Stephen Roke

Waikato – the royal river

Silver ghost shrouded in mist, the river slips past ranks of low ridges north  of  Huntly. Revered by Maori, coveted by European, fought over in bloody battle, today’s Waikato seems far from its former glory, its importance measured in megawatts and cubic metres per second. Yet the river-New Zealand’s longest-retains. its mantle of greatness.

Written by       Photographed by Stephen Roke

At the bend, where the river’s broad belly sucked itself in, I worked the boat past the sandspit and nosed into shore. Along the beach, piled there by the backwash, lay a wrack of driftwood. The current embossed the river surface with mysteri­ous ripples, whirlpools, eddies. A bluff rose from the opposite bank, wearing a mohawk of pine. I set the girls to gather wood.
Off to the west was the glow of disappearing light, but there was still time for a swim and a wash. We lounged in the tepid waters, sinking deep to where it was colder to rinse a luxurious lather from our backs. From over in the pine came the rorting, jazztime snort of a pheasant.

In the alchemy of dusk the river turned from silver to gold and then to a swirling black opalescence. The sandspit floated pale in the darkness. A fat fish splashed somewhere. I went to gather the wood.

Here was our last camp, just ten minutes down river from the rush and roar of State Highway One where it passes through Mercer—a stretch of road I’d travelled a thousand times. As on any familiar route, there is always a selection of favourite frames, glimpses of landscape that satisfy. South of Mercer, where the road joins the river, is such a frame: a broken-backed riverboat rotting on the far bank. On the near side, the river loses itself in mysterious channels hidden by clouds of willow. I al­ways watch for it.

But the road doesn’t spend much time with the river and I’d always half hankered after seeing more. I’d trav­elled up the Nile by paddle-steamer; I’d patrolled the Mekong with peace-keepers; I’d sculled past the fragrant meadowed banks of the Thames at Oxford; but river travel, like a White Christmas, was something I never associated with New Zealand. For Aucklanders, at least, the holiday focus is just about always beach. It was time to explore the Waikato, with its own dramatic history of gunboat paddle-steamers and of British invasion.

When I first suggested an expedition to my two girls, almost a year ago, they hadn’t been keen. The idea of cruising the river with dad—each night a campfire on the riverbank, at each bend a new placid difference un­folding—was a child-sized adventure replete with small pleasures, I would have thought. But it hadn’t been easy getting them off Shortland Street.

How to fire enthusiasm? That involved retracing the source of my own fascination for the imagery of a river, tracing it back to my mother’s knee and to her passionate reading of The Wind in the Willows, her enjoyment of the words. Breathing her life into that Lilliputian world, night after night, and then all over again—something, with a flash of guilt, I realised I hadn’t given my own.

So I pulled the old volume from the bookcase. “‘Be­lieve me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats . . . Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else . . .”‘

Rat’s rhapsody was a matter of indifference to them. But the wicker picnic hamper was something else: “‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curi­osity.

“‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Ratbriefly, ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkins saladfrenchrollscresssandwhichespotted meat gingerbeer-lemonadesodawater—’

”’0 stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstasies.”

“Tell you what,” I said to the girls. “You can choose all the food for our trip, that’s if you want.” Their video-bombarded cynical city faces sparkled with avarice. Choose everything? Like Ratty?

I had a suspicion that our battered dinghy, Pinky­Dots—all eight feet of her—wasn’t up to the full length of navigable river, so at Easter I planned a trial expedi­tion—a shakedown cruise—among the sluggish backwa­ters of the delta which meandered, so the road map promised, through a maze of islands ideal for camping.

Aisles of Pak ‘n Save later—the girls hadn’t forgotten the promise—we were on our way. And what a hamper it was: twistiescocopopshubbahubbabubblegumsalt’n-vinegarcrispsliquoriceallsortsrollupsfantapebbles-chocolatessparkles.

With all of that securely locked away in the boot, we  drove around the backblocks of Waiuku searching for a place to launch. Half a dozen deserted dairy factories later—in places like Aka Aka and Otaua—we found a boat ramp in a backwater bayou. On the nearest island, a stone’s throw across the channel from where we stood, I could see alluring flashes of green among the tangled growth. Presently, a runabout whooshed into the land­ing. I introduced myself. “We’re just going out for a look on the river . . . maybe camp on one of the islands.”

“Whaddya mean camp?” Here the man, who spoke in the manner of someone trying not to address a cattle-dog gone delinquent at the back of the paddock, eyed Pinky-Dots, with its cargo of teddy bears and Coco-Pops. “Camp? You think that green stuff’s grass? That’s all floatin’ on the river. Step on that and you’d be up to your elbows in river weed. The islands are all swamp.”

Bill Urwin took another look at Pinky-Dots. “Tell you what, you can stop at my place. Nothing flash, but it’s better’n a wet bum. Now go up this channel a bit and, where the flax starts, well, before that you’ll see a little creek. Cut through there and hang a left after the wil­low—you’d better stop in at Shona and Alan’s and they’ll show you. Their’s is the place where the dobie goes crazy.”

We’d barely swung out of the landing when the crackle of lolly papers indicated that the girls were into the hamper. All around was the sharp green of weed and willow. A heron picked among the floating weed that crowded the narrowing waterway. Pinky-Dots puttered past a couple fishing from the levee. Dangled line. A chiller of beer. A picnic. We were moving slower than a horse and buggy, so there was a chance to be sociable as we passed. It was a perfect Ratty and Mole kind of day. The Shortland Street de-tox had begun.

We turned into the creek and idled toward a thicket of willow through which there appeared to be no passage. Here all was hanging moss, raupo and exposed tree roots binding the mire together. We followed the creek into the swamp and in under the canopy. I had to continually lift the outboard clear of weed. There was a coolness, a sweet brackishness to the air, a filtered light. We had passed through a looking glass into a different world.

Hidden in the swamp was a corrugated iron shack. From a duckwalk a bald-headed man in a boiler suit was hanging out his washing. He turned to watch as we floated by, the en­gine barely ticking. Nailed to a tree trunk, above the dinghy drawn up at his door, was a hand-painted sign that read Chunda Cove. Some mongrel hound barked at us.

Soon we were out on the river proper, a broad brown slow-moving liquid landslide bounded by raupo, flax and as­pen. We passed floating whitebait stands with rickety walkways that disappeared back into the swamp to shacks put together any which way, perching on stilts—shacks an­chored like boats in a sea of green.

These shacks—and there are hundreds in the delta—have never seen the walkshorts of a building in­spector and are the better for it: low-key human habitation among wilderness has a way of intensifying the wildness, of inspiring the imagination. It was not hard to picture myself in one of the verandah chairs. lulled into sleep by the loiter­ing drone of a blowfly; catch­ing a whiff of kero-tinged tinc­ture of long-drop.

The crazed barking of a doberman, performing fit to guard a tow-truck car pound, announced Shona and Alan’s. A burly figure with a tea-cosy tam-o’-shanter limped down to the dock. Alan led the way past a wind generator to a little cottage surrounded by an elevated garden of marigolds. busy Lizzie, sweet William and sweet pea planted out in pots, washing machine bowls and window-boxes. Inside, a jug of home-brew was on the table. A lean, lined face looked up from the cards and peered at me from under the brim of a grimy stetson jammed over a thatch of white hair. It wasn’t Shona.

“Allow me to introduce myself. Bronco’s the name. Jus’ visitin’.” His handshake was cool and soft and dry as leather. As he rose, supple and limber, from his chair, I tried to guess his age. But he was one of those wiry folk blessed with a No. 8 gauge constitution of the kind that allows a fair few jugfuls of home-brew to pass through without touching the sides. A dead rollie was stuck to his lips. Seventy going on fifty?

Alan poured me a beer. “She’s a very sociable place. Whitebaiting time, everybody’s here down on the stands . . . you want them still wriggling in the egg so you have your little cooker with you—cook ’em as you catch ’em. We see the planes, the old commuter red-eye, flying backwards and forwards to Wellington, everybody lined up in suits, and we know we’ve made the right choice.”

It had been up there among the suits at 20,000 feet that I’d first spied the delta, had seen the tin roofs tucked away among 70 square kilometres of braided waterway. I’d transported myself there in the instant, fishing for crawdads with the kids. Although some of the islands are in private hands, most is crown land.

Bronco: “Yep, all this land bee-longs to one woman, and she hasn’t been round here looking for rent, not that I’ve seen.” Bronco was referring to the Queen, I divined. “Hell, when I built my shack 40 years ago I nailed every­thing to the willow stumps. It was all right the first year. But the next year one of the stumps started growing faster than the rest. Fourth year the whole thing was sideways. It’s still there, a bunk-house for the mokopunas.”

It was time to settle in at Bill’s. Bronco set to spring-cleaning, whisking great clouds of dust and rat drop­pings with his broom. I tackled the sagging wire-woven, but, try as I might, the lumpy, unmentionably stained kapok mattresses remained signally uninviting. The girls wore sour looks on their faces: The only connection here with Ratty was scatalogical. But the but is soon ship­shape. A pot of kahawai and onions is on the boil. The river slides silently and swiftly by our window.

At dawn we point Pinky-Dots upstream and go ex­ploring. In some torpid fetch off the main river we spy a young boy hauling in a net. We alter course and pull into the nearby dock. Peter Kahui welcomes us up to his porch tacked to knock-kneed posts, and offers a cup of tea.

Mullet hang from wires above the outdoor fireplace. The boy is rowing back; he’s caught more crabs than mullet. I learn his uncles have brought him down from Auckland to learn a little of the river. To get him out of the video parlours.

“Didn’t know how to row when he got here, now we can send him out for the fish,” said Peter. The boy un­loads at the dock. He recoils from a flipping fish. His uncles, big men, chide him. “Don’t be frightened of a fish, boy. It won’t bite you. Frightened of a fish? That’s the one that’s going to fill your guts up. Never be fright­ened of kai.”

Peter talks about Auckland, about children going hun­gry. The world of saveloy soup sans saveloy. “They’ll tell you they are doing all right, but you go into their cup­boards. The truth lies in their cupboards.”

Peter motions to the river. “This is our cupboard, and it’s always full.”

The Kahuis were hauling in mullet, but the Waikato’s most valuable year-round catch is eel. Whitebait once teemed in such profusion that a factory was established at the delta to process it. Now a new fish is gaining dominance. The introduced golden koi—or goldfish—is such a voracious predator that it’s been called the pos­sum of the waterways. Growing to half a metre, the koi swarm in the shallows, where they have become easy targets for Asian spearfishers who prize the flesh.

By luck, the weekend we’d chosen for our expedition coincided with the great Karapiro-Otaua Seagull Race, which follows the river for a distance of 150 kilometres and takes two days. No, not a race of competing flocks, but a race with one rule: whatever boat you use has to be powered by a Seagull outboard. The race has been going ten years, and according to the Seagull company is the longest Seagull race in the world. Seagull in England donate an engine as a prize.

Since Seagulls produce about the same power as their namesake, most of the purpose-built craft were little more than surfboards or micro-catamarans, and they left Pinky-Dots for dead as they threaded flat-tackers through the swamp short-cuts, streaking toward the finish line at the landing.

Talking to competitors, I discovered that the race had been pretty tough because the river was the lowest in years—”Musta hit 28,000 sandbanks, and you can’t see them. There’s quicksand. Channels that peter out. Hun­dreds of islands. You wouldn’t know where you were.”

Not keen on manhandling a boat over endless invis­ible sandbanks in freezing water, nor on camping in soggy cow paddocks, I decided to postpone the full trip down the river until spring.


Although the Waikato runs 425 kilome­tres to the mouth from its source at Lake Taupo, only the downriver half is truly navigable. Upriver from Cambridge the path is blocked by a succession of eight hydro dams which make use of just about every meta. of the 360 metres that the river falls. These dams—surprise—have lakes behind them, but the idea of launching a boat at each in turn is simply not practi­cal. Few hydro lakes offer much more than a short spin before the path is blocked once more.

The dams have had a crucial impact downriver. Alan explained: “Before they built the dams, the river’d have a chance to scour out. The old-timers here talk about the river being clear—imagine that! And it’s got worse since they stopped the dredging. There are new islands, and the old ones are getting bigger. The channels, you think you’ve got them sussed then you’re over the side push­ing the boat through muck up to your knees. You’ve got six inches of water, but three feet of mud.”

Exploitation of the river takes forms other than hydro­electricity. There are some 200 extraction points for irri­gation, 21 towns pour sewage and stormwater into it (while 30 take drinking water out), and more than 90 million litres of animal waste are deposited each day into its catchment. Then there’s the heated effluent pumped into the river from the Huntly power station and a water use right won by New Zealand Steel for 40,000 cubic metres daily. It seems an awful load, but with a flow of 233 cubic metres a second the river is by no means noisome.

That night, we motored through the bayou for the Seagull race prizegiving at the mainland pub. I moored Pinky-Dots among the reeds, and thought of her waiting there in the moonlight to take us back to our little shack in the swamp. The pub was a pub as all pubs should be: a place where people gather across the generations. A baby in the arms of his father. Children teasing out lemonades.On the floor was a preserve of rural male—a sea of grizzled chins, rooster chests, emu legs and hands like plates of sausages. These men swirled and steered the girls around by the fingertips with well-preserved grace, crooking their behinds back a safe distance away from any possible misinterpretation by an onlooking spouse. Somebody pulled out a set of spoons; they were joined by another set. I wondered at the foresight of packing spoons ready for a rarin’ good time. Shave, shower, cut­lery drawer . . .

But by closing time a foul westerly was gusting upriver from the coast. The pub sign crashed 20 feet to the ground. Green curtains of water were driving across the carpark. I couldn’t find Bronco. I thought of finding a motel somewhere. A stranger bulldozed through the crowd toward me. “No! I am not bloody lettin’ ya. I don’t care if you drown yourself, but you’re not going to drown your blimmin kids. You’re not going on that river.” Driv­ing to Pat O’Connor’s house, we detoured past the land­ing. In the headlights the reeds were whipped flat, a surf of white horses poured past.

“I wasn’t going to let ya. She’s taken too many al­ready.” Pat paused only to shake a torrent of white pep­per over a mountain of breakfast chops, steak and sau­sage. “I wasn’t going to have the death of your little kiddies on me hands . .” I had been trying to thank him for putting us up. Bronco was uncurling from the couch.

Pat, wearing cords, a zippered jersey and odd socks on slippered feet, turned his attention to the girls. “Have you brushed your hair? Father didn’t bring a brush, eh?

We’ll go find a hedgehog for you, eh? If the wife was alive she’d have fixed you.

“Yeah, me and Bronc go back a long way. Fighting inside pubs, fighting outside pubs. Swimming cattle across the river. Splitting posts. Sure, I’ve lost three wives, but I’ve got 27 kids.” Pat’s blue eyes went shrewd. “Ask Bronc, he’ll tell you. Twen-tee seven!”

The next day we drove back to Auckland, stopping in with Bronco for the “11 o’clock service” at the Otaua pub, the point of contact for the river rats. On the wall was a trophy marlin caught off Port Waikato, where the river sweeps past ironsand dunes to spill into the Tasman. Up behind the bar hung a row of numbered handles. “If ya need to get in touch,” said Bill Urwin, “get them to leave a message in me handle.”

A return to the delta would have to wait. I planned instead to enter the river at Lake Ohakuri, the southernmost hydro lake, which, from the map, prom­ised the furthest passage upstream—a clear 60 kilome­tres of river between the lake and the rapids at Aratiatia, which itself is a only a few kilometres from Taupo.

I mounted a midwinter expedition along this most isolated stretch of river. In hindsight—or with any kind of foresight—this was a big mistake. For the entire dura­tion of our journey it rained a miserably cold driving midwinter central North Island kind of rain.

I had enlisted the help of the Ramco boat company in Hamilton, who offered me the use of their top-of-the-line model, the Fish-Master 580 Sport. With the girls refusing to come unless it was to Alan and Shona’s. I promised them, sniffy ingrates that they are, that the Fish-Master 580 Sport was actually from Baywatch.

Eighteen feet of shark-shaped banana yellow and elec­tric magenta later, the children were eating their words. The Fish-Master was Baywatcheroni with chromed-plas­tic knobs on! It came complete with rocket launchers—the name speedboat people give to the overhead rack that stores the game-fishing rods. Blue- and white-striped buttoned vinyl upholstery provided the last unerring touch of shameless ostentation. Eat your heart out, Toad!

Being personally more inclined to the Rat’s view of the riverine aesthetic, I jammed my cap down over my sunglasses for the drive south, in an effort to travel in­cognito. To those of us with a superior view of the world, the show-off speedboat fraternity is beneath contempt. It’s the way they always seem to choose your favourite picnic spot for their incessant zooming parade. It’s the way they wear Watch Me! looks on their faces.

But out on the lake, with the throb of 90 horsepower at my sole command, with the wind in my hair, with water rushing by like the tarmac does when you land in a plane . . well, it was time to crank a little more speed from the joy-lever and look back in entranced wonder at the muscular curves of the wake I alone was carving into the lake—at the blasting rooster tail of Baywatch. To feel the cut of the chine as I heeled her over for a figure eight turn, and then another. So much hubbub. So much noise.

I cared not a jot for the steaming hot waterfall pouring directly into the lake, nor for the strange mineralled terraces, nor for the wispy trails of steam that fingered their way up the Canadian Rocky bulwarks shouldering the lake. This geothermal activity is the last remnant of what used to be one of New Zealand’s most dramatic natural wonders: the Orakei Korako gorge, cut deep by the river with some 700 steam vents and geysers spout­ing along its sides. That is before it was flooded by the Electricity Department just 34 years ago. They say that as the waters rose one geyser continued to spout hot water from the lake. An accusing watery finger.

While the girls cowered miserably on the sopping blue-striped vinyl, I eased the boat up winding miles of river, passing beautifully pristine beaches of sand that, even in the rain and mist, cried out for a picnic. At one point, the river broadened near Hardcastle Lagoon, the home of dabchicks, pukeko, pied stilts, the shaggy-feath­ered bittern, heron, shags and black swan. There is some speculation that the Waikato once ran from here to the Bay of Plenty. Save for the occasional farm and home­stead on a far-off hill, the banks of the river were crowded with man-made forest.

By early afternoon, we reached the great fuming steel fortress of the Wairakei power station, another piece of slide-rule logic that all but destroyed the surrounding geothermal field by sucking the steam from the ground. We were nearing the rapids, the end of the journey.

The river here had long lost its placid opaque green calm, and resembled more a plug of clear molten perspex pouring at speed through the narrowing gorge. But Baywatch had more than enough power. Rounding one bend, it was obvious we could go no further. Just visible through the rain in the distance was a frothing white where the river ran a broken course between exposed boulders. We pulled into a landing ramp.

I cut the motor, but the silence was soon disturbed by a drone in the distance that grew quickly into the beat of an exhaust; a battered, bright yellow hot-rod jetboat hur­tled into view. Abreast of the ramp, the machine whirled in the aquatic equivalent of a handbrake turn.

“We don’t see many like you up here,” said Vance, the driver, taking in at a glance the brand-new signwritten finery of Baywatch, “But ya come this far, it’s a pity to go back without doing the rapids. She’s pretty dry ‘cos they don’t open the floodgates for another hour or so. Tell you what, we’ll take you up anyway. We’ll get you up and back in plenty of time before the flush reaches this far.”

Here Vance was referring to the concession the Elec­tricity Corporation makes for kayakers, sightseers and jetboat operators of opening the floodgates on the Aratiatia dam twice a day to release a torrent of white water down the rapids. At slack water the rapids are a little tame; no more than a snack for Vance’s jetboat, king rooster on the river.

“Hold on tight! This is where she gets real bony,” warned Vance with his Gyro Gearloose hair windblasted straight back off his head. Pedal to the metal, as it were, Vance hurled us, bucking and near-ricocheting from rock to rock, up the rapids—slam-dunking the boat into pres­sure waves, surfing up waterfalls with sheer horsepower. Helter-skelter, split-second stuff. Thousands of times this man had done the rapids, but still he wore a huge hard-out bodgey grin, turning to the children every minute or two. “Dja like that, kids? You want more, kids?” A grin of real pleasure and delight at their squeals of approval.

At his word, Vance had us back at the ramp well before the floodgates were due to open. It was time to begin our journey back down the river to the comfort and security of our log cabin by the lake, but the moment we hit the fast-flowing main stream our gloriously shiny 90 horses of outboard technology stopped dead. I had stowed the anchor for quick release in an emergency, and the warp snaked out satisfyingly from the boat as the flukes searched for grip. But the river floor of smooth, slippery boulders afforded no purchase. With the anchor bouncing uselessly over the stones and the current sweeping Baywatch at speed toward the rocks on the foaming outside of the first bend there was just time to see the stern of Vance’s trailered hot-rod vanish into the dour grey-green fastness of the pine plantation.

After agonising minutes, the flukes found a patch of pumice and bit deep. And held. A chill sluicing squall swept in over the grey limestone crags that hemmed in one side of the river and drove across the wall of pine that encircled the other side. Still the motor refused to start. We were quite alone.

“Girls, we’re stuck in the middle of a river . . . and the floodgates are about to open in full fury in an hour, and darkness is fast approaching. Maybe the best idea is to sleep the night waiting for the jetboat to return tomorrow and hope like crazy the anchor will hold. Or your daddy could always swim for it to wander dazed, confused and hyperthermic in tight circles through a thousand hec­tares of identical pines in search of rescue while you stay and look after the boat.”

Actually, I kept those thoughts to myself. “Don’t worry, girls,” I reassured, “there’s just a little problem with the motor.” They tried to look convinced.

There’s no tightrope nastier to tread than that which stretches between an urgent need to get a motor started and a battery that is slowly dying—particularly when you fancy your children’s

lives are at risk from some technician at a hydro station flipping a floodgate lever. While this would have produced no wall of water thun­dering out of the gorge, the river would have risen a good two metres in the space of minutes, and put the anchor to an unwelcome test.

During interminable battery recovery periods, I prayed that the technician responsible for tripping the flood­gates would linger over his afternoon break. Perhaps he was weighing up the luxurious prospect of dunking a second Krispie in the dregs of his tea. Go on, dunk that second Krispie! I willed. Homer Simpson came hope­fully to mind.

While the writer in me warms to the idea of a wall of water roaring towards Baywatch, and the children snatched from my desperate grasp by the brute mael­strom, that would be fibbing. The outboard did finally start—though with little time to spare. I motored up the warp, hauled the anchor aboard and we were free and safe and heading downstream tingling with the bitter­sweet electricity of escape.

But still we had 60 kilometres of deserted river to negotiate before we made the safety of the Ohakuri lake landing. Sixty kilometres under a drear, lowering sky with a suspect engine. Or rather, a suspect fuel supply. Now, heading downstream, I realised that pushing against the current going upriver had starved the engine for fuel.

So it was that after a sober and silently thankful hour of trouble-free passage we nosed into a riverbank where a rope swing tied to a willow confirmed the map reading of human presence. We followed a path that led on to the comforting familiarity of somebody’s backyard. In stages we encountered civilisation thus: a chook run, an incin­erator, a trampoline, a fat listless Labrador stirring him­self to his duty.

Soon we were in the cosy parlour of a lovingly re­stored cottage. Ngaire Jones, with her baby daughter hid­ing behind her legs, greeted us at the door and, after some initial suspicion, ushered us inside. Little Taryn burst into tears. Ngaire explained. “She doesn’t get to see many other children out here. This is a big day for her, these girls coming from nowhere.”

Ngaire’s husband Shane turned up from work and we set to, talking about the river. “Yep, you’ve got to be careful on that river. There’s big logs in there, and you can do your prop in, no trouble. The last prop I killed I was just saying to me mate, as we zipped along, that you’ve really got to know the river or it’ll up and bite you, when, bang! I ran straight into a log. There’s only one way to find a log like that, and that’s the hard way. The river changes after every flush.”

The couple showed me upstairs to the bedroom ve­randah where the view of the river was best. “We sit up here in the attic, warm in bed, with the sound of the rain on the roof . . . it’s like you’ve pulled up a drawbridge on the world.”

Shane and Ngaire fixed us up with some spare fuel, and with the light draining from a blackening sky we carefully idled downstream, letting the current do much of the work. In the darkness, passing through a hinter­land of empty forest, I blessed the powers possessed by the scant few reserve gallons of magic liquid slopping around in the bottom of Shane’s plastic jerry can. We were safe. We were dry. We would make it home.


Preparing our evening meal  in the Common kitchen of the lakeside lodge, I was inter­rupted by a soft knock on the door. Waiting outside was a group of elderly Ngati Tahu­short stocky figures in their padded jackets standing quietly in the rain. They were looking for the lodge owner. Their grave, deliberate man­ner suggested serious purpose. I learned they’d come to discuss the lodge owner’s plans to sell his lease. Curious, I asked if it would be possible to sit in on the meeting. Both parties politely refused.

Later, I learned of the circumstances that led these people to stand in the rain seeking an audience with a motelier, the steam from their ancestral lands rising gen­tly into the darkness around them.

Back in 1961, the last fragment of Maori-owned land at Orakei Korako was seized to make way for the new hydro lake. The Ngati Tahu were told the waters would rise 30 metres; the lake would lap the windowsills of a still-occupied homestead, the sole remaining building in a village which once housed a thousand people.

A Ministry of Works crew burned the old house to the ground, but when the lake filled, the house site—and 2.7 hectares of land around and below it—was left high and dry. Within a year, the Electricity Department had leased that land to a pakeha tourist operator, who built motel units and a shop on land that the Ngati Tahu argue should have been returned to the previous occupants.

Years of struggle with endless government bureau­cracy later, the Ngati Tahu won agreement from the De­partment of Lands, in 1989, that the land should be returned to the original owners. But it wasn’t.

Auckland writer Brian Rudman put it this way: “In true Kafkaesque reasoning, the Crown says it can’t offer the land back, even if it thinks it should, because it, the Crown, hasn’t yet declared the land surplus to its re­quirements.”

Even though the confiscated land isn’t being used for power generation, the original survey calculations of expected lake levels, although they have no basis in reality save for being filed in some bureaucrat’s drawer, still prevent the return of the land. On paper, at least, the land leased to the tourist operation for 30-odd years still forms part of the lake bed.

But there was more. Two years ago the Ngati Tahu discovered by accident that the tourist operation using this mysteriously dry section of the lake bed had been granted a new 33-year lease, with a right of renewal for a further 33 years. The Crown says that in future it may be able to transfer ownership of the land to the Ngati Tahu, but with the granting of the new lease that would mean another 66 years before the Ngati Tahu could actually occupy the land for their own use.

What of the family that used to live at Orakei Korako? Back in 1961, the head of the family, Mrs Sarah Wharekawa, on the promise of a new house in Taupo with new furniture, moved from Orakei Korako, her an­cestral home, without argument. When she got to Taupo she found she’d been given temporary accommodation in a Ministry of Works house. The furniture? She had to buy that herself, on time-payment from a local auction house.

Sarah returned only once to Orakei Korako—about a year after the flooding, and then for less than an hour. Locals remember the old lady couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t stop the tears.

The legalistic parsimony of the Crown is made all the meaner when seen against the generosity of local Maori. In 1887, the great chief Te Heu Heu Tukino IV gifted to the nation as a reserve 6000 hectares that held within its boundaries the mountains of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.

At a time when the only other national park in the world was at Yellowstone in the United States, this was an act of great foresight, not least because the chief saw it as a way to frustrate growing pressure for slash and burn pakeha settlement. Since the gifted land is also the head-waters of the sacred Waikato, this act was of great sym­bolic significance.

Although a number of rivers feed into Lake Taupo, a tangle of tributaries, beginning on the slopes of Ruapehu, merge to form what is still called the Waikato Stream. In 1945 the lower section of this watercourse—where it disgorges into Taupo’s southern end—was renamed the Tongariro River. Older Maori still refer to the Tongariro by its former name, Waikato.

But the most obvious source of the Waikato is the lake, or, more particularly, where the river leaves the lake at Taupo township. Of the lake Ernst Dieffenbach wrote, more than 140 years ago: “The scenery of Taupo lake, the whole character of the landscape, the freshness and pe­culiarity of the vegetation, with the white smoke rising around so many hot springs, are singularly beautiful, and well calculated to attract visitors from all parts of the world.”

Access to the lake, locked in the fastness of the central plateau, was difficult, and it wasn’t until the introduc­tion of rainbow trout in the late 1890s that the lake was much visited by pakeha. Now, of course, it’s a different story, with the settlement laying quite justifiable claim to being the Queenstown of the north.

I spent a few days at Taupo this summer. There was a time, quite recently, when the resort was no more than a threadbare strip of fairly basic cabins, camping grounds and tearooms interspersed with the odd newfangled Pinex-lined motel advertising itself with those little me­tallic disc signs that flutter in the breeze. Taupo remained a place where it was still wise to pack a Thermette in the boot of the Vauxhall.

Icons of Waikato energy, the crimson-tipped chimneys of the huge Huntly thermal power station reflect the role of the river in electricity production. Upriver, geothermal energy is tapped at Wairakei and Ohaaki, while eight hydro dams snare the river’s strength between Aratiatia and Karapiro. Appropriately, through its support of New Zealand rowing the Electricity Corporation finances the expenditure of a fair amount of energy back on the river. Waikato rowers are the best in the land, winning as many championships as the rest of the country combined.

Now the main road through the town offers mile after motel mile of the slick and the shiny—to the student of architecture, a veritable babel of every motelier’s Christ­mases come at once—while out on the lake all is fizz-boat, jetski and marina. There’s even a golfing game of chance where punters win a car if they manage to hit a hole-in-one from the grass verge to a raft anchored off­shore.

Mercifully, a littler further around the lake it’s still possible to select a quiet campsite on the shore and look out over an unchanged lake to the foreboding remoteness of the great volcanic plateau with its marching moun­tains tinged pink in the dusk.

Camped there in our pup-tent, it was well nigh impos­sible to get the children to understand that this huge inland sea is really the crater lake of one of the most powerful volcanoes the world has ever seen. Certainly, there is no real way for anybody to understand the mega­lithic scale of the eruptions that roared out of the earth here. How to understand 2000 cubic kilometres of magma hurled so far into the air that the Chathams­almost 1000 kilometres away, were swamped by a four-inch layer of ash; a cloud that showered ash on Antarc­tica. How to understand a 100-metre tidal wave wall of magma rolling out from the crater?

Actually, camped out on the shores of the lake and trying to get some kind of non-synthetic taste sensation from a Cheezy-Chunk skinless precooked sausage, it was very easy to imagine. Hugely satisfying, no less, to pic­ture a rain of jetski, fizz-boat and No Vacancy sign frag­ments falling on Antarctica.

In fact, there is no guarantee that Taupo won’t explode at some stage in the geological future. It’s been calculated that even a Mount Pinatubo-style blast—a mere hiccup in Taupo terms—would cause 1.5 billion dollars’ worth of damage. Scientists keep a listening brief on activity under the lake, but this isn’t easy because a heavy layer of pumice on the bottom muffles seismic recordings of small earthquakes that would be a vital indicator of Taupo’s mood.


Almost a year had passed since I first decided to do the river, and still I had only seen each end of it. The stretch that lay between Cambridge and the mouth thumbed its nose at me. Yet this was the piece of river that held the greatest fasci­nation. A stretch that had played a decisive role in the military defeat of the King movement, and therefore in the birth of modern New Zealand.

Underlining the strategic importance of the river are the rapids a little downstream from Karapiro. The pad­dle-steamer gunboats which provided crucial logistical support and fire-power for the British invasion couldn’t pass the rapids. At their foot the southernmost military camp was established, named after the Duke of Cam­bridge, commander of the British Army. The rapids are still there. So is Cambridge.

And it was from Cambridge boatramp, the original landing for the gunboats, that we set off on our last expedition on the river. First, I headed upstream, need­ing full throttle against a surprisingly swift Waikato pour­ing out of the throat of the gorge. A young man spun past us, floating on inner-tubes, a can of beer in one hand and a fishing rod in the other.

Within half an hour we’d reached our objective: the grey face of the Karapiro dam, which flooded the river’s first power station, built in 1913 to supply electricity to a Waihi gold mine

Lake Karapiro is best known as a rowing, water-skiing and powerboating venue, but it was here in 1864 that the last encounter of the Waikato invasion occurred—one which saw Maori forces withdraw from their pa. But the King movement itself was left unmolested in the hill country to the south, now known as the King Country.

The imperial forces withdrew to Cambridge. They’d already taken one of New Zealand’s richest economic prizes, the Maori-owned Waikato basin. Just 24 years later, 13 tons of butter, packed in kegs and tins, was shipped down the river from near Karapiro to Auckland for pioneering export to London. The containers were stamped with the symbol of an anchor.

The Waikato then was far different from what it is today. It’s not as if the spoils of war were herringbone milking sheds in working order. The pasture lands were won from a huge marshland that extended over much of the district. The expense and labour involved in drain­ing these swamplands throughout the Waikato defeated most of the early military settlers who’d been awarded land as a reward for confiscating it in the first place.

It was left to speculators to buy up these small lots, then amalgamate them into huge estates which could be drained and developed. Many were over 4000 hectares in size. One, Woodlands, was 32,000 hectares. That is one huge dairy farm. But visions of gentry overseeing a land of cap-doffing farm workers were not to be. Most of the large estates crashed with the depression of the 1880s, and it was the smallholders who returned to land that was now fit to farm.

Around Cambridge, the whiff of patrician air remains, with the old money tucking itself behind oak trees and the board fences of stud farms. But the river itself, as ever, is in its own world. From Cambridge through to Hamilton the course is carved deep, with much of the steep cliff-side covered in native bush. Save for a hand­ful of nouveau riche hacienda, travellers have the river, and its lovely emerald green terraces, to themselves.

It is seldom wholly pleasant waking to an early morn­ing campsite. The campfire ashes are stale and drenched with dew, there are greasy plates and a clammy un­washed feel to the body. You’re lucky to escape some crick in the back. But there’s pleasure to be had in restor­ing order. I bathed in the river waiting for the children to wake.

For the first hour on the river it was most satisfying to simply idle at the mercy of the current. The morning sun was hot on the back, but all around was cool and green. I spied an irregularity in the cliff bounding the outside of a bend. We nosed around in the current, kicked the motor and drove against the river to work level with the cleft. “Look, kids, a smuggler’s cave. Let’s see how far we can go in.” What’s smuggler, dad?

We passed the point where the main current gave to eddy and eased into a fissure little wider than our little runabout. The flanks of the fissure were upholstered with a shag pile of moss. I cut the motor. We could hear the rush of a waterfall, could smell the solid clay smell of a bush gully, the dank sweet smell of undergrowth. We poled past a bend to discover a secret pool lying at the foot of a waterfall. Maybe 20 metres above us, filtered through a ceiling of tightly-woven creepers and lichen, the sun shone.

We made fast to a root and paddled on lilos further up the ravine till boulders blocked the path. We’d already seen the deserted field-day buildings of Mystery Creek high above the river, looking strangely out of place—like some Hollywood backlot. Now we had discovered the creek.

By lunchtime we were ready to picnic at Hamilton, the Waikato’s urban heart. The place was named after a British captain killed during the invasion of Tauranga, an action designed to prevent those tribes assisting the Waikato. We pulled alongside the wreck of the gunboat Rangiriri, fed the ducks, watched cricket.

The Rangiriri is a relic not only from the war, but from the days when the river was the only reliable means of transport. Stripped of her military purpose, she plied between Mercer and Cambridge, powered by Huntly coal. The only other means of transport was a coach service, famously untrue to its name, operated by a Mr Quick.

The river may have been the “Mississippi of the Maori,” but for craft larger than waka—or runabouts—it has never been easy to navigate. Snags and shifting sand­banks saw the demise of many a steamboat.

Rail arrived in 1875 to turn a two-day journey from Auckland to Hamilton by coach and river into a com­paratively comfortable seven hours, but that didn’t deter a young Caesar Roose from reviving river travel at the turn of the century. One of his paddle-steamers, the Manuwai, complete with piano, cruised the river until the 1940s, when Roose turned it into a barge.

Passing through Hamilton after our picnic, we en­countered a new mock paddle-steamer, the MV Waipa Delta, that offers cruises and cabaret on the river. Here, we resumed a horse and buggy pace, the better to review the homes and gardens that, in Hamilton and hardly anywhere else, make stunning use of the river. This being Sunday, there was a fair traffic of speedboats and water-skiers. In the middle of the river, an elderly gent was calmly breast-stroking downstream. “Caught the bus up,” he said. “Now, I’m off home.”

Through Ngaruawahia, past the sacred mountain of Taupiri (returned to the Tainui only in 1975) and on through Huntly we travelled at planing speed. I thought of the coal-miners who used to work a seam under the river. They could hear the sound of the paddle-steamers passing overhead.

Our destination for the day was Rangiriri. From the river the fortifications are barely visible. It’s only when you mount the skilfully designed trenches that you understand the command they held over the narrow neck of land that lies between the river on one side and the swamps of Whangamarino surrounding Lake Waikare on the other.

Despite being an extraordinarily valuable historic site, Rangiriri has been vandalised by roading engineers who bulldozed State Highway One right through the centre. It’s like putting a motorway through Gettysburg.

An inscription at the nearby cemetery reads: “On the 20th November, 1863, General Cameron with a force of 850 men attacked the Maori entrenchments. The Maoris in a strong redoubt repulsed the military and naval storming parties, but the following morning surren­dered.” Some 136 colonial troops were killed or wounded, while 50 Maori died, with 183 taken prisoner.

The surrender, Maori say with justification, was due to British duplicity. The morning after the effective and ruinous repulse of the British forces, the defenders dis­played a white flag, intending only to negotiate a truce with General Cameron from a position they rightfully regarded as one of strength. But upon the signal being raised, a detachment of troops entered the fortification and intermingled with the Maori, shaking hands in congratulation. It appears General Cameron took advantage of the confusion to disarm the defenders.

The detail of Maori conduct of the battle, together with the engineering skill in constructing trenchwork that enabled eight frontal assaults to be repelled, is a story on its own—not one the British learned from, as the human wave tactics of World War I demonstrate. James Belich, the historian, sets much myth to rest in his book The New Zealand Wars, which exhaustively examines the Waikato invasion, along with the other campaigns of the wars.

Suffice to say that the Waikato invasion drew more imperial troops than were, at the time, defending Eng­land. The defeat of the King movement lay not in per­formance on the battlefield but in the huge logistical advantage enjoyed by the British. Not only did the Brit­ish have unlimited reserves of food, manpower and mu­nitions, but with the control of the river by steam-paddle gunboat they had the means to supply those reserves.

Idling downstream from Rangiriri, my thoughts about the battle—the enormous labour involved in fortifying the earthworks, the absolute certainty with which they fought to protect their land—were interrupted by a ghostly apparition ahead on the river.

Weirdly, where the glare on the water from the late afternoon sun was at its greatest, emerged a waka taua­its white-tipped paddles lifting like swans’ wings from the silvered surface. Above the rattle of the outboard I could just hear the chant that ordered the strokes and was itself accompanied by the slapping of the paddles on the hull—a distant ghostly sound aimed directly for the base of the spine, the hairs of the neck.

I gunned the motor to overtake. I wanted to stop downriver and kill the motor to fully appreciate the passage of this wonderful carved creature of war, with its feathers and trailing tail and its chanting. I’d seen wakataua before, but only in the formally detached circum­stances of regattas and the like—or fossilised in muse­ums. Here was a waka in its home ground, prowling the river as its forebears did.

Almost abreast of our waiting boat, the chant changed rhythm. Poneke, poneke, poneke!—and the paddlers dug deep and fast and then slammed the upraised paddles into their chests in a salute—to us!

“You know, we really appreciated your respect, that you stopped. That’s why we saluted you. You showed your respect. We showed you ours. You can stay here tonight, camp at the marae.” We’d followed the waka to its home base at the Hora Hora marae, a little downriver from Rangiriri. A young womn from the crew, Te Winika Green-Moana, was explaining to me how it came to pass that the waka taua was on the river.

I learned that Te Ia Roa was built as part of the 1990 Treaty of Waitangi celebratory fleet. Now the local peo­ple were making use of the waka as an educational tool for the young of the district, and also planned to offer the experience to tourists. The tapu that prevented women from being on a waka had been lifted especially for the purpose.

Later that night, at the marae clubrooms, I managed to narrow the conversation down to the battlefield. “Yup, round here it’s hard-out Tainui. We’re the ones who fought at Rangiriri, but you’ll find the elders don’t want to talk about it. The defeat is still too painful for them .. . it’s too painful to admit they were forced from their land. For me, that’s no problem—I can admit to moving ten places, and that’s just in the last two years!

“But them? Their lost land is like their blood and soul, bound into their bones . . . to be forced from that. That’s different. The money they got! What was it-800 pounds—for all the people and all the land? My family’s still got a packet of pennies. It would have been an insult to take them out of the wrapper they came in! My old granny, way back, she didn’t know what money was. She planted the coins out in the garden in rows, to catch the full sun. She would have been digging those coins in with a ko, while all around her the pakeha were sitting on the land they stole . . .”

Walking back to the river, treading the dew-wet grass to save our feet, we could hear the car doors slam in the carpark, the toot-didee-toot-toot of car horn farewells. The crunch of tyres on gravel. Headlights picked up a fence-line. A set of tail-lights floated off into the night. In the moonlit silence we made our way past the cook­house of the marae, over the floodbank to where our tent was pitched by the landing.

I went to check the mooring line, and in the torchlight I saw a wriggling of eels in the river weed. From nearby came the sudden, startling, old man’s cough of a cow. A little anxious voice called from the tent. “D-a-d?” It was time for Mole and Ratty to soothe them to sleep.

Later, I rebuilt the fire and sat out on the riverbank and thought through the day, about the bulldozing of the pa. I got to wondering why it is that New Zealand prefers to forget the wars of pakeha conquest that have so cru­cially shaped our identity. Sure, there is an understand­ing, but it comes with all the depth of a Japanese war crimes apology.

One enduring answer for that gap is provided by the school textbook Our Nation’s Story, which many of the older generation were taught from. On one page it eulo­gises the Treaty, “. . . by it the Maoris remained the real owners of the country. To this day it remains the fairest treaty ever made between Europeans and a native race; indeed, in many ways it was much fairer to the brown man than to white. Later in the chapter you will see why.”

Later in the chapter: “So wise and clever was Gover­nor Grey that he won the respect of both Maori and settler alike. He was anxious about the welfare of the Maori people. But the Maori grew resentful and banded together and refused to sell land. Grey tried hard to find peace, but the Maoris still refused to sell land. He now saw that war must come; so he sent a force of soldiers into the Waikato, and the Waikato wars began.”

On one page was the fairest treaty guaranteeing Maori ownership of land. On the next you have Grey waging war against a people to take their land. There was not the hint of a contradiction.

Now, at least, there is an understanding that injustice  occurred, but it’s an amnesic middle-ground kind of un­derstanding that still refuses to accept that there was a real war in New Zealand that had real consequences for real people, and still has.

A fresh weighting of the facts has now gained cur­rency. Any updated version of Our Nation’s Story need add only a single sentence: “Although the invasion of the Waikato and the confiscation of native lands was unjust, these events occurred a long time ago, and the Maori should stop banding together in resentful ways and get on like the rest of us.”

The smooth omission here is the answer to a very simple equation. How is it that the Tainui are supposed to get on just like the pakeha farmers who still occupy their land, in one of New Zealand’s richest farming dis­tricts?

At the Hora Hora clubrooms the answer to that was also very simple. “If they take the land that feeds you, what are you left with? You supposed to live on thin air?” Indeed, what sort of financial support—or indeed inheritance—have Tainui parents been able to offer their children these past 130 years? Where has there been an opportunity for the accumulation of capital?

On the riverbank, I thought of the huge trade that passed here before the invasion, when the Tainui sup­plied Auckland with an extraordinary quantity of pro­duce. Thought of the scores of waka plying the river; of their campfires. Some waka even had their own cooking fires on board And, down in the delta, just across from Bronco’s shack—two days’ paddle downriver—as many as 50 great waka would beach at the landing in a single day to disgorge corn, potato, kumara, peaches, goats, pigs, apples and wheat, ready for the Auckland market. By the mid-1850s, many villages had accumulated suffi­cient profit to build their own flour mills at river’s edge. Sacks of flour were added to the trade.

If the pakeha wanted the land that produced this wealth and was capable of producing far more, they also wanted to crush gathering Maori economic strength that threatened their own hoped-for dominance.

They’d talked of that at the clubrooms. “Yep! The soldiers smashed all the waka, from big to small, right up and down the river … you can’t think about it too much. You see, my hapu used to own the riverbank at Hamil­ton. After the war they went back there, but it was a soldiers’ camp. Where could they go? My hapu was moved like cattle from one place to another. They had nowhere to go, and nowhere’s a big word.

“This is two generations away, in my grandfather’s time. They had a silent pain. They went into themselves . . . lived in shanties on little bits of swampland by the river, the land nobody else wanted. Worked for the pakeha farmer for flour and water. They hung on with flour and water.” So desperate were some that they sold their children as labourers for a bag of flour.

Salvation, and it was nothing less, came largely through the vision and energy of one woman, Princess Te Puea. Her tireless efforts from 1910 until her death in 1952 to establish marae along the river provided inspira­tion for a demoralised, tattered people. Central to her dream was the return of her people to their turangawaewae, their place of identity, standing on con­fiscated land at Ngaruawahia.

In the circumstances of Maori poverty and despair—and a decimating influenza epidemic—the success of her efforts was testimony to the huge significance of the Ngaruawahia land, original home of the King movement and Tawhiao. But the return was a long gruelling strug­gle, resisted by pakeha townsfolk.

Finally, an absentee landowner offered a patch of riverbank, but Ngaruawahia bootmaker William Dunstan heard about the plan and pre-empted Te Puea. He bought the land for £300, and then offered it for sale to Te Puea for £1500. With this being the last available section of ancestral land on the riverbank, she had no option but to accept.

I attended Queen Te Atairangikaahu’s coronation cel­ebrations there at Turangawaewae. For five days a whole new Tainui town is created along the banks of the river. There are squash tournaments, netball, league, cabaret, haka competitions and more haka competitions.

In fact, there is no end to haka. Late at night, when many have retired to the sleeping halls, out in the rain there is still the bristling of sinew as young men slap their chests red-raw. You can feel the impact of their feet through the ground. A wintry wind blows. Plume-shaped kauri stand frosted against the night sky. Flax rattles. Soon, the clean up team will come to pick clean the entire grounds, while food preparation continues virtu­ally around the clock.

I meet an old mate from truck-driving days. Dusky Nepia talks about the river. “With a house, every room has a history. With a river, the same. Every bend has a hapu and every hapu has a history. So we don’t just see the river, we see a whole history. Every part of it is alive to us.”

I look around me at the crush of delighted people renewing friendships, recharging their Maoriness. I think of the enormous effort put into this weekend, the sheer bursting devotion to getting things right for their Queen, the living embodiment of Tawhiao who stood firm at Rangiriri. I wonder at the present day leaders’ accept­ance of $170 million compensation for all the confis­cated Waikato lands—or roughly $140 an acre for 1.2 million acres. On the face of it, this is pure sell-out.

But it’s little understood that the art of diplomacy has always been a Maori strength at least as subtle, flexible and effective as their battleground tactics. Demanding full compensation is charge of the light brigade stuff: accepting settlement is strategic diplomacy at its best. What government in 20 years’ time could hope to claim the moral high ground when in 1995 a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $140 an acre is already in the laughable territory of blankets and beads?

Given the magnitude of the injustice and the foresee­able political realities of New Zealand. there can never be final compensation—which is something the intoler­ant on both sides of the argument should understand. One thing is certain: although the overwhelming feature of this country’s history has been Maori patience and forbearance, it cannot be taken for granted. How much would pakeha farmers ask if the roles were reversed? How long would they wait?

And, in the meantime, $170 million goes a long way toward dealing with real immediate need—like there at Rangiriri with Te Ia Roa waka. It’s taken a year to some­how scrape together the funds to establish and market these employment-providing waka excursions—and still they expect delays. With the extraordinary option of being part of the crew as a drawcard for tourists and school trips alike, it’s something that should have taken off years ago.

Travelling downriver from Rangiriri was a slow slog of sandbanks, of trying to read the water to pick a channel. The river grew wider and browner and more sluggish. At Meremere and at Mercer abandoned sand dredging op­erations lent a tobacco road smell to the air. Alongside rusting pipework and overhead gantries, tugs and barges stood high and dry, as if tossed from bathwater by some bored giant child.

It used to be different at Mercer. It was once the Waikato’s principal river port, and in 1875 overnight became a rail town. Right through to the 1960s it re­mained a coaling and watering stop for steam trains and their passengers. Diesel trains and a multi-lane bypass finally killed the town off.

Walking down the broad deserted main street, it’s still clear this is a town where once initials like NZR, NZPO and MOW had some meaning, were institutions. The vacant post office stands foursquare in brick, the railway station with its obligatory NZR landscaping of fennel and brown dust still clings to the line. On the deserted platform you can almost hear the clunk of railway mugs being shoved across the counter by women in smocks, still see the Innes Tartan soft drink bottles lined up lukewarm on the shelves, and almost taste the immortal words of A R D Fairburn: “The squalid tea of Mercer is not strained.”

But the only sign of life is a stirring in the curtained window of a house overlooking the town. The house is painted in lime green with a brilliant blue stripe around its middle. It lends a surprising and refreshing touch of the Caribbean to Mercer.

Maybe ten minutes downstream the girls spot a weep­ing willow shading sweet meadow at water’s edge. It’s getting late; we work our way around a sandspit and pull in for our last camp on the river. After dinner, the girls haul the chocolates out. They’d specially chosen them for Bronco and Alan and Shona. But now they were reconsidering; in the light of the driftwood fire were beginning to pick at the cellophane in a determined manner.

The next day, on the last leg to the delta, the river defeats us. Past the Alexandra Redoubt and the coathanger bridge at Tuakau we are exposed to a stiff sou’wester blowing up the full fetch of the river. Our engine overheats. I abandon the journey. I retrieve the car from Cambridge and trailer the boat through to the delta landing: the girls had chocolates to deliver.

Back out on the river, Bronco’s shack is deserted when we pass it. and no light shines from Alan and Shona’s. But soon enough we hear Goldie barking. We’re wel­comed into the cottage in time to hear Bronco giving karakia for Alan’s birthday. Another river feast is on the table. The generator is dead, so the place, lit only by a candle, is in virtual darkness. The girls can’t wait to give the chocolates.

“Look, Cow! The girls haven’t forgotten old Bronc. Look at dese chocolates they brought. Choc-o-late for Bronc! Girls! Meet my wife, Cow.” The girls do the sol­emn rounds of greeting.

“Find me a soft one, Bronc,” says Cow, the words slithering soft as duck down through her puckered lips. “Don’t find me no nuts. They’re twrouble! Break me gums!” That night we fall asleep in a cottage rich with snores. We wake to the smell of whitebait sizzling on a wood stove.

The girls kiss the adults good morning. Cow calls to them: “Go get Nanny a bwrush.” She plumps them on her lap, and with her gnarled veined hands twists, plucks and kneads—turns their brown hair, bleached golden by the sun, into braids as tight and regular as the finest woven kete. She brushes their cheeks with a kiss. It’s time to go.

Coming into the landing, I try to picture 50 waka, groaning with produce, beached on the shore. I think of the Hora Hora clubrooms and the question: “If they take all your land how you supposed to live, on thin air?” Most of all, I can see old Mrs Sarah Wharekawa visiting her ancestral land at Orakei Korako. How she couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t stop the tears.

We’d almost trailered the boat when we caught sight of Bronco’s old khaki skiff coming hell-for-leather up the channel. “Thought you might like to drop in with me for the e-leven o’clock service before you go.” Yep. Bronc,we’d like to do that.

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