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Suggest changes to: My Place in the Heart: A Memory of Omakau by Joy Blair

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Please note: This article was originally part of Tauranga City Library's 'Tauranga Memories' website (2011-2020). To your right the 'Archived Kete Link', if present, will take you to a snapshot of the original record. Tauranga Memories was made of several focus areas, called 'baskets'. This article was part of the New Zealand Society of Authors Bay of Plenty basket. It was first licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License at Initially created 20/02/2012, it underwent 6 edit, the last edit being 17/10/2016. Editors included: Tauranga City Libraries staff (Debbie McCauley) and Tauranga City Libraries staff (Harley Couper). The original article may have included links, images etc that are not present here.
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My 'place in the heart' is encapsulated in these lines from a poem I wrote many years after leaving the small rural township where I grew up: ...last night I dreamed again a small white house circled by perfect green basking in mountains' benign gaze dreamed pristine sky bright new-born sun... Since then I've lived in several New Zealand cities and holidayed in some overseas, but the place I carry with me is Omakau in Central Otago. Twenty-three kilometres north-east of Alexandra on State Highway 85, Omakau lies on the Manuherikia river. The Daniel O'Connell bridge, dated 1800 and one of the few suspension bridges left in this country, with the 'new' bridge further up the river, provide a link for Omakau and Ophir. The latter small town is perhaps the better known of the two as a tourist destination because of its early gold-mining history, which today affords many of its buildings Historic Places status. However, when the gold boom ended, Ophir entered a period of decline while in contrast Omakau flourished. In 1904 the rail link from Dunedin through Central was extended, passing through Omakau and on to Cromwell. Taking the line across the river to Ophir was deemed too expensive. Since then the railway has influenced Omakau's former growth, gradual decline and recent regeneration. With the railway making it one of the country's busiest stock loading stations, the rural town I remember was a thriving settlement. We had a Post Office, the mail and newspapers coming on the train twice a week from Dunedin. There was a Bank of New Zealand, stock and station agent, two grocers, two garages - one with smithy attached - a clothing store and boarding house. At the confectionery shop cum lending library we bought threepenny ice-creams on 'picture' nights. At the community hall films were shown once a fortnight, adults charged one and sixpence, children ninepence. Dances were held there, too, the young women resplendent in long dresses, the older women busy laying out sandwiches, sausage rolls and cream sponges. We'd never heard of cholesterol in those days. As was usual at the time, women sat at one end of the hall while the men gathered at the other. We children slid up and down the French chalked floor in between dances. The Catholic Church, today preserved in all its grandeur, stood on the hill, with the Anglican Church placed diplomatically some distance away. Two hotels provided a secular balance. When I started school there was a small secondary department. By the time I left, those who didn't go off to city schools took correspondence lessons. The dental nurse, health nurse and school inspector made scary annual visits. We played sports and learnt to swim, at first in the disused stream at my grandfather's derelict flour mill, later in the school pool. Those faraway days now seem a time of endless summer. We rode our bikes, went swimming, tramped thyme scented hills checking rabbit-traps with little sympathy spared the victims, scourge that they were and becoming so again today. Even the war hardly registered with us children. A father or relative at the front was a source of pride rather than anxiety, until the threat of Japanese invasion loomed. Then we vowed we'd take Grand-dad and run to the hills. Never mind that he walked with a stick or that we'd never seen him run. The closing line of my poem speaks of 'grass... green enough for dreaming.' Of course, it wasn't always green. Impossible with summer temperatures sometimes 101 degrees F/38 C and the annual rainfall approximately 14 inches/335mm. Often the coal-fired train started a grass fire as it passed through the paddocks beside the line. Then men quickly appeared to help my father beat it out with wet sacks. In winter the grass could be brittle with frost lasting days or deep in snow. School closed for the day when the school bus couldn't get through. Then if the ice was thick enough we went skating on the pond. Completion of the Roxburgh hydro-electric dam on the Clutha in 1956, coupled with better roads, made rail passenger and freight transport less cost effective. Eventually Central's railway closed, resulting in the decline of places like Omakau. The opening of the Otago Central Rail Trail in 2000 revitalized the area. Several of Central's small towns have become home to artists and writers of note. Winter sports are a drawcard in some. The early farming and goldmining history of these places, Omakau included, makes them attractive destinations to both local and overseas tourists. Many of the buildings I knew have become guest-houses or antique shops. The Commercial Hotel built in 1898, firstly as a farm homestead, later a resting stop for travellers, is completely renovated. The menu would equal that of any first class city establishment. Constructed in approximately 1880 of schist, the local stone, the hotel stables are restored to Historic Trust status. The school's still there resplendent with a top-class swimming pool that's become public. The small white house remains, although perhaps not for long. Residential developments have swallowed paddocks that I hurried through on my way to school, skilfully avoiding sheep droppings as I ran. Sadly, the orchard of sun-ripened fruit is only a luscious memory. Not only as a nostalgic childhood dream, Omakau deserves its 'place in my heart' as a memorial to the men who established productive farms despite extreme winter and summer temperatures, ever-encroaching gorse, ever-rapacious rabbits; those who carved out roads and tunnels, laid miles of rail track; the women who worked just as hard making homes, raising children. It also deserves its place as a tribute to those present day pioneers whose innovation and energy is creating a new dream. Sometimes the grass of childhood is green enough for dreaming. About the writer: Joy Blair lives on Auckland's North Shore where she writes mostly poetry, but also short stories, some based on childhood memories. She says her interest in writing is influenced by geography (growing up in a small country town) and genetics (a great-aunt is a published New Zealand poet.) 'My Place in the Heart: a Memory of Omakau' was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers. ---- This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: Please note that articles on Tauranga Memories were often uploaded on behalf of a member of the public, meaning sometimes the author is misattributed to a library staff member. Please contact us if this is the case for an article you authored.
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