maori roll, we picked up some te reo along with English – we shivered at the thought of kehua, accused others of being ihu, and looked for the taniwha in the river. In class we learned Maori legends and the arts of poi, and action and stick songs were picked up with hopscotch and skipping.

Despite reading English books, this country was the one I identified with. A fifth-generation New Zealander, I was puzzled to hear people refer to England as ‘home.’ ‘We’ were Ngati Kahungunu, and ‘our’ main meeting house, Takitimu, was named for ‘our’ waka.

Dad’s interest in natural and local history added to our education. Before Wairoa’s museum opened, the shed in our nursery housed local taonga given to him for safekeeping – try-pots from the whaling station at Mahia and Waikokopu, the millstone from the Frasertown flour mill, the tekoteko from Te Uhi Pa.

The huge iron bolt we used to lock the shed door was from the first bridge across the river. Dad told visitors of how the tollgate was locked by the keeper against Te Kooti and his party till the toll was paid.

As children, we saw the monument on the riverbank proclaiming rangatira Pitihera Kopu as ‘the staunch friend of the Pakeha.’ He sold the land for the township and refused to let a Pai Marire force cross the river to where ‘my Pakehas live.’ Two of the streets, Kopu Road and Apatu Street, pay tribute to rangatira of the time.

The river ruled Wairoa life. For the original people it was the main route in and out. In the early years of European settlement a passenger boat provided access to and from Napier. The main exports – wool, hides and skins, tow and flax, butter, meat, tallow – were carried out when the bar permitted. Ships came to grief and lives were lost crossing the treacherous bar.

The bridge Mother found on arrival was destroyed in the Hawkes Bay quake. The one we knew as children became victim to Cyclone Bola. Floods were frequent. Heavy rain in the hilly interior brought down swirling waters with logs that jammed between the piles. When water lapped the deck word went out for workers and schoolchildren to cross to their own side.

In normal times the river was a source of entertainment. Small yachts tacked on it, speedboat regattas were held, people waterskied and swam. I would swim across and back, but never told my parents. All adults remembered who had drowned, and sharks were known to swim upriver.

My leisure hours were filled with horse riding at pony club, roller skating, and bike riding. There were ‘pictures’ at either the Regent, or Gaiety theatres, the latter known more informally as ‘the Flea-pit.’ Serials featuring heroes such as Captain Video were shown at matinees to get people along weekly.

Another entertainment in pre-television days was the occasional fire. When the siren sounded people jumped on bikes or into cars to follow the engine. If you couldn’t see the smoke, you gave the phone one turn of the handle, and the normal response of “Number, please” would likely be replaced with “The fire’s at…”.

The telephone operators knew everything going on. On occasions you’d ask for a number, to be told – “They’re not at home, they’re at so-and-so’s, I’ll put you through there.”

Our favourite holiday spot was Lake Waikaremoana. Though only sixty kilometres away, the winding dusty road made it a long trip by bus. There we learned to row on the lake and be at home in the bush. Little did we know then, that years later our beloved lake would take the life of my brother at age thirty-six.

‘Wairoa tapoko rau’ - Wairoa of many pitfalls - was a traditional saying about the area. The local explanation claimed the Wairoa women were so beautiful they captured the hearts of visitors passing through. My memories include few negatives, but an abundance of positives. I wouldn’t swap my upbringing there for another.

Since then, the town has stayed the same size. The college has grown but our primary school at North Clyde has closed. The hospital still stands on the hill, though patients are sent elsewhere for serious conditions. There I had my emergency operation, Dad as a donor gave blood, my brother was cared for after he blew part of two fingers off with home-made explosive, my sisters worked as nurse and midwife. There, in their later years, Dad was resuscitated after a heart attack and Mum treated after a fall.

Some things have gone full circle. In my childhood I’d see koroua and kuia in the street, speaking Maori and wearing shark tooth earrings and moko. Today, tattoos are seen again – full facial tats on younger faces.

The thing that has symbolized Wairoa since 1961 continues to signal the town’s presence daily. When the Portland Island lighthouse, which guarded the end of Mahia peninsula for eighty years, was replaced, the top part was set on Marine Parade by the bridge. It operates each night – its crystals still flashing light around the area.

At one time, when living in Tauranga and making trips by air to Wellington, I’d look to the east during my evening return flights to see the lights of distant places – Hastings, where I lived for several years, Napier, and much further north Gisborne where I’d also lived. Then, in between, I’d see a few dots of light with a regular flash occurring.

From three thousand metres up, in the middle of the island, I could see my home town, located by the lighthouse winking at me.


Author’s note: I have spelt Hawkes Bay without a possessive apostrophe, as we were taught at school, following official rules of nomenclature. In recent years it seems the apostrophe has crept back in.

Positive Pitfalls was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers, and was awarded 3rd Prize by judges Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.

If you want to read more about Bronwyn, click on the following link:



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