A Kiwi comes back home

Last updated 05:00 02/07/2014

BACK THEN: Whataroa in 1965. The maternity hospital is to the right and the community hall can be seen behind the white car. The red car belong to my parents. It was used to transport our family of two adults and six children, hence the need for a front bench seat. Seat belts were not an option, they simply did not exist.

BIG SMILE: Gerard O'Neil in 1967.

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I found it strange returning to my hometown after an absence of many years.

Unlike cities and larger towns, small villages in rural New Zealand do not change much, and so as I pulled into Whataroa, in South Westland, I immediately recognised familiar landmarks.

When I was a child, Whataroa was a thriving village with a pioneering feel to it. It had a police station, courthouse, bank, maternity hospital (where I was born), post office, primary school, two stores, a fish and chip shop, two churches, a hotel, community hall, garage, and RSA clubrooms.

Before the Haast Highway was opened in 1967, it was the last outpost of any significance in South Westland.

Before the arrival of television in the late 1960s, Friday night was the busiest night of the week in the village. The whole community would turn out to watch a film shown in the community hall. There was a ritual to this event. Families would arrive about 6.30pm and while the men headed off to the pub or RSA for a quick drink (men only bars in those days), the women would herd their numerous offspring into the general store to buy two or five cent mixtures of sweets.

They would then make their way to the hall a short distance away where the children would be released. While the women prepared halftime tea and biscuits in the kitchen to be sold to raise money for some community project, the children would link up with their friends and play hide and seek or war games.

When the men began to drift in, the heavy wooden seats were set out and with much shouting and shushing, the night's entertainment would begin. First up were cartoons such as Mr Magoo or Woody Wood Pecker. This was followed by the principle attraction, generally some American Western or British comedy.

If it was a British film, it usually began with a military band playing God Save The Queen. During the band's rendition everybody would stand to attention.

The community hall was used a lot in those days. Most clubs (Lion's, Young Farmers, Country Women's Institute, Toastmasters, Weight Watchers, etc) held their meetings there. The once-a-year formal dance, end-of-year primary school show and community Christmas party were held there too. It was also where special visiting dignitaries and government bureaucrats met the community.

One year the governor general visited. The whole school was marched into the hall to hear him speak. At the end of his discourse, he came off the stage to shake our hands, only during the time it took him to descend the steps his captive audience evaporated. Everyone ran to crowd around the young immaculately uniformed naval officer who acted as the governor-general's body guard and driver.

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While the governor general and his wife were left standing completely alone in the middle of the hall, the navy officer was bombarded with questions such as how many people had he killed with his gun and how sharp was his sword?

Speaking of visiting dignitaries and government bureaucrats, I think after almost fifty years I can reveal a secret: the photo of the first crossing of the new Whataroa river bridge by some important official is not historically accurate. About 10 days before the bridge's official opening, the construction workers liberated our school van to cross the new bridge each morning and afternoon.

During the year, there were events in the community calendar which nobody missed, including the annual cattle sale at the stockyards. I remember the sale not because of the hundreds of Hereford cattle on offer, but by the number of frogs my friend and I always managed to catch in the canteens water tanks.

The Whataroa A and P show was also another major event, as well as the school's lamb and calf day, and swimming sports. In fact, any event seemed to be an excuse for a community gathering.

Most of the community would turn out when the mail bus arrived from Hokitika, the BNZ bank opened once per month, someone was sick or died, the local policeman needed help finding a lost tramper, there was some type of accident, the forecast was wrong and a farmer needed help to gather his hay before it rained, the fish and chip shop opened, or the milk tanker had ran over some child's cat.

At that time, and it appears it still does, nature dominated the village of Whataroa. When I lived there, I witnessed some extraordinary weather events. It was common to watch billowing clouds arrive from across the Tasman Sea only be blocked by the Southern Alps. In their attempt to climb over the mountains, the clouds would relieve themselves of enormous quantities of water, often causing huge floods. One such flood entirely changed the course of the Waitangi River.

As it pushed its way through the forest following an ancient path, it released hundreds of hectares of land for farming on its old bed, which is still in use today.

If the locals were not fighting against the elements, they spent their time trying to change things. It was common to see trucks rumbling through the village with one massive rock on board to be used for river protection work, timber trucks bringing huge native trees to the sawmill for processing or low loaders transporting large bulldozers to the next patch of native forest to be transformed into pasture for dairy cows.

The Whataroa of today is different to that I knew fifty years ago, as it should be. The personalities which made up the community of that time have died, retired to Hokitika or Nelson or like me, simply grown older.

Even though many of the buildings remain, a number have been converted for other purposes. The post office is now a tourist centre, the bank is a house, Robbie's shop a souvenir centre, the hospital a motel, the sawmill no longer exists, the fish and chip shop is gone, and the RSA club rooms are ghostly silent.

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