Dannevirke: Bygone bullock days remembered

By Christine McKay

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The Burlings bullock team working at Pongaroa, with Bill Brannigan the driver. In the background are the roads to Akitio and Pahiatua, and the hotel and school.
The Burlings bullock team working at Pongaroa, with Bill Brannigan the driver. In the background are the roads to Akitio and Pahiatua, and the hotel and school.

For Akitio's Muriel Cowan, stories of the bullock teams at Akitio Beach are a rich part of our district's history.

"I've been fortunate to share the memories of Bill Wright who died in 2013 and stories of the last apprentice bullocky at Akitio, George Watson. They are remarkable gems of our local history and we don't want them to be forgotten," she said.

"I found it incredible the bullocks instinctively knew not to get into the surf when sharks were about."

Bill was just a baby in the 1920s when his parents returned to Akitio to live in the old Wright homestead by the Akitio River mouth. He spent his last days at Rahiri rest home in Dannevirke where he spent time recalling his days on the Coast.

And although not a bullocky, Bill didn't find it easy saying goodbye to the bullock teams.

"I gave a hand in droving the last of the bullocks to their last holding paddock.

They were big, old fellows of 18 years and after knowing them all my life it was sad to see them on their last trip and I cried when I said goodbye."

But the bullock teams weren't just involved in carting wool to the surfboats for loading on to steamers.

"That was very seasonal work, so the bullocks were also used for hauling the pile drivers from the Pongaroa Bridge to be used on the original bridge at Akitio," Muriel said. "They also carted hundreds of cords of wood to the two main homesteads, Akitio and Marainanga to help keep those massive homes warm."

During the bullock days stores were shipped into Akitio, sometimes only once every six months.

"One of the ships was Ripple, a crazy name for a steamer which had to battle along that East Coast.

"They would bring massive quantities of sugar, flour and barrels of jam. A lot of places didn't serve dessert, it was bread and jam, especially for staff," Muriel said.

In his notes given to Muriel, Bill wrote that at high tide on a big sea the bullocks would be under water and at other times fighting the big waves.

"Watching the waves it was obvious that every seventh wave was going to be the big one. There were the big rogue waves running parallel with the coast. They would cause the surf boats to bash into the bullocks. Old Watty Kingston had to stand up by the lead bullock to keep control of his team. And the driver did his share under water too. The bullocks showed scars and had hair rubbed off where the surf boat rubbed along their sides. I remember one big, red bullock called Rusty. He had a lump on his neck as big as a 50 pound bag of sugar. But he worked on for years after that."

In the early 1920s Watty Kingston took over Walter Plowman's wool surfing contract and the Plowmans moved from Akitio to Pongaroa before going farming at Toi Flat.

As well as carting wool to the coastal ships, the bullocks also carted wool to the landing sheds and delivered groceries from the boats to the station house cooks and residents.

At the time all the bullock teams were working carting posts and wire, firewood, wool, carrots for rabbit poisoning and other general farm work between Pongaroa, Waione and the Coast.

Watty Kingston was described as a very tough man who was a terrific worker.

"He could pull a cross-cut saw for days on end and when surfing wool he would be in and out, in and out and in and out of the cold sea with his bullocks 10 to 15 hours a day," Bill wrote.

Wool bales on a cart being pulled to the shore by a team of bullocks at Akitio, Wairarapa. The wool would then be loaded on to lighters to be transferred to a ship.
Wool bales on a cart being pulled to the shore by a team of bullocks at Akitio, Wairarapa. The wool would then be loaded on to lighters to be transferred to a ship.

"To keep out the cold he'd drink a large amount of rum and whiskey."

George Watson and Jack Skipper had a big job in the afternoons keeping him awake. Watty would stand by his bullocks at times up to his shoulders in the sea and go to sleep waiting for George and Jack to unload the wool bales on to the surfboat.

Bill wrote that the bullocks on farms and involved in general wool cartage didn't get the pounding the surf team received.

However, when shipping of wool was over, things didn't necessarily become easier, Muriel said.

"A truckie, I only know as Mr Jensen, complained he had to open and shut 13 gates to get down to Whangaehu, between Porangahau and Cape Turnagain."

Muriel's husband George arrived at Akitio in 1946 and Muriel said the district has a fascinating history, with many stories still to tell.

"We live in the house which was the boarding establishment for the sawmill and then later it became the Karitane holiday home for mums and their babies. It was also home to famous Czech-born artist Gottfried Lindauer who painted portraits of local landholders."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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