Grampa's 90th

We could never have a Maori day off from school. Our parents made us attend school whenever it was open. Other kids seemed to take a day off for all sorts of reasons. It was a surprise therefore when mum told us that we were taking two days off to attend Grampa's 90th birthday. We would travel from Waitara to Auckland on the Friday and return on the Monday. In 1863, when Grampa was 6 years old he came to New Zealand from England on the ship "Bombay". This ship on a later trip brought the settlers for the Bombay settlement.

Grampa lived in Auckland for a few years before shifting up to Port Albert on the Kaipara where he went to school, married and had a family of four boys. After his wife died, he moved back to Auckland and married my grandmother who was the first white baby born in the Port Albert settlement. Grampa worked with survey parties as a lineman, and as a builder. He built a number of houses around Auckland. In 1914, at the age of 57 he shifted to Birkdale and spent the rest of his life in the Birkenhead area, growing strawberries and fruit, and building houses. He attended Zion Hill Methodist Church regularly and was over 80 when he built a house for himself in Birkenhead Avenue next to the church.

On the day we travelled to Auckland mum was up early. By 7am we had had breakfast and were packed into Chrystabel ready to go. The food was packed in the box on the carrier on the back. Dad and the two older boys Brian and Neal were in the front seat. Mum was in the back with the three younger children, the baby Joan who was two, Peter who was six and I was eight. While travelling, we all had our pillows and blankets to keep us warm as there was no heating in the car. Chrystabel was our green 1926 Chrysler car. There was plenty of room with the wide deep seats in both the front and the back. When we went camping, Mum and Dad slept in the car. The front seat folded down to make a good-sized bed.

We got away to a good start. We sped past Urenui and soon met the end of the tarseal just past Urýti. The car chugged up Mount Messenger in low gear. It was boiling by the time we were halfway to the summit but Dad persevered and only stopped at the top, waiting for five minutes before gingerly removing the radiator cap and letting it cool down. When we bought the car some years earlier, the radiator cap had been adorned with a winged eagle, but Dad had to break off the wing tips, as they were considered too dangerous. When the car had cooled down sufficiently, we were on our way again. Dad always beeped the horn in the tunnel. We then wound our way down the narrow metal road to Tongaporutu, opening all the windows to try to stop the exhaust fumes from making us sick.

On past Mokau to Awakino and the gorge. By this time we were all ready to stop for a rest but Mum promised us a drink once we were through the gorge. The road was terrible, narrow, windy and rough. What would we do if we met another vehicle coming the other way? We met a bus and had to reverse back to a place where the road was wider so we could pass. By the time we reached the tunnel, three of us had been carsick. If we gave enough warning, Dad stopped the car to let us out to throw up on the side of the road. When we finally stopped for a drink, we didn't feel like eating or drinking anything. Dad set up the Thermette and we scrabbled around looking for sticks to burn in it and a stream to get some water. Within 10 minutes the water was boiling and Mum and Dad had their cup of tea. We usually had milk or cordial. We always had biscuits.

After the Awakino Gorge, the road improved slightly, it was not quite so windy until the Mahoenui Hill. We plodded up this watching out for the gates beside the road with Bill or Thomas or Hori or Jack written on them. Down the hill to Piopio and soon after midday we reached the Eight Mile Junction to Taumaranui and stopped for lunch. Once more the Thermette was lit and we sat down to lunch on blankets spread on the ground. Bread was cut, spread and eaten. A piece of cake and a drink of milk followed this. Apples were quartered and shared around. We then all relieved ourselves in the bushes.

By one o'clock we had reached Te Kuiti and the sealed road. Six hours to Te Kuiti. Today we can do it in less than half the time but Mum and Dad were happy. From then on it was plain sailing along the relatively flat, straight sealed roads. Otorohanga, Te Awamutu, Hamilton. Afternoon tea alongside the Waikato River and a stop at the toilets at Mercer Railway Station.

After Pokeno, we climbed up the Bombay Hills with frequent reminders that the Collision Crossroads were fast approaching. Coming down the hill we could see Auckland in the distance. We were nearly there. We then counted off the towns, Drury, Papakura, Takanini, Manurewa, Papatoetoe ...... We bumped along the concrete road watching out for the Reidrubber revolving sign and the car on top of a post, past the Blind Institute and down through Parnell to the wharves to catch the ferry about six o'clock.

We had to queue while we watched one boat come and go. Once on the boat, we all stretched our legs as we travelled to Birkenhead. The smell and heat of the engine room enveloped us as we walked past the open hatch. At Birkenhead, the children were all dropped off at the various places where we were to stay, Brian at Uncle Cliff's in Wairoa Avenue, Neal at Uncle Frank's in Zion Road, me at Auntie Gertie's in Zion Road, and Mum, Dad and the two younger ones at Auntie Alma's in Park Road. It had been a long day and we were all ready for bed.

Grampa's 90th birthday party went well. There were dozens of relatives at the Sunday School Hall. I only knew my aunties, uncles and cousins from Grampa's second family. There was no alcohol. We had a wonderful time mixing soft drinks together.

The next day we all went to church at Zion Hill, the Utting boys all looking the same dressed in their grey shirts and shorts mum had made for us.

On Monday we set off home. By the time all the family was collected up, it was after 10 o'clock when we left Birkenhead. The weather was bad. The car was stuffy but we made good time through the Waikato. By the time we reached Te Kuiti, we had sung all the songs and played all the games which make a car trip go more quickly - I Spy, Ten Green Bottles (which somehow became 50 Green Bottles), One man went to Mow and so did One Hundred Men and their Dog.

We stopped to relieve ourselves, and for lunch and afternoon tea. We pushed on in the rain. South of Mokau, the car stopped. It was nearly dark but it was not raining. The timing belt had broken. We were stuck for the night. Water was found in nearby stream and the Thermette was boiled. Mum found us food to eat. We wrapped ourselves in blankets and settled down for the night. We watched one of the most spectacular lightning displays seen in the district for years. The rain pelted but we were dry and not too cold.

By daybreak, the rain had stopped and Mum once again somehow found us something to eat. We packed up our things and stopped the Gibson's bus on its morning run from Te Kuiti to New Plymouth. Dad got off at Tongaporutu, found a garage and after having the car towed there, arrived home later that evening. Brian went on to an exam at New Plymouth Boys High where he was in the fourth form, and the rest of us got off at the Pa in Waitara and walked home. We must have looked a bedraggled lot.

We had lunch and were sent to school for the afternoon session.


Alec Utting
April 1995