The hay gang band

ROAD TRIP: Kevin Norquay, Vern Woods and Ian Purdie test out their new-found freedom hitch-hiking from Titirangi.
ROAD TRIP: Kevin Norquay, Vern Woods and Ian Purdie test out their new-found freedom hitch-hiking from Titirangi.

After five years cloistered in a boarding school imagining the joys of life on the outside, December 1973 opened the door to freedom. I had big plans, only to painfully learn how swiftly all could go astray.

As I lay in the 20-bed dormitory I had called home for so long, I plotted. I would play my records as loud as I pleased; short back and sides haircuts would be replaced - I would adorn my face with sideburns, a moustache, with a shaggy rock star "do" providing the icing.

While roaming the roads and beaches, I would try to meet mysterious creatures known as girls, so far seen only from a distance as they walked past to the Marist College, or briefly and awkwardly encountered at dancing classes and one-off balls.

I would travel north to Dargaville, join a hay gang, make stacks of money while the sun shone, and enter university rich, muscular and tanned.

There would be no more getting up about 7am daily to a clanging bell and exercises, no more mass-produced meals, no more getting out for only a few hours each Sunday, no more compulsory church.

I'd miss the friendships, but not the regimentation.

I would not face this heroic quest alone. Co-inmates Vern Woods and Ian Purdie had a shared vision, as well as a passion for loud blues and rock music.

We were all part of fledgling band Molehill, named in deference to American power quartet Mountain, who in Leslie West had a vocalist whose strangled and tuneless vocals I could emulate.

The final, most vital, piece of the dream was a 1963 Austin Mini, a sparkling deep blue with a black vinyl roof that set it apart from the more common versions. It was my first car, and I loved it.

Six days after my father shelled out $695 for it, I wrote it off. Not in spectacular rock star fashion; the Mini had a top speed of only 100kmh. I was doing half that when I made the mistake of glancing at the gear lever while changing down, veering on to the gravel verge then over-correcting.

My prized-possession rolled four-and-a-half times, its driver emerging uninjured but for a piece of windscreen glass stuck deep in the back of the right hand. About an hour into my trip to Dargaville, my summer dream died in a screech of metal and a shattering of glass on the Bombay Hills.

While unhurt, I was a mental mess. I was traumatised. I still have a gravel-phobia. I tense up in cars that are making a downhill approach to a sharp left intersection, as I was on December 2, 1973.

When the Mini was put the right way up, it sat all four wheels askew, its vinyl roof in shreds. It looked as if it had been on an all night bender at a series of bars. Shocked, I climbed into the driver's seat and made to drive off. Motorists who had stopped to help had to convince me I was going nowhere.

For weeks after I wept when my mind revisited the crash, or when I was criticised for attempting such a long journey - Hamilton to Dargaville - with such little driving experience (my critics were right, I can see now).

On top of my mental scars, I was skint and had no transport. Plans had to be remade. Vern and I wound up painting my grandparents' house in sleepy Pukekohe.

They were kindly, thoughtful and non-judgmental, and that helped put my mental pieces back in place. For all that, spending the evening watching the wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips on their television was far from what we had in mind as high-life entertainment when we quit boarding school.

Of the initial blueprint for the summer, it seemed only growing facial hair remained a possibility. I set about that task with a bristling energy.

In lieu of a car or money, we discovered hitch-hiking. Safety considerations were never raised; it was two years before Mona Blades went missing while hitching near Taupo, and we thought ourselves bullet- proof - it was probably safer than my driving, in any event.

So we hitched and we hiked, with varying degrees of success. As a trio, our rides were limited to short hops. A pair did better, while going solo was better still if you needed to cover long distances.

Back together, we formed ourselves into a weedy shambolic urbanite hay gang, working for a contractor in the Waihue Valley north of Dargaville.

In those days, hay bales weighing about 40kg bound together by two strips of twine or wire, were loaded on to a truck using an escalator-like device that picked them off the ground and moved them to above truck deck level.

Once it had a full load, the truck would take the bales to a hayshed, where they would be unloaded to be stored as winter feed.

It was back-breaking hard work outside in the blazing sun, or head-bashing hard work inside, where rafters seemed to take every opportunity to give your head a crisp clunking, particularly late at night when you were exhausted and couldn't see a damned thing.

As the tallest, Vern was distributor at the top of the elevator, flicking the bales this way and that to Ian and myself to slam into place, an interlocking jigsaw puzzle of fragrant fodder.

Poorly stacked bales had a nasty habit of falling off the truck, and if that happened you'd have to reload them all by hand. When the truck was moving across the side of a hill, you'd hold your breath as cracks in the load appeared.

In such cases Ian was peril personified - his mad and clumsy scrambling for safety at times causing him to shunt off half the stack with his feet, to a chorus of groans and his own protestations of complete innocence.

Corrugated iron haysheds were stinking hot, baling twine ripped the skin from your hands, and prickly thistles abounded in some crops.

But it was fun - we got muscles, we got tans and we made a slick team we are still proud of and think of often, nearly 40 years on. Our band penned the still unheralded masterpiece Goat Parts, and listened rapt to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, an array of blues bands, and Mountain.

"Goat parts, all over the road, that goat we hit sure did explode," I sung, as the radio airwaves tended toward Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce, the 1974 Commonwealth Games theme song Join Together and Big Norm, a quirky tribute to prime minister Norman Kirk.

We were able to repeat our magical hay-music-sunshine formula for the next two summers, until inevitably we went our separate ways, to Otago, Massey and Waikato universities and from there around the world.

Now, Vern is back in Dargaville, Ian is in Sydney. Both still play in bands, none of us hitch-hike, two of us are bald.

My baldness is chemically induced, after being told in July I had acquired a malignant tumour of the spine and a more placid one in the stomach.

There were tears, as there had been in the wake of the car wreck of 1973. And there was hope and optimism.

If I learned anything from that summer, it was that one disaster need not crush your dreams, that anything is possible once you climb from the wreckage, especially if you have great friends and a loving family.

As I do, yet again.

The Dominion Post