Arcadia in Pahiatua

CHAPTER 12 – Arcadia in Pahiatua 1973 – 77

We were indeed desperate in May, 1973. I needed a job fast. I approached one of old-experienced teachers at college and explained our situation. Within 24 hours I received a phone call from Nick Gaudin, the then principal of Tararua College, Pahiatua. He asked one question: “Do you play squash?” I did. We rented out our house intending to return after three years, packed our goods and set off during the May holidays for Pahiatua.

We arrived in rain, and it continued to rain for a week. It was miserable, truly miserable: wet, grey, fog, cold, and damp everywhere. Accommodation was hard to find, but we managed to rent a house in Woodville temporarily. Hadrian, our lovely Persian-cross tomcat, was in absolute misery. Since our house in Woodville was on concrete stilts, there was no real way for him to explore – he sensed enemies everywhere. He yeowled and yeowled. He shrunk into that haunted look that only cats can do, and we seriously thought to put him down.

But Aubynne’s romantic dreams blossomed.

“Look Mike,” she shouted. “Come to the window and see the farmer and hens.”

So I came and held my wife’s hand to share this Arcadian scene. I looked and saw a farmer in gumboots (which we were soon all to wear constantly) stride across a large sodden paddock with hens scattering everywhere. Little did Aubynne realise what he carried in his hand – an axe. He quickly picked up a fowl by the head and swung it round so fast it was dead in a second and then quickly hacked off its head, and strode back to the farmhouse. Aubynne was stunned, but the Arcadian romantic hopes and dreams recovered over time.

Pahiatua was the main town of the “Bush”, as it was known. The “Bush” was the original scrubby manuka and rugged woody tangled vegetation stretching 200 miles from Dannevirke to Eketahuna, which was given to the Danish settlers in the 1870s to clear for a railway line through to Wellington. And Pahiatua was at the centre, nestled in a valley of two rivers between the Tararua Ranges and the coastal hills. There were two kinds of weather: either the wind howled across the ranges, picking up speed and blowing the trees into stunted 45deg angles; or the fog closed in while the rest of New Zealand had sunny weather. Dairy farmers ruled the valley, while sheep farmers the slopes of the hills. Pahiatua was rich, one of the richest farming areas in the country, and the seat of Tory power.

Tararua College drew its boys and girls from a huge area: from Alfredton in the south to Woodville in the north. Many students milked the cows at 5am in the morning before catching the bus to school. Two-thirds of the students came by buses. And between the school administration and the local council there was an understanding that teachers would be favourably given school bus-driving licences to help the whole community get their children to school. So, I became a school bus driver, within two weeks. A testimonial and an eye-test and that was all, having never driven a large vehicle in my life! The Woodville bus – a blue 1938 Ford V8 crash gearbox – was notorious. It could not turn left round an intersection, so a route had been planned to avoid left turns. But I managed for the short time we were in Woodville.

Ballance Valley Road

We attended our first country people’s gathering in Woodville. Mary Patterson, a staunch Catholic remedial reading teacher took pity on us and introduced us to the locals one night. Here we were among Tory farmers who were basically sick to the teeth with these “city” left-wing radical teachers who were brain-washing their children. Not a word was said though. Aubynne, dressed in the latest hippy style, was whisked away to the women’s area and I, with my flares and beard, was escorted to the men’s area to drink beer and talk Rugby and wool prices with men in their country boots, Vyella shirts, woollen ties and moleskin trousers. Any time I wandered back to see how she was, I was gently guided back to my place. Mary had put the word out that we needed a permanent place to live, and within a week we were offered a farmhouse of Ian and Betty Robbie right out in the country rent-free in Ballance Valley. I then could do the 10-mile Ballance Valley school run.

We arrived. Hadrian stepped out of the car. He sniffed the air. His tail rose. He looked one way and the other and said “This is my place.” From then on he stalked the hills with us and without and had baby rabbits for breakfast. And Simon and Dominic breathed new air and discovered whole new adventures in the hills and paddocks of Ballance Valley.

Front yard at Ballance, Pahiatua.

Our place in Ballance was full of character: rain-fed watertank, large beehive in a wall, possums hissing and moaning through the night, large water rats in the ceiling, weather stunted orchard trees, large fireplaces and a ready supply of wood, our own beautiful stream running down from the sheltering range right behind us, and very dark, silent nights on an isolated road – not a light could be seen.

And a sheepfarming landlord who was the living essence of country hospitality, full of loving care for his flock (in which I am sure he counted us), still riding a horse when others had taken up the farm motorbikes, and so very patient with us city folk. Time and time again he would hitch his tractor to the school bus on cold frosty mornings when it just refused to start. To Clarissa he would greet with a low-pitched growl: “Hello Clarissa” and talk to her as one of his own girls. And Betty would give us traditional scones and cakes from her coke-heated Aga cooker which was always going summer or winter, and tell us about her girls, their music and achievements, and Ian’s tasks for the day.

Aubynne had found at last her Arcadian dream come true.

Aubynne in Arcadia at last.

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