Palmerston has a glow about it which comes from lots of memory burnishing, especially polishing that has as its base compound a happy childhood. In truth it’s a tiny country town for which, to those who are not residents, there is little or nothing to commend it. And of course that is the vast majority since only 800 or so reside in that grand metroplis. Which to my ten year old mind it truly was. It outstripped Waikouaiti, home to a mere 500 souls or so, or Dunback at 30 if everyone was in for Sunday lunch. Or any number of small hamlets up and down the line or valley against which I was happy to pit our town. Though if we were ever under threat of being upstaged it was perfectly acceptable to lift 800 to 900, which happened more often than I was ever keen to admit.
Having said there was little to mark Palmerston for any traveller who might blink or yawn on the way through I have to concede the sight of Puketapu with its bluestone cairn atop is not only unique, but it draws the eye. The area is dotted with ancient indications of volcanic activity with lava plugs offering distinctive profiles here and there while old lava beds lie about, flows long cooled, broken into fragments and decked and softened with lichen and mosses. Puketapu, or more irreverently referred to simply as Pookie (puhk-ee) is likely one of these, with a distinctive inverted cone profile reaching up 300m and topped by a three story stone tower which was always a popular objective even when the internal stairs had rusted to the point of wobbly disconnection. To this day my ability to estimate heights gained or lost is based on ten years of climbing up and down those 300m.
Pookie rises distinctly behind Palmerston. In fact some of the town sits on its lower slopes. As does its town reservoir, from which our school boy imaginations fancied was yielded the occasional sheep knuckle bone at the kitchen sink. We all had some story or another of seeing animals drowned in it but they could only be stories designed to horrify sisters, and were all reasonably plausible (except for the ability of sheep to climb sheer walls) until the roof was covered over. The route up Pookie could be any one you wanted but the most direct was through a small plantation of pine, up and across lower slopes past a small tussock shrouded dam and from their either veer right up onto the right hand side ridge, or directly up the face which was so steep that you ascended sheep track by sheep track. Needless to say the ridge route, though slightly longer, was preferred. On a hot day we would pause two thirds of the way up the ridge and take shade under a pine before pushing on to the cairn. The Army took a ‘shot’ at that tree one year. I can’t recall the event which drew them there. But from the showgrounds (it’s the bare patch of ground you can see in front of the pine plantation and directly in line with the left hand side of the cairn) the Army fired multiple rounds from a ‘25 pounder’ at that tree on the south ridge of Pookie, much to the delight of every boy large or small. We stood in expectation of the results but nothing. Then finally a flash and a plume of smoke beneath the tree. I wondered that the Army could miss such a large target sitting directly in front of them. Pookie is a pretty large hill after all and it wasn’t moving! The crowd of boys I was with speculated that the earlier rounds must have (hopefully) all gone out to sea. The Army packed up and left with their honour intact. The illusion was complete. Only years later did I appreciate the attempt by the lads to coordinate the firing of blank rounds with the detonation of a bit of C4 under some rocks on that ridge. I suspect there might have been some invisible ripe radio traffic in the background. Or rather, given what I later experienced of the NZ Army, probably no radios at all.
Puketapu was well known for another reason, that being Kelly’s Canter, named after the policeman who trotted up there every day during World War 2 to spot Japanese or German warships or shipping. The threat was real. A run is still held every year in October. It was spiced up some time in the 1970s with an extra challenge – carry a bag of cement. The cairn’s base needed shoring up and that was one way to get the materials to the summit.
Pookie represented a tale in Maori legend. Something transformed out of the sea? I forget. But it represented a handy challenge if we ever needed one and it was not uncommon to simply declare on a weekend “Let’s climb Pookie”. If we had been playing as a group there was invariably dissent and the group would split into those up for a stiff climb or those more sensible lads who would go and find some windows to break or bottles to smash. An ascent may or may not include supplies. And of course we only ever wanted to climb it because it was there. No other reason at all. However there was gleeful entertainment to be had dislodging flat circular schist rock, standing it on its edge and sending it on its way down the front face of the hill. They would gather speed rapidly, bouncing higher and higher and hurtling through the air at terrific speed until the face ran out about half way down and our stone artillery would smash to a stop in the tussocks. Our hope was that it would land in a small dam below us but it always was just out of reach. Perfectly dangerous of course and with only a fatal outcome possible if one of those missiles ever struck anyone. Brother Frank and I were not thinking of consequences when we sent a few after brother Rob who had decided half way up the face that he had had enough and was going home. Disappointed at being so abandoned we sent a few plate sized pieces after him, bouncing high over his head and rocketing past him as he fled the barrage. Fortunately he was neither struck, nor did he stumble and break a leg as he leapt down that face. But there were consequences. For reasons known only to himself Dad was watching us through his (detached) rifle scope and had seen what we had done with those rocks. Puketapu is a big hill. But Palmerston is a very small town.
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