Back in the early 80s, as an RP (Regimental Police), I was detailed (along with another) to perform a reconnaissance of the Grey Valley on the West Coast of New Zealand for a forthcoming Battalion exercise.
The region we were to recce meant heading north from Christchurch towards Hamner Springs then doing a sharp left through the winding Lewis Pass and voila!
We arrived in Reefton in the afternoon and checked into our motel. My companion and I went to the hotel for dinner but ended up staying much later; in fact, way past closing time. The reason I remembered it so well is that the local cop was in the bar with us drinking and he was the one who let us out when we finally got tired of drinking shots.
Over the remainder of that week, we posted Bn traffic signs, visited suitable locations for Battalion Headquarters, enjoyed the local hospitality. It was there I began to fall in love with the place, and often swore afterwards that if I was to return to NZ to retire, it would be Reefton.
After our week, I reluctantly returned to Burnham. But I was not done with Reefton or the Grey Valley. Some of my treasured times with 2/1 RNZIR happened in that region.
For instance, not long after, there was the time at Ahaura. We had been acting as enemy party for another rifle company conducting their own organised training. Once we had completed our task, we were left to our own devices and decided to stay at the pub for the night before heading back to Burnham.
That stay was memorable because we ended up running the bar after the hotel patron went to bed. He allowed us because we were the only ones left anyway and he was tired. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and did not go to bed until the wee hours of the morning. There was a price for staying up though. Unfortunately one of our guys got blackballed because he piked out on us too early by crawling to bed. We had our standards.
The leisurely recuperating session down by the river, where a few of us ended up jumping off into that cooling water because the day was quite hot, was useful. Imagine puking all the way back to Burnham.
There was also the time whilst on a company exercise (I had done my stint in RPs and was now back in a Rifle company), we stopped the exercise because our OC knew it was an important occasion and suspended the exercise to allow those rugby tragics the opportunity to spend the night at the Mawheraiti Pub. It had already been arranged with the publican who didn’t seem to mind waking up around 2am and opening his pub to a contingent of soldiers keen to watch their beloved All Blacks on his tv.
The region had grown on me by then. And when it came time for platoon training, I knew where I was taking my section. The region has several lakes that are accessed off-road as they are generally remote from the highway. Reaching this particular lake I had selected was therefore a jaunt for us fit fellows.
As we strolled up the walking trail we would often hear the nearby stream that trailed beside us for much of the way. We paused for a break and quickly discovered fish in the waters. Not being a fisherman by any desire didn’t disqualify me from understanding passion though, and we had a couple of keen fishermen in the team who were already ditching weapons and gear and splashing about chasing startled fish.
I have to admit that it was a hilarious yet rewarding afternoon watching my guys in knee-deep water attempting to capture fish with their bare hands. One was doing the kukri thing and lashing out at the water in his frustration. My 2IC was the best though as he caught his fish using that technique you see often on tv/movies of tickling their undersides and then flipping them out of the water.
Once we caught enough to supplement our rat packs meals (Army-issue ration packs in my day were both disgusting and heavy), we found a hollowed out tree stump. And while some built a fire using wet or green firewood, the fisher folk amongst us gutted their paltry prize, and prepared them for smoking (which, admittedly, none of them knew how to do properly). The rest of us just bivouacked, making it as comfortable as possible. Me, being leader, did squat all.
We went to sleep believing we would wake up to a smoked fish breakfast. But during the night, however, we awoke abruptly when our hollowed out tree stump caught fire. After several minutes panicking and then putting out the fire, we went back to sleep disappointed that all our efforts had ended so badly.
The Lewis Pass region is quite beautiful in its own right. It is the northernmost of the three main passes over the Southern Alps, the mountainous spine of the South Island of New Zealand. Places like Springs Junction and Ikamatua evoke warm memories that are now all changed; after all, these memories are over thirty years old.
Postscript: Much of what I remember about some of these places have, obviously, changed over time. But the point of retelling these adventures is that times change with each generation. For example, I did a quick internet search for Mawheraiti and saw my blog post (surprise, surprise!) sitting underneath a local news report about local residents being afraid to go out at night in Reefton. I was shocked because I never ever felt fearful or threatened in my whole time in the area. But then I was never there when the region was coal and gold mined extensively back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those times would certainly have been even more rough than any time I grew up in, or today. `
Acknowledgement: All photos are taken from the internet and due credit is given to the original owners of these photos. Cheers. 🙂