Te anau, on the eastern edge of Fiordland National Park, is well known today. It has a population of around 3000 and boasts more than a score of hotels, motels, motor lodges, hostels, camping grounds and holiday parks. But in 1950, when I was appointed postmaster there, I had to look at an atlas: the place was barely on the map, although I did know Te Anau had been a Union Steam Ship Company vessel around the turn of the century.
Typical for the times, the order to take up my new job came suddenly. I was working as a Post & Telegraph Department radio operator at Musick Point in Auckland, communicating in Morse code with ships and the TEAL flying boats crossing the Tasman. I had never so much as sold a stamp or weighed a parcel, but was needed to evaluate the viability of a radiotelephone circuit between Te Anau and Milford Sound so the tourist hotel could be connected to the national telephone system. Another P&TD telegraphist staffed the Milford post office, sending and receiving telegrams by Morse code via Awarua Radio, the large marine communications station between Invercargill and Bluff.
All this was before transistor radios, computers or television. It was in the days of pounds, shillings and pence, when postage stamps bore the head of King George V, cars were Austins, Hillmans and Vauxhalls, New Zealand bank notes had no value abroad, and National Airways Corporation flew DC3s.
Petrol rationing, a legacy of World War II, had only just ended, on June 1, 1950, and a month later I was on my way south.
I had sold my BSA 250 cc motorcycle, and left Auckland for Wellington on the 7.15 P.M. steam-hauled express. Next day I wandered the streets of the capital before departing on the nightly steamer to Lyttelton. At dawn, another express steam train left from Christchurch. All day it raced down the South Island, and at 8 P.M. I disembarked at Gore. It was Saturday night, and the bus for Te Anau didn't depart until Monday. I spent two cold winter's nights in a private hotel in the home of Cremoata, now more famous for its brown trout and Gold Guitar country-music awards.
A New Zealand Railways Road Services Bedford took me to the farming centre of Lumsden, where I changed to a bus with an Eglinton Valley sign. It rattled over the unsealed road, arriving at Te Anau in the late afternoon. Snow-covered mountains surrounded the lake. I shivered. This was the edge of the known world. I had been told a lost Maori tribe wandered the area—a myth to tantalise and intrigue visitors.
Te Anau was very different back then.
A stuccoed hotel run by the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts stood on the lakefront with accommodation for 52 guests. There was also a trout hatchery, a Public Works Department camp, a sole-teacher school, a camping ground and about a dozen houses. In the general store Mrs Baker sold Silver Fern tobacco, Army Club cigarettes and bars of Taniwha washing soap. Her sons were wild-bearded men in dungarees, thick shirts, heavy boots and socks, and World War II army greatcoats—the uniform of the outdoorsman of the times.
The post-office building, still under construction opposite the store, stood on ground partly cleared of scrub twice a man's height. At a cost of 6000 pounds, it was being hammered together, apparently by unskilled labour, out of PWD huts trucked down from the still unfinished Homer Tunnel. The interior paintwork had streaked because the ceiling had been installed before the roof had been put on, and the structure was waterlogged.
In the public space was a telephone booth for toll calls, four partitioned spaces where customers could fill in forms, and a polished wooden counter. Behind this was a coal-fuelled stove.
10-line manual telephone exchange with brass plugs and cotton-covered cords had been dumped on a packing case. The connecting wires were strung through the door in an untidy bunch. A single copper party line connected Te Anau to Lumsden via Manapouri, The Key and Mossburn. Originally installed in 1906, it still had magneto signalling and carbon microphones powered by two large No. 6 dry-cell batteries.
Users had to crank the magneto handle to make contact, and ringing off meant exactly that: a twirl of the handle to signify the conversation was finished and cords could be disconnected. On wet days, and in snow, poor line insulation meant shouting into the mouthpiece was normal when talking to Invercargill or Dunedin. To communicate with distant Wellington was almost impossible. Telegrams were easier—one shilling for eight words. I telephoned them to the Lumsden exchange, and they were then routed on a Morse-code circuit to Invercargill and beyond.
There were local connections to the store, the ranger, the hotel and, during summer, the Cascade Creek Hostel. There was also a private PWD line up the Eglinton Valley road to Marian Camp, close to the Homer Tunnel portal. The new post office superseded the limited service the hotel had previously operated, with savings bank and all the other extras a post office provided in those days.
A P&TD officer was supposed to be equally capable of flicking out telegrams in Morse code, tying a mail bag, selling stamps, paying out social-security pensions and manipulating telephone-exchange cords. I was also expected to lay 90 square yards of heavy brown government lino and to fill the new foam fire extinguishers. I opened cartons of forms for every possible P&T transaction: money order forms, telegram forms, toll cards. I sold postal notes and British postal orders. I accepted cash for the savings bank and paid out withdrawals after phoning Invercargill to check the ledger balance.
I was also required to requisition for health stamps. Few people were interested in buying these surcharged items, so to achieve my quota I had to buy them, solemnly reporting weekly sales to myself.
I lived beyond my means in a room at the tourist hotel at a cost of two pounds 10 shillings a week, where I was brought the customary before-breakfast cup of tea. Standard fare was mulligatawny soup, roast mutton and apple pie, with coffee served in demitasse cups in the lounge in front of a roaring fire by a white-jacketed steward.
The other few patrons in the winter of 1950 were American or Australian tourists, far off the beaten track, plus the odd honeymoon couple. One night an American proudly showed me his plastic-soled shoes—the first in the world, so he said. My soles were leather: "plastic" wasn't a word in common use. The telephone-exchange plugs were bakelite and brass, mail bags were heavy canvas and the string to tie them was natural manila. The post-office pen-holders were wooden.
Te Anau in winter was lonely and cold, a raw place where the rain puddles froze solid. At night there were lights in the hotel, but only candles and lanterns in the few houses and a kerosene storm lantern on the petrol pump outside the store. The blue gum trees along the lakefront rustled forlornly in the wind.
When the postmaster's flat, attached to the post office, had been built and furnished, I moved in and had to pay 10 shillings a week rent and one-andthreepence a week for the use of the government-provided furniture. Some of this—the torn curtains and battered chairs—had been surplus to requirements at the Halfmoon Bay post office on Stewart Island.
I was allowed to charge a 2s 6d re-opening fee of anyone who wished to make a toll call after hours. One night a fisherman knocked on my door at midnight clutching a trout wrapped in fern, which he wanted to post to Invercargill before going back up the valley. I told him it wouldn't last in a mail bag and offered to put it on the bus.
The hotel's public bar closed at 6 P.M. exactly, in compliance with the licensing laws, and although the Lumsden constable rarely visited Te Anau, under no circumstances would the manager sell sly grog, either to the men who worked on the roads, the occasional deer hunter or fisherman who passed through, men in from the few cribs scattered through the bush, or hotel staff. Barney Gilligan, a local man, owned a Packard Straight 8 car, which often raced to Mossburn, 40 miles away, at five pounds a trip, taking men to drink beer sold by a more obliging publican.
Films were screened in the hotel dining room on Saturday nights with a 16 mm projector, although never the latest—The Rains Came, with Tyrone Power and Myra Loy, or Abbott and Costello in The Time Of Their Lives. The schoolteacher operated a library—some 300 books changed quarterly by the Country Library Service.
I issued radio licences at 30s each, but reception was bad, the nearest broadcasting stations being in Invercargill and Dunedin.
The voice-radio circuit, on a medium frequency of 3 megacycles (before megacycles became megaHertz), was tested several times a day. Dipole wire aerials had been erected on Australian hardwood poles. The two receivers came from American-built bombers used in the war. The Collier and Beale transmitter, built in Wellington, was also of wartime vintage and as big as a double-door refrigerator—all black metal, waving meters and glowing glass valves. Impenetrable static frequently compelled
us to revert to Morse.
Te Anau to Milford was a difficult distance to bridge by radio, not being far enough for the higher, more reliable short-wave frequencies, and in the end it proved impossible to establish a commercial telephone circuit.
Most phone connections within New Zealand, from Northland to Bluff, were made with solid-wire circuits on wooden poles. Such innovations as mountaintop repeaters and radio-bearer circuits on microwave frequencies still lay in the future. By the time they made their appearance, my six-month stint as postmaster in one of the country's more distant telephonic outposts had long come to an end and I had returned to civilisation to take up work once more as a radio operator.