The magic of Ngamatea
Book tells history of sheep atation. ROSE HARDING reports.
Ngamatea Station is one of those magical places.
A place high in the back country far along a shingle road marked by a big sign on the side of the road but where nothing much else is visible behind the hill of golden tussock.
The people who live that far away from what most of us understand as civilisation are tough, self-reliant, real men and women working in big, big country.
At one time Ngamatea didn’t have boundaries. Where the sheep and cattle could be pushed to graze was where the edges were, perhaps as much as 100,000ha.
Now it’s a more modest 28,000ha but 8000ha of that is rich and productive grassland, whereas in the past it was broad swathes of golden tussock as well as swamps, gorges, gullies and mountainsides.
The story of that land and those people as told by historian Hazel Riseborough in her book, Ngamatea, the land and the people, shows the myth and the reality are not far apart.
Dr Riseborough is also an agriculturalist and Maori issues researcher whose love of Ngamatea stems from her friendship with the late Margaret Apatu, who was born and brought up on the station and owned it.
The two knew each other when Dr Riseborough lectured the-then Margaret Roberts at Massey Agricultural College for a Diploma of Wool and Wool Classing.
Margaret was just the second woman in New Zealand to gain the diploma.
Dr Riseborough’s book was launched in the station’s 18-stand woolshed on September 9 in a ceremony which included a descendant of the Studholme family who held the first lease on the land of Inland Patea on the Napier-Taihape road.
Also at the launch were representatives of other families with connections to the area. Some had come from the South Island, others from as far away as Western Australia, to attend the ceremony.
Joe Studhome [Studholme] of South Canterbury cut a ribbon to launch the [the] book using a pair of old wool shears which had been lain discarded in the bush on neighbouring Timahanga Station for more than 100 years.
He is a great grandson of John Studholme who bought or leased huge areas of land all over New Zealand. When (he) and his brother leased about 150,000 acres (60,000ha) of Inland Patea in the late 1870s the area was known as the Owhaoko Block.
None of the family ever lived there, however, preferring the relative comfort of Christchurch.
The launch was attended by many who had worked at the station or had a family member who did.
Mrs Apatu’s brother Jack Roberts, who owns Timahanga Station which was divided off Ngamatea in 1972, spoke of his childhood on the station.
He said the book was a tribute to his parents Lawrence and Winnie, his sister “and all those who have passed through Ngamatea”.
The book had involved hundreds of hours of research and thousands of kilometres of travel, some disappointments and frustrations, “and several years of Hazel’s life”.
Dr Riseborough says in the preface to her book that it was at Margaret Apatu’s funeral in early 2001 that she realised a book about Ngamatea needed to be written because the people with all the stories about the early days were dying.
She then travelled around New Zealand tracking down all those she could who had worked there over the years and capturing their stories as they told them.
She said the book, “a history book, not a coffee-table book” had taken more than three years of her life.
Dr Riseborough has cleverly and perhaps wisely let the people who have the stories tell them.
She has interwoven the history of the area from Maori times to the productive present with almost verbatim accounts from people who were there at the time.
The technique brings what could be dry history to life in a very readable way.
The Roberts family story begins in 1932 when the four Fernie brothers came to Ngamatea after earlier lessees had been driven off by rabbits, poor prices and the sheer hard work of farming in the area.
They had begun their farming careers around the Wanganui region after their father John came to New Zealand from Fifeshire in Scotland.
They were strong, silent, men and “not much given to marrying”. However, John Fernie married and had nine children.
David Fernie also married and his only child Joan Fernie is well-known in Hawke’s Bay farming and equestrian circles.
The connection with the Roberts family came about when John’s daughter Annie married Joseph Roberts. They had two sons, Lawrence and John, known as Jack.
Lawrence was Jack and Margaret Roberts’ father.
The book begins with Maori history and covers the court cases of disputed ownership between the various hapu of the area.
The history of European interest in the Inland Patea is far more recent and covered extensively.
However, it is when Dr Riseborough reaches contemporary history that the book really tells the story life at Ngamatea.
There are tales of horseback mustering. Old Ngamatea was an extensive grazing block where the main product was ﬁne wool rather than prime and store lambs as it is now.
Musterers with their dogs and horses were employed for eight months of the year to bring the sheep in from the far reaches for the annual shear.
Dr Riseborough lets them tell stories of packhorses and rides that lasted days to get out the back. Tales of being caught out by the weather and stuck in a primitive hut for days at a time.
Despite the hardship there was always plenty of young men willing to work at Ngamatea. It was almost a rite of passage for young farm workers to do a year there.
There are stories of the family and the gradual development of the station, a process which accelerated with the death of Walter Fernie, a conservative farmer who disliked change.
In the 1970s and 80s it stepped up as Government subsidies made it possible to disc, subdivide and fertilise to stop the tussock and scrub returning.
Now the present manager Steve Kelliher describes Ngamatea as a “great big lamb factory.”
Dr Riseborough has done anyone interested in the history of farming in New Zealand a service by capturing the essence of a fascinating place in her book.
The book is published by Auckland University Press and costs $50.
Photo captions –
IMPRESSIVE: A feature of the 2000-head nightpen at the Ngamatea Station woolshed is the four-stand crutching plant where the sheep go before they are shorn.
LONG MEMORIES: Darcy Fernandez, now in his 80s, was Jack and Margaret Roberts teacher at Ngamatea. He became the station’s bookkeeper and after his retirement returned to the station often to hunt and fish.
SPEAKING: Renata Apatu, right, one of the station’s owners, with book author Hazel Riseborough at the launch.
REMINISCING: Jack Roberts, who grew up on Ngamatea Station, pictured at the book launch.
GREAT ACHIEVEMENT: Former Ngamatea Station worker Richard Whittington, who did much of the development work in the 1980s, looks over his handiwork.
REMOTE: The area once had swathes of golden tussock.
PICTURES: ROSE HARDING