The first of a three-part series on Waikato towns
I’m in the middle of the Waikato River on the Huntly rail bridge. Down below, by the riverbank, sunlight catches the metal cage of an overturned shopping cart. As a large koi carp glides through the muddy, cloud-patterned water, I hear the bouncing of a basketball behind me; students are crossing over the bridge on their way to Huntly College.
On the west side of the river, the wilder side, I come across a mural on the wall of a takeaway shop. The mural is a reference to ancestral times when the area’s two large lakes – Lake Wāhi (west of the river) and Lake Hakanoa (east of the river) were populated with eels. Tribes on both sides were overfishing the lakes, so a tohunga imposed a prohibition (rāhui) on the catching of eels by planting his staff (pōkeka) in the ground. Only when the staff was removed could the fishing of eels resume. Rāhui Pōkeka is the Māori name for Huntly.
I meet local historian, Jean Beverland at the Huntly Museum on the main street. The museum is about the size of a dentist’s waiting room with just enough space to put up a few display boards. Jean and I discuss the divisions and conflicts that are part of Huntly, which has been the largest coal mining town in the North Island for 150 years. “Huntly,” she says, “is famous for its ugly black holes but also for its beautiful, honey-coloured bricks.”
Propped up against the wall is a large-scale plan of Ralph’s Colliery with its web of tunnels and mine shafts. The plan has been superimposed over a map of the township and Jean has marked with red crosses the places where 43 men died in the Ralph Mine disaster of 1914. They were killed in an underground explosion triggered by a miner striking a match in an abandoned section of the mine. The flame ignited firedamp (methane). Smoke from the explosion billowed from the main shaft in the centre of the town, and the reverberating roar of the blast could be heard in Kimihia, four kilometres away.
Huntly is divided by the river, by the railway line and, until recently, by State Highway 1. For several years, before the Waikato Expressway bypassed the town, travellers to and from Hamilton would drive by a large mural of Huntly’s most famous citizens: Jools and Linda Topp. It’s commendable that the Waikato District Council decided to celebrate the Topp Twins – folksingers, activists and lesbians – with the mural. Alas, they were not allowed to dominate the wall space for long. One day, in a rather crude act of gender balance, another mural appeared alongside them, one that marked the Rugby League World Cup tournament of 2017. Viewed from the road, which now carries far less traffic, it looks like a tide of testosterone is heading straight for the twins.
One of my discoveries in Huntly is a Japanese Garden near the edge of Lake Hakanoa. A large sign, erected by the Friends of Lake Hakanoa Walkway, features a diagram of the proposed garden in its final form along with a request for sponsorship to provide the elements that are still required, including a tea house and a pavilion. The sign is faded and the contact number at the bottom is no longer in service when I call. Doing a web search, I find that the Friends of the Lake Hakanoa Walkway, an incorporated society, was dissolved in 2012. This explains the neglected appearance of the garden. However, despite a bald mound representing Mt Fuji with pebbles embedded in its concrete crater, one facet of the garden that does feel authentic is the kare sansui, the dry landscape garden, a feature of Zen temples.
The garden is named after the Seibu Gakuen Bunri Junior High School which sent 250 students to the Waikato each year during the 1990s. I take a black and white photograph of the rocks before continuing on the 3.65 kilometre walkway around the lake. The hum of town traffic gradually gives way to the lowing of cows in the surrounding countryside.
Huntly also has the Genesis Energy Garden, arranged in a formal English style with curving brick flowerbeds and a long pergola that leads to a white metal sundial by the edge of the lake. The sundial is shaped like the fin of a shark. I guess you have to be aggressive in the energy business. Genesis Energy, taking over from Solid Energy, now operates the Huntly Power Station.
The collapse of Solid Energy in 2015 was triggered by falling coal prices. As part of the liquidation sale, its Huntly East Mine was put on the market. Tainui and the Waikato District Council were offered the property and both turned it down. Then a local man, Murray Allen, stepped in and bought the land and its lake. Murray has a vision for the restoration of the site, creating a recreational area that will benefit the community and draw people to Huntly.
Murray’s son, Greg, farms the property next to the mine. He meets me at the old security gates and takes me on a tour of the property in his Honda two-seater, which resembles an industrial golf cart. He shows me the places where there are plans for an extensive nursery, an outdoor education centre and a natural amphitheatre for open air events. The lake – its waters once used for cooling the mine – has no outlet and will slowly fill over the years. Greg and Murray foresee a time when it will be one of the cleanest lakes in the Waikato.
We come to a halt at the property’s highest point. Below us is the lake, and beyond rise the twin chimneys of the Huntly Power Station. When it went into liquidation, Solid Energy left $33million dollars for the restoration of its former mining sites. The Allen family are negotiating with the Waikato District Council to unlock some of that funding for their restoration project. I hope this happens. Huntly is a town where, if you want to get something done, you have to do it yourself.
By the main gate of Bathurst Resources I press the intercom button. Only a month ago some climate activists had chained their necks to the gate in protest of Bathurst’s sponsorship of the 2020 Mineral Forum. But when I state that I’m from the University of Waikato the gates slide open.
I meet with the mine manager and explain my writing project and how I’d like to visit the Carbonisation Works. The Works are visible from his office window but he has never been to the site. “It’s riddled with asbestos and the land is contaminated,” he tells me. However, he does summon a miner, Neville, who will drive me as close as safety will allow. Neville is a walrus of a man, bewhiskered and taciturn. We strap ourselves into his mining vehicle and roar up and down the gravel roads. At one point a family of wild goats bursts out of the bushes and runs ahead of us.
Neville is bemused to find the entry road completely overgrown. We decide to get closer on foot. We plough through a sea of cutty grass and gorse. At times the cutty grass is above my head. I’m scratched and panting and glad that I’m wearing my hiking boots. Then the vegetation thins out, we clamber up a bank and the Carbonisation Works rises before us. The main building is something out of a fairy tale; a rusted sleeping beauty surrounded by an impregnable forest of thistles and thorns.
Returning to the vehicle, Neville leans against the driver’s door and has a smoke. He says that the mine does their bit to spray the weeds on their side, while the Historic Places Trust, which is supposed to manage the Carbonisation Works, lets the weeds run rampant. With its Chernobylesque grandeur, the Carbonisation Works inhabits a forbidden zone, slowly falling apart as the giant mine trucks, carrying their loads of coal, rumble by in the background.
Alan Foote, 83, is one of the last of the old generation of coalminers living in Huntly. I visit him at his home on Hakanoa Street. In the kitchen there’s a framed photograph of him down in the mine, wearing his helmet and lamp. He began working as a miner as soon as he turned 18 and spent 18 years underground and then 18 years as a deputy mine foreman. He tells me that he comes from a family of miners and that coal mining is in his blood. I ask him if he was ever worried about working underground and he says no, not at all. “You’d always watch the roof, and when the roof started to sag, you’d get fine cracks with coal dust coming down. That was a warning sign. At that point you knew that the roof was about to collapse.”
“Did you have canaries in the early days?”
“Yes, the canaries were kept above in the mine office. The cages hung from chains to stop the rats getting in. Each man used to carry a large tin box down into the mine to use as a toilet. Before you went, you’d kick the box to make sure there was no rat inside.”
After our conversation he takes me into his garage and shows me the first helmet he wore; it looks like tin but is made of compressed cardboard. “If a chunk of coal fell from the roof, it would go straight through the bloody thing.” He then holds up his methanometer, which he used during his time as a deputy foreman. It has a hollow steel tube that you’d poke into places that were likely to have a build-up of gas. By squeezing the rubber bulb attached, a mixture of air and gas would be sucked into the tube. If the pointer on the methanometer’s screen when into the red, it was time to get everyone to the surface.
After leaving Alan, I think of the light filtering through the leaves of the oak tree by Lake Hakanoa, and how coal comes from plant matter, decayed into peat and then converted into its mineral form by heat and pressure. Coal is mostly carbon and we, too, are carbon-based beings; old coalminers wandering the earth, across the stubble of winter cornfields, stumbling into ditches, falling prey to illness, until we’re consumed by the flames of a crematorium or buried deep underground. Back to the coal seam. Back to the coal face.
When I returned to the carpark after my walk around Lake Hakanoa, an old Māori man pulled up beside me in his ute, wound down the window and said, “I was worried about you. Your car’s been here for over an hour. I’ve been waiting to see if you’re okay.” I thanked him and explained that I had made a slow tour of the lake, taking photographs and jotting down notes. It turned out that he’s had three strokes, one just the previous week. “I only drink green juice these days. Anything that comes from the mud must be good.” I agreed and mentioned that I had stopped eating meat when I was 16. He volunteers at the nearby Aquatic Centre and drives the elderly to their medical appointments.
A good soul, as my mother would say. This is one of several occasions, during my stay in the Waikato, when I feel that I’ve been taken care of.
Richard Von Sturmer’s essay on Huntly forms a chapter from his forthcoming book Walking with Rocks, Dreaming with Rivers: My Year in the Waikato, completed while he was the 2020 writer in residence at the University of Waikato. ReadingRoom will also publish his chapters on Kihikihi, and Putararu.