The West Coast Whitebait Children - Book 1
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Intimate secrets shared with a stranger
Books One and Two are part of a series. They are based on the intimate and vivid depiction of the lives and legends of characters, places and events from the South Island over the past sixty or so years, particularly on the West Coast. They are about the complexities of growing up, youthful and elderly romance, lost and fulfilled aspirations, and delicious revenge. Stories include humour, and insights into the spirit of the Coast: about its beauty, ancient Maori and recent history, village life and people, and the importance and demise of coal mining. Our ‘whitebait children’s’ love of whitebaiting, though compelling for them, is just a glue that helps link memorable characters, places and times. The reader will come to like Millie, admire Molly and George, and love the wonderful long-deceased Lettie who ‘saw’ more in her short life than most of us ever will. And she was blind.
From: The West Coast Whitebait Children - Book 1, by Duncan Dolby
DECISIONS ABOUT THE RIVERS AND THEIR POSSIES/PLACES/STANDS ON THE BANKS
The whitebait season starts on different dates across the country. It begins in September on the West Coast (hereon often referred to as the Coast) of the South Island, the home of most of our stories. There are snippets about towns on the east coast too, such as Oamaru, Kaikoura, Dunedin, and Port Chalmers where our storytellers live or where their stories have important links. However, the stories, in many respects, could be about people in many New Zealand towns and in all of its islands.
Preseason is a time for our regulars to reflect on previous seasons, to think ahead to possible new ones, and to get their preparation right. It has become an increasingly testing time for George and Molly. The most harrowing question for them is whether to go or not. Each year, unsurprisingly, they are older; and with that comes all of their incumbent ailments, slowing down, reservations and hesitations (George said they generally hate to dwell on those things and try to ignore them). And, they know that when they get there, often the shape and flow of the river will be different to the previous season, and the one before. They know that from exasperating experience. Indeed, during some seasons the river banks are almost impossible to use, and in most years the mouths of many rivers have moved or are bigger or smaller, or closed by pebbles or sandbars. The latter two are the worst because the whitebait may not be able to swim over the bars with the incoming tides. The regulars know they can check those things ahead of time with the Department of Conservation (Doc) or their mates who live nearby, if necessary. Or so they say. Not that any answer they get is likely to put them off going.
In the north, one question for regulars is around the usefulness of their stand or possie, if it still exists. They and their ancestors likely made it out of the toughest concrete and old trees but who knows if it’s survived. Hardy, and regardless, they still want to keep up with their family traditions and go. Yet, they know there will have been the usual floods over winter and spring, including after the snowmelt in the mountains. Some flooded river levels will have been boosted by coinciding spring or king tides and the unpredictable barriers of sandbars at their mouths. When those things have happened, the burgeoning rivers will have been forced to back up stream, often hugely expanding the swirling brown waters into inland valleys and gorges, and inevitably, over whitebait stands.
Along with floods, there will have been landslides in the steep wooded valleys back in the bush. Huge rata or black beech (birch) trees will have been washed down the rivers and around the stands. At best, the trees may become material for new stands, possibly in altogether new locations. Even the river floor is likely to be different, with new low tide islands and river channels. Useful channels may not be anywhere near where they used to be.
And, as if to top nature’s way, some politicians in distant Wellington have considered damming pristine rivers like the Mokihinui in the name of city people, progress and the electric dollar. Many of the regulars and old timers get angry about that. The politicians have probably never even visited these places, let alone done any whitebaiting or fishing there. To the old regulars, legislators seem to favour the ‘prospectors’: not those with sleeves up and shovels but those with bulldozers, dozens of trucks, huge piles of spoil and landscape-scaring roads. George and Molly wince and decry these foreign monsters. They hope that all politicians, – the so called representatives of all electors, present and future – will at least have the sense to protect the whitebait grounds. That would be to protect the historical and customary rights of both Maori and Pakeha so they are not be lost for ever.
But, in spite of all their preseason doubts, George, Molly and the regulars are almost certainly going to do as they have always done. And they will do so annually as long as their legs and spirit will take them. It’s as if their ancestors, and their souls, demand it.
GEORGE AND MOLLY TELL ABOUT THEIR OFF-SEASONS
Some of our whitebait children cast their minds back to their childhoods and recall life in the small towns in the 40s, 50s, and 60s and just before today. George and Molly are fairly representative of most ‘children’ so we follow them a little more closely. Many of our regulars ‘are’ them and their acquaintances.
George and Molly each draw a pension. They call it their ‘government wage’. They live together just north of Oamaru on the east coast of Te Wai Pounamu, as Molly’s Maori ancestors called the South Island. They have been a couple for only several years. They could be one of hundreds of couples who this, last and next year will visit the West Coast from all over the island. Whitebaiting is their annual forage into the wilderness and away from retirement. While there, they are still young and very much alive.
Like many of the regulars, George and Molly can tell tales of 30, 40, 50 and even 60 years ago on the Coast and what used to be. They are part of this mostly elderly whitebait community of men and women who gather near the mouths of the South Westland rivers. The community usually stays for weeks. They have regular (though sometimes changeable) spots and become very familiar with each other and the personalised possies they occupy. They enjoy telling each other stories about the previous years and reliving their history on the banks.
Less so, they tell stories about their offspring’s achievements and of their grandchildren’s charms. Not that they are not proud of them. It’s just that that kind of conversation, especially with hundreds of photographs, is, well, to others often just boring.
Most of the regulars are pleased to be retired and free from the relentless daily pedal of alarm clocks, bosses, outputs, paid work, and just sleeping between shifts. Even of inflation, economic downturn and fiscal mismanagement, whatever they are. They are most happy in their seasonal temporary world. They are usually couples, some long-term and others recent. As whitebaiters, they feel alive, not just rejuvenated. They have vision and ‘go’ and have not just settled for the reclining inside world of the lazy boy chair and the warm, snuggly knee rug.
‘In September we are off whitebaiting again to the Coast,’ George recently told his next-door neighbour, the much wrinkled octogenarian, Mrs Adderley. He was proud to speak to her of his successes and plans. He saw her as much older than him and beyond such ambitions.
‘We did great last year,’ he’d said. ‘I think I told you that we got twenty kilos in a month. We still have a few little 100 gram packets left in the freezer,’ he’d added; and immediately became troubled: that he could have been kinder and offered her some. She is nice and lonely after all. Soon, however, he had decided the situation wasn’t like that. He’d worked hard and at some cost for his few bait. She probably wouldn’t appreciate them anyway.
‘We were lucky,’ he had added quickly. ‘It was hard work. We had to sell most of the bait to help pay for the diesel.’ He then changed the topic to the weather and to his deep sadness for old Mrs Blue whose cat, Billy, had recently died. ‘How is she?’ he’d asked.
Like all regulars, George and Molly have perfectly real high expectations, not just imaginary ones born of old age, perceived frailty and delusion. They know special techniques, can explain precisely what they mean and most often succeed in catching something. At that game, George said they can often beat the cocky younger ‘fellas’ and the temporary baiters who usually only call in for the day, weekend or the tide. As old regulars at the river, they are optimists, dreamers and people of importance with something meaningful to say and do. It is as if, at that time of the year and on the river banks, they are people with reincarnated limbs and minds. They are still fit and capable. They are, indeed, still hunters and gatherers and are not to be written off. And, perhaps more special still, George and Molly have discovered new romance: a disposition on which no age has a monopoly.
George, like some of our other storytellers, said he had spent far too much time dwelling on past relationships, tragic first loves, and lost opportunities. Others said they’d dwelt on broken marriages and the unforgiving task of trying to patch up after family breakups. For some, just one too many sons, daughters, brothers and sisters have shown his or her back in anger.
Many of our regulars said that they have put a lot of thought into the West Coast waters that have passed before their eyes. Others have found benefits from gazing into the flickering embers of night-time fires, or from walking in the bush, on the beach or from staring at the sunsets and the stars. Many think their deepest when sitting alone on a remote wharf staring into the dark water and the hidden worlds below. And for others, the recuperating benefits have come from being totally occupied in whitebaiting, pure and simple.
Others said their off-season lives are too often boring, even empty. Some live alone; and for almost incomprehensible reasons. Either life as they knew it just fell away in lumps or trickled away almost imperceptibly. Not because they are dumb, silly or smelly. They still have their smiles and intelligence, but say no one else ‘at home’ seems to really care, or care quite enough to help their lives work again. Sadly, it seems, even their own offspring are often distanced from them, both by space and their own life-consuming conundrums. It’s always children with this or that illness, or both have to work, or the dog had to be put down. But, these few ‘forgotten’ regulars don’t blame anyone. They say they probably – ‘yes, we also did it’ – to their own parents so long ago. So, all those things add up to another bunch of reasons for going to the rivers in season.
Pity is, no one rings and not even strangers knock on their door in winter, except for the occasional pious evangelist who is doing it to save his own soul. His script and face are a repeat from house to house, and there is nothing new for the occupant. And worse, he is too close to death in his conversation to be any warm company at all. With his painted smile and drab old suit he says: ‘I can show you the eternal truth.’ In truth, he is without a gram of knowing who they really are or what their truth is.
The first time the evangelist called on George, he patiently listened in the hope that the man might have something enlightening or even engaging to say. Having quickly failed that test, George politely showed him to his wrought-iron gate and said ‘bye’. He then stood back in his doorway and felt very annoyed that he had had to walk down two flights of stairs for a waste of conversation and energy. Miffed, he had then closed the outside door behind himself with a resonating ‘thunk’. He was sure that ‘Mr Evangelical’ had felt the vibration. That was very satisfying.
The second time the ‘evangelical one’ called a few days later he said that he had sought divine guidance on George’s ‘condition’ and had come to better understand his lonely plight as an elderly person living by himself. That immediately got George’s back up and his fighting blood rushed to his head. The messenger from the ‘angels’ then proceeded to tell George what he needed and how he could help him get it. ‘What a bl…dy presumption’ George thought; and said so, less than politely. He almost allowed himself to tell the all-knowing one to ‘f-off’, but decided, grudgingly, that the man was only doing some kind of job, or fulfilling some self-imposed mission in life. After all, he must have been brain-washed and was probably beyond help. Additional to some choice words, George felt even greater satisfaction from slamming the outside door the second time. Though, later he did check to see if the door lock and hinges were still intact. In any case, damage would have been worth it.
The pious one didn’t come a third time, though George did spy him through his curtains peddling his morbid world and after-life to some neighbours across the street. George figured that they must have replied to the man out of politeness. While staring, he gleefully hoped that his neighbours would also tell the man to push off; and even show him two fingers, if not raised voices and wrinkled clenched fists.
Afterwards, it took George a while to settle down. He even began to regret that he hadn’t said ‘f-off’ or worse. It might have made his month, let alone his day. His blood pressure would have gone up against the doctor’s orders but it would have been worth it. George had then leaned on his windowsill and felt very pleased with himself. It had been very satisfying making a stand. Probably, he thought, because it signified that he was still strong, thinking and alive. He figured that, for at least a real kiwi bloke, however old, it is always good for the soul to tell some deserving prat where to go.
In the past, George had often shared a passing moment with the delivering milkman. He (‘in fact, no one’) does deliveries any more. Phil Trindall was his name. He was always good for a quick minute and a cheerful comment about George’s roses, the state of the nation, or in later times to laugh about Molly’s irreverent large knickers flapping on the clothes’ line. George liked that. He could dwell on those profound insights for ages afterwards.
George also used to talk with the old codger who would stop and lean over his flaking, white-pailing front fence. George wondered if the old fella had also taken to sitting in his own front window watching and waiting, particularly for someone like George to go outside to his front gate. That would have been his invitation to have someone to speak with. His name was Jaffer and he almost always wore a large flower in his lapel. It was usually a rusty red chrysanthemum in season and as big as he could find. Jaffer always wore a dark suit jacket and a white business shirt that had become seriously frayed at the collar, cuffs and lapels. Beyond those details, George could recall little of Jaffa’s history, except that he’d been living alone since the 1919 influenza epidemic took his wife.
George had known that Jaffer was living alone somewhere nearby. Now, much later, he regretted not following up on the old chap’s friendly invitation to go for a cup of tea and a chat. ‘Soon,’ George had replied at the time, and had then thought of excuses for not going. When telling Jaffer’s story, George’s eyes clouded and cast down, as if in sadness. As if at a lost opportunity. ‘At the time I must have felt too young, or too busy’ he added, as if those were the only excuses he could muster.
Thinking about Jaffer had led George to seeing himself just like that old fellow, especially before he met Molly a few years earlier at the school reunion. Before Molly, he’d even invited some of his own passing neighbours, even strangers, in for a cup of tea - - - and they hadn’t come.
Before, and even after Molly, not even his own family or friends regularly phoned or came around for a cup of tea. He’d even bought a bottle full of well-chosen lollies for the grandchildren to reach into, should they come. He’d smiled to himself picturing the children making their selections. Yet, as time passed the lollies went ‘off’: meaning they became sort of acrid, especially the milk-based round ones. Even the little Maori boy who regularly walked passed his gate on the way to school had said: ‘They’re not nice mister.’
George felt let down by his offspring’s lack of visits. And it was no consolation when his daughter-in-law said that lollies are ‘not good for the kids anyway’. He continues to love his grandkids and his own son anyway, though he has seen them quickly growing up and distanced from him. ‘Perhaps,’ he mused, thinking about how a shop assistant had advised him. ‘Perhaps I should have offered them ‘latté, instead of tea’. Before wistfully noting that he didn’t really know what that meant. Almost the same problem arose, he said, when he was advised to keep in touch with his family using his ‘smart phone’.
‘During the offseason before I met Molly and when I lived by myself I’d be looking out for things to do,’ said George. ‘Just a walk to the corner shop could be a highlight. The woman there was called Rachael. She was a small always-smiling young woman who welcomed and addressed me by my first name. Putting on my best shoes and coat was always worth it, even if I didn’t actually need more bread. The trip was really important for my day, even my whole week.’
Rachael almost certainly enjoyed George’s telling how his roses were growing so vigorously, particularly as a result of his seaweed mulch and regular watering. George would recall his trip to the shop for ages afterwards, including Rachael’s reaction to his impish jokes and his attempt at a clever play on words. One time she recalled that his Moggie had been under the weather the previous week. ‘I hope he’s better today,’ she’d said.
But, alas, most of the corner dairies have turned into large supermarkets and the ‘how’s your day?’ often seems trained rather than spontaneous. The mouths move but too often the eyes are turned away. Worse still, the ears don’t really wait (or care) for a reply. ‘Sadly,’ said George, ‘many checkout ladies haven’t learnt the need to make their customer’s day, my day. They don’t look up, let alone notice that I’ve dressed up and washed especially. Though,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘I suppose that’s a lot to ask, really. Nevertheless, it’s poor when some of them talk right over the top of me when I try to say something to them. They start calling out to other staff or customers, as if they haven’t even noticed it’s my turn. Sometimes their faces just say they are ‘bored’ with me, which hurts.’
‘Fortunately,’ noted George, ‘sometimes the older women are serving. Some of them even used to work in the old red-brick corner store that was replaced by the supermarket. They usually look up from shelf-stacking and smile, as if they are recalling a time when the stacking was less important than the smile.’ The young man, Sam, is always friendly: and George really likes him for that.
For George, like many of his kind, his whitebait community on the Coast means friendships and good reasons for being. ‘Over there on the Coast,’ he said, ‘it’s ‘heaps’ better than going to any old folks’ home where you quickly become a ‘doddery’ and spend most of the day sleeping in lounge chairs or looking vacantly as someone passes.’ He said that the benefits of the long road-haul there become truly entrenched when he meets up with the others and starts catching the little translucent fish. ‘I am known and talked to there,’ he said. ‘It really is another world.’
Some of the regulars he meets over there are local who live, or once lived, in the nearby lichen-encrusted farmhouses. Many of those buildings are now derelict and lie amongst clumps of old kahikatea or rimu trees and vines. Some of them still occupy houses that are surrounded by long grass and remnants of long dead implements, like fading wooden cart wheels and moss and lichen-covered old tractors. Their leaning verandas usually shade a sometimes-used old wooden rocking chair or couch that would, anywhere else, be at the dump. Some residents own little patches of occasionally cut grass and the occasional flower or clump of flax. Common to the Coast are the Arum lilies and the Anzac flower, in season, especially up north.
Many of the locals are retired, though in the whitebait off-season, many take up casual work. One of them works at a salmon farm, sometimes tending the fish-smokers, or cutting grass. His better-half makes sandwiches and smiles at the tourists. One gent ‘mans’ the ‘go’ and ‘stop’ signs on road works for the local council. To them, the off-season is a waiting time. Not empty or wasted but a lot less fulfilling than catching the ‘bait’.
Other off-season workers help around the coal mines cleaning and doing maintenance. In the north, some help shift a little coal for the few remaining smoky trains at theme parks and on historical routes. They said that coal is still burnt in some homes around the country but lamented that ‘pollution’ and ‘electricity’ are now bigger words than ‘coal’.
A group of old Coasters told how coal mining used to provide work for hundreds of men. ‘It was an old West Coast job for our fathers and our grandfathers. Coal was once a star in the West Coast economy, as was the native timber and the flax. But, the star has faded and the mines up and down the Coast are mostly gone, like Denniston, Strongman, Millerton, Stockton, Charming Creek and many others. Some mines remain but coal is generally harvested by machines with impressive names with lots of letters like DCS 5s, BDRE7s or whatever.’ These men said that this is now ‘modern-technology coal and there are almost none of the dirty-faced shovelers and shot-firers of the past’. The old fellas said that a miner today almost needs a university degree to mine the coal. ‘Yet, even they are finding it hard to keep their jobs,’ they added.
Some of the men used to work at the flax mills, like at Birchfield north of Westport. The remaining mills are now mostly broken down, left as just a few hard-wearing gnarly stumps and half-buried rusty sheets of tin interwoven with tall grass, gorse and weed. The buildings are not worth any more stripping. The hardy flax and hemp bags and ropes have now turned to plastic. As for the wild and loved native timber from the bush: it is mostly protected and for future generations to admire. And it’s all happened in fifty years: in their’s and George’s working lifetime.
George told of Old Maori Joe who used to sluice the black sand for gold at Bruce Bay. Joe would proudly show, albeit reluctantly, his weighty gold-filled mats to inquisitive onlookers, usually trampers, though he would always tell lies about ‘anything else’. George said Joe was like the fisherman who won’t tell where his big brown trout was caught or even what bait he used. Today, there are some portable sluicing boxes on the southern beaches, like Joe’s, but they usually also come with very long rubber pipes and diesel pumps that draw sluice water from the nearby streams and lagoons. From what ‘some old jokers say,’ said George, ‘there is still good money to be had from gold prospecting, though their activity is just a remnant of a past when gold taking was a regular livelihood: not as for most today, an off-season pastime at best.’ At that comment, one ‘old joker’ staring into the beach fire smiled and nodded that: ‘there’s still more to be had than you think’.
Some of the whitebait children identify as tangata whenua/people of the land, or as having some descendants who are tangata whenua and some who are Pakeha. Many feel a strong whanau/family and iwi/tribal bond with the local area, and others to the whole of Te Wai Pounamu (the greenstone waters)/ the South Island. Te Wai Pounamu is sometimes also referred to as Te Waka o Maui/ the Canoe of Maui: Maui being the great explorer in Maori legends.
Most of the tangata whenua known to George are from Ngai Tahu, the most prominent Wai Pounamu iwi. Centuries ago their ancestors moved to the South Island from the east coast of the North Island. Centuries before that, probably via Pacific islands and across endless and forbidding seas in tiny canoes or waka. Some researchers say that early Maori may have come from somewhere like Taiwan, as evidenced in their language and blood. Molly, George’s wife, and her deceased father identified as Ngai Tahu. In 2006, similarly, approximately 50,000 people identified themselves as having Ngai Tahu descent. Other tangata whenua on the Coast are descendants of other iwi, such as Ngati Mamoe and Waitahi. These other iwi mixed with Ngai Tahu over time.
Many, though not all, of the tangata whenua in these stories, feel strong links to the land and the rivers. Those that do feel irrevocable ties to their ancestral people, lands, and waters. Indeed, to Papatuanuku, the earth mother, and to Ranginui, the sky father. These links are ‘not just a treaty thing’ (as in The Treaty of Waitangi of 1840) or to do with pieces of crossed parchment provided by the early Pakeha colonists long ago. They are links with the lives and culture of people who have lived on the island for hundreds of years. To some of our story tellers, those links are about the richness of their history and language that should not be forgotten.
Partly because George has Maori friends, he often wonders how the early Maori caught whitebait as part of their kai moana/food from the ocean. He suspects that most of the tiny fish would have slipped right through the Maori flax pots and nets. He also guesses that there were much bigger and denser whitebait shoals then, which should have made fishing for them easier. Joe had told him that early Maori dried out their excess whitebait in the sun before storing them, though George, at this point, swore to find out much more about that for himself later.
Our regulars assume that the early Maori must have suffered from the same ravages (as they) of the ever-attentive sandfly and mosquito, known as the scourges of the Coast. Others surmise that the wise Maori, to have survived for so long, must have had some successful fly-repellent measures. ‘Pity they were lost,’ said Don, then swatting off yet another dozen of the little ‘buggars’.
‘Knowing these rivers,’ said Molly, ‘I bet that some of our early river-side dwellers, my ancestors, drowned in their whare/houses, perhaps at night, when the rivers rose rapidly and flooded, as they do today. On the good side, they probably enjoyed the same wonderful West Coast sunsets as we do,’ she added, ‘and snow-capped te maunga/ the mountains as well.’ George thought the early Maori may also have had the time ‘to fathom the messages in the calls of the screeching sea birds, as well as those of the iridescent tui and the sonorous bellbird. Yet,’ he guessed, ‘they were probably as equally keen to eat them; and especially in hard times.’
Many of our whitebait children were once little whitebait kids on the riverbanks with their fathers and mothers. They told stories about how they played, went to school, didn’t wear shoes, explored and fished the dozens of rivers up and down the Coast. They also told of mind-shaping events, incidents, loves and hates.
The ones talked to up north recalled people like the Mr Hansens, Walshes, and Johnstons, or locals who lived in the small wooden houses in towns like Granity, Millerton, Stockton, Denniston, Seddonville, Mokihinui, Ngakawau, Little Wanganui, Hector, Birchfield or Waimangaroa in the forties and fifties. They usually had big black 1930s and 40’s Chrysler Royals, Ford V8s, Chevys or smaller Hillmans, Austins, Morris’ or Vauxhalls. Better off mine managers in the late fifties sometimes had Dodges with big wings. Some immigrants from Britain, the Pommes, had small English cars bought with the remnants of their overseas’ funds, or money they had left in English banks.
In the early fifties, the standard of living in New Zealand was about fifth in the World. It’s never been near that since. Today, about twenty-third. The 1957 ‘Black Budget’ of Mr Nordmeyer signalled ‘harder times for our parents’, though the whitebait kids hardly noticed any change. For them, the Coast was still the land of milk and honey and the occasional whitebait pattie, or two.
Now, the real Mr Hansen of Granity regularly caught fish in the surf using a long handline that he threw out at low tide from the top of a two metre tall portable wooden stand. One day he caught several large 20 pound-plus orange-coloured snapper using herring for bait and gave one to Duncan’s parents, Jim and Eva. On another day he caught a fat six-foot long conger eel but left its impressive, though slimly carcass, on the top of the granite-boulder beach. Jim had carried it home across his shoulders. Unfortunately, the skin-slime blessed his new shirt until such a time as his grumpy wife threw it away ‘as a lost cause’. At least the white eel steaks tasted good cooked in batter, though the old non-freezer fridge didn’t hold much and most of the fish went off before it was eaten.
The local shops were interesting, especially at birthday times and at Christmas. Like Mrs Kerr’s in Granity, or similar in many West Coast towns. These shops were “everything-shops” to the kids; and there was one in or near almost every town. On their many robust, high wooden shelves was stacked everything from materials for sewing, cans of beans, spaghetti and fruits, rat and possum traps, perfumes for emerging young women, and hats that had been deemed fashionable in some important distant place.
The kids had had a hard job choosing presents for their mum’s in such shops. Buying her soap meant that she needed a wash. A perfume meant that she smelt. A pair of nickers was too embarrassing, and a box of chocolates was far too expensive. Also, everyone suspected that the finest chocolates had been on the top shelf for years in their ornate cardboard boxes and were probably white and powdery with age. A tin of beans was just no good at all. Tea towels seemed okay but have become less personal since then. The kids usually left with tiny floral or more practical linen handkerchiefs, or some stuck-together boiled lollies, or with just disappointment and an empty money box. Or, if they were lucky, they could search around in a larger town instead.
‘Going to town’ meant going to bigger places like Westport, Greymouth or Hokitika depending on where they lived and on the availability of a Road Services bus or a lift in a neighbour’s car. The bigger town was always an adventure, though it could be a bit scary for the pre-teens. Older teenage brothers and sisters were often required by their mums and dads to go along to help, but had a habit of sneaking off and for hours, usually to meet some girl or boy. Sometimes the older ones were wise enough to pay silence-money to their younger siblings and everyone benefited. At worst, the more grown up escapades took precedence over ensuring that the little ones got their gifts, had their lunch, or even got home in one piece. But the young ones grew up and, later, realised themselves why as teenagers they were monumentally less interested in whitebait then than at any other times in their lives.
Bakeries were usually local and meant unwrapped fresh bread that the whitebait kids nibbled like mice on the way home. The kids usually got told off but suspected that their parents knew the price. They’d done the same themselves years earlier. Some parents baked their own bread, having kneaded the dough for ages and let it rise in front of their coal range. If they were lucky, the bread baked evenly without the burnt top that sometimes came with that extra shovel of Millerton, Stockton or Denniston coal.
The grocer in Granity was hardworking and always wore a spotless-white pinafore. He often delivered groceries on his pushbike (there being few cars then). He would regularly offer to give mums a lift back to his shop on his crossbar. Some of the narrow-bottomed mums (one at a time) even took up the offer, rather than walk. It was known as being ‘dubbed’; and dubbing was a West Coast institution only strange to foreigners from places like Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin. The ‘dubbee’ would likely get a sore bum but that was thought generally preferable to walking, or to refusing a kindly gesture. Truth being, people learned to take to dubbing from an early age, like whitebaiting.
To go to Christchurch through the Buller Gorge or out of Greymouth in a Road Services Bedford bus was a really huge event for the local kids who usually didn’t travel very far. The trip took many noisy hours and was exciting, especially when sidling through and around Hawke’s Crag in the Buller Gorge. The trip was mostly on bumpy, unsealed mountain roads and dust invariably seeped through the rattling front door and settled on or choked the nearest passengers. Finally in Christchurch, the city was huge and inhibiting. It was a once-a-year event, or less. The kids were packed off to movies like “Smiley”, “Li’l Abner”, or about Elvis, or to see an aunty or older sister who had moved away for a ‘better city education,’ to have an abortion, or to find a job. The diesel Vulcan railcar was one other transport option, and even more exciting. It was said that the car reached ‘incredible’ speeds on the straights. On a good day, sometimes reaching speeds up to 60mph, or about 100kph today.
Then there was the legend of ‘Gudday’ Bill who was said to have had a tragic accident at the local timber mill. It was said that he had lifted a very heavy log off a man who was being crushed somewhere up the Charming Creek or up the upper Ngakawau River. Bill was a hero, though he wasn’t known to the children for that. He used to sit out his days on the small bridge over the creek between two homes on the southern end of Torea Street. Often he would just say ‘gudday, gudday, gudday’ in a friendly way to any passer-by, mostly because he couldn’t say much more. The huge stress he’d taken had seen to that. Some little kids were even afraid of him. Though the sensible ones recognised his kind eyes and that his once powerful hands and arms served only as props between his shoulders and his knees.
There was old Black Pete who regularly slept in the bus stop at the ‘railway S-bend’ on the way home from the Granity pub. Locals said it was too far for him to ride his rickety bike in the pouring rain the three miles to Birchfield, especially when blind drunk. The wooden seat in the bustop must have been really hard and uncomfortable, though they said: ‘a drunken stupor, like exhaustion, can make almost anything comfortable.’
Another, Old Joe, was usually paralysed from his brow-down with beer. He fell into a local creek one night on his way home, drowned, and had part of his face eaten away by eels. The young and shiny policeman was said to have had nightmares for years, being the one who had to drag Joe’s ‘left-overs’ from the creek. As for the eel: maybe not the same one, but there was a huge eel living in the same creek. Legend has it that the eel was removed using a digger from a local Granity trucking firm. No one could recall if the eel was then eaten by the locals, rather than be wasted. ‘It was ‘a muddy’ (mud eel) so probably wouldn’t have tasted very nice anyway,’ said one contributor on the fringe of the fire.
Many locals walked the railway lines to pick up coal that had fallen from the wagons that transported the coal from the north Buller coal mines to Westport. One old and secretive ‘fella’ in Granity was said to ‘come out only at night to do just that. He was rarely seen during the day’. He lived ‘way down a bushy track in a small wooden house with his equally inarticulate two brothers and sister’. People said the family didn’t wash much, but who was to know? They were almost certainly undeserving of the many scary and mischievous stories that were told about them, especially amongst the less worldly-wise kids of the day. For example, that ‘their eyes glowed near street lights late at night’. Perhaps their glasses had reflected the street light itself! The whitebait kids who remembered the family think differently now. The secretive fellow and his siblings had lost their even-more elderly protective parents many years earlier and, looking back, they were almost certainly lost to the welfare agencies and mental homes of the time, if they even existed.
The whitebait kids also have whitebait stories about how, in the nineteen forties to the seventies, their dads regularly buried their excess catch in the garden. That seems a bit incredible now considering their current value. Even to George as he thought back. There was no one to sell the excess bait to before it went off. Fridges were not big enough or clever enough to save very much. In fact, many of the whitebait families didn’t have fridges at all. They usually had cream-coloured cold or ‘chiller’ boxes that were attached to the outsides of houses, usually near the kitchen. Some people had pantries but they were mostly only dark and hardly cold enough, especially in summer.
Depending on the season, the whitebait kids were also the blackberry kids, mussel kids and the flax kids. They were the kids from the many small country schools whose teachers were, either, from distant cities or untrained locals who said they were ‘self-trained’, or less. The kids were often avid climbers and explorers of the nearby bush. They collected blackberries for their mums to make sweet butter-crust pies. She was always pleased with their pick, though less pleased with the occasional rip and stain in their frilly floral dresses or grey shirts. Some said they carried sticks to ‘beat off weasels or stoats should they turn up’. To earn a few shillings, they would also cut flax to sell to the local mills, like at Birchfield, or delivered milk to local houses on pushbikes. They ladled pints from gallon-tin billys that were hooked over their bike’s handlebars or strapped on to their rear carriers. Mr Brown, a typical dairy farmer, paid 30 shillings a week to his helping kids for delivering up pathways and off-road before school and on each Saturday morning.
These regulars can tell about long past uncles and aunts, like Wilfie, Polly, Fred, Doris, and Jean. They all used to have neighbours in houses that now hold strangers: some of the latter only coming for holidays from afar. Some of the new tenants say they came for cheap living and the weed. Many of these temporary visitors have no local histories at all. Many of those old family houses are now empty, run down and unloved. Duncan’s dad had bought a house in 1956 for ‘eight hundred pounds but said he was lucky to sell it in 1959 for four hundred’. Sadly, there are now many places on the Coast like that, now abandoned. Some oldies said ‘it’s as if the whole West Coast has been abandoned since the days of gold, coal and bush timber’. Another said it is now ‘strange to think that Hokitika was once the busiest port in New Zealand.’
Looking back, most of our regulars loved their childhoods. That is apart from the occasional teacher-strapping at the school and being thumped by a local bully. They had precious school holidays and cooked sausages over driftwood fires on the rocky beach tops while their dads caught snapper, shark, gurnard, herring and kahawai from the beach. They said, ‘they were our good old childhood days’.
And, while the same community and people like George go to the Coast each year, individually they change. Some names alter from year to year as they age and pass on, get injured or sick. Some just get fed up because the whitebait run isn’t as good as it used to be, or the mouth of the river has become too shallow to let in the whitebait. They may have left the previous season in a hurry because the dangerous flooding river suddenly became a lake held in by the incoming high tide. At the time, they felt vulnerable and old, even a bit ‘passed it’. That kind of leaving was especially bad the third time, especially after midnight. It meant packing up while watching the dangerous black swirling river rise rapidly towards their bus or camper wheels.