The boy in the photo is dreaming of being somewhere else. He’s perfectly happy at Waterloo School, where he can hold his own playing four-square, though is a liability at bulrush. He borrows armloads of books from Lower Hutt’s exceptional library, and on Saturdays he builds forts out of the bales at his father’s wool-scouring works, then may go with his brother and sister to a matinee at the King George, or swimming at the Riddiford Baths. All except the library have gone now, but in the 1960s – before a super-mall arrived and turned everything else into car-parking and empty shops – Lower Hutt deserved its billing as “New Zealand’s first garden city”.
It’s 1967, the year Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, and his world is about to turn from black-and-white into colour. When the school holidays come around, he goes with his family into Wellington to the NZR bus depot. Everything about these trips is exciting: the smell of the diesel, the suitcases and cardboard boxes tied with string, the bustle. He relishes saying the exotic words he can read on a blackboard; the bus is no mere bus, it’s a Landliner, and it’s passing through towns with easy-to-understand names like Waikanae (“why can I”), Otaki (“oh tacky”) and Levin (“live-in”). The further north it goes, the more romantic the journey appears: the destination is Taihape, which sounds just like it reads (“tie-happy”). But most thrilling of all, the highway might be closed because the Desert Road (Desert? As in the shorts for Lawrence of Arabia?) is covered with snow. (Snow? What kind of desert has snow?)
But he’s not going anywhere, just home to watch Huckleberry Hound alone. His brother and sister are the ones getting on the bus to find out where wool comes from, to maybe play in snow and even see a desert. This boy will have to wait till next year, when – on the brilliantly clear, still day that followed the Wahine disaster – he travels on his own to Taihape for the first time.
The farm is actually south of Taihape near a town called Utiku, another tantalising word: oo-tick-oo. Where the pasture is so good, there’s a tick between two ewes. Where there are seven cousins to play with, horses too; it’s like living in an episode of Bonanza.
He’s there to work, and this is enormously confidence building. Mustering is his favourite time, where he feels most useful: opening gates, blocking off gaps, shooing and hooting – that’s if the heading dog doesn’t get there first. In winter, the mud comes up past his knees, in summer it’s so dry he can imagine that desert.
But even more exhilarating than a day out on the paddocks, on the back of the Land-Rover or sharing a saddle, are the evenings back at the big house. So closely bonded are his parents with his cousins’ parents, that it’s like being their eighth child. At the dinner table, everyone gets to have their say, and afterwards bedtime waits until Z Cars is over. Television watching is a communal experience.
Most important of all, unlike home this house is full of music: guitars, a piano, singalongs. And LPs; he’s lucky there are so many teenage girls among his older cousins and their taste proves timeless. At home, there’s just South Pacific and My Fair Lady in mono; here, every season there’s a new Beatles record, later the Band, the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin. Once again, the whole extended family gets involved, talks passionately about what they’re hearing, analysing it like musicologists. It sets the course his life will take.
The big treat on the farm comes after the Sunday roast, when all the kids pile into the turquoise Chev Impala and head down the road to ... The Bridge. It was built in 1966 and to this day still feels new; it stands at 150 feet high and crosses the steep, narrow, grey-papa gorge of the Rangitikei River, leading to the hamlet of Omatane. Leaning over the balustrade – at seven years old or 70 – is awe-inspiring and not a little frightening.
The Impala crosses the one-lane bridge and turns into the quarry cut in the bush for the bridge’s construction. The kids tumble out and rush around, collecting the biggest, flattest stones they can find. They stagger with them back to the car and place them in the boot.
The huge car creeps back to the bridge, its suspension groaning. It parks in the middle and once again the passengers jump out. The flat stones are placed on the balustrade, and the oldest child there – the teenager with the car keys – gives them all numbers. At the call, the stones are rhythmically shoved into the abyss: 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... about now the first one hits the shallow water, with a boom or a crack that seems to echo all the way to Mangaweka. It’s the Utiku salute.
The Bridge is where the boy, now an adult, takes his city friends whenever he’s passing by on State Highway One. His cousins now have families of their own on the farm, but the craic remains. The past is another country, but this Place in the Heart will never change.
- North & South, 2003