Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 5, May 1966
By: Michael McNamara
The present construction of a first-class highway across the Coromandel Peninsula from Kopu to Hikuai, recalls the memory of a crossing early in 1906. It was a hot Summers day when I accompanied a group of six miners who tramped the Neavesville track from Puriri to a small mining settlement bearing the romantic name of "Golden Hills" on the banks of the Tairua River.
On reaching Neavesville at the crest of the Range, with parched throats and hot sweating feet and bodies, we found that the small Pub there was unable to cope with such a crowd of unexpected visitors. The owner offered to cook some potatoes to supplement cold ham, but after partaking of a couple of glasses of lukewarm stale beer we felt it wiser to push on, for it was problematical whether we would reach our destination before dark. From the top, the views of both coastlines were incredibly magnificent and I can confidently predict that the drive across the new highway will prove to be one of the most popular in N.Z., for there will still be that breathtaking outlook, the grandeur of the "Bush" and the salubrious atmosphere.
Descending the track on the far side we found it crossed a small stream at several points. This rather than a hindrance, was a blessing, as we were able to slake our mounting thirsts and lave our tired limbs, our swags having begun to make themselves felt. When we had set off from Puriri, I, a young fellow of l6, had been as keen as mustard, and bursting with a sense of curiosity and adventure, but little of this remained when we reached our destination to find that accommodation in the one and only boarding house was not to be had for love or money. I should explain that none of us had much money as the mines in Karangahake had been closed temporarily owing to a dispute between the management and the men, concerning a question of medical examination. But we had been guaranteed work at Golden Hills by the Manager, Mr. Darkie McGregor and knew that wages would be forthcoming.
Meanwhile our depression was short-lived because luckily one of our party was a born leader and ever cheerful comrade - a certain Tom Hall. His undaunted spirit soon took command, and with his encouraging "Come on Boys! Let's get going!" we were revitalised into activity. Acquiring saws and tomahawks we were soon cutting saplings and nikau fronds and carrying or hauling them to a site near the river.
Under Tom's expert guidance and good hearted banter we built, before darkness set in, a hut big enough to accommodate 6 occupants, one of our party being given a bed at the boarding house after all. Our walls and roof were thatched with the nikau leaves plaited in such a way as to lead off rain most effectively. Bunks made from sacking and with mungi-mungi [mange-mange – E] serving as a mattress, lined the back wall and one side, while the front was taken up with a huge open fireplace and doorway, the other side constituting dining and sitting out space. I, being the youngest, was assigned one of the top bunks and that night was almost asleep before I climbed into it. But many a time later did I lie awake gazing at the stars through the holes in the roof, pondering on the mystery and majesty of the universe. The nikau palms had the faculty of opening and closing according to the state of the weather, and when wet, would become quite rain proof.
Our meal that first night consisted of tinned corn beef and hard cabin bread biscuits washed down with copious draughts of hot tea. Maybe it was far short of a gastronomic masterpiece, but to us, as tired and hungry a body of men as could be found anywhere, it was more delectable and satisfying than all the mythical ambrosia of the ancient gods. Fortunately, the local storekeeper Mr. Bain, knew some members of our group and was willing to let us have anything we needed, as did other local business people, until we received our wages for the new job, which was driving an adit level to intercept a supposed reef running parallel with the river. Mr. Bain, by the way, had not long been back from the Klondyke gold-rush in Alaska, where he suffered frost-bite in the feet from the intense cold.
It wasn't long before I became the recognised cook and general factotum, and with the help of the camp-oven, a cooking utensil absolutely indispensable in early bush camps, (I was often commended for the repasts I contrived to set before my easy going and indulgent mates.) The camp oven was a round cast-iron receptacle with a close-fitting lid, and was supported on three short cast-iron legs, which kept it clear of the glowing embers underneath. It was also fitted with a handle, enabling one to hang it on hooks at varying heights above the fire. Hot embers could be placed on the lid thus ensuring a uniform heat, while the contents retained their natural juices and flavour. It would be interesting to know how many camp-ovens are still being used in N.Z. and how many would be available in case of a national emergency.
Fresh meat & bread came up from the landing only once a week, but I soon mastered the intricacies of preparing the yeast from potatoes, kneading & setting the dough & the resulting product, as it came from the oven with its well baked crusty surface was a joy to behold, not to mention the titillation of the olfactory senses as its aroma filled the air.
The Stock pot was always kept well replenished with rich nourishing soup, to which, occasionally a fowl would be added, thus providing a welcome variety to the brew.
Breakfast consisted chiefly of porridge with lashings of tinned milk, followed by bacon & eggs and chunks of well buttered toast washed down with mugs of tea.
It was amazing the enormous amount of raspberry jam consumed with the "spotted dog" (boiled rice with currants) which often graced the table as a dessert. On Sundays there was always a plum duff garnished with brandy or whisky sauce, the alcoholic ingredient of which was put to great pains to preserve intact for the purpose intended.
We Suffered One Scourge:
The ground on which we built our cabin was alive with fleas which beset us unmercifully, despite the liberal use of Keatings flea-powder& the daily airing of our blankets in the sun whenever the weather permitted. A newcomer, arriving as we bathed naked in the river, could easily surmise an epidemic of measles had broken out & consider it wise to depart whence he came.
I had the good fortune, while at Golden Hills to witness one of the most thrilling spectacles of my whole life. This was a "drive" of kauri logs down the Tairua river on their way to the mills in Auckland. For months beforehand the logs had been hauled into the bed of the river and left to lie there until a period of heavy rain set in & the river was already running high. In the upper reaches a dam had been built of logs in such a manner that when the "key" log or logs had been blasted loose with explosive the contents of the dam added to that in the swollen river, formed an irresistible wall of rushing water that took everything before it, as if huge logs 8 and 10 feet through & 20 to 30 feet in length were mere match sticks, so violent was the onrush of water. Of course everyone concerned received due warning in time & those lucky enough to watch the scene must have retained the memory to their dying day.
If one had the gift of a Bret Harle or a Damon Runyan wonderful material existed at Golden Hills to form the basis of interesting stories:- the excellent home-brew; the sports at the landing including great chopping events where miners and bushmen vied for supremacy; some unfortunates who drank themselves into delirium tremors & recuperated on Davis pain-killer, drinking it straight from the bottle; some who worked for a twelve month, earning big money & intending to visit the flesh pots in the Thames or Auckland, only to get no further than the nearest pub in either direction; the man who climbed kauri trees for gum by throwing a rope over a branch and hauling himself up; the genius with iron who could take a piece and shape and temper it into as good a razor as one could buy in the shops.
When the new highway is finished and if the fates permit, I'll be one of the first to make the trip across the peninsula over which I tramped full 60 years ago.
MICHAEL LAWRENCE McNAMARA was born in Karangahake in 1889 his first home being at the western end of the present Park site. Asked for some biographical notes he supplied the following:-
My earliest memories are of the beautifully clear river flowing past the back of our home; of the thickly clad bush on the opposite side; of the eels that abounded in the fairly extensive pool just below us; of the trips across the river in our boat to collect firewood. My father worked on the formation of the road through the gorge & when that was completed about 1900 we moved to Paeroa, dad doing road work for the council, besides helping to lay the first water supply to Paeroa from Tarariki's creek. About this time a gold rush started in West Australia and, like many another, my father, beset by the gold-fever, left home to seek the golden grail on the parched & inhospitable fields of Coolgadie & Kalgoolie. Not long after his arrival there we received the sad news of his death. This left Mother with a young family of four boys & two girls to care for without the aid of the Social Security the community enjoys to-day. However, with the help of genuine & generous friends & with her own unbounded grit & energy, she was able to start up a small grocery & small goods business in the main street not far from McWatters' big general store. I, being the eldest son, helped by delivering the orders on horse-back after school hours.
Some of the events that happened while we lived in Paeroa which remain indelibly impressed on my memory include the celebrations that marked the Reliefs of Ladysmith and Mafeking near the end of the Boer War in South Africa. We children had no understanding of the historical significance, but we surely enjoyed all the sweets & things, with which we were regaled by the local shopkeepers. The arrival of the first motor car caused a great sensation & a great noise as well. Advance guards preceded its approach, to warn the owners of horses tethered in front of the shops to take due precautions lest the animals take fright at the novel contraption thundering towards them.
The visit of the then resident Governor was also a very memorable occasion. Arches were erected across the main street, shop fronts gayly bedecked with ferns and ribands, schools were closed & the children paraded on the open space in front of the Royal Mail Hotel to hear the different speakers expatiate on the virtues of loyalty to King & country. The military was not wanting either, making a brave show as Guard of Honour.
The arrival at the old central station of the daily express never failed to draw a crowd, bent on hearing the latest news from the metropolis & greeting home coming friends & visitors. On Saturday afternoons there would be a great influx of miners from the outlying fields eager to snatch a few hours relaxation & hilarity after a week's hard toil underground.
The annual race meeting on St. Patrick's Day attracted big attendances & for a few days enlivened the otherwise quiet tenor of life in the township. For me & for most of the other youngsters the great allurement at that time was the huge pile of watermelons sold by the Maoris at almost give-away prices.
Paeroa had its share of unusual personalities too, in my time. I well remember Cockatoo Jack (Jack Allen) who never wore coat, hat or boots & who invariably had a tame parrot on his shoulder. He could imitate the calls of almost every bird in the bush. He looked an extremely healthy person & I often wonder what became of him.
A Syrian woman made periodical visits to Paeroa selling soaps and perfumes, silks and trinkets dear to the heart of every woman. She would carry her wares from door to door in a huge bundle covered in waxed canvas & would lay them out on the floor for inspection by the expectant clients. My mother & she became great friends and her soft voice, broken English & facile smile still linger in my memory as if it were only yesterday.
Then there was the vendor of a universal panacea for all the ills that flesh is heir to. He would come in a gaudily decorated caravan, drawn by a pair of piebald ponies & attended by two assistants who were musicians of a sort & played cornets & drums. The head of the trio affected the style of dress of Buffalo Bill, that romantic & legendary figure whose exploits & adventures were read by almost every boy in the country. He said he could pull teeth without pain & this indeed proved true as my mother had some of hers drawn & declared she felt nothing. The function of the two musical assistants was to strike up a lively tune during the extractions & it was contended by the maliciously disposed that this helped to drown the cries of the unfortunate patient, should the hypnotic power, he undoubtedly possessed, fail to have the desired effect.
Although our Paeroa business yielded almost sufficient to keep the wolf from the door the competition from more firmly established stores made the struggle too acute. Encouraged by friends, in 1904 we moved to Mackaytown and opened up a Grocery Store together with the Post Office, my mother conducting this for several years. (It was on the main road between the Rahu and Albert Rd.) I was just under 16 when we moved and apparently well developed, for I was offered a job trucking in the Crown Mine, by Mr. Henry Moore who had a contract. I gladly accepted, knowing that my 6/- a day would be an acceptable addition towards the maintenance of our family.
(Mr. McNamara, who now lives in Auckland, returned to Karangahake after his adventures at Golden Hills, and has promised us a further article concerning early days. Ed.)