by mike crean
The road buzzes with traffic as I climb away from the Waitaki River, opposite Kurow, and descend to the Hakataramea Valley. It's 9am. On the normally lonely road, about 20 cars flash past me.
They are leaving the sparsely populated inland South Canterbury basin. There can be hardly anyone left in Haka. Valley this mroning.
I know of no natural disater that these people are escaping. There must be a ewe fair somewhere, or a funeral to attend.
For the next half hour, I drive the empty roads of the deserted valley. A harrier hawk lumbers reluctantly into the air from its roadside carrion feast. A pair of oyster-catchers zips low over the tussock grassland with loud squawks.
Far off I hear a hammer tapping. Bonfire smoke billows above pine trees behind the old school.
Then I saa a couple of residents having morning tea on their veranda. They are Lynne & Fred Blackie and they confirm most of the district has gone to the funeral of an old valley identity in Timary at 11am.
The Blackies have lived here 20y. They are like sentries, keeping an eye on things.
They have noticed an increase in visitors to the Valley in the last few years, people poking about, peering left & right, then driving away again. They put the place's new-found popularity down to Richie McCaw. This All blacks captain country. McCaw put his home territory on the map.
Time has changed since McCaw grew up here in the 1980s. He attended Haka. Valley School. It was well supported by the community and boasted a covered, heated swimming pool. It closed in 2005. The Ministry of Education judged the children would benefit socially from a bigger school in Kurow, and the daily bus trip there and back.
The Blackies say the school was the focal point of the valley, bec. there was no hall or pub. The community used the local facilities for functions & meetings. Now it has been sold valley residents are at a loss.
The buyer of the school once lived in the valley but left to set up a motorcycle trekking operation at Queenstown. He has plans for something similar here.
Another school stood 30km north, at the head of this long, wide valley. Cattle Creek School managed to hang on a year longer, sustained by the strength of its small & close community wedged into the vee where the valley becomes rolling foothills that run back to the Kirkliston range on the west and the Hunter Hills on the east.
A rough road leads from there, over Haka. Pass to Dog Kennel Corner, near Tekapo. It is the only way out, except for a four-wheel-drive track, through the hills towards Waimate.
John Bartlett was principal the Haka. Valley when McCaw started school. He rememberes the boy as big & robust, and inclined to be a bit fiery if things weren't going well. Rugby players the world over will agree with that.
Teaching there was paradise, bec. the community was fantastic, Bartlett says.the Blackies agree -the best thing about the valley is the commnuity. Or was ; as many old families have left in the last 10y, as big farming companies have swept in & bought up land. Only one McCaw remains, an uncle of Richie.
The companies slashed numbers of farm workers, hiring contractors for the big jobs. they paid such high prices for farms that land values soared, making it difficult for local young people to own their own places.
A couple of farm houses have been bought by Americans who take fishing holidays here a few months each year.Haka. Station's 139y-old, 24 stand limestome woolshed testifies that the valley has long ridden on the sheep's back.
However, grapes have been planted recently & more are coming.Bartlett says the valley was a virtual dustbowl after the nor'westers dried it out each spring. The Blackies say keeping a good garden is difficult withe the limited water supplu. Irrigation is changing that.
For many years a mobile kindergarden, based 65km away in Waimate, visited Haka. Valley once a week. Two teachers brought their equipment in a van & taught children in the old school house. The community had renoved the old house when the new one came in 1975. Since both shool houses were sold, the community has opened a playcenter at the valley's gun-club premises.
The new school was brought to Haka. Valley on a truck in 1975. the climb up the hill from the Waitaki side proved too steep & the house fell off. Bulldozers had to drag it back onto the road, where it was lifted onto the truck again.
Lucky there was no funeral that day...
Personal comment : Life in the country is a blessing one should daily enjoy :)