CHAPTER 13 – Life at Ballance 1973-77
The Tararuas behind our house produced a little riverlet which sprung high up in a narrow valley leading down to Ballance valley itself, watering a narrow band of native bush as it made its way down the little valley. Here it was where we took ourselves and at times our friends, first along the lower rounded foothills broken into open grassy paddocks immediately on either side of our house, and then narrowing into the stream itself. As we climbed we entered into the steep bush surrounding the stream with sizeable but negotiable waterfalls. Sunlight filtered through the bush onto the pools and vines and broken rocks and mountain shingle. Finally after an hour one reached the top and beyond the source of the stream to the very height of the ranges above us. One could then easily walk back along the sheep tracks on the side of the hills to return to the house. Hadrian would accompany us some of the way acting as “point” lion as if we hunted game in the open valley below. He never entered the bush though.
The boys and I would play “hunter and hunted”, the winner being the one who could go higher up into the rounded paddocks and claim higher ground to the one below. Or we would go eeling.
The main little river along the road was a hideaway for old eels. They had reached the end of the river valley and had gotten too big to wander further. So the eels were very big and exciting to catch. We made our first eel spear with a big 6″ nail filed into a hook roped on to an old broom handle. One day, we hunted out a whopper – all 35kg. It just twisted off the nail and tried to escape overland. Unfortunately it had to be stunned for us to claim it.
I tried a bit of possum shooting with the excuse that they were destroying Aubynne’s vegetable garden. They were but I had gotten the country boy bug – hunting with a shotgun. After a few nights of easy possum shooting I became quite disgusted with myself – they were such easy targets. The possums were so numerous my little jaunt of shooting was making no effect.
Aubynne established a hen-house. One of the hens was quite cheeky. We found it pecking away at the food in our fridge. And then we got a sheepdog – Jude. Jude was one of those black and white heading dogs that were classic on New Zealand farms. The boys loved Jude and Jude loved the easy country life unlike the other farm dogs who visited us often with Ian Robbie. They had to work. Many times one would hear Ian’s booming voice cursing Bruce who found the pace too hard and was returning home to his sheep tucker before work ended. Jude on the other hand ran the paddocks with the boys, and accompanied us on our many school holidays.
Ballance and Pahiatua were at least two hours away from even a suitable surfing beach. On one coast was iron grey sand and fine grit shingle; on the other a rugged wild dangerous east coast. So we made do with the rivers. The deep Mangahao River wound its way through a valley about three miles away. Its water was velvety smooth and a delight to swim and fish for trout. If too hot, we could always wallow in our little stream, if it had water in the summer. Clarissa learnt to dam this stream to make a little swimming pool.
One custom of farmers’ dinner parties was the accepted supply of a full range of beer, spirits, liqueurs, and wine. And the easy expectation also that one travel in the middle of the night miles away on awkward unlit country roads. In a return dinner one would be expected to supply the same – a custom we found hard to match.
We became close friends with Phil and Colleen Cotter, a farming family in Mangatainoka. Phil and Colleen were typical of many of the farmers in the area, very well-educated, civilised and cultured. They had a great sense and jealous pride in their community and a passion for life. But a common thread among them all was the growth of the welfare state, the unions, and the difference between a life dependent on wool and meat prices and a life of paid unaccountable employment by the government. But it was with them that I learnt from Phil about the stresses of farming, the reliance on one’s body and the heavy toll farming made on the body.
The School Bus Driver
School bus driving itself was an adventure. The contracted company used the oldest vehicles it could find to run the sky-blue country buses: old pre-war V8s, or 20-year-old Bedford diesels, and even a red Bedford petrol bus from Fairlie in the South Island with its little wooden seats for 5 to 7 year olds. My first bus was an old V8, impossible to start on cold mornings. Eventually it threw a crankshaft through the housing, and then I got a marginally better bus. This one would always overheat and whistled when going up hills. One day the interior engine housing blew off with the pressure of steam – lots of noise and scaring the students but the next day they had to give me a replacement while it was being repaired. At 5pm that night a huge Mount Cook tourist bus arrived at our gate for me to drive the next morning. Oh what a joy to drive a real bus. It had those pneumatic doors and the engine purred and right through the pickup the students were in hushed astonishment – unbelievable that we were so honoured.
One New Year’s Eve, Jill, Aubynne’s sister, and her husband, Baye, came to stay. We were all still fairly trendy in our garments but Baye was outstanding. He wore an Indian muslin embroidered shirt and white flared cotton pants. With his brown Maori skin and the white muslin he was astonishingly handsome. The fifty locals at Ballance Hall that night did not share Baye’s sense of fashion. Our one attempt at a local community event failed dismally. The stunned silence at our entry and continuing through the next hour forced us to leave.
Country Schooling or Boarding?
Simon attended Ballance Primary School for two years before starting secondary school. A growing problem was which school for Simon to attend: Tararua College where I taught or a Catholic boys’ boarding school? At Tararua he would be thrown into a school where already teachers’ sons became quite rebellious to prove that they were really just the same as everyone else. On the other hand, we did not like to send him away. He was enjoying life with us and at Ballance. We decided finally to send him to a Marist Brothers school in Masterton. I do not know whether it was a wrong decision. Simon thought it was. Dominic attended the local Catholic St Brigid’s primary school and took his first steps learning the piano with lovely gentle Mother Madeleine.
Our introduction to the parish of Pahiatua was to Father Walsh, an old Irish priest of the old Irish tradition, a straight-shooter, who would not compromise for the New World nor the Revolution. His sermons horrified the gentry and convinced non-Catholics that nothing had changed in the Church. And then we got Father Ryan, a gentle, cultured, well-educated priest who readily accepted invitations to dinner, and whose mild tolerant manner enchanted us all. He was what I would call a transition priest from the old to the new: able to hold his feet on the ground regardless of the storms around him. And here at this parish we also met the Jaques and the Perry families, the Jaques especially retaining links with us later when we went to the Bay.
One Christmas, Mother Madeleine and Father Ryan encouraged me to conduct the Christmas choir. Because I dabbled with guitar and piano and by then had taken an interest in school musicals and choirs, she thought my growing talents could be used. For the first time, I wrote some new harmony parts for Silent Night. And we attempted to sing the O Come with the descant, Colleen and Aubynne glowing with pride at singing such a challenging chorus. That event was the beginning of my new confidence in tackling church music.
Within a year on a teacher’s salary we were able to buy a better car – a 1965 AP5 Valiant – a solid car for the country. It had a long-stroke engine and thus lots of torque and good for towing trailers. One holiday in Hicks Bay on the East Cape of New Zealand we struck a gale coming to evening. We had not camped our tent. Cars and caravans running away from the coast for safety. We had three children and Jude and a trailer full of tent gear. We deliberately jack-knifed the trailer and car and placed the boys and Jude in the trailer and we and Clarissa slept in the Valiant in the hope that its weight would ride out the gale. We survived. The next day we erected our big sturdy old canvas tent with reinforcing timber and stays. The Valiant proved ideal for this kind of event.
And then two years later, Aubynne received her inheritance from the Dixon family. We were now able to replace our now ancient Philips 2.5 Watt stereo set with some state-of-the-art Hi-Fi gear: B & W speakers, a Philips electronic turntable, and a Roberts amp. We also bought a much newer car, and as it turned out, the best vehicle we have ever owned: a 1973 2.5 Triumph TC with manual overdrive. The Triumph 2.5 was just the best. It was comfortable, it had a wide-sweeping view, a wooden dashboard and leather seats, it kept up with the big Aussie 6s and took to the hills without any trouble. Its manual overdrive allowed one to switch in third gear to overdrive when passing traffic and so shooting quickly from 60 mph to 80 mph. One could use the same switch on fourth gear as well. We kept that car for fifteen years.
Yes, things were certainly looking up for the Phillips’.