Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 13, May 1970


A Young Man's Swim to Fame

By C.W. Malcolm

A one-time young resident of this district accepted the challenge provided by the river. His physique, his skill in the water, developed through his youthful enthusiasm for healthy recreation, though none could know it at the time, would lead within three years to his swimming into fame and into history.

The OHINEMURI GAZETTE (now the HAURAKI PLAINS GAZETTE) of 31 January, 1912 has the following headlines:




"A young man named Bernard Freyberg who is twenty-two years of age put up a rather remarkable performance on Sunday last when he swam down the Waihou River from Te Aroha to Paeroa".

The report states that the distance was thirty-five miles, and that although Freyberg was "almost blue" after his long swim and was obviously suffering from cold, he was "comparatively fresh". His body had been "treated with a preparation of lard" and he was accompanied by two men in a boat. At intervals he had been fed with a mixture of eggs and milk and occasionally with a little chocolate.

It was also on a Sunday, 25 April 1915, the first Anzac Day, that this young man, just three years later, entered history with another remarkable performance. The late Poet Laureate, John Masefield records it in his book GALLIPOLI:

"At Bulair", one man, Lieutenant Freyberg, swam ashore from a destroyer towing a light raft of flares. Near the shore he lit two of these flares, then, wading on to the land, he lit others at Intervals along the coast; then he wandered inland, naked, on a personal reconnaissance, and soon found a large Turkish army strongly entrenched. Modesty forbade further intrusion. He went back to the beach and swam off to his destroyer; could not find her in the dark, and swam for several miles, was exhausted and cramped, and was at last picked up, nearly dead. This magnificent act of courage and endurance, done by one unarmed man, kept a large Turkish army at Bulair during the critical hours of the landing. The flares deceived the Turks even more completely than had been hoped".

A swim which held back a large Turkish army, which possibly reduced the pressure on our New Zealanders landing at Anzac Cove, a swim which helped to make good the landing with fewer casualties than there might have been. One likes to believe that young Freyberg's experience in the currents of the Waihou had prepared him for his epic struggle in the waters of the Aegean where the Gulf of Saros washes the shores of Gallipoli.

Sir Bernard Freyberg, of course, was to command the New Zealand troops in the Second World War and to become Governor-General of this country. But all this was undreamt of when the waters of the Waihou bore him towards Paeroa and the GAZETTE was alert enough to record it, unsuspecting of its ultimate historical significance.