Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 18, June 1974
"Cross Country with Suitcase"
By CLIFF FURNISS
All night long the wind had come sweeping out of the S.W., driving squalls of rain before it to rattle on the iron roof and patter against the windows. Our house shivered and creaked before the onslaught. In the morning it wasn't much better. I stood aghast with my nose flattened against the window, watching the gum trees in the shelter-belt writhe and twist. The wind rippled across the manuka scrub till it was like a tossing sea. And this was the day we were supposed to be going to Auckland for our 1924 annual holiday! It was unthinkable that the weather should spoil the momentous occasion. Never had I known such a thing in all my eight years. Hitherto we had caught the river steamer to Auckland in calm, sunny, - if sometimes frosty - winter weather.
My busy Mother, did not seem in the least put out. "We can't go if it's like this, she said calmly, "we'll just have to see what it's like after lunch, when it's time to leave". Actually, the trip to catch the steamer was quite a performance. It was June, and our Mangawhero Landing on the Piako River was feet deep under the winter flood waters. So we had to hike across country through the farms to the Patetonga tramline, travel on the horse tram to the Patetonga Wharf (which was above the usual flood level) and there board the launch "KAREWA" which would take us down-river to Kerepehi to connect with the Northern Company's steamer in the evening. All being well, we would be in Auckland early next morning.
There was a slight but steady improvement all the morning, and after lunch, of which I could hardly swallow a mouthful for nervous tension, it was decided that we might set out after all. We wore gumboots for the wet trudge through the paddocks, and Dad came along to help carry the luggage and to take our gumboots home when he returned to look after the farm while we were away.
It was still blowing great guns, but there was a rainbow arched against a black squall away to the south-east as we set out, with gloomy expectations of a rough night in the Gulf. We walked in silence, and before long we could see the white cubes of houses lining the Patetonga tramline. We were passing through a belt of low manuka scrub, when I became aware of the spiders. I had an absolute horror of even small spiders, and these were big things, as big as my outstretched hand, hundreds of them, as far as you could see, all spread out on the tops of the manuka bushes in the weak sunshine where they had climbed to escape the sodden ground. The mere thought of having one of those things on me made me cringe, and I came to an uncertain halt. My Father, annoyed at the delay, swung round and roared at his poltroon of a son, and even my Mother urged me onwards. "Come on!" she said sharply, "they won't hurt you, - I don't like them, either!" So, looking straight ahead, I went trembling forward along the track, and, as so often happens, when unpleasantness is faced, it recedes. The scrub thinned out and in a short time we were approaching the first of the houses.
Here Dad left us, and we went on alone, to be welcomed in at the house for the inevitable cup of tea. Our host was crippled with arthritis, spending his days in a wheel-chair, and tended by his wife. Their teen-age son helped out on the Patetonga wharf and brought in a little money for that, but I imagine they were not well off. Whether they paid any rent for the abandoned farm house they were living in, or were acting as unpaid caretakers, I have no idea, but I think their lives were lonely, and they seemed delighted to have someone fresh to talk with. A huge phonograph with a horn stood on a table, and the walls were lined with pigeon-holes for cylinder records.
I sat listening to the adult conversation which held no interest for me, and inwardly longed to be on my way to the steamer. The shadows lengthened, and our hostess cranked on the wall telephone and made inquires as to when the horse tram would pass. She kept assuring us that it would be along 'in just a few more minutes', but it did not appear, and even my Mother began to look anxious. At last she announced that we would walk on, and if the tram did not come, we still had time to reach the wharf before the launch left.
So at last we were on our way, carrying our suitcases, and stepping on the sleepers of the tramline in our town shoes. The wind had now died right away, and sky along the hills to the east had a tinge of pink and mauve that told of a frost to come in the morning. Quiet and still it was eerie, with the leafless willows and the empty houses reflected in the clear, shallow flood-water. All the farms at the bottom of the Patetonga tramline had been given up and abandoned, though there were still a few cattle grazing quietly round the houses. There was no sign of the horse-tram, and in the deepening dusk we seemed to be the only people in that melancholy, dreary wilderness of scrubland and water.
But in time we came to the few buildings around the Patetonga wharf, and were given a warm welcome to the cosy lamplit cottage of the old caretaker, Bill Higgins. We sat by the Dover stove, sharing the warmth with a host of cats of all colours. I approved of Bill's choice of wallpaper, thinking how much better it was to have pages of photos from the Auckland Weekly and the Sporting and Dramatic on your walls instead of silly trails of roses and sprigs of bamboo for patterns.
Soon it was quite dark, and old Bill came to the door to warn us it was time to climb down into the "KAREWA", tuff-tuffing softly alongside the wharf and ready to set off down the winding Piako River. We sat on hard, grey painted wooden seats on one side of the cabin, lit by one tiny electric bulb. It was a rare treat to be able to get into the cabin at all. When we came home from Auckland, the cabin was usually packed to the deckhead with cargo, and passengers perched among the cases of leaking benzine tins out in the cockpit.
We were joined in the cabin by the Maori skipper, Barney Williams. Barney had recently lost his wife, and his two tiny children sat huddled up near us on the seat, shy, silent, with big, dark, sad eyes. My Mother expressed her sympathy, and Barney nodded, staring sombrely before him. "It is not so bad for me, but for them", -nodding at the children – "every thing is so difficult, and they miss their mother ...I do what I can..." He roused himself and pulled out a large pocket watch, looking worried. The steamer, he explained, was due to leave Kerepehi soon, and would wait for us down at Ngatea. "He will not leave there till I come", he assured us, "but if I can catch him at Kerepehi, so much the better". No doubt he was thinking that if he did not have to chase down to Ngatea with us, he would be able to take the children home and put them to bed so much earlier.
Far away, against the black loom of the Coromandel hills, we could see a bright star. This, Barney told us, was the masthead light of the steamer, and it meant that she was getting ready to leave, with steam on her electric lighting engine. Climbing out of the hatch above the wheel he put a fog-horn trumpet to his lips and blew long, mournful blasts, while the "KAREWA" swung round the loops and bends of the river at her best speed.
In the end, we made it in time, coming round the last bend at Kerepehi to see the "WAIPU" still lying there, a blaze of bright lights. We swept alongside and made fast, climbing stiffly up on to the steamer's deck to be greeted by the Captain, Mate, and the Stewardess. Barney cast off and took his children home to bed in Kerepehi, while we went down the companionway to the brightness of the big saloon. There was a row of electric lights in cut-glass shades on swan-necked fittings down each side of the saloon, with another row of them down the centre of the deckhead, which was painted with high-gloss white enamel. There were two big side-boards loaded with plated ware and cutlery at the forward end of the compartment; two long dining tables ran fore and aft on either side, flanked by padded benches, and covered with red plush cloths. A swivel chair was placed at the head of each table for the Captain and Mate, the settee-bunks were upholstered in greyish - blue moquette velvet with an abstract pattern of black and orange oblongs on it. A clock, thermometer, and barometer, with the ship's framed certificate of survey were screwed to the forward bulkhead. The whole ship trembled gently to the throb of the engines as they turned slowly, warming up.
The Stewardess was apologetic. It was late, and the Cook was now off duty - tea was over, long ago. But there was a piece of cold pickled pork in the Steward's pantry, and she could make us a cup of tea, - if this would do? It would do very well, and in no time we had eaten our meal and I was rolled up in my blankets in one of the bunks, lulled into a deep and contented sleep by the rhythmic beat of the engines as we steamed down-river. I was aboard the "WAIPU", and the great adventure of the year had well and truly begun.
...OUR CONTRIBUTOR: CLIFF FURNISS is known to us as the Secretary of the Auckland Maritime Society which visited Paeroa in 1972.
His Father gave up his trade as a carpenter to take up land on the Hauraki Plains, first bee-keeping and then dairying, on the Mangawhero Road, between Patetonga and Kaihere in June, 1920. In the winter of 1927 he moved to another farm a few miles away, at Torehape. An unformed road bounding one side of this property is now shown on maps as "Furniss Road". Owing to deterioration of health Mr. Furniss (Sen.) sold the farm in 1938. In 1948 after various jobs with a break of two years' Home Service in the Army, Cliff joined the staff of the Waterfront Industry Commission's Auckland branch where he has since served in various capacities.
Another of our Contributors who has a "Plains" background is MR. ARCH McDONALD now well known in Paeroa in connection with the Social Credit movement and as a businessman. We are grateful to him for his interest as we are to MR. VIC MURRAY whose 50 year old snaps of Ngatea will recall early memories. His reference to "Dave Vincent' s Shop" reminds us that the story of the pioneer Vincent Family (still represented in Paeroa by "Charlie") must be told in a future article.