Crossing the river in a cage

Last updated 05:00 26/11/2012
LOOKING BACK: The Waiau river near the site of a former cage used for crossings.

LOOKING BACK: The Waiau river near the site of a former cage used for crossings.

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What am I expecting, when I arrive at Rangiahua? It'll be a change from Wellington, that's for sure.

It's 1964, and I've resigned from my clerical job. Just a unit short of a BA, I've given up university studies as well. I found a job in a Lambton Quay fish and chip shop, but lasted there exactly one morning. They gave me the sack: I didn't wrap the fish and chips fast enough.

Then I learned to operate a machine which indexed telephone books, along with Mr Everingham who invented it, but it's a self-limiting job - there are only so many people who want their new phone books indexed.

My cousin and her husband are teaching at Rangiahua School between Wairoa and Lake Waikaremoana. They've invited me to stay, possibly wondering if I might help in the classroom while Alice cares for their new baby. I dropped out of teaching some time earlier but still have my certificate.

So here I am in the school house. I've never been anywhere like Rangiahua before - a tiny settlement, just off the gravel road past Frasertown and over a swing bridge. I'm probably not much help to my cousins, for a local farmer, Mr Ruawai, lets me ride his horse and I'm not often home.

And one day I go off by myself for a walk ... and return some 10 hours later.

It's so quiet and still that I've wandered on, loving it all, but after some time I start thinking I'd better make my way back.

That's not as simple as it should be - I seem to be lost. I plod on, hoping I'm going in the right direction, and come to a river. Somehow I need to get to the other side.

It's too deep to wade across, and it's flowing quite fast. I stand there, baffled, then walk along a bit, first one way and then the other, in case I find a bridge.

There's no bridge but there's something else - a sort of rope strung high across the river, and hanging from it, something like a huge open-topped bird cage, just big enough for one person to occupy. Obviously that's how you get across. I've never seen a flying fox but that's what it's like.

It takes me a while to pull on the rope and bring the cage close enough to grab hold and get inside. And then I'm swinging wildly above the water almost, but not quite to the opposite, bank.

You see, the far end of the rope is anchored high on the other side, well above the water. It's going to take some effort to pull on it hard enough to bring the cage safely across. And my strength doesn't seem to be enough. After all, I have my own weight to pull as well as the cage.

I yank on the rope as hard as I can, the cage moves a bit, I relax and the cage swings back - right over the deepest part of the river.

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I try again and again. Each time I get a bit further - and then it's back to square one. I'm suspended above the river, my hands chaffed and my courage waning. I try calling out but there's no one around for miles. I can see nothing but water and trees and have no idea where I am.

Exhausted, I sit there a while, gazing down into the water. Will I be here forever?

I don't know how I do it but I make one final effort. I grasp the rope, give an almighty pull ... and keep on pulling. My heart thuds to the point of bursting but I hang on, willing that cage to get me to the other side, and it does. I'm close enough to grab an overhanging branch. I hang on to it with one hand, the other still pulling at the rope.

And, at last, the bank is close enough for me to scramble out on to firm ground. The cage, of course, swings back to its centre point but by that time I'm well clear of it. What a relief!

I don't know how I find my way back to the Rangiahua school house but I do. It's dusk by then and I've definitely been missed. A hot bath soothes the cuts and grazes.

I stayed just a week at Rangiahua, and it wasn't until last year that I went back again.

For some reason I had an urge to find that cage.

I stayed in the Wairoa motor camp and found my way to Rangiahua. Where had I walked on that long ago day? I went searching first beyond the burial ground, climbing barbed wire fences, scrambling through brambles and getting plenty of scratches. I might have been back in 1964. But I gave up before I came to a river in that direction.

The river must have been the nearby Waiau, and the cage - suspended by ploughshare rope - apparently carried wool bales, cream cans and sheep, as well as people. There were once two cages, but by 2011 both had gone.

One, dismantled some years ago after a drowning, was not far from Rangiahua marae and the school house. Just remnants are left, and I found them.

The other cage got washed away in a flood, according to a local farmer - and he remembered Mr Ruawai. This cage is further east down the Waiau, on private farmland on the old Arimawha Road, off Awamate Road. I found the remnants of that one too.

I suppose I'll never know which cage I crossed on, and it really doesn't matter. But Rangiahua has been on my mind lately. Maybe this happens as we get older and realise that some times just won't come again.

I didn't know what to expect when I visited Rangiahua again after so many years. So many little places have grown beyond recognition, with tourist accommodation, new housing developments, shopping centres.Not Rangiahua, though. The school is no longer there, and most of the people have gone too.

Local children are bussed to school at Frasertown, and a few dry stock have replaced the once thriving dairy farms. But the marae is well kept and beautiful, and of course the river still flows.

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