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Passport to Waikaia: Southland's slice of paradise

Fishermen at evening on the Waikaia River.

Mike White visits a real quarter-acre, DIY paradise.

Mairi Dickson cried that day in Waikaia’s main street. In front of her were most of the town’s residents, and the new museum she’d spent 30 years helping build. “Thirty years,” she said, the “r” rolling, reverberating as it does in Southland, adding emphasis to the scale of their efforts.

Mairi’s mum, Betty, had been one of those who’d started the project all those years ago, and she was meant to open the museum. But Betty had just come out of hospital after a bout of pneumonia, and at 93 wasn’t feeling well enough to do the job.

So, as head of the museum committee, Mairi did it herself. Cut the ribbon and declared it open, with tears of “relief that it was actually happening and joy that it had come together – and excitement”. They’d raised $1.7 million to get it built and opened. Baked cakes, run raffles, got community funding and grants. Not bad for a place where only 100 people live, for a town that nobody seems to have heard of.

Mairi Dickson at Waikaia’s new museum.
The new museum, opened in December 2018 and nestled next to the town’s other main attraction – the giant bottle house – does a fantastic job of telling Waikaia’s story, a story Mairi knows pretty much by heart. How it began when gold was discovered in 1862; how it was first called Switzers; and how it was originally 3km away, up on the hill. But the miners sluiced away virtually all the ground around the town as they sought and struck gold, so they shifted everything down to the flats, on the edge of the Waikaia River.

When most of the European miners moved on, the Chinese stayed, often sifting spoil that had already been dug. The farmers followed, though the struggle against rabbits, weather, marauding kea and the mountains themselves proved too much for some.

“I am thoroughly disgusted with the climate, and don’t know what to think about it,” wrote the manager at Glenaray Station in 1884. “I shall not grieve to get out of it. If the squatters of Southland can manage to cross their sheep with a frog or some amphibious animal, they might have a better show of making things pay.”

Those with a fraction more fortitude stuck it out and learnt how to thrive. Glenaray, farmed by the Pinckney family for five generations, became the country’s largest privately run pastoral lease, at 65,000ha.

A war came, the town’s young men left, and 60 of them didn’t come back. Two of them were Clarence Stewart and Jack Pinckney. Their names are inscribed on a wooden board rescued from the old Titan musterers’ hut, where the shepherds would etch their names on the walls. Now their names sit alongside each other on war memorials and honour rolls.

Stewart was killed at Gallipoli in 1915, after writing a letter home musing about his fiancée, Maggie Glanvill. “I wonder if she’ll ever get married if I don’t get back.” (She did, to another musterer on Glenaray.) Pinckney was on his way to study at Cambridge University in 1914 but instead enlisted with a cavalry regiment, on account of his horsemanship honed on the family’s farm. He made it to April 1918, seven months from the war’s end, before he went missing in France. In 1927, his body was found beneath a bridge at Vieille-Chapelle, identified by the distinctive buttons on his tunic, one of which is now on display in Waikaia’s museum.

The old church at the original township site.

The Bottle House, constructed from 20,000 wine bottles.

Waikaia gold mine.

Campsite at Piano Flat.

Piano Flat campground.

Piano Flat campground.

Piano Flat Rd.

Fishermen on the Waikaia River in the evening.

Left, a water tank with the town's former name. Right, The Wishing Tree.

Waikaia Cemetery.

A sign at Waikaia Cemetery.

Jeannie Dyer, Andrew Dickson, and Viv Dickson at Waikaia Lodge Cinema.

Some families lost all their sons. Others lost their farms when the Depression came. Then another war followed. This time 19 Waikaia men didn’t return.

Norman Christie was engaged to Phebe Dickson, Waikaia’s postmistress. In 1944, Phebe was at work when she received a cable saying Norman had been killed, and then had to deliver the telegram to his family. When Norman’s father emerged from the bush after mustering and saw Phebe and other women coming towards him on the road, he burst into tears, knowing his son was dead.

Phebe was Mairi Dickson’s aunt. She eventually did marry, had a daughter, and died only a few years ago. A lot of the stories here are personal for Mairi.

Mairi grew up just down the road at Freshford, lived away for a bit, then in 1979 her husband, Ray, saw an ad for a mechanic at the Waikaia garage. “So of course we came up – and never left.” They bought the business, bought a bit of land, shut the garage three years ago, and now farm their 140ha. And drive the school bus – Mairi’s done that for 30 years.

But it will be the museum, with its stories of gold and miners and farming and war and life in this corner of Southland, that will forever be testament to Mairi living here and wanting to preserve the memories of this “pretty wee town”. “To be quite honest, if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have,” Mairi insists. “It would have happened anyway.”

All that remains on the town’s original site is a church, and a cross commemorating its goldmining days. Switzers is the town's former name.

There might be only 100 permanent residents in Waikaia but they’ve got facilities much bigger towns covet. A golf course; four tennis courts; squash courts; rugby and hockey fields; a town hall. The community owns most of this, as well as the campground and the shop and land the museum sits on. They hire someone to keep the road verges tidy.

“Waikaia’s got a name for itself for being a wee bit of a rogue township,” says Mairi. “We’re not difficult. But they call us the republic, because if something needs to be done, and everybody’s behind it, it does happen – we don’t go with our hands out, wanting something all the time. We probably need a passport of our own.”

All the sections are indivisible quarter-acres. There’s a community orchard where people can help themselves to fruit. And just over the creek, there’s a peacock that lives wild but is visited and fed by the community. They only got cellphone reception a few years ago, and to be honest, Mairi quite liked not having it.

The Waikaia River draws fishermen from around the world; and on the town’s edge there’s Roly’s Rock, a swimming hole that’s cooled generations of kids when the summers swelter and the town’s population swells to 1000 with holidaymakers.

The locals swear Waikaia’s climate is different to the rest of Southland. It’s just over the hill from Central Otago – 50km from Roxburgh as the crow flies – and that’s the reason for the brilliant summers, they say. If Roxburgh is 30°C, Waikaia will be at least 28, they reckon. Mind you, in winter you can go ice-skating if the conditions are right.

A swingbridge over the Waikaia River at Piano Flat’s campground.

Twenty minutes up the road, Piano Flat sparkles in summer. It’s a glorious stretch of river’s edge with big trees and deep swimming spots, used as a DoC campground. There’s actually a Piano Flat spider, found only here and a few other northern Southland outposts, where it emerges at night and pounces on prey.

Pauline has never seen one. She’s had a holiday crib here for more than 50 years, one of a handful of places that relies on coal ranges and gas heaters and kerosene lamps. She sits on her deck enjoying the sun, and says she’s been here so long the sandflies leave her alone now. The calendar in Pauline’s crib is from 2004. Time slips by easily here.

That pace of life is something Shirley Walker has grown to love, ever since she and husband Lindsay shifted to Waikaia. They first came here camping in 1989 and continued to make the annual trek for the fishing season’s opening every October. Then they saw an overgrown crib and decided to buy it. When Lindsay retired from the Tiwai aluminium smelter 10 years ago, they made the move permanent. “He reckoned he’d be dead within six months if he stayed down in Invercargill doing nothing,” says Shirley. They hardly ever use their car now, they walk everywhere, and in Waikaia you can walk down the street and the cars will courteously, carefully veer around you.

But otherwise, life is busy. Shirley, 70, is secretary for the fire brigade, treasurer for the museum, was secretary/treasurer for the recreation committee, is on the Progress League, which holds the community’s assets, and the Community Development Association. “Between one thing and another, I’m slightly busy,” Shirley says. “So much for retirement – and forget housework.”

Al McKee. “I’d live here forever.”

Waikaia was built on the hope of gold, and that hope survives, refreshed and rekindled in recent years. In 2013, Waikaia Gold started mining 150ha of farmland south of the town. They dug away the top 16m of soil, sifted the next 5m for gold, replaced the soil, and returned it to farmland. By the end of 2018, they’d extracted more than two tonnes of gold, which was melted down into bars and exported to the Perth Mint.

Al McKee was one of the locals they employed. He grew up on a nearby farm, but then shifted to Wellington, where he worked in the computer industry for 18 years. He was good at it, the company grew, and he was making top money.

“Then I was at work one day and I went, ‘I’m not enjoying this anymore.’ It was as simple as that. Just sick of meetings, bloody meetings, and coffee meetings, and shagging around. And I thought, ‘There’s more to life than doing this.’

“My boys were growing up as townies – and I wasn’t enjoying that. They had to have the best shoes; that ground me. They wanted a $140 pair when really a $20 pair was all they needed at school. And they just didn’t have as much access to the kind of fun I did as a kid in the country.”

On a trip back to Waikaia to see his parents, Al noticed the pub was for sale, and mentioned this to his wife when he rang home. “She said, ‘Well, why don’t you buy it?’ And I thought, ‘God, yeah, you’re right. I’d have a job. I could be a publican. I’ve had enough practice on one side of the bar, it can’t be too hard on the other side, surely.’”

So that’s what they did, opted out of corporate life, shipped out of Wellington, and shifted back to Waikaia, where two of his sons went to the local school and did what kids there do – shooting, fishing, riding motorbikes, working in shearing sheds and on farms. “They got a fair bit of countryfication.”

Al had the pub for a couple of years, did sales for a rural company, bought a spray business, and then joined Waikaia Gold. Their mining is wrapping up, but he reckons you’d be a mug to think that’s the last gold taken out of Waikaia. Other companies have licences, and who knows what technology will arise, allowing more to be found. Gold has a habit of luring people back. Al has never regretted leaving Wellington and giving up wearing a tie. Not much need for those in Waikaia, he says. “Funerals and weddings. Even then it can be optional.”

He’s not sure what he’ll do when the gold mine job finishes: “I’ll just go left or right at the fork when decision-time comes.”

But whatever it is, he’d like to stay in Waikaia, where his great-grandparents shifted in 1892, where there’s no pretence or personalised plates – or traffic. “If I back out of my driveway in the morning and there’s a vehicle coming, I get really pissed off that I have to wait for it to pass. This is our little piece of paradise. Why do you need to travel to Queenstown or Nelson or anywhere? I’d live here forever.”

Waikaia farmland.

Don Price and Susan Smith aren’t planning to live in Waikaia forever – just half the time. The Canadian couple first visited New Zealand in 2003 on a cycling trip. When they returned the next year, they met a fisherman in the North Island who came from Waikaia and told them to look him up if they were ever down in Southland. And for the last 14 years, they’ve returned here, renting a caravan at the campground from November to March, fishing, playing golf, taking off in their campervan if they want more solitude, then returning home to Vancouver Island.

They really like the fact Waikaia isn’t on the main tourist maps, and sort of hope it stays a little unknown. “There’s a heavy price to pay for tourism, as New Zealand is starting to find out,” says Don, a retired welder. “One way or the other, you’re going to pay.” In all the time they’ve been coming here, they’ve only ever told one person back home where they stay, in an effort to keep it secret. Usually they say they travel around near Gore, “which isn’t a lie”, says Don.

They have everything they need in Waikaia, grow vegetables beside their caravan, watch the birds nesting in the giant walnut tree opposite, and think the locals are fantastic.

“It works for us. We’ve just simplified our lifestyle. I think people have lost focus on what you really work for. Now everyone’s working for things. I want to work for fun and enjoy myself, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Settling in at Waikaia’s pop-up movie theatre, The Lodge 223 cinema, from left: Jeannie Dyer, Andrew Dickson, Viv Dickson.

A young girl in a pink fairy dress and brown gumboots rides her blue bike along Waikaia’s main street. She may or may not be wearing a helmet; a teddy-bear sits in the front basket. She swoops into a driveway, drops her bike on the lawn and races off.

Across the road sits Lodge Switzers 223, home to the local Freemasons, and also home to Waikaia’s movie theatre.

Jeannie Dyer, her brother Andrew Dickson and Andrew’s wife, Viv, all loved movies and in 2017 began wondering if they could set up something in Waikaia, rather than trek 45 minutes to Gore all the time.

Andrew was a member of the Lodge, and suggested they use their grand 1930s building. So that’s what they do, every second Wednesday of the month. They fill the main room with armchairs and sofas and bean bags, drape each one with a blanket for chilly evenings, put on a movie for the locals, and then have tea and cakes afterwards. All for $15. Much of the furniture came from the trio’s sheds; Andrew found the screen on Trade Me; and they borrow the projector from the school. They can squeeze in 35 people and are usually full.

“Country living can be a bit quiet,” says Jeannie, “so for some of the farming couples this is a night out, and some of them don’t care what’s showing.”

But Jeannie and Andrew and Viv do. There are long debates about what movie to have next, a slight schism occasionally rupturing between running popular Oscar winners, or keeping it more art-house. Democracy is difficult, committees hell, even with only three people.

Jeannie and Andrew – who are siblings to Mairi Dickson – have another sister who lives in Waikaia, artist Annie Bourque. She left Waikaia for a while – Dunedin, Wellington, Invercargill – but returned a few years ago, and has set up a gallery in the old butcher’s shop.

“You always come back and think how absolutely fortunate you are to live in this little village. There are parts of living in a small village that drive you insane. There’s certainly nothing that’s private. But if you have a need, it doesn’t go unnoticed. No one would ever die on their own in Waikaia – there’s always someone checking every day.”

Waikaia, with its golden elms welcoming visitors, its trout-rich river, and its decades of history, is a lovely haven between the hills, says Bourque. “You know, honestly, this place is heaven.”

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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