It's a strange feeling standing on an old house site. A pile of rubble in a paddock is all that remains of a large homestead, a burst of colour from the overgrown camellias hint at what was once a grand garden. Sheep graze around the old water tank stand and laze in the shade of a gnarled old walnut tree. If it's possible for a house to have a spirit, one surely resides here in this lonely spot above the Mokau River.
"My grandfather James Randell built it," explains Allan Randell, shaping the outline of a house with his hands, arms outstretched. "He was mad on steam. He had a sawmill and cut all the timber here on the river. The roof and even the walls were corrugated iron." The rough sawn timber house was finished as money became available. Until then winters were bleak and cold as wind whistled through gaps in the boards, and summers were stifling as the corrugated iron clad house baked in the hot sun.
Allan and his siblings grew up in the house on this knoll above the mighty Mokau River, a 19 kilometre boat journey from the ocean. Returning half a century later is an emotional journey, bringing tears and laughter. It's a journey back in time to when the Mokau valley was once a bustling community. At varying times there were several sawmills, coalmining, sheep and dairy farming up in this lonely valley. Boats would ply their trade up and down the river, taking coal, cream, wool and pigs out, bringing groceries and other essential supplies in. But it wasn't an easy life.
Allan's grandparents first came up the valley in 1913 to sharemilk on a property way up river. Over the years their family joined them, each one buying land and receiving a house with timber milled from the steam mill, until there were five homes dotted along the river. The Radfords, MacKenzies, Cummings and Randells lived within rowing distance of each other along the river. The children played together and crossed the mighty river each day to go up the hill to Mackford School, the name a blend of MacKenzie and Radford.
The land surrounding the house on the knoll is special to Allan. This is land that his one-armed father broke in by hand. He felled timber and built a shed where he milked a handful of cows, sending the cream down river on the Cygnet every other day.
Cecil Randell had lost his arm while fighting in the First World War. "Dad struggled in many ways with only one arm - he found it very frustrating. There were a few things he couldn't do.
"Putting the cups on the cows, or feeding calves - you know where you put your hand in the bucket of milk under a calf's nose and let them suck your fingers? And he couldn't brush his teeth," recalls Alan. "But then he could carry a four gallon tin of milk on his stump, he could row us across the river to school, fell trees, build fences…"
Alan's mother Janie preserved fruit, vegetables and eggs and made soap. "We were very self sufficient. We had to be. We had a big orchard, a vegetable garden, hens provided eggs, we had meat of course, and milk and cream. We caught and ate whitebait and bigger fish. We lived very well."
Until electricity arrived up the valley in 1937 there was no refrigeration. "We had a safe to try and keep things cool, but it was difficult to keep meat and butter fresh." To solve the problem, the families would share meat after a home kill. "We helped each other out - the Radfords, Cummings, MacKenzies and Randells."
Basic stores like flour, sugar and dried fruit arrived monthly up the river on the Cygnet. "They would sell fish too. You'd see a boat coming up river with a fish tied to its spar and you'd know they had them for sale."
As the only access to many properties the Mokau River was the lifeblood of the district. But the mighty river was a dangerous place for young children. As a four-year old Allan was found down by the river watching school teacher Bob Wells zoom up river in his speedboat. His father chased him up the hill home with a willow switch. The dangers of the deep fast flowing river were embedded into his young memory with every swing of the twitchy stick. "The river was just part of life. But it was quite deep and very dangerous. We were never allowed to play down by the river until we were older. When we had a water shortage we would go down with a cake of soap and have a wash in the river and just build up courage that way."
Initially, the river was the only means of transport into the valley, and boats would plough up and down carrying coal, pigs, bricks and supplies. The Randell family were one of the first in the valley to own a car. They parked it in a shed in the Awakino Gorge and would walk an hour over the ridge from their farm to get to it.
One Sunday Cecil Randell was called to help with a fishy problem. Whitebait provided an income for many families along the river when times were lean. They would take their daily catch out to meet the bus at Awakino and the whitebait would be for sale in the shops at Waitara and New Plymouth the next morning.
"One Saturday there was a terrific amount of whitebait caught," says Allan. "The bus didn't run on a Sunday so Dad offered to take the catch into town. He took 800 lb (around 400kg) of whitebait out, cream cans and allsorts full. Six families caught that in one day!"
The Randell children were rowed across the river every day to school by their father. They would then walk across the paddocks uphill to Mackford School. Many of the pupils had to cross the Mokau River and walk up the ridges to the little building perched high on a hill over-looking the valley. "Looking back now it was hard, very hard - but everyone was in the same boat. It was what you had to do," says Allan.
Today all that remains of the old one-teacher school is an old hedge of Lawsonianas, once clipped neatly to provide protection from the prevailing wind whipping up the valley, now old trees with bent limbs reaching for the sky.
If trees could talk the Lawsonianas would tell tales of the marble pit where the boys battled and of the vegetable patch on the hillside, just below the classroom, where the boys and girls learnt how to till the soil. There would be stories of the fire of 1934 that rushed up the bracken-clad hillside, the school only saved by a group of volunteers who spent all night beating out sparks with wet sacks. Or the funny tale of Charlie Raven, the local bachelor, who was asked by the school teacher to teach the children how to raise bees. He got stung on the nose and asked one of the boys to remove the stinger with his large hunting knife.
Smiling, Allan recalls his wife Mavis. The childhood sweethearts met when Allan was riding back home after taking a mob of cattle out to a sale at Awakino. "Mavis was in the garden and I stopped to say hello. She asked me in for a cup of tea. I was 15, she was 16. We were married five years later." The young couple took over the Randell family farm up the Mokau and began to raise their own family.
In 1953, with his extended family moving out of the district, Allan and Mavis too decided to move on. "Everyone was unsettled. We had had enough of the river then, we needed a change."
Allan's mind is chock full of memories of his Mokau days, brought to life by returning to this lonely spot high above the snaking river. "It was a good life, but pretty tough when you think about it," he says, wiping tears from his weather-worn face. "But we didn't know any better, and we enjoyed it."
First published 12 December 2006
Photographic print depicting the Mokau River, Taranaki - steamer on the river
Chromolithograph by George Duppa entitled, "Part of the New Plymouth Settlement in the district of Taranake, New Zealand - Mount Egmont 30 miles distant" (1841). Sketch of foreshore between Sugar Loaves and Mokau.
Manuscript of Beverly Jones' memories of Mokau and Waitara 1950.
Records from Mokau Co-op Dairy Company 1943-1955.
Records from Mokau Store 1940-1941 noting goods and services provided to individual people in the Mokau district.
Puke Ariki is not responsible for the content of these external websites.
People's Milky Wheys
A Puke Ariki Teachers' Resource Unit
Mokau Life Upstream Battle