So, while it’s a small town with only Puketapu (Pookie) to geographically mark it for the passing traveller, there were any number of points that anchored my boyhood view of the place. The curved platform of the railway station for a start. That always entranced me, as did the rails, the rolling stock, the fragrance of coal and oil mixed with earth, and the prospect of far away places. The Plank, a ford or river crossing of the Shag River where we fished for eels, cut down trees, jumped from an old willow tree into the deepest part, sailed toy boats, lured elusive trout, threw rocks and made dams. Summer day memories of exploring downstream from the Plank through long green grass, the smell of wild mint, cutting through every now and then as we checked each dark pool for the shadow of fish. The Shag River empties into the ocean at Shag Point, both named after the cormorant that lives along the coast, otherwise known locally as a Shag. Black Shags mainly. Little Shags too. Trotters Gorge was a special, favourite location. “The Valley” already mentioned which traces up along the Horseback and Kakanui Ranges and through which Highway 85 runs. Macraes Flat (long before the mine) and Nenthorn, country familiar to many thanks to the Lord of the Rings. Places that were familiar to us but which were often never signposted, or had any specific centre of settlement. Morrisons is part of our DNA. The old coach inns, some repaired and some now vanished along side the highway from Cobb and Co days (there tended to be a settlement every ten miles, the distance horses hauling a wagon of goods could make it in a day). The weir at Glenpark, full of dark water under silent willows. Other places of special note included the library (Mrs Green) and the Post Office (Mrs Jopson). The Newsagent owned by the Applebys. Dad Appleby and his twin sons, nicknamed Drip and Drop by some, but never us. They were too generous and kind for that. Applebys was an Aladdin’s Cave of variety but especially the source of fishing lures and other tackle and in later years sneak peeks into Playboys while some of the gang distracted the twins. The home of Doctor Harper. The Presbyterian Church building next door and its accompanying Clark Hall. “Horrible Halls”, a derelict run down place in which we hid a hut in the attic. Any number of huts perched up trees dotted around the district or small underground bunkers dug into forest floors. And of course the numerous homes of friends which were open homes to us.
We’ll get to all these and more in due course. The ‘geolocator’ within Palmerston for our childhood was the Plantation or simply ‘the Plan’. Walnuts. Chestnuts. A wide variety of pines and firs. Holly. Cypress hedges. Wattle. A shallow drain rain through the middle of the two acres, lined for the most part with Rhododendrons. Oaks. Underfoot a soft deep mulch of leaves in the areas where the forest was thickest. Grass in one open area. The Plan feel away down a gentle slope to ‘The Moat’, a circular ditch about three metres wide and a metre deep when completely full. The moat surrounded a small grassy island on which stood a single plum which yielded sweet fruit in its season. The Moat was popular year round. In winter its ice could be skated upon, while in spring and summer tadpoles and frogs could be trapped in its stagnant waters. Many a soaking shoe and waterlogged sock came from that moat.
We accessed The Plan by climbing through a macrocarpa (cypress) hedge. In my minds eye I can still see the branches we grasped and sequence in which it was done to quickly climb over a barbed wire fence long hidden in the middle of the timber, and the branches used to aid the descent. When you emerged on the other side you stood up under a couple of walnut trees which stood next to an old green painted slabsided hen house. A faint track bore you from there along the high side of the forest then dropped away, angling towards the ditch laced with rhododendrons. You wound through those across that soft mattress of leaf litter, up onto a grassy knoll under Black Wattles, veered left and dropped sharply down to the plum crowned moat, passing on its way under magnificent fir trees before ejecting us onto a gravel road intersection which pointed us towards school. Or to other points of adventure.
Weekends and holidays were spent in there. Just how much so is perhaps best reflected by what we called ‘The Fort’. Short only for ‘The Fort’. Somehow the fort emerged from our hut building enterprises which had evolved from simply planks lodged in trees to weather proof eyries, then returned to the ground and grown into slabsided boxes made of timber scrounged from the sawmill and galvanised nails purchased from Wright Stevenson for ten cents a bag. Its origins also owes something to the ‘battles” played out in the empty block behind our house with the Sprott boys, one in particular who was adept at constructing catapults which could lob large clods of earth and really handy pieces like bricks. You wanted to be on Timothy’s side when small forts squared off against each other in that paddock.
The Fort was anchored on a large Deodar in the first instance. The base origins were a curious shelter, the inspiration for which is now lost to me. But I had been caught by the idea of a cosy bunker such as Mr and Mrs beaver enjoyed in “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”. Who knows? It was built from a skeleton of sticks on which we piled the mulch of the forest in multiple thick layers. A ‘large’ room, sufficient to house three of us was built at the base and from which the tunnel entrance spiralled around the tree, also made from a skeleton of sticks and covered in thick layers of mulch. The net effect was what looked like a huge pile of leaves at the base of the tree with a small circular tunnel opening. With some old potato sacks on the floor it was quite cosy, completely blocked the wind, was warm on a cool day and was reasonably impervious to rain. In fact the only water problems we had was that which ran down the trunk of the tree. We never were able to seal that out.
We were members of the local ‘Cubs” which was a lot of fun. I panted after those badges and pored over the handbook looking for any I could secure as quickly as possible. One would awarded for building an outdoor shelter. ‘Easy’ I thought. I told the cub master (our local chemist) I was doing that badge. I had a certain number of weeks to design and build it but kept quiet about that, simply maintaining in good order what had already been built. In due course the cub master accompanied me into ‘The Plan’ to assess my suitability for the badge. I met him at his car and led him down off the road into the gloom of the place, showed him across the muddy patch which marked the start of the drain and ran ahead of him, up to the shelter. I crawled into the entrance and crawled the 360 degrees in to the sack carpeted chamber and waited for his affirmation. After a long silent pause I heard him mutter “Where the hell did he go?” at which point I shouted out “I’m in here. This is the shelter”. I got no response and by the time I had crawled out he was gone. I never did discern what he thought of our creativity but he must have been startled at my voice calling out from inside what looked like a large pile of damp mulch. But he did give me that badge and that was all that mattered.
Our pile of leaves was hard to defend from other boys in the district that might have been inclined to kick it in so a barricade of branches was built around it. Over time that barricade came to encompass a small patch of ground but by then we had devoured volumes of Louis L’Armour westerns from Mrs Green in the library and we had a vision for a full fort, complete with catwalk, a gate, and even its own ‘houses’.
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