11 Dec 2020

Buoying the spirit of Tokomaru Bay

From Country Life, 9:28 pm on 11 December 2020

Work has finally started to restore the old wharf at Tokomaru Bay on the East Cape. A committed band of locals has been working for years to raise money for the rebuild which they hope will reinvigorate the town.

Country Life's Sally Round visited Tokomaru Bay to find out what the wharf means for some of them.

Jack Chambers used to be a "skinny little rat" but just right for being winched with the wool bales on to lighters heading off Tokomaru Bay's wharf.

He'd dressed up in his old man's boots and coat to get a job as a casual wharfie when he was 15.

In those days the wharf at the northern end of the bay was humming.

There was a freezing works, wool store and shipping company nearby, feeding goods out onto the concrete and wooden structure via a small railway.


Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

It was bustling even at night, Grant Dargie remembers. He lives in the old harbour master's house now where there's a fine view of the crumbling wharf below.

At its peak the industrial hub supported up to 5000 people in Tokomaru Bay.

Boats used to ply the coast taking out wool and meat from the big sheep stations and bringing in goods and people.

Lois McCarthy-Robinson's dad was popped in a wicker basket and landed on the wharf from England as a six year old.

That was the way people got from the boats safely to the jetty.

Now she's on the Tokomaru Bay Heritage Trust, set up to try and get the industrial complex revamped as an historic area to attract visitors and bring in more jobs.

Lois McCarthy-Robinson

Lois McCarthy-Robinson Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

The trust is fundraising to do up the wharf for a start as it's one of the town's few recreational assets.

They've been going six years and raised $120,000 so far but they need more than $2,000,000 for the rebuild.

The Lotteries Commission has promised $250,000 and they have support from the Gisborne District Council, according to trust members.

Selling calendars and holding charity auctions and concerts is not enough to get where they need to be, Lois says and they're hoping the big money will come from benefactors.

They've just started work on the first four test piles for the wharf to get more clarity on the costs.

"We're hoping we'll demonstrate how keen we are and we're not going away," Lois says.

Another trust member Andrew Jefferd says they were "gutted" not to receive any money from the Provincial Growth Fund.

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The former All Black says his heart is in Tokomaru Bay even though he and his family had to sell their farm and move away after Cyclone Bola devastated the land in 1988.

The closure of the freezing works in 1952, farming land moving into forestry and the subsequent loss of local jobs have been tough for the town, he says.

He's adamant if they can get the wharf restored, it will substantially lift tourism in the town and around the coast which will create more work.

"It will give all the young people something to do ... and also give them a sense of well being," he says.

Tokomaru Bay kaumātua Tate Pewhairangi remembers plenty of work at the wharf when he was a boy.

"I can remember as a 12 year old, in the school holidays ... we'd go down and jump down into the hold of the ship and help stack the wool bales or mutton."

They were paid two and six and called scabs by the older men, he says with a chuckle.

"It was big money for us in those days."

He sees a bright future for the bay as a link in a chain of authentic cultural experiences and tourist attractions in Tairāwhiti.

The historic wharf at the northern end of Tokomaru Bay

The historic wharf at the northern end of Tokomaru Bay Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Tokomaru Bay has four marae and a rich musical and cultural tradition, with two kohanga reo and a kura kaupapa.

"It was a bit like an initiation, that you really aspired to something great if you could bomb off the wharf," says Karla Kohatu, principal of  Hatea-A-Rangi School.

"It's definitely part of every person's life here in Tokomaru Bay to go down to the wharf and fish or spend whānau time down there."

She can see a revamped wharf as an extension of the classroom, teaching children about water safety and navigation as well as history.

"I think it's really good for our tamariki to reflect back .... it's all part of who they are," she says.