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Volume 9 (2016)

A TECHNICAL TRAINEE IN THE NEW ZEALAND FOREST SERVICE, TAIRUA.

1952

by Barry John Buckley

I got off the New Zealand Road Services bus mid- afternoon on a hot summer's day at their depot in Waihi. It was February 1952 and a few days after my 17th birthday. Just that morning I had left Rotorua where I had completed a course at the New Zealand Forestry Research Institute on the path to becoming a Ranger in the New Zealand Forest Service. Jack Gubb, the second in command (2IC) at the Tairua Forestry was waiting for me in a dusty 1940s Ford pick-up truck. I settled my belongings in the back: an old suitcase containing some working clothes, sheets, a pair of new boots, a box with a brand new Tilley lamp and some books. I also had a 303 rifle with two painted bands around the stock (indicating it had been used by the Home Guard during the war) and an Akrad Portable Radio which had been made in Waihi and had a huge battery that cost me a week's wages to replace. Somewhere out of town and before Whangamata, the electricity lines ended and after filling the radiator twice from handy creeks, we arrived at my home for the next ten months. We drove down a dusty track alongside the Wharekawa Stream, just south of the Opoutere turnoff. My new abode was a typical forestry camp with a double row of single-man huts in a U shape with an ablution block in the centre and a cook-house at the open end.


Forestry Research Centre, Rotorua. Jan 1952.
Buckley is 4th from left in the second to top row.
Click to enlarge the photo.

The guests that night for dinner were a group of young Maori guys about my age, a few old hard-cases who were mainly alcoholics in the process of drying out, and three utterly bewildered and lost young Dutchmen who had arrived the previous day from a transit camp in Auckland. The Maoris were in the process of teaching the Dutchmen English but they were only swear words, and this was creating great hilarity. The government sent these immigrants on a compulsory working holiday for a year to wherever there was a labour shortage and took no notice whatsoever of what their previous occupations had been. Back in my hut, I sat on the edge of my bed and contemplated my quarters to the hiss of the lamp. A mirror, a small set of drawers and a table, some hooks on the wall and a little wood-burning stove. Suddenly one of the side walls of the hut nearly caved in and the hut rocked violently. I scrambled outside, nothing. A few minutes later, it happened again but this time I heard the giggling of the young Maoris as they disappeared into the darkness carrying the log they were using as a battering ram. I didn't know if this was serious or not, and it scared the heck out of me. I loaded the rifle and waited. The hut rocked again, I opened the door and let strip above their heads. What a noise in the quiet of that night. That was my introduction to the wild east. There were no repercussions. It wasn’t out of the ordinary. No one would even turn a hair when the quarry boys would gelignite the mullet in the stream alongside the camp sending a plume of water above the tree tops.

The Dutchies took quite a while settling in. One had been a photographer, another a book-seller, and they never expected to end up in such a wild place. No electricity, spoken Maori, isolated and so different even from the war-ravaged Europe they had grown up in.

The three old guys were using the isolation to dry out, quietly did their work and after dinner, would retire to their huts. That was until one day out on the job, I saw one of them take a swig of milk out of a hip flask. I asked him how on earth he could drink that curdled stuff on such a hot day. He kindly offered me a sip, and I found out that it was milk mixed with metholated spirits. That was the beginning of a binge for him that lasted about two weeks and his other two mates joined in. They rarely appeared at the cook-house but a taxi would arrive from somewhere every few days carrying crates of Brown Bomber booze (named after Joe Louis the world champion boxer). Management just left them at it, probably, because of the labour shortage. One day they turned up for breakfast trembling and pasty and ready for work again.

Back at Tairua Forest, a man with the splendid name of Lemon September was my boss. He was a middle-aged Maori who headed a slasher gang. Our pursuits were the severing of limbs off young pine trees. We would head off in the mornings with our hooks and sharpening carborundums (sharpening stone) and a cut lunch picked up from the cook house. The members of the gang conversed a lot in the Maori language and being the only pakeha and with somewhat of a bent for language I soon picked up the basics, becoming in the future somewhat conversant.


Click to enlarge the photo.

One day, we headed off in the truck as far as we could drive up the Wentworth valley. The road ended at a clump of macrocarpa at the edge of a stream. A couple of hard-looking guys were sitting outside a hut and about a dozen pig dogs and their kennels were spread amongst the trees. They were professional pig-hunters employed by the Forestry. We moved upstream fording it on a number of occasions until we arrived, I was told, at the remnants of the old Luck at Last gold mine where we had some work to do. There were a number of sample plots established around the forestry, and as a trainee, one of my jobs was to take annual measurements of the individual trees. We measured the circumference of the trunks, checked for any damage, looked out for sign of the Syrex beetle (a wood-boring insect).

Just on lunch, I was standing on a fallen tree trunk writing down these measurements as they were being called out to me. One of the young Maoris was fooling around me with an axe when I suddenly felt a thud on the side of my boot. My boot was sliced open from top to bottom, and the blood was welling out the top. A couple of guys helped me get back to the truck, and by the time I was driven to a doctor in Waihi, it was 4.30 pm. He sat me on a chair and with no anaesthetic pulled the cut together and tacked it with strips of metal using some sort of pliers. When I nearly passed out, he made me lie on the linoleum floor until I came right. He bandaged it and told me to come back in a few days. Back at the camp, no-one seemed to care. After about four days, when the pain was unbearable, I caught the twice-weekly bus to town and met up with a Road Services bus to Auckland. The driver saw the state I was in, and at Newmarket put me in a taxi so I could get home. Our doctor [Moody], who subsequently became superintendent of Auckland Hospital, was outraged as the wound was quite infected. I understand the Waihi doctor was disciplined for malpractice.

As a Technical Trainee, we were to be taught all aspects of forestry work. I expected our capabilities would be assessed, and we would be directed at some stage to where we would have been best suited. However, I understand that those boys (there were no girls) who had passed University Entrance could go on to become professional foresters and specialise for instance in silviculture. Unfortunately, I had left Auckland Boys Grammar with just my school certificate and this severely limited my chances as I soon realised.


The author, Barry Buckley, on the left.
Click to enlarge the photo.

At Tairua, we worked with permanent gangs,mainly thinning and pruning. We spent time in the nurseries propagating young pines, and we took part in periodic reviews of sample plots which could be anywhere throughout the forest. Other jobs we did were release-clearing as a lot of young trees were damaged by animals, and the clearing of fire breaks.

Beds were prepared for planting with Pinus Radiata seedlings. That was the predominant species. Others, like Ponderosa, Laricio, Taxifolia, Muricata and Strobus, if I remember correctly, were all experimented with. The method for sowing was by using a band-roller which was pulled along the bed and the seeds sown in the grooves. The seedlings were then covered in a sieved clay-like soil. Late spring was the best time for sowing. Sometimes a wooden frame covered with netting and scrim was used for protection from birds, rats and mice.

Once, however, a gang of us went on to a local farm to assist in a controlled burn-off. This was a near calamity as far as I was concerned because at some stage, I realised I was isolated. I was surrounded by a ring of burning gorse and had completely lost contact. Courage is fear that has said its prayer, and I certainly didn't have time for that. I panicked and blindly galloped through the most likely place and into open air. Lucky me.

Really wet days were spent sitting in the back of the truck playing euchre. They say that one of the best things about our earth is that if you poke holes in it, oil and gas and gold and silver come out of it. I was out on the job when I poked my hook into a hole in the ground and out came a swarm of wasps. They followed me for about a hundred yards until I found a creek. The worst stings were on my head.

A young Englishman came to our camp. He was a "Ten pound pom": assisted immigrant from England. One night,in one of the Maori boys huts lit with the flickering lights of kerosene lamps, he called the spirits. Somehow, he went into a trance. His body stiffened so that he could put his heels on a chair and just his head on another. The Maoris were very superstitious, and I found out later that most of the boys spent the rest of the night sleeping in one hut.

On occasion, someone would round up a few horses, and we would ride bareback to the heads of the Opoutere Harbour. THere we crossed the inlet at low tide and spend the weekend camping, fishing and diving further up the beach. We tried pig hunting, unsuccessfully. We only had one dog amongst us, and he was as old as us boys. He was only capable of padding along behind us with his tongue out. It was probably the cook who fed him as no-one else did.

One night, we were coming home from Whangamata crammed into a Model A and, where the road crossed a swamp, we ran over a large boar. He got jammed under the car. The only weapon available to us was a broken slash-hook which was used to terminate the poor fellow's existence.


The author, Barry Buckley, aged 17.
Click to enlarge the photo.

One weekend we decided to hold a dance in Whangamata. Remember, there was no electricity, We hired a hall, used the old work pickup to decorate the walls with fern fronds and raked up a band which was nearly all guitars and a set of drums. We purchased a few double crates [24 bottles ] of Brown Bomber and had a great night. Most of us young guys could only just handle a couple of bottles, and trouble was non-existent.

Another Saturday, we went by bus to Tairua to help our Opoutere girls out at a netball game. If I remember correctly, the pub had just partly burned down because the beer was being poured out of kegs sitting on the bar. There didn't seem to be much policing around then, and the associated dance with all the booze that was available was a riot culminating with a memorable trip back to the camp.

Who, in those days could ever imagine that the line of old shacks on the left side of the road heading down to the beach at Opoutere were really prime real estate.

The forestry owned a quarry just north of Wharekawa. A couple of the operatives lived in the camp. I got to know one of them reasonably well when I excitedly fronted up to him with all the gold I had found while fossicking further up the river, only to be met with a great guffaw. I then got a lesson on how to differentiate between 'Fools Gold' and the real stuff.

As I mentioned earlier, there was a stream besides our camp. Occasionally, schools of mullet would ferret their way upstream feeding on the algae. The quarrymen had great sport letting off the odd bomb in order to score a feed.

Back in those days, if one had to dress up, it was a white shirt with a starched or ironed collar. In the ablution block, there were a few solid irons, the like of which are only seen in museums today. These were placed on the big coal range at the cook-house until nearly red hot and then galloped back to iron the collars.

Between Whangamata and Opoutere was was a beautiful and lonely bay at the end of a dirt track called Batty's beach. Its current name is Onemana. The farm was owned by the Batty family, and the homestead was at the southern end of the beach. I remember them particularly because there were two lovely daughters, one of whom owned an English sports car. They were older than me and had no interest in a seventeen year old just out of school alas.

Love did not elude me however, and I managed to find my first serious girl friend in Waihi. Her father worked at the gold mine at Waikino. Unfortunately it all came to an end when I was transferred to the Maioro State Forest at the Northern Heads of the Waikato river, near Waiuku.




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