Joanna Wane visits the people's republic of Pūhoi and finds a changing of the guard.
The size of the eggs! The day-tripper from Auckland couldn't stop talking about them. Not just jumbo but super-jumbo double-yolkers – so big the egg carton couldn't close. Then he did an impression of a hen laying one. It sounded painful.
It was late October and he'd driven up to Pūhoi with his wife in their campervan for the grand re-opening of the monthly village market, closed down by Covid-19 back in March. After a long, hard winter, it felt like coming out of hibernation.
The market had moved across the river to the front lawn of the legendary Pūhoi Pub, where local band SwampAGator played just the right side of hillbilly and the growl of Harley-Davidson engines harmonised with the twang of guitars. A french bulldog sat on top of an outdoor table, where its owners had settled in for a drink. Vince, a handsome Staffordshire bull terrier, modelled neckwear at the "Dogdannas" stall. There were dogs everywhere.
That guy wasn't kidding about the eggs. Some 1700 free-range brown shavers have the run of their own caravan park at Pūriri Downs, a boutique hen farm just out of Pūhoi - and the lay of the land seems to suit them. The record for the largest egg is 124g, double the average size.
It was the first time at market for the farm's new owners, Mark and Philippa Stichbury-Cooper, who turned up in matching Aussie bush hats. Feeling the pull of home after 12 years in Melbourne, the former South Aucklanders bought the business online, then flew back to New Zealand, straight into lockdown.
"I'd never bought anything off the internet before in my life," says Philippa, an art teacher whose experience with chickens was limited to the bantams her family had when she was a kid. Now, she knows all her pullets by name – Henrietta. But her favourite is a little hen-pecked one called Eden, who had to be separated from the flock and given an enclosure of her own.
"She comes out every morning and follows us round like a little dog," says Philippa. "I went into the house the other day and there she was, sitting on the couch."
During lockdown, the farm's previous owners donated trays of eggs to the Salvation Army and later organised delivery runs. Neighbours checked on each other to make sure people had enough firewood to see out the weather, while a local school teacher ran lessons online from a table outside the pub, which had to close for business but gave free access to its Wi-Fi.
"During that first wave, we supported each other a lot," says Judith Williams, the unofficial mayor of Pūhoi, who's lived in the community for almost five decades and founded the local historical society. "You could see the offers of help and people giving away fruit on Facebook."
Williams' great-great-grandparents were among the first wave of founding families, arriving in Pūhoi on a cold winter's night in 1863 after a perilous four-month journey from Bohemia – a region that's now part of the Czech Republic. They were all staunch Catholics and, after being transferred by waka to the nīkau whare that awaited them on the muddy riverbank, one of the women said that if she could walk on water, she'd walk straight back home to Bohemia.
No relation to the unconventional, vagabond type of Bohemian, these central European migrants were of a pious, puritanical disposition. But they also "sang a lot, danced a lot and drank a lot", according to some of the research Williams has done. And when you look at the historical photos on display at the museum, she says, "The old ladies, well, they were bruisers."
They needed to be. Breaking in the bush for farmland took guts. Food was scarce and it could require a week's hard work to remove a single tree. A year earlier, a group of Albertlanders from the British Isles had attempted to establish a settlement at Pūhoi but abandoned it, defeated by the elements after just a few months.
As a kid, Williams reckoned she could spot the men with Bohemian blood on account of their beards, hooked noses and stubbornly Germanic accent. She's taught herself the basics of their native Egerlander dialect but the last generation of fluent speakers has gradually died out, taking much of their history with them. There have been at least half a dozen funerals for elderly descendants of those founding families this year alone.
At the same time, newcomers have steadily trickled in, many of them commuting to Auckland for work. At the last census, the population across the Pūhoi Valley had increased by 35 per cent since 2006. You can see why – on a good day, it's only a half-hour run on the Northern Motorway from the central city before you're immersed in bush and rolling farmland.
Construction is underway on the Pūhoi to Warkworth extension, due to open mid-2024. Hard lobbying by locals has secured an off-ramp at Pūhoi, protecting the village from a similar fate to nearby Waiwera, where life has bled from the community since the bypass went in.
Outsiders, you might imagine, are viewed with suspicion. Hostility, even. And it's true that there were rumbles of disquiet when the heritage-listed Pūhoi Hotel (known simply as the Pūhoi Pub) was sold earlier this year, after being in the same family for nearly six decades.
"On the day we reopened, all the locals came in and walked around to see what we'd changed. I think they thought we'd gutted the place," says Bernie McCallion, who bought the hotel with her husband Gary Levert after selling the country lodge they'd run in Silverdale for 15 years. "Everyone said they were glad we hadn't touched anything. Lord help us if we had!"
The sale attracted more than 20 serious contenders, including a large corporate company looking to install pokie machines. According to the real estate agent, the McCallion-Leverts were the only bidders the retiring owner was prepared to consider.
Another deal done in lockdown, it's being operated as a family business, with the couple's four adult children all involved. Daughter Jena says they're still getting used to the way things work in Pūhoi, where someone might pop by to do some weeding or drop off fresh flowers for the loo.
The hotel has been operating since 1879 and every inch of it – including the ceiling in the bar – is covered in memorabilia, from old gas lanterns and farming paraphernalia to a duddelsak (a musical instrument from Bohemia) and a signed Goldie print of the Queen Mother.
Still, manager Amego Joseph reckons that if he carks it at the bar, there's a place for his boots on the wall. He's been an institution at the pub since he was hired back in 1995. Some would say he's even more famous than the pub. "I'm just part of the furniture," he laughs. "The community just really clicks with me."
The hotel's accommodation wing has been spruced up and does good trade with walkers on the Te Araroa trail. In a nod to the settlement's Bohemian history, a new locally brewed Pūhoi Pils was launched at the pub last week to replace the Czech lager traditionally cold-shipped to New Zealand and served at the bar – a supply line that's been severed by Covid-19 transportation delays.
Over the years, Joseph has seen the city come to the country. "They come for the change of pace," he says. "Everything slows down once you drive through that tunnel."
A popular drop-in spot for families, the hotel has also long been a bikie drinking hole. Convoys of patched members rumble into Pūhoi most weekends, often from rival gangs but the territory is respected as neutral ground. McCallion says plenty of executives roll up on Harleys, too. One Auckland CEO owns five of them and rides up on a different bike each day to give them all a good run.
"There's never any s*** here," says Tom, a dairy-farm worker who belongs to a "boutique" motorcycle club called The Sloths (of the 10 members, only four of them ride). Over the years, both his father and grandmother have worked at the hotel. "It's wonderful just sitting here, people-watching and seeing the diverseness of life."
Jeni, a "Slothette", was at the village market running one of the stalls. Like Tom, she has a lifetime of good memories here. In the old days, she says, you could swap bags of kiwifruit for beer at the hotel.
By 1pm, the market was winding down but the band played on. On the main street, browsers rifled through book bins outside the tiny Pūhoi Library, which hosts a monthly "fireside book club", originally instigated to help locals through the long winter nights.
Notches on the building show how high the water rose in the great flood of 1924, filling the library with nearly 2m of silt. It flooded again in 2001. The lower shelves have now been removed but there are still more than 6000 books on display, including every single winner of the Booker Prize since it was first awarded in 1969.
Further up the road, 93-year-old Norm Golding was on duty at the museum and archive room, often used by genealogists retracing their family history. "They've got some great stories to tell, the old Bohemians," he says.
Golding retired to Pūhoi after 51 years as a fireman and took up Bohemian dancing. "My old fire brigade mates gave me hell!" He's full of stories about his time in the service both here and in the UK: a confrontation with the Duke of Edinburgh when his crew turned up to a fire at Kensington Palace; the baby boy he helped deliver in a Mini when the mother didn't make it to hospital.
For many years, he and his late wife Norma lived above the main Auckland fire station on Pitt St. "At night, the bells would go, the lights would come on and the doors would open," he says. "I'd hop out of my side of the bed into my pants and big leather boots, and Norma would get out the other side and pull the rug away from a trap door down to the appliance room. If you forgot to put on your pants before going down that old wooden pole, it was shocking."
When the tide is right, the river that brought the first settlers to Pūhoi now transports kayakers down to Wenderholm Regional Park, on the coast. It's an easy 90-minute paddle that's popular with families and has always relied heavily on the domestic tourism market.
The previous owners, another Covid-19 casualty, sold up a few months ago and moved to Australia to be closer to their grandchildren. Aucklanders Debbie Davenhill and Mark Collins took over the business in September, moving into the house that came with it. All the five kids in their blended family help out too.
Both Debbie and Mark still have jobs back in the city (he runs a mortgage aggregation business; she runs Caci clinics but looks completely at home in a sun hat and shorts, backing the kayak trailer). Two months in, and they're loving it. "The people, the atmosphere, the history," she says. "It is really something quite special."
The Pūhoi Village Christmas Market will be held at the pub on Sunday, November 29 from 9am to 1pm. Visit puhoinz.com or the "Pūhoi Village Market" page on Facebook.