Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 8, October 1967
By Jean Goodyear
I must admit my first glance at Athenree was a somewhat malevolent one. Why oh why didn't the signpost at the turn-off say "Ford. Horses and humans only !" After the long and atrocious road from Rotoma it certainly was frustrating to find a sheet of water stretching between us and our goal, Bowentown Heads. We turned the old Ford and rattled back, through the gorge, down Waihi Beach road and along the ocean beach to the little settlement. That was at the end of 1932 at the start of a camping holiday. We barely glanced at the crossing with its few houses, little realising that later on we should spend more than twenty-six years there.
In 1940 wewere looking for a place to settle, somewhere in the Bay. Mr. G. W. Henry suggested we should have a look at the Ford where Mr.WallyRapley was cutting up sections from his farm. The one we fancied was owned by Mr. Dave Nicols. There was a small four-roomed cottage on it; a sad-looking wee place, I thought, set amongst the weeds, and on a narrow neck of land almost surrounded by the sea at high tide. In fact you had to drive through the water, for the road ended abruptly at the harbours edge. After a little persuasion Mr. Nicols agreed to sell, when he would move to a larger section next door. Mr. and Mrs. J. Browne lived on the point beyond, and they were extremely helpful then and later.
Two weeks of frenzied packing and we were back for good. We arrived in a raging rainstorm, and dumped goods from truck and car with sheets of water cascading on us from the gutterless roof! In fact ferocious storms were to feature at intervals through the years. And the most spectacular one came two months later.
We had been living in a hastily erected open-fronted garage while the cottage was altered and enlarged. All was finished, but we hadn't moved in, because the tanks were empty; no rain had fallen for weeks. That day, the 13th of December, we went off to Tauranga to collect daughter Daphne returning from Rotorua high school. On the homeward journey we noticed an ominous blue-black cloud hanging over the hills. The sky grew lowering and dark. Something unusual was brewing. We raced on, hurrying to get back before the storm broke. As we neared the Tuapiro bridge, two men were leaning over the parapet watching intently. We stopped, to find the two Collins brothers sadly watching enormous logs being swirled downstream by the turbulent water. There had been a cloudburst in the hills, a dam had given way and this millable timber for their sawmill up Woodlands Road was on its way seawards. The storm was almost above us as we raced home. Arrived there, we leaped from the car, dashed to the garage and seized any perishable thing to the shelter of the house. We dumped the last bundle as huge drops began to hammer on the roof. And then the storm engulfed us. In a few moments we were like an ark floating on an inland sea; the rain was really terrifying. But the new tanks were over-flowing! Morning showed harbour and ocean beaches littered with logs and debris. Beachcombers had a field day amongst the logs, staking their fancies! But it was not to be. The Collins brothers appeared, and with paint and brush plastered large numbers on their property. These they retrieved later and carted away. However there was enough spindrift for all fossickers; and I know of at least one section that was fenced in nicely with the storm's bounty.
In these early days there was much coming and going across the ford, for quite a large Maori population lived at the pah - now the somewhat unexpected name is Harbour View. We would hear their shouts and laughter as they gaily tackled the crossing at high tide in the coldest weather, perhaps discarding a few clothes before they plunged nonchalantly in. Horses were in evidence; that fine farmer, Johnny Pio, brought over his cream by dray each morning. Sometimes it seemed horse and cart were almost submerged, and the cream cans in danger of floating off. Mr. Len Emerton too came over the harbour higher up. And his four children had a tough time treking from their farm to the crossing, then either wading or rowing over to the steps up the steep face to the track through Rapley's farm. There the car waited to take the local children to the station to catch the so-called 8 o'clock goods train. This train proved so unreliable - sometimes it was midday before the children got to school - that after protest's a school bus was organised.
Horses drew Mr. Browne's plough when we first arrived. Mrs, Browne rode stylishly by, and the Rapley girls too were expert riders. One New Year's day, I remember, we had horse races across the harbour, a Maori horse beating all comers amid the excited shouts of the onlookers.
There was a pleasant walk to Waihi Beach across the high ford then by the slanting hill-billy track through the sandhills and along the ocean beach. During the war the Home Guard were quartered at the beach and those who lived in this area rode home that way. Before the causeway was formed, cars used the track through Emerton's farm. Some trespassers were not too enthusiastic about closing Taranaki Gates, and were not welcomed by Mr. Emerton when stock got out.
The Ford was famous as the place Kingsford Smith landed to give flights in his famous plane. Crowds swarmed to see it on the sandflats beyond the present campground, then Mr. Rapley's farm. Praise is due to Mr. Nicols for his enthusiasm and foresight in planting shelter there. When we first came the wind swept and snarled across the bare sandflats. We wondered however we would establish an orchard. But, fenced in and freed from spoilage by wandering stock, the old fig tree, the camellias and the oleanders flourished, while the two massive karakas keptoffthe searing Southerlies.
To-day you would hardly recognise the little bay, with its grassy filling dominated by a majestic Norfolk Island palm planted by Mr. Keith Harwood. Round the Maori Block the wide grass verges, immaculately kept by householders, making a pleasant walk-about; these were formed after many houses were shifted back from the harbour's edge. The name of the settlement also has changed, though we are still Bowentown Extension on the survey maps we are no longer Bowentown Ford. We have adopted the sweeter-sounding "Athenree" - the name of the original homestead and later and flag-station [East Coast Main Trunk Railway – E]. And we are now a County Town. Does the changed name unconsciously symbolise the changed environment? The transformation from a bare and windswept crossing to a place of gentler aspect, with character, and a certain charm.