Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 44, September 2000

By C W Malcolm

On page 41 of Journal 42 [Journal 42: Notes 1998 - E] a paragraph tells us that, in November 1997, Hikuai School celebrated its centenary. The School, it says, now had five classrooms and a roll of 120 pupils.

The residents of this Coromandel township would, no doubt, be surprised to learn that, for over 70 years, Hikuai has seldom been absent from my mind!

In January 1925, just out of Auckland Teachers' Training College, at the age of 19, I was appointed to the sole charge school at Hikuai. I had applied for a position at Paeroa where my home and parents were. There being no vacancy there, no doubt the Education Board in its kindness had placed me as near as possible to my desired preference. To refuse such an appointment was unheard of. What I learned from a friend in the Lands and Survey Department about its remoteness and of the route to it, sent me at once by train to Auckland to inform the Board, however, that I must decline to take up the position.

A week later I received a new appointment - to Paeroa District High School as "supernumerary to staffing". The age of miracles had then not passed! The number of pupils justified an extra teacher and my appointment saved a colleague from facing a class of 80 pupils.

But the reason for my writing this article may be found in Journal 15 (1971) page 22 entitled NERVE-WRACKING RIDE FROM PURIRI-TAIRUA SOME 40 YEARS AGO. (now 68 years ago). It was written by G H Roche who had been appointed to the Tairua School, his route passing through Hikuai. For the sake of present day readers who may not have access to the story, I am convinced that my precis will make exciting reading and will reveal the conditions that faced some early day teachers and from which I escaped.

The teacher's journey began at Puriri from where, for three miles the route led up the bed of a stream but at seven miles the grade had become more difficult and the drop to the right more terrifying especially with the pack horses claiming the safer left-hand side of the track and forcing the teacher's horse to the edge of the precipice.

The mailman's remark that he had lost one stupid horse over the edge the previous week and that it had taken four days to retrieve the pack from the dead horse, in no way lessened the apprehension of the traveller behind him.

Suddenly civilisation seemed to appear in the form of the hotel at Neavesville where a substantial lunch costing one shilling was a welcome break. But it was a short-lived relief, for further terror lay ahead. From the clay track, a short-cut was designated to save two miles. Here the leader simply turned his horse over the edge of a long precipitous slope down which he and the pack-horses simply disappeared from the teacher's view. He was having same difficulty restraining his own mount until, from below, came a voice, "Let go of the reins, hold his mane with one hand and his tail with the other - he knows what to do."

The amazing beast, squatting on the edge with his hind legs doubled under him and forelegs braced, literally slid down the few hundred feet with lightening rapidity, the teacher grimly grasping mane and tail in that awesome descent!

The route continued along the stony course of the Tairua River, crossing and re-crossing several times. From the pristine and rugged beauties of nature which he had had little if any time to admire, the teacher suffered another shock that must have plunged him into mental depression. It was a space of man-made desolation, the deserted ruins of Puketui, a once thriving gold-mining township, now a wilderness of decay. Unsightly objects, old machinery, twisted piping, cog-wheels, yards of steel wire, with trees pushing their branches from interiors where people had once lived, through gaping window frames of dilapidated houses, gave the whole scene a ghostly aspect.

At this stage I would have been fearfully wondering what planet I was traversing and where it was ultimately leading me to!

I thank Mr Roche for giving us this picture. I feel it bears repeating so that readers may appreciate, not only how well from such conditions roads across the Peninsula have given us easy access to its beauties, but also how improved has become the teachers' lot.

One Christmas holidays in the 1950s I visited Hikuai in our car with my family and photographed the well-kept one-roomed school in its neat and attractive grounds - no five classrooms even then and I recalled the fact that it had been officially intended that I should have begun my teaching career just there. Fortunately it was holidays and not a soul did I see that day at Hikuai! And no one witnessed my late arrival at the school that could have been mine and given me a place in the history of Hikuai.

Silence brooded over that then-isolated valley shut off from the world by the mountains with their fantastically formed peaks. At least that's how memory paints it. Only imagination can make the contrast with today's progress and expansion that requires a five-roomed school to cater for the educational needs of its children.