By Jim Black | Posted: Thursday November 29, 2018
Great enterprises have to begin somewhere and if the planners have any brains they start small, so that experience fills in the defects of the plan before they swallow money and people’s reputations. At the start of 1974, I was in my first year as a teacher and keen to take part in the school’s outdoor education programme.
The programme was almost as new as I was. The Cadets programme had just died, but the staff felt that the outdoor aspect of military training was too valuable to lose. The Aspinalls had recently moved out of their farmhouse in the East Branch of the Matukituki River and offered the use of it to Otago Boys’ High School and Dunstan Area School. Some conversion was carried out.
The shed out the back became bunk rooms. Some of the bedrooms inside, likewise. The kitchen was reorganised with a bench of gas cookers. Hot water was from a chip heater outside the kitchen, for the kitchen only, though the bathroom still existed. I don’t remember that anyone was allowed to actually use it. For hygiene, there were two corrugated iron sheds with pit toilets and plastic basins with Dettol solution for the hands. Lighting was electric, from a vast Armstrong Siddeley diesel generator in the woodshed. It was little used. There were also two Tilley lanterns. A boy was trained to use them at the start, and did it all week. Water was from a one inch plastic pipe in the creek, which had to be primed with a stirrup pump. As the pipe had to come out of the creek when it rained, not a rare event, it paid to get some skill at this.
The staff were three: an old hand who had managed the school hostel and was pretty un flappable, myself and a student teacher. We slept in an old hut out the back of everything.
To get there meant a long bus trip. To amuse the boys on the way, there was a long questionnaire to fill in. How many times did the bus cross the Clutha? How many bridges in the whole journey? Note the lesser spotted swamp crake’s nest near Ettrick. And so on. There were a couple of toilet stops, Lawrence and Wanaka, but they had to bring a cut lunch. However, we took orders for a hot lunch to be picked up on the way back in Luggate. The idea was that you rang up from the Wanaka Post Office on the way out, and the meals would arrive in paper bags in a big box by the time we got to Luggate. Of course, you left the order at Luggate on the way in. What could possibly go wrong?
After Wanaka the road deteriorated into gravel. After an hour or thirty miles, the bus reached the end of bus-negotiable road and we and our supplies were decanted at the roadside outside the Aspinalls’ new farmhouse. The outgoing party was waiting with their gear carefully placed down valley of the gate. We unloaded ours directly onto a tractor and trailer outfit. It would be hard to say which part of this system was older or more decrepit. The food and equipment went by vehicle but the boys and their packs by Shank’s pony. It was not too bad. The river at Cameron’s Flat was still one branch and needed no skill to cross. Then there was about a mile along the road to the homestead.
We went about our programme for a few days. The Whitewater Racer fibreglass kayaks were stored behind Aspinall’s hay shed just over the river, and we took them by trailer on a rack up the West Branch and ran down to somewhere near the current swing bridge, where the parties changed. There was an overnight camp in the Kitchener Valley up under the Rock of Ages bivvy, and a walk back again the next day. There were also botany, biology, mathematics and geography projects to complete. Communication with the outside world was tricky. You drove the tractor to Cameron Flat and used a walkie talkie radio with Mr Aspinall, who was on the other side. He in turn had a radio at the new house. There was no telephone and if it rained there might be no access down or up the valley because there were some significant fords.
The boys had books if they were bored, but there was really little leisure. They had only two bunk rooms and at night there was some scurrying between them, stones on the roof and much tee heeing. When it got unbearable, one of us would get up and extract the most likely culprit and set him running up and down in the dark between a couple of suitable posts until he seemed tired.
Two days before we were due to go home, it did indeed rain. Thursday, the day before we were due to leave, the Matukituki rose and roared. We had thirty boys to amuse among the three of us, and a living room to keep them in. Friday morning, the day we were to leave, I drove the tractor to the river again and talked to Mr Aspinall. He gave us the weather forecast: rain for three days. We were not happy.
During Friday, the cooking gas ran out. So did the food, apart from our least popular item, a sack of nice fresh cabbages. We were sharing the place alternately with Dunstan High at the time, and they had left a full sack of flour. There was also salt and baking powder. Out behind the house, next to the generator, was a covered woodshed. It was big enough to swing an axe in as well as store wood. When the schools took the building over, the coal range had been dumped there too. It had nothing but the carcass - no top or firebox. But there was also a substantial radiator protector from a tractor. It covered most of the range.
We were saved. We lit a good fire inside it and kept it going. We cut both ends out of the big fruit tins, stuffed them with dough, and turn about, boys rolled them slowly to and fro until they were rather more cooked than not. I can’t remember if there was any butter left, but each tin was eagerly awaited. For dessert there were apples from the little orchard.
By Monday, the rumour was that the weather would let us out the next day. Mr Aspinall ordered us to kill a sheep and eat it. No sooner said than done. An animal was chosen at random, run down by the thirty starvelings and murdered by a farmer’s child. There was a porch to a shed where it was strung up, skinned and cleaned into a wheelbarrow. Then it was cut up and pot roasted on our contraption. What wasn’t roasted was fried. The tractor was ordered to the river and met Mr Aspinall crossing on horseback with a couple of sugar bags of basic groceries. He wasted not a word, but threw them down and left. The meal was huge. It was necessary as the river was still going to be high and the boys had a walk after that, without packs which went on the tractor.
And that really was all. We crossed in the best manner of the time with arms linked and both wrists firmly clutched. I think there was a class waiting to go in and that they had spent a night camped in the wool shed waiting for us. We slept back to Dunedin, apart from picking up our pre ordered lunches in Luggate. Back at school the next day, we all had our photo taken for the paper.
There were some lessons learned. We thanked Mr Aspinall for his sheep. He grunted and said “Why don’t you do it all the time?” This offer was taken up. Unfortunately. But that is another tale.
When the new Lodge was built, for some years we kept several days’ dry food aside. It was kept under the window bed in the sick bay, where there is a secret trapdoor under the mattress. But no-one has ever been trapped again, at least, not at the Lodge. And that is another story.
The gas ration was increased so that it was extremely unlikely that anyone would run out. Mr Oben donated a No.1 Shacklock Orion range, which was parked on the front lawn, just in case. At that time cattle had free access and in the end this valuable antique was given up to Aspinall’s rubbish pit, and replaced by the two barbecues that are there now. And it is possible to cook on the open fire with Mr Sinclair’s griddle kept under the kitchen bench. It should be used more because all the smoke and fat goes up the chimney.
Direct communication with Dunedin would have solved a few problems. Mr Foster installed a single side band radio between the Lodge and his farm. For various political and safety reasons, we finished up using the Canterbury Mountain Radio Service.
Water is one of the three essentials of life. When it rained, water had to be fetched in buckets from the flooded creek next door. So there was another lesson. The new Lodge got a large concrete header tank soon after it opened.