Wondrous Waikino by Toby Hendy
Nestled away between the tall hills of the Karangahake Gorge rests what was once the focal point of Waikato’s gold rush; the township of Waikino. In the early 1900s it was home to the Victoria Battery, New Zealand’s largest industrial complex at the time; heralding a thriving era for the town. With an established village and pivotal railway system, Waikino was a place where jobs were plenty, money was made and people were happy.
However, one personal grievance lodged on the 19th October 1923 was enough to leave it with a legacy that spoke about more than just mining.
“You simply must send your children to school, Mr. Higgins. They need an education, as they cannot work on your farm forever.”
“These are my children and they will help me with the cows for as long as I need them to. They will learn off the land!”
“Mr. Higgins, please sit back down. We can resolve this quarrel if you would listen to me.”
“I’m not listening to some senseless headmaster!”
John Higgins stepped back from the desk and reached into his coat. Fingers curled firmly around the grip, he pulls out a gun and points it towards his challenger. Headmaster Reid hopes it is just a threat, but swivels his neck to find some help. There is no one in sight.
The next second blood drips down his exposed jaw and a bullet is lodged in the bone. The wound does not turn out to be fatal, but repercussions of Higgins’ induced rage do.
Firing indiscriminately, Higgins shoots into a classroom over the corner of a windowsill. He takes the life of two school children and injures five others, including Waihi’s Constable Olsen. Eventually surrendering, Higgins signals the end of a tragedy which marks Waikino as the location of New Zealand’s only - and deadly - school shooting.
By the 1980s, Waikino was making good progress to move on from its past, although the tragedy remained unforgettable. An influx of people came to Waikino for the cheap housing, and freedom culture. The town was a bustling centre for hippies and craftspeople, and big enough to host music festivals attracting thousands from all over New Zealand. Waikino had a town hall, and retail shops, food stores and traders all did well placed in such a bustling location. As usual the craft fair is open and hundreds of tourists, drawn by the quirky atmosphere, flood retail outlets on the main street - something I’ve only been able to see in photographs.
The steam train runs its well-worn track and children sometimes run and chase it in the hopes of a toot from the conductor. Even the bikers will stop for a drink at the tavern to admire the scenic Ohinemuri River flowing through the picturesque gorge.
What sets today apart is that when the river rises with the rain, it doesn’t stop at the banks. Where the farm animals usually revel in the fact that their journey to drink has been made slightly shorter, today they can be seen running from the torrents of chocolate water herding them into the corners of their paddocks.
Forcefully snapping established ferns; Waikino’s 1981 flood also brings an end to the established highway community. Homes, businesses and lifestyles ebb downstream; picked up and stolen from their rightful places.
Water is a wondrous thing, bringing life and joy, building up civilisations and establishing lifestyles. With these credentials comes the power of force, brutality and sorrow. The power to bring loss to a place that has so much to lose.
Waikino is a Maori term translating to water in a gorge. People tried to tame the land, to make it a community in a gorge, but in the end its name was inescapable. Waikino would always belong to, and be held captive by, the water. Water is also a cleaning agent, something that has the ability to wash away blemishes.
With an entire town destroyed, there was nothing to hold on to the sins of the past. Whether it had been good or bad, all history was wiped clean. Waikino was given a new start and a fresh conscience. Regrets and dirty secrets flowed away down the river, just as fast as the rest of the town.
The years have passed, and in 2011, remnants of the town still stand. My brother attends the redeemed and repaired Waikino School. A colourful banner celebrates their centennial year, but little remains of the events that shaped the century.
My father is one of a few remaining old-fashioned gold miners, and part of a critically endangered species. The historic school of mines is no longer practical for the new anti- mining community.
Aunty Barbara remains living perched above the river in one of the only houses to survive the flood. I eat chocolate cake on her porch as she shows me where her favourite store used to stand, and points out how life could have been today if things had happened differently.
Now Waikino is just that mysterious nook a few kilometres out of Waihi, known for no more than its quirky old train station and outlandish sheriff, Rusty Gunn. His car is laden with massive backseat speakers, a tangle of gimmicks and a little dog that rides next to the dinosaurs on the bonnet.
He isn’t the only eccentric here; there is the mad cat lady and the real-estate agent who liked to talk. Rusty once told me that he was an 8-ball champion; he carries a staff with one mounted on the top. Children sometimes run when they feel the pounding of his stereo coming near.
Don’t laugh or he may shoot you with the gun strapped to his belt. It won’t hurt though; it’s only plastic.
‘Wondrous Waikino’ 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 was in the Young Writers (13-18) category, and the judges were Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.