The year 1888 marked a low point in the lives of Northland's drinking public.

That was the year two Far North hostelries applied for liquor licences — and were both declined, because they were located within five miles - 8km - of each other.

"One of these establishments belonged to Joe Evans, at Waipapakauri, and was the forerunner of what would become that weatherboard-clad bastion of Northland hospitality, the Waipapakauri Hotel," Heritage New Zealand's Northland manager Bill Edwards said.

"The hotel, which is listed as a Category 2 historic place, would be destined for an amazing history, involving land speed records, early trans-Tasman flight and the shadow of world war."

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According to Kaitaia historian Olwyn Ramsey's book Wings over Waipapakauri, back in 1888 people were still reeling from the reality that the closest watering hole would continue to be Mangonui, and that issues relating to this 'prohibition by bureaucracy' would remain.

As the Northern Luminary newspaper wryly observed: 'The result was that all applications were refused so that sly-grog selling may go on till the election of a better committee.'

One anonymous Awanui correspondent was particularly scathing. Weeping bitter tears into what was presumably not beer, he wrote to the editor: "One of the commissioners (a mere boy), said that there ought to be an accommodation licence at Hukatere, but his father (or his mother, I am not sure which) had promised that if he was a commissioner, he would go against licences, and like all good boys, he obeyed his parents ... "

Fortunately, the public pillorying of the licensing committee seems to have worked, and thirsts in the Waipapakauri area would soon be slaked. By 1890 the legendary pub was serving alcohol — legally.

The two-storeyed building was demolished in 1926, and the single-storey replacement was erected in front of the old site. Officially, it was the Commercial Hotel, but for most locals it became known as the Waipapakauri Hotel, or the Waipap for short.

"In the 1930s, the hotel hosted such internationally renowned guests as Norman 'Wizard' Smith, who broke the land speed record on 90 Mile Beach in 1932, and Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith, who stayed there prior to taking off in his plane, the Southern Cross, from the beach. It was Smith's sixth trans-Tasman crossing, and only the second airmail flight to Australia.

"Kingsford Smith's use of 90 Mile Beach as a handy jumping-off point to Australia hinted at Waipapakauri's strategic location with Australia and the wider Pacific. Within a few years this would prove central to New Zealand's defence, and Waipapakauri would become highly strategic.

"Pearl Harbor changed the war for New Zealand," Edwards said.

"Prior to that, a Japanese attack on New Zealand was seen as improbable. After Pearl Harbor, and continued Japanese military expansion in the Pacific, however, invasion became a real possibility. The eyes of New Zealand's military turned north.

"Visiting British military strategist Sir Guy Williams saw the capture of the North Auckland peninsula as the course the Japanese would most likely adopt, and identified a need to fortify strategic locations. Waipapakauri became an urgent priority."

Airfield a first link

The establishment of a semi-permanent airfield at Waipapakauri as a first link between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands had been approved in 1941. In 1942, when New Zealand was most vulnerable to enemy invasion, Waipapakauri became home to No. 7 General Reconnaissance Squadron, and one of the most important airfields in the country.

"By the middle of 1942, dummy aircraft including Hudsons, Kittyhawks and Hurricanes were positioned around the airfield to give the impression of air strength, and to serve as decoys, drawing attention away from the real aircraft hidden under camouflage nets and shelters dug into the hillside," Mr Edwards added.

"During this time of vulnerability about 1200 men were stationed at Waipapakauri, including parachute packers and artillery. Numbers were bolstered by the arrival in March 1942 of the Aerodrome Defence Unit (ADU)."

The importance of the ADU in defending the airbase was reflected in its commander, Major McFarlane, of the Black Watch Commandos, but it wasn't all survival training and short rations. Mr and Mrs Ned Evans, son and daughter-in-law of Joe, owned a house within the restricted area, but were permitted to continue living there during the war.

Every morning, Mrs Evans baked for those on guard duty, hanging a tea towel on the back veranda to signal when the food was ready.

Concerned that this might have a softening effect on his men, a senior officer ordered her to stop. 'Mrs Ned' fired back, saying, "I would like to think that someone in the desert would be making hot cocoa where my son is fighting." The home baking and cocoa continued.

According to local Alf Lawry, someone was always defending the station: "What with the addition of the ADU, World War I veterans for home guard, a detachment of Maori youths camped out at 90 Mile Beach road entrance, 'Hawk Eyes' on watch in the Ack Ack hilltop dugout ... the enemy didn't stand a chance."

Norman 'Wizard' Smith stayed at the Waipap while attempting his land speed record.
Norman 'Wizard' Smith stayed at the Waipap while attempting his land speed record.

The public bar of the Waipapakauri Hotel continued its role as local watering hole, but was out of bounds to RNZAF and Army staff on duty. The dining room had been converted into a hospital ward, while the room adjacent to the bar now served as a medical officer's consulting room.

In June 1942, the hotel was formally requisitioned and its licence suspended so it could be used for war purposes.

The bar shut its doors to the public for the duration, though the building would continue to serve as a base hospital, and later an officers' mess. It wasn't until March 1, 1945 that the order was revoked and normal licensing resumed.

For the Waipapakauri Hotel, the war was over.