Inland Patea was once part of Hawke's Bay, before being carved off to the Rangitikei and East Taupo counties in the early 1900s.
The earliest history of the area began, it is said, with Tamatea-Pokai-Whenua, who visited the area in the early 15th century following the path of the Ngaruroro River to the Northern Ruahine Ranges and then to the Inland Patea.
He brought with him in a calabash lizards and crayfish he had captured in Whanganui a Roto (Ahuriri lagoon) which would act as markers and guardians for the ancestral lands of Tamatea's descendants.
Patea was thought to be named at the end of the 15th century by a man called Patea from Waimarama, who killed his wife Hinemahanga in a jealous rage after she had snared more wild birds than he did.
Patea fled to escape vengeance from his wife's relatives and settled in an area between the Moawhango and Rangitikei rivers. Thereafter the area became known as Patea, and later the Inland Patea to distinguish it from Patea in South Taranaki.
Wendy Campbell approached me in 2019 to see if I would write a history of an area which would encompass the Oruamatua-Kaimanawa, Mangaohane and Ōwhāoko blocks.
My 14th book on Hawke's Bay history since 2005 will be released in early November, and was done in conjunction with Wendy.
It is called Over the Gentle Annie: High Country Life in the Inland Patea.
To my shame, while I have approached the mountains from the Turangi and Ohakune sides to go skiing, I had never travelled over the Napier-Taihape Rd.
All I knew in 2019 was there was this large hill you had to drive over − named the Gentle Annie, and the last section of the road to Taihape had been tar-sealed not that long ago.
To start what would be an almost two-year project, Wendy took me to the area in November 2019. She grew up there on farms where her father Lou was in his last position, manager of Ohinewairua Station.
Wendy also lived in Taihape as an adult, and was a wool buyer until recently in the district. For more than 20 years she had been collecting historical material on the Inland Patea.
It would not be an easy task to complete, and I'll admit to quite a few sleepless nights over the project, and Wendy, too, would admit it was more complex than she first thought.
Azim and William Birch would be the first Europeans to settle in the area during January 1868 and drove 4000 merino sheep to the 115,100 acre block (46,850ha) Oruamatua-Kaimanawa Block.
The block, which they would later name Erewhon, was leased from paramount chief of the area Karaitiana Te Rango. It was originally spelt Erehwon – being "Nowhere" spelt backwards, before being changed to Erewhon.
The first seven chapters of the book feature the successes and tribulations of Azim and William Birch, who turned tussock of the high country into lush pastures. William built Stoneycroft, now the home of The Knowledge Bank on Omahu Rd.
Both men had come to New Zealand from England – William first arriving in 1860 aged 18, to be employed at Tukituki Station, Hawke's Bay.
Azim – and you may be wondering about this unusual name – was born in Palestine in 1842 (and various reasons were given as to why his parents were there, such as on holiday or on business).
His father William, who was given to being somewhat eccentric, apparently gave his son an Anglicised version of an Arabic greeting, based on the first thing that was said to him after the birth: "Greetings Master, you have a son."
His middle name was Salvator – given to him by the Spanish monks who baptised him. The monks were apparently against the name "Azim", declaring it a heathen name, so to balance it he added "Salvator" – Latin for saviour. (Azim, in a coincidence, would pass away in the same area 86 years later.)
His father paid for a commission for Azim as an ensign (flag bearer) in the 52nd Oxford Light Infantry (as was commonly done then by the upper classes), and gave him an annual allowance.
When his father could no longer afford his armed services commission, he was sent to New Zealand in 1862 to join his brother William. Their farming ventures would be very successful, despite their personal differences that would ultimately cause them to divide their Inland Patea property Erewhon.
Writers of non-fiction will understand what I mean by feeling the presence of certain characters you are researching and writing about. While I don't mean this in a spooky, apparitional sense, it does feel as if they are there with you in spirit right throughout the journey.
It was Azim's presence I felt during this book, as I was captivated by this most interesting man.
I felt we could have stopped after the first seven chapters and still in my opinion, had a very successful book. Such were their feats of turning tussock into pasture, carting wool all the way to Napier, and the drama between brothers Azim and William, and William's adopted son William Caccia gleaned from their personal diaries and letters.
Chapters eight to 14 show what happened to the Oruamatua-Kaimanawa Block when it was broken up by the Birch family over 100 years ago – with many of the original descendants of the purchasers still farming there today.
Stations covered are Erewhon, Oruamatua, Black Hill, Ohinewairua, Springvale, Makatote and Marua. There are also parts of the book dedicated to the Napier-Taihape Rd and Kuripapango.
The last section of the book deals with the Ōwhāoko and Mangaohane blocks, and the stations there of Mangaohane, Timahanga, Ngamatea and Otupae.
The book features many interesting characters − both Māori and European - throughout the book.
One thing was clear for me during the book's completion was past and present love and care for the Inland Patea high country, which I think is summed up best I think by the Apatu whānau of Ngamatea Station:
Manaaki whenua, manaaki tāngata, haere whakamua.
Care for the land, care for the people, go forward.
Over The Gentle Annie: High Country Life in the Inland Patea by Michael Fowler with Wendy Campbell is published by Michael Fowler Publishing Limited.
The price is $90 plus any applicable postage and packing. Available early November and can be ordered from Wendy Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Fowler (email@example.com) is a contract researcher and commercial business writer of Hawke's Bay history. Follow him on facebook.com/michaelfowlerhistory