October 21 2017, updated 12:53pm

War and peace

Crean's Country

Last updated 16:35 04/04/2008
Mike Crean
Early struggle: St David's Church, near Cave, was built as a memorial to New Zealand's pioneers on early high-country runs.

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On a hill behind Cave, a rugged rock rears from the side of the road. In a land of war memorials, this one is more poignant than most. Breezes shush the tussocks but the words that ring from the face of the rock refuse to be silenced.

I pause and read the inscription: "So long as the rocks endure and grass grows and water runs, so long will this stone bear witness that through this low pass in the hills, men from Cave, Cannington and Motukaika districts rode and walked on their way to the Great European War, 1914-1918, and to World War II, 1939-1945. Some of them have not returned but have left their mortal remains in foreign lands and strange seas, that our British way of living may continue. But their immortal souls have risen from the grave."

Around the rock, plaques record the names of those who went to war. Of 120 who served, 18 were killed. A tragic number for a small community, a dark shadow on a pleasant corner of South Canterbury.

This Anzac Day, that monument is focusing my mind on war and peace more powerfully than a parade.

The "low pass" referred to in the inscription is a saddle in the hill that separates the township of Cave from the locality of Cannington. The hill is a watershed. From the northern flanks, streams run down to the Tengawai River, that threads its way past Cave. From the south, they feed the Burnett Stream, that flows into the Pareora River, between Cannington and Motukaika.

Burnett is a big name here. Another impressive memorial is dedicated to Andrew and Catherine Burnett, who took up the Mount Cook sheep run in 1864. It is St David's Church, built by the Burnetts' son Thomas, who became a Member of Parliament. It commemorates his parents and all runholders, shepherds, drovers, shearers and other workers on early high-country runs.

It was from about this site that pioneers of the Mackenzie Basin set off into the high country to establish their stations.

St David's Church dominates a hillside just off the main road, near Cannington. The 1930 church was built of uncut glacier-born boulders from near the Burnetts' Mount Cook homestead. Rough-adzed local timbers, mainly totara and beech, form the floor, ceiling and pews. No nails were used in the construction.

The pulpit was fashioned from hearth stones taken from a hut occupied by the Burnetts, after they arrived from Scotland. It stands on a wooden wheel hub from a bullock dray which they used.

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The baptismal font provides a link with their Scottish heritage. Its bowl is a prehistoric stone mortar, used for grinding oats and barley, that was found in the Highlands.

The Highlands connection is even more strongly visible below the church, across the road. Here stands the eye-catching grand gateway to the Burnetts' down-country farm, Strath Naver. This name is taken from the valley (strath) of the Naver River in the Sutherland Highlands, a district hard hit by forced evictions of tenant farmers during the Clearances of two centuries ago.

It was from this area that the Burnetts emigrated for a better life in New Zealand.

The iron gates are flanked by massive stone walls that extend 20m in each direction. Erected about the same time as the church, the gateway bears symbols of the Scottish thistle and New Zealand fern, with the legends: faith, hope, self-reliance, pioneering, toil and sweat. Printed in Gaelic are mottoes which translate as: "We keep the old ways, the good ways" and "What we have, we keep".

This farm was one of four owned by the Burnett family trust that were taken over by St Andrew's College, Christchurch, for agricultural teaching purposes.

I happen upon this commemorative trio in stone, plus a Celtic cross on a peak above Strath Naver, while driving from State Highway 1, near Pareora, to Cave. The road runs beside the Pareora River, passing the picturesque settlement of Pareora Huts before climbing into the hills of the Pareora Gorge. It emerges from the gorge at Motukaika and narrowly bypasses Cannington, where school is still "in".

Leaving the stone memorials behind, I descend into Cave, where school is "out", having closed long ago. The pretty township, named after local limestone formations, is between Pleasant Point and Fairlie. It sports a store and mail centre, pub, carrying company and two more churches. Traces remain of the former Fairlie railway branch line.

In the domain, I find three women saddling their horses for a cross-country ride. They say most residents are retired or commute to work elsewhere. Some keep holiday homes here and enjoy a spot of fishing or swimming in the Tengawai river.

They call Cave an idyllic spot -- and I agree.


- The Press

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