River of memory

From Central Hawkes Bay to home

Louisa (McKain) Burke was the caricature of a classic sixty’s grandmother. Pastel green smock, blond bouffant, black high-rimmed ‘cat eye’ glasses. Father often snidely remarked “she was as mad as a hatter”, which wasn’t far from the truth. She was a staunch Catholic, with a penchant for a strong gin and believe it or not, she was also a qualified Milliner. 

As the story goes our family fled from Auckland for Napier to escape the ‘endless meddling’. Back then Napier was an all-day bus trip away, but still not nearly far enough. It wasn’t long before she’d up sticks and moved residence to Waipawa, a mere hour away as a housekeeper for the local parish priest. 

Mortified, as I’m sure my father was, my parents made the decision that rather than run the risk of her turning up on our doorstep, it was better to pack me up and dispatch me to hers. I recollect spending the odd school holiday and weekend on the Railways bus to Waipawa, and I hadn’t stayed a night there since. It’s been nearly fifty years.

I picked up the trail from Saint Patrick’s rectory up on Waverley Street, before turning wheels north and my Grandmother Louisa’s sisters (my Great Aunt Margaret) home at Otane. I was now entering McKain country.  

Otane is yet another small and somewhat quaint settlement strung along the Gisborne line. I sauntered through, and stopped for a pastry at McCauly’s general store, before heading east in search of a river and a pub. 

“Beer?” he bellowed, looking down at me, as I sat sprawled on the curb. Ryan (the publican) had a wide grin and a wider girth, with those eyes of someone not quite recovered from last night’s closing. “Tuī?” I got to my feet and began fumbling through my gear for a lock. “Don’t worry about all that, just bring it inside”. Within minutes both ride and rider had hitched themselves to the bar of the Patangata pub. 

The pub sits at one end of the Patangata bridge that straddles the Tukituki river. The river runs 117km from its headland in the Ruahine ranges to the sea south of Napier at Haumoana. Although my pepeha identifies with the Tutaekuri and its historical association with Ahuriri-Napier, there is a romance with the Tukituk’. As it wanders through the wide golden terraces of central Hawkes Bay to the base of the Te Mata hills.

Outside the winds were gathering. This place isn’t far from Pōrangahau and Cape Turnagain (place of the mad winds). I’d soon be tacking hard against another bloody nor-wester. Time was spent before I untethered myself from the bar and headed back up Middle road for the world. That westerly didn’t disappoint as I climbed through the pass before dropping down onto the alluvial of the Heretaunga Plains of home. 

Middle road straddles the northern slopes of the TeMata hills through to Havelock North before rejoining the Tukituk’. I met the river and rode it to the sea. Leaning hard into another squall I pushed past the stink and shingle spit of Awatoto towards that flat inland island of Mataruahou or Scinde Island Napier. 

I grew up in Napier South on the Marine Parade. Back in the bad days when that road was a thunder of trucks making passage to the port.  Home was squeezed between the mob and a private hotel. Both collecting the wayward and unwanted like sea foam gathered on that shingle shore. I spent my youth playing within the ruins strewn along that shore.

I passed that point of memory and arrived at the top of old town just as the squall turn to shower.

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