The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 5 (August 1, 1935)
I hate to quarrel with an old friend—but Charles Reade was fathoms deep in scientific error when he described the Antipodes as a place where the birds have no song, and the flowers no scent. Charles had never heard a tui tinkle in the depths of the big kauri trees: nor had he made one of the party, when the service car, emerging from the last swart shadow of Waipoua's giants, plunges into a grey-blue evening whose sudden, sleepy fragrance makes one's nose twitch in appreciation. Either these lamentable omissions were true of Charles, or else he was the type of unfortunate who wandered through life with a chronic cold in the head. For the scented wind from the hills is deserving of honourable mention: and when one seeks the reason of this heady bouquet, one finds it in palm lilies, slim scores of them, gorgeously crowned, in these summer months, with masses of creamy blossom. Were these trees of fragrance on the Continent, in the Isles of Greece, or even stationed in the Kipling country, poets would plaster them with sonnets. As things are, they go through life unsung, frequently even unsniffed.
Little Waimamuku (christened for the big black-fronded mamuk' tree-ferns), is the service car's last oasis in the wilderness before Opononi is reached: here the mettlesome steed of the roads, halted, panting, and swigged down huge draughts of petrol: here the dusk darkened from silver-grey to purple, and there was time to wonder if Opononi would live up to its musical name, which, being interpreted, means “Sweet Evening.”
Opononi's name should be changed: its future meaning should be “Very Sweet Evening.” For many reasons.
In the first place, it was alluring, that little silvery rustle and whisper of the broad Hokianga river, which only two miles or so from Opononi Hotel, widens to form a great blue ribbon between the Hokianga Heads, picturesque rock fortresses of the West Coast. But leaving the beauties of nature out of the question, and coming to art, there was something extremely piquant in that first golden Benedictine: and sheer essence of sunshine in the subsequent orange gin, which is a local invention of no mean potency.
Yes: the Opononi Hotel, which is a big, white-painted, friendly-looking place, only just beyond the swish of the breakers, is celebrated everywhere in the north country for the range of its liqueurs, cocktails, and other modernised versions of nectar and ambrosia. Moreover, the proverbial northern hospitality flows deep and free hereabouts, so that hardly has the wanderer removed the grime of travel from his or her visage before a cheerful voice is heard murmuring the mystic words, “What's yours?”
There was, in point of fact, a party in progress when our small but optimistic band of hope arrived at the Opononi Hotel: nor did this seem an odd thing to the inhabitants. The night before, I gathered, there had been something of a party, likewise: and the night before that, a few bright spirits had assembled in the name of mirth and song, not to mention that of sardines and cheese, in which a roaring trade is plied round about supper time. Opononi is, in short, a rendezvous for those of the blither sort for miles around: and in a rainbow-curtained and luxurious lounge, a gramophone asks without fear of successful contradiction, “Ain't She Sweet?” whilst young things who unquestionably are so, thread the mazes of the blues or the quickstep with their dashing partners. We from ‘way page 44 down South, admiring those suntanned arms and shoulders, feel like mushrooms, or toadstools even, in comparison. But there's hope for all, sad heart. Opononi guarantees to turn you golden-brown in a week, beche-de-mer in a fortnight, and a beautiful deep mahogany in a month. “Sample our suntan,” is the local slogan.
The white-painted, low-ceilinged waterfront room designed for my own Opononi dreams was attached to the most commodious little blue balcony-study, and an outsize in moons was making silver galleon-tracks along the dark wave-crests below.
She was a rich copper-colour, and her black eyes sparkled, and her apron was starched and snowy-white. Moreover, she spoke almost as do Kentucky mammies of the talking screen, as though she had a hot potato in her mouth. All my life I've rather longed for a Kentucky mammy: and the large and cheerful Maori lass who brought in early morning tea at Opononi was an improvement on the original idea. Brisk, she was. “You sho' looks hot,” quoth she, just as a Mammy might have: and this was very true, for a mosquito had been all too attentive during the still night watches, and though after a long battle, he retreated outnumbered, the warfare had been hectic beforehand. But Mammy did things to a window, and lo, in swept a gay and cooling little sea-breeze. Opononi of the sweet evening has sweet mornings, too.
Hospitality has no mean tradition in this sunshiny little bay. For just behind the Hotel is the old home of John Webster, author, old-timer, and host par excellence. John of the grizzled beard and the twinkling eyes is dead, and with him hundreds of rousing adventure-stories have passed into the limbo of forgotten things: but in his gabled wooden house, which has a charming old garden and an English lodge, Opononi's hospitality was first established and has never been allowed to depart from the settlement. Until Governor Ranfurly's time, every New Zealand Governor in turn was entertained at the Webster home … and the entertainments were conducted in style. A low but extremely solid and well-built wall of stone slabs fronts the tree-planted slopes of his old garden. These stones were quarried by convicts in New South Wales, in the grim old transportation days, and brought over to Hokianga by sailing-ship. Mounted on the walls still stands the quaintest collection of cannon to be found in New Zealand: ancient muzzle-loaders, of every size and style, but all roped in for the important business of giving vice-Royalty the Royal salute when a Governor's boat came up the dimpling blue waters of the Hokianga. Maori lads were the gunners on these festive occasions. When Sir Charles Fergus-son was Governor-General in New Zealand, he paid a visit to Opononi, accompanied by his stately and charming wife, Lady Alice Fergusson. Did she, perhaps, remember the time when the Earl of Glasgow's gay young daughters (of whom she was one) used to make Hokianga's hair stand on end by performing dashing tightrope-walking feats along the hawsers of the ship which brought them to shore?
Oh, this suntan! Behold Eve in one of the new sun-and-surf garments, which are, oddly enough, christened Pacific: anything less likely to promote peace in a community where neck-to-knee costumes still figure in some by-laws I can't imagine. But what cares Eve, on suntan bent? To contrast with her own brown shoulders, she has chosen a cream suit. It has no back, none whatsoever, but crimson straps keep what there is of it in position: and one sees, with admiration, that it has been further abbreviated by the fact that at least half of it is composed of a colourful sort of fishing-net. A little diving-helmet, adorned with a white-winged seabird, adorns a shapely head … and one wonders how Adam can be so laconic as to concentrate on his fishing, though, to be sure, there is a certain kick to be obtained from hauling in rock-cod, with careless indifference, and without more trouble than is involved by the flicking of a line and a fragment of mussel a few yards out from shore.
The toothsome butter-beans which appear on the menu at luncheon are grown by the Maoris. So are the very large and gorgeous carnations, table decorations. In all the north, no Maoris are more interesting than those of the Hokianga district. They cultivate their own little farm holdings, but the impression made by pakeha modes of living is slight enough. Their tiny houses only very occasionally sport a chimney. Usually a slab cabin, guiltless of paint, houses them, but some have remained in the beautifully built little nikau whares that satisfied their grandparents: maybe it is true (as a little school-teacher who once satisfied adventurous tastes and found out what sleeping under a nikau thatch really means, sorrowfully alleges is the case), that your picturesque nikau where is a haven, not only for the Maori but for that sinister blot on the New Zealand ‘scutcheon, the Maori bug.
I refuse to say good-bye to Opononi. How much better to contemplate spending the sunset of one's years watching those golden sand-dunes, by whose strange variation of light and shadow the Hokianga Maoris can tell the probable intentions of the weather more accurately than the pakeha can with his barometers and rain-gauges! More “Sweet Evenings,” please. And more dream days in this little world of shining sands and blue waters.
(To be continued.)