Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 15, June 1971
SOME 40 YEARS AGO
By G. H. Roche
In these days of tar-sealed roads and fast cars the magnificent beaches of Waihi, Whangamata and Tairua are all within easy access, though once they were really remote places. Forty odd years ago the writer was appointed sole teacher to Tairua school at a salary of £160 a year with free house in lieu of the authorised "remote allowance" of £30. Having been advised by the school committee that the roads in the district were not suitable for a motor-cycle, he left his machine behind and took the Thames train to Puriri, where he spent the night. The packhorse mailman, Stanley Morrison, called at nine the following morning with an extra horse and the long journey of 32 miles to Tairua began.
For some three miles the road led up the bed of a stream, as far as Bill Pulliene's orchard, and it then wound steadily upward for about seven miles along the Neavesville track. The grade, though tortuous was easy enough, but the drop to the right got more terrifying toward the summit. My memory of the two worst places on a rock face commonly called "The Bluffs" was a view of the horses' ears out-lined against a blue sky and a 2,000 ft. void to the right.
It was disconcerting, too, to have my horse daintily picking his way on the extreme outside edge of the track, while the pack-horses jostled each other for position to avoid the muddy centre. Stanley did not add much to my comfort when he casually remarked that he had lost one stupid horse over the bank the previous week and it took four days to retrieve the pack from the dead animal. He added that there had been too much pushing.
Before long Neavesville was reached. There was a clattering of hooves and a creaking of a harness, and a tiny figure on a tiny Shetland pony came into view. He was followed, incredibly, by 3 or 4 other Shetland ponies, all loose, but each with its pack-saddle to which was fastened two five-gallon barrels of beer, one on each side of the animals. Old-timers of the district will remember this. The rider was Martin Grace, licensee of the Neavesville Hotel, bringing in the beer. These little agile ponies, each carrying more than one hundredweight, made the journey from Puriri to Neavesville in an hour less than the pack-horse mail-train. Martin Grace, 4 ft. nothing, in stature, but grace by nature, and his wife will be well-remembered. They could produce a hot meal at any hour of the day or night. Only the bar-room of their hostelry had a lock, and Martin's only complaint was the amount of wood he had to cut. Mrs. Grace's stove was never known to be out. Our lunch consisted of soup, cold boiled fowl and scones, with raspberry jam, and of course, tea. "I believe in a good feed", said Mrs. Grace, "but it will cost you a shilling (never was a shilling more willingly paid". )
From Neavesville, there was a breath-taking view, with the sea in the distance and the long arm of the Tairua River stretching inland. "See that hill with the two peaks", said Stanley, "well, that is where I am taking you, but you will have a fresh horse at Hikuai, as the one you have doesn't like swing bridges". It was a significant remark, as the writer found out later, when he had reason to agree with the horse's opinion.
The next shock occurred when the clay track led down-hill and then abruptly stopped. At this point the mail carrier indicated the winding road to the right, and remarked casually, "You will have to come up that road coming back, but in coming in, we take the short cut. It saves a couple of miles". Without further ado, Stanley calmly turned his horse over the edge and he and the three pack-horses simply disappeared. The writer's horse, anxious to do the same, was with difficulty restrained till a reassuring voice from somewhere below called out, "Leave the reins, hold his mane with one hand and his tail with the other — he knows what to do". This unpalatable advice was followed, and the amazing beast squatted on the edge of the cliff with hind legs doubled under him, and with forelegs braced, slid down the few hundred feet with lightning rapidity. Amazingly, too, the writer was still aboard and was even able to breathe after the blood had left his nails.
The track now continued along the stony bed of the upper reaches of the Tairua River, crossing and re-crossing the stream many times. The track was definitely not suitable for a motor-cycle. In due course, while the caravan still descended, an enormous Kauri stump came into view, and close behind there was a pond and a wooden dam with gaping doors. This dam was to be used once more, but there was little evidence of timber felling, although there were plenty of logs about. They seemed to have been felled for some time.
The journey continued and the scene changed remarkably. To my surprise a splendid metalled road lay ahead, and what seemed to be a replica of Goldsmith's Deserted Village - this time a colonial version - came into view. It was Puketui, a once-thriving goldmining township, represented by a tiny post office and the first genuine farm, run by the Veiera family, and deserted dwellings. The well-kept acres of rolling hills were in marked contrast to the strange spectacle of the paintless grey cottages and shacks that marked the remains of what was once a village.
Many of the former dwellings had peach trees growing inside, with their twisted branches emerging from the frameless windows. Most ludicrous was the sight of a long thin trunk in flower protruding from the top of a chimney. Yet the overall scene in the warm sunlight of an early afternoon was one of great beauty. True, there were evidences of more unsightly objects reminiscent of the gold rush days, with large tanks of cyanide water, twisted piping, old machinery with huge cogwheels and many yards of steel wire rope, all apparently abandoned. Nature was mercifully covering all this debris with verdure.
It was learned that the reason for the metalled road was that it was required for wheeled transport in bringing up the mining machinery to Puketui from the scows that went as far as Hikuai on the tidal river. The scow Herald did the trip as late as 1926, but not with mining machinery. Whether the mining operations at Puketui paid those who invested in the enterprise is not known, but the loss on the abandoned machinery and equipment must have been considerable.
There was no time to linger, however, and there were still four more miles to cover before the third shock for the new arrival. Another horse was provided at Hikuai and this animal was in fresh condition. Once again, for the last time, Tairua River had to be crossed. The stream was dark and deep, and it had steep forbidding banks. A swing bridge spanned the stream 4. ft. wide, suspended by steel wire ropes anchored at each end, and it ran over transverse trestles, called transoms, some 7 ft. high.
The pack-horses filed across the creaking and swinging structure, stopping momentarily at intervals to ease the sway before calmly completing the crossing. Stanley waited on the other side while the writer and his mount hesitated. "If you don't like it, Teacher, go down to the ford - you can stand on the saddle. I'll wait," he called. One look at the dark green water was enough. The horse was directed to the decking where he stepped gingerly along for a few yards until the contraption began to bounce.
It was too much for the horse, and far too much for his rider. The horse plunged forward on his toes. "Duck your head" called Stanley. The writer, clutching his mount round his neck, just missed hitting a heavy transom beam by inches. The remainder of the journey skirted dairy farms, and the riding was really pleasant. Tairua was reached after a six-hour ride from Puriri. Such was the mode of out-back travel in the 1920's.