Rural spot offers taste of real New Zealand
"Waotu South Road is a bit of a trek," Glyn Wooller laughingly acknowledges, "but when you stand on that hill above the end of the road, the views are magnificent."
He's right on both counts.
Waotu is a semi-forgotten farming district south and west of Putaruru, not far from the northern edge of the Kinleith pine forest and bordering on the true right bank of the Waikato River where the top end of Lake Arapuni begins to shrink back into the ancient river banks.
The land is high and wide and handsome, with big, sprawling hills now smothered in quality grass and dotted with numerous ribbons and blocks and scarps of native trees. It's a mix of dairy farms, and sheep and beef land, and at the moment it's all lush and green and waving in its abundance of good feed.
Local icons and renowned conservationists and historians Gordon and Celia Stephenson say that when they arrived in the district half a century ago the ragwort was a metre high and everywhere, and the land, lacking in cobalt, was poor country and stock did badly. Now, obviously, local farmers such as Gary Large know how to get the best from the land while at the same time caring for it properly, and ensuring that it will still be nurtured and productive country for successive generations. This nation needs more people like that. He's lived at Waotu all his life, fencing and farming throughout the district, and quietly being one of its good citizens.
Gary, whose farm is at the end of Waotu South Road, was there with his big tractor and flat-deck tray last Saturday to provide the sort of practical help he's respected for. The tractor carried a special wooden seat from the end of the road, up over the hill on his farm to a lookout point at the top of an access track that is part of the 103km-long Waikato River Trail.
The seat was made by Waiuku woodwork specialist Darren Englebrecht who has early ties to Waotu. It was constructed at the request of sisters Ann Lee and Tui Cox, daughters of Don and Pat Hine who both taught at the two-teacher Waotu primary school from 1956 to 1980.
The seat's metal frame was constructed by Beau Lee, Ann's husband and son-in-law of the teacher couple. Englebrecht, whose family lived at Waotu, also knew the Hines.
In a quarter-century at the Waotu school, this remarkable educator-couple taught a procession of youngsters not just the formalities of reading, writing and arithmetic, but also a series of life, ethical and conservation values that have no doubt stood them in good stead down through the years.
It is to Don and Pat Hine that the seat is dedicated, together with their son Bruce, brother to Ann and Tui, who was lost with three others in a boating tragedy at Whangamata in October 1979. Their bodies were never recovered. Don died in August 1985, Pat in November 1991.
So, there are many strands to this story, all of them leading to that quietly remote area of the southern Waikato basin. Those strands are intricately interwoven.
And there is an additional extraordinary thread to this story, one that weaves it way back through more than 150 years of history.
The seat, now set deep in quick-dry concrete high above the river, is built out of oak. The wood came from a tree that grew in the Auckland Domain near to the Auckland Museum, and in 2004 it was blown over in a storm which swept through the city. According to Englebrecht, who carefully counted the rings in the trunk of the tree, it was 154 years old.
And, the really good part: it was a tree that grew from one of a handful of acorns given to someone of prominence in Auckland by Queen Victoria.
The story is that the acorns were given to the "first governor of Auckland", but it's difficult to track exactly who that may have been. In any event, the little acorn was planted about 1850.
Obviously it flourished, but when its life ended it provided Englebrecht with a balk of good timber.
From it he crafted the broad, comfortable, solid seat. It bears a plaque which states: "In memory of Don and Pat Hine, Te Waotu School 1956-1980, & son Bruce".
"It's beyond our expectations," says Tui Cox. "We hope people will sit here and reflect on the view and perhaps the memory of our parents who were so keen to help the children they taught at the Waotu school.
"My parents came to Waotu from Matauri Bay (in Northland). They had been in Whareponga (on the East Coast) before that. They came to Waotu for three years - and they stayed for 25."
She and sister Ann gained all their primary schooling at the little school, before going on the Putaruru High School in later years, and they have many fond memories of those early times in the little farming district.
Now, thanks to the growing popularity of the Waikato River Trails, it is rapidly becoming something of a tourist destination. On the day the seat was installed, at least a dozen mountain bikers powered down the access trail from the end of Waotu South Road, and on to the river trail, a good 150 metres down a zig-zag track from the top of the hill.
Glyn Wooller, general manager of Waikato River Trails, says there is now 103km of walking and cycle track winding along the Waikato River and several dam edges, stretching from Atiamuri in the south to Karapiro in the north.
"We began construction of the trail eight years ago, and it was opened on November 5, 1911," says Wooller. "It's fantastic - in just 12 months more than 24,000 people have walked or cycled at least some of trail. About 12,000 native plants were put in by volunteers last winter along various stretches of the trail and the dozen access paths.
"It provides a really great experience for so many people, and it's all absolutely free."
The stretch of river below the Waotu South Road access path is known as The Narrows by locals, and several kilometres upstream is the Mangarewa suspension bridge which apparently scares the daylights out of some trampers. It's very high, somewhat wobbly, and about as narrow as the mind of an outdated politician. Many a walker has turned back and clambered up the zig-zag to the Waotu South Road end car-park, rather than cross the bridge to a pick-up on the other side.
But the view from the newly-installed seat will be one that hundreds of passers-by will enjoy in the coming years.
It's a 360-degree vista. The scars from an active and busy quarry at the foot of the hill show jagged and deep. They will heal, as did those of an earlier quarry directly opposite.
It was used to provide rock, carted in a ponderous aerial bucket-way, some kilometres downstream to build the Arapuni dam in the late 1920s.
But the surrounding panorama is great.
To the north Maungatautari is dominant; away nor-west Pirongia is bluish and elusive; nor-east and east are the Kaimai and Mamaku Ranges respectively, both shrouded in long-distance blue; south the sharp spike of Titiraupenga and a little to the west Pureora both jut up prominently.
Peering inquisitively over the shoulder of Pureora is a white eyebrow from Mt Ruapehu, perhaps keeping an eye on what's happening in the Waikato.
It's lovely country, and even the supposedly massive new power pylons that march aggressively north to feed electricity into Auckland are dwarfed into feeble insignificance by the size and grandeur of the huge slab of land that is visible.
In fact, it's probably less than a 20-minute drive from State Highway One at Putaruru, and you're sitting there on that ancient oaken seat, absorbing a magic view.
If you get the chance go take a look.
It's a chunk of real New Zealand.
Kingsley Field can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org