Richard Von Sturmer completes his trilogy of evocations of Waikato towns
The first thing I see on my approach to Putaruru is the town’s sign, a large circular sawblade imprinted with the blue waters of the nearby Waihou River.
In my dictionary of Māori place names Putaruru means “the home of the owl”, “ruru” being New Zealand’s native owl, also known as the morepork. For many years, when Putaruru was a borough, the owl appeared on the town’s coat-of-arms.
Stopping at the South Waikato District Council building, I enquire about the coat-of-arms. Diana, the woman behind the counter, knows what I’m after and checks their strongroom. She then telephones a colleague in Tokoroa as she thinks they may have a collection of town crests, but it cannot be located.
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She apologises and says it must be somewhere in storage. As well as the owl, the coat-of-arms featured the Southern Cross, three bars of cobalt, a sheep in a sling and a pine tree.
On the footpath outside the Putaruru Hotel (where I’ll stay the night), there is a mandala-like mosaic: a sawblade, spinning anti-clockwise, flinging out planks of timber while a stand of uncut pine trees occupies the upper right corner.
In the early days of the town it was cows verses pine trees. Settlers found the land – seeded with pumice from the volcanic eruption that created Lake Taupo – nearly impossible to farm.
Livestock suffered from a mysterious “bush sickness” with cows and sheep withering away in the fields. On maps drawn up in the 1920s, Putaruru fell under a “black ring” which meant that no bank would lend farmers the money to develop their property.
At one stage it looked like the prosperous timber industry would take over the land contained within the black ring for the planting of pine trees.
Then, in the 1930s, through chemical testing it was discovered that the bush sickness was caused by a deficiency of cobalt in the soil. Without cobalt the livestock were unable to assimilate iron.
After that, with the fields sprayed with fertilisers containing cobalt (I imagine a fine blue mist), pastures came back to life, cattle grew strong and healthy, and the march of pine trees came to a halt.
Thinking about black rings, on an industrial back street near the cement works I come across a woman’s shoe resting on a smeared circle of ash and charred wood. It could be an example of spontaneous combustion, or a reminder of the volcanic nature of the land. I should tread carefully, I tell myself, even on such a bright autumn day.
During my childhood, each summer on our way to a fishing lodge on the shores of Lake Taupo, my father would stop in a pine forest a few kilometres south of Tokoroa. Getting out of the car, we would admire the turquoise waters of a small forestry lake.
Before resuming our trip, my father never failed to take a photograph of the lake. Each visit felt like a new beginning. Although I’ve searched through boxes, I can’t find those photographs, and the lake itself has disappeared from the side of the road, lost somewhere among the pine trees.
What I didn’t know at the time is that Hatupatu’s Rock could be found on that same stretch of road. In one telling of the Māori legend, a boy named Hatupatu was captured by Kurangaituku, a wild bird woman.
He managed to escape from her cave in the mountains and as she pursued him with claws outstretched, he took refuge in a rock that opened to receive him and then sealed itself over once he was inside. Today a semi-circle of punga trunks shields the rock from the traffic speeding along State Highway 1. I press a sprig of bracken against my forehead and place it in the hollow of the rock.
In a parallel legend, a slave, Ruru, whose mistress, Korekore, has been killed by her husband, sets off to inform her family of Korekore’s death. The husband sends out a search party with orders to kill the slave. In the Putaruru area, Ruru finds a hiding place in the forest undergrowth and stays there until his pursuers are out of sight. “Puta” in Māori means to shelter. So, an alternative translation of Putaruru is “The hiding place of Ruru”.
On my way back from Hatupatu’s Rock, I stop at the New Zealand Timber Museum. Among the array of buildings on site, including Putaruru’s first jail and the town’s original hotel (burnt down in 1893 and rebuilt in 1895), there is the Natural History Hall, which houses a collection of taxidermy: stuffed kiwis with their seemingly oversized eggs; two distressed paradise ducks, a male and a female, attached to a tree branch; a black swan with a decaying neck and a chipped red bill; a scrawny rabbit frozen in the act of keeling over; and at long last a ruru, a morepork, with glassy eyes and a mass of moth-coloured feathers, holding in its beak a skeletal mouse. The only bird that looks reasonably happy is a cockatoo in a glass case, surrounded by a number of smaller parrots.
I wish this collection of curiosities would vanish in a cloud of dust. It belongs in a shabby backroom in a forgotten Victorian museum. Even the organisation that sponsored the exhibits, the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, no longer exists.
In the foyer of The Plaza, Putaruru’s performing arts centre, an electronic sign scrolls past with the message, “For fitness try Scottish country dancing”. I talk with Ashleigh, the theatre manager, about the town’s hidden gems. She immediately suggests the Putaruru Hotel and is pleased that I have already discovered what was once described as “an imposing and opulent edifice”. She mentions that the owners built a special suite for Queen Elizabeth II when she visited New Zealand in 1954. Unfortunately, on her tour of the Waikato, the young Queen bypassed Putaruru and spent the night in Cambridge.
That evening I park the car behind the hotel, in its shadow. In the early morning, with the temperature below zero, I find the car encased in ice. Scraping a porthole in the front window, I reposition the car on the street, in the light and warmth of the rising sun.
After breakfast I continue my explorations, coming across the town’s concrete skate bowl. Filled with dead leaves, it resembles a drained swimming pool, its curved sides reminding me of the dry canals of Los Angeles.
On Kensington Street, Tibetan prayer flags are strung outside St Paul’s Anglican-Methodist Church. I take them to be signs of an interfaith dialogue. But on closer inspection they turn out to be coloured pennants.
And at the centre of town, its rocks gleaming in the sunlight, is the Putaruru Waterpark, which represents the Upper Waihou River. Like the skate bowl, it remains bone dry. In the background rise the stately pleasure domes of what was once the Putaruru Post Office. Opened on June 19, 1970, it was celebrated as “a fantasy in vaulting concrete and glass”, and soon became one of the most photographed buildings in the Waikato. It is now an International Food Court.
Fixed as rocks, as fence posts. Fixed as a pine tree that will be cut down and replaced by another. Fixed as a water tower, waiting for a steam train that will never arrive . . . I feel the need for something that flows. And with this in mind, I decide to spend the rest of the day on the Te Waihou Walkway.
The sky remains crystal clear after the five weeks of lockdown. But the logging trucks and milk tankers are once more navigating Putaruru’s roundabouts. I’m also behind the wheel, pulling into the walkway’s White Road entrance. From there it will take me on a 4.5 kilometre hike to the Blue Spring at the far end. Following the curves of the river, I pass though gently undulating farmland.
the folds in the hillside
are the folds in my brain,
my green brain
Gaston Bachelard, in his book Water and Dreams, wrote, “Dreamers dedicated to water imagery know instinctively that an emerald is the dream of a river.”
seen through the eyes
of a pukeko
seen through the leaves
of a plane tree
And Bachelard once more, “Dreaming by the river, I dedicate my imagination to water . . . the clear water that makes the meadows green. I cannot sit beside a stream without falling into a profound reverie.”
I keep moving. At one point, checking to see that no one else is on the walkway, I tell a fantail that flutters around me how beautiful she is. Further on, the shadow of a hawk passes across the pale branches of a gum tree.
the ice-blue water
Bachelard believed that rivière was more French than any other word, and he contrasted it to the brutal sound of the English word river. For him rivière was a word that perfectly called forth an image, that transported the speaker, and the listener, into a realm where everything is liquid.
The blue smoke of Baudelaire, the pastels of Odilon Redon. . . .Towards the end of my journey, Monet makes an appearance. It is now late in the afternoon. I turn around and head back to the carpark. Au revoir, reverie. The river continues on its way.
In a desolate landscape
of pine stumps
and broken branches
the spiders spin
their ragged webs.
A week later, on a topological map of the Tokoroa area, I see a small blue circle beside a forestry road. Wondering if this could be the lost lake of my childhood, I head south again, driving through thick mist and into a maze of logging tracks. When the going gets too rough, I continue on foot, entering a landscape of bulldozed earth and shattered trees. It could be a scene out of the Battle of the Somme, sans soldiers but with a similar sense of destruction. About where the lake should be, there is a hollow of reeds and ferns. I listen to the muffled sound of flowing water, but the lake has gone.
Richard Von Sturmer’s three-part series on Waikato towns is taken 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. He has previously evoked Huntly and Kihikihi.