1 / 3
It is a beautiful day in Upokongaro, the sky is blue, and a significant little settlement still remains after all these years. Just before reaching Upokongaro there are two historic place signposts, one to an old 'pa' and the second to the limited structural remains of an old brickworks. But for historic Upokongaro there is none and the unwary motorist speeds on through, uninformed. St Mary's church stands proudly, just as it did in Burton's 1885 photograph. Alfred Burton described Upokongaro as follows, 'Though there are Maori Kaingas all around, Upokongaro is a white settlement and boasts a church with a three sided spire something like a bayonet, and a little theatre, where performs from time to time I understand, one of the cleverest little amateur dramatic companies in the Colony.' A school remains in use but the old hotel no longer seems to exist, at least in its original form. The ferry crossing has long gone but I stumble upon an old wire rope and posts driven into the river bank which I sense is where the old river crossing was located because the banks on either side of the river are neither very high nor steep. Further up the river, adjacent to the church, a new landing has been built for the Waimere paddle steamer to drop off its passengers for a few minutes to enable them to snatch a few photographs before continuing on up the river. An information board stands on the landing and I assume that it contains a concise history of Upokongaro, but no, it is the bane of modern life, a long list of health and safety instructions about what you cannot do, not what you can do.
European settlement around Upokongaro, up the Makirikiri valley and towards Kaiwhaiki 'pa' proceeded throughout the 1850s and 1860s. A country hotel was first established at Upokongaro in 1866 where beer was served in tin pannikins out of a small lean-to structure. Within a short time a more substantial two storey structure was built and the hotel served the needs of the district for many years. The hotel was the centre of a bizarre incident in 1910 when a Mexican bushman, named Jimmy Laurent, became infatuated with one of the women guests. The woman told Laurent that she would 'run away' with him if he saved a certain amount of money. He gave her his pay regularly until it was the correct amount, and then she said no. So he placed gelignite around the hotel to blow it up but all the explosion did was break the windows. The bushman rushed down to the ferry boat which was tied to the wharf at one end and to a willow tree at the other. He let one end go and tried to row away but the fixed rope jerked him out of the boat and he drowned.
The ferry service had been established at Upokongaro in 1867 and it remained in operation until 1935. Throughout its history it was subject to considerable controversy because the wire which secured the ferry to either side of the river frequently obstructed river traffic and this led to clashes between the steam boat captains and the ferrymen. Matters came to a head in 1894 when two horses and their carts were crossing in the ferry when the river steamer Wairere travelled at speed towards the wire and only slowed down at the last moment. A tragic accident was only narrowly avoided. It seems that an illicit whisky still was operated for several years on a farm just above Upokongaro. The owner and operator of this plant, fearing a raid by the police, threw the still into a nearby swamp, where many years later their descendants unearthed portions of it which they presented to the Wanganui Museum. And so quiet Upokongaro has much history to offer the passing traveller, if only they knew.
Have you got a great story to tell?Add your own article