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					 The Waitohu Stream, swimming and food gathering –
             an interview with John Huff

                                  Pataka Moore
                      Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, Otaki, New Zealand

John Huff was born in Otaki in July 1933. He has lived in Otaki among his peopleall
his life and is affectionately known to them as Duffy. He was educated at the local
Convent Primary School before moving on to Hato Paora, a High School and
Boarding School for Māori boys 120 kilometres north of Otaki. Duffy is from Ngāti
Raukawa and Ngāti Kapumanawawhiti. He has interacted with the rivers in Otaki for
most of his life. Because he has also lived near the beach he knows this environment
as well as any other person in the town. Duffy has witnessed the changes in the
environment over the past seventy years. He has explored the banks of the rivers,
fished them, swum in them, and even spent decades working on the banks of the Otaki
River as an aggregate extractor. He has watched them in flood and observed their
changes over a lifetime. He has fished the Waitohu Stream using spears and nets, and
by using the technique known as ‘tickling’ trout and eels. This is explained by Duffy in
his story. He describes the paths the tributaries take to feed the Waitohu Stream and
outlines the unique characteristics of those bodies of water. His familiarity with these
waterways is amazing and he is often asked by the community of Otaki to share his
stories with school groups and with local history researchers.

I interviewed Duffy in October 2004 for an oral history project which invited
interviewees to share their memories of life on the Waitohu Stream. This stream runs
out of the Tararua Mountain range westward toward the sea. It has a largely gravel
bottom and harbours native fish and aquatic wildlife. It runs just north of the
township of Otaki, New Zealand.

Duffy’s interview reflects the close association that individuals in local communities
had with the environment in the early and mid-20th century. His memories are of long
fun-filled summers, of dozens of children racing along the road to the swimming hole
after school, oblivious to the harsh gravel on the soles of their feet until they paused
to throw their clothes on the bank before diving into the cool water. The families were
all related and the children watched out for one another. During the weekends and
holidays they roamed the banks of the river catching food, building fires and cooking
their fish and food as part of the rituals of life. Duffy’s interview is a record of the
abundance of food available in the river and records the methods families used to
prepare and preserve food in an era of plenty. The ability to live off the river and the
land during the 1930s World Depression minimised the impact of the hardship on the
families. He notes that local people did not sell their surplus fish as if there was
surplus, they fed the families in the neighbourhood and became imaginative with
cooking techniques so as to feed the family for many nights or even weeks. The stream
particularly fed the local Māori community during the early part of the 20th century.
The people of Otaki had an extensive knowledge of the local water-bodies and their
individual characteristics. They are well aware of the rhythms of the seasons and the

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foods that came with them. Their stories illustrate their deep understanding of their
environment and their reliance on the many foods within. The following are a
selection of Duffy’s comments about life on the Waitohu Stream from a childhood
perspective and his later observations of the stream.

The Waitohu Stream was the main swimming place and food gathering place for all
kids our age. In those days we never had swimming pools or that sort of thing. And
occasionally it was our bathroom because in the summertime when you were
swimming you didn’t need a bath. We used to go there straight after school just along
the road by the golf links near the beach. It was our main swimming hole. There’s an
urupa (burial ground) that the creek used to carve into and there used to be a deep
hole there.

After school we would race each other from the school gates by running up the road
and by the time we got to the swimming hole we just threw our clothes on to the bank
and then dived straight into the swimming hole. It was all gravel roads in those days,
no boots or shoes and by the time you got there your feet were tender.

As the years went on the river changed and that hole would be gone by the next
season so you would have to go and look for another one which might only be 100
yards up the road a bit. That’s the sort of thing we used to do. As kids we would swim
till 6 or 7 o’clock at night and then get a hiding when we got home because tea was

We lived just along the road from the school and the stream. There were the Grays,
Enokas, Winterburns. Whare Gray’s and Mag Gray’s old boys were mostly the ones
that lived on the creek. They had the old Māori art of trout tickling and they used to
teach us how to do it. If you put your hand under the bank and struck an eel we’d pull
it out whereas they wouldn’t, they’d just grab it. They were experts at tickling trout
(and eels). If you can find them under the bank, you work from the tail up just
stroking their bellies and they just lie there until you get to the gills. You’ve got your
fingers on both sides of it and while they’re breathing their gills are opening and you
just stick your thumb and finger in the gills and just pull them out. You just keep
stroking until you get the timing of the gill opening and you stick your finger and
thumbs through it and just pull them out. Sometimes you have to be under water to do
this if they were big ones, whereas the little ones always seem to be closer to the top
of the water. The bigger ones are lower down so you’d have to have your head under
the water.

Trout weighed 6 – 8 pounds. We got the native trout but it was mostly the brown and
rainbow trout. The only time we did that sort of thing was after spawning which was
April and we’d go and tickle eels, or trout. With eels you didn’t know where their
gills were because they were so small compared with trout, where they were opened
up all the time. With eels you couldn’t really get your finger into them unless they
were big eels. You do it the same way – just rub your hand up and down their bellies,
just stroking it. Once you got your fingers through the gills they couldn’t do anything
but kick and you’d throw it up on the bank. Some other kid would grab it and we’d
light a fire – no tinfoil in those days – we just threw it into the fire as it was and ate
them like that.

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There were lamprey in the stream and you’d only find them when you see them
sucking on a stone in the rapids and you’d just pull them up and sometimes the stone
would come up too. The old people ate them but we never used to. Mostly we used a
hinaki (net) or speared them and mostly we would go out at night with torches we
made. That’s the better time if you wanted an eel for tea or breakfast because that’s
when they all come out and head off to sea. Sometimes they were about six feet long
and six inches in diameter. They were the real old girls – they’d been there a long
time to get to that size. We gave them to the elders because they were so fat. Once
you cut them open you could see how fat they were. We would pawhara (filet and
dry) them, salt them and that’s it. When we were kids we would throw them on the
fire like that.

We used to go out to Lake Waiorongomai at night, especially during a heavy
downpour at the end of the summer. We would park with the horse and cart at the
mouth of the Waiorongomai Stream and you could hear the eels coming down the
drains, there would be so many. You’d light a fire on both sides of the stream so you
could see them going past and then you just rushed in and pulled out the ones you
wanted, threw them on to the sand and then all of a sudden they would stop again for
half an hour to an hour. It gave you time to pick up the ones on the sand, put them in a
sack and then wait for the next lot to come down. You could always hear them. It was
amazing. You wondered where they all came from. The eel run sounded mostly like
flapping but sometimes the water wouldn’t be high enough to accommodate them and
they’d be swimming on top of each other. When they got out to the mouth of the river
and the water spread, they would be stranded. They would be swimming on sand and
that’s when you got them and threw them up on to the bank. Then you would go
around and pick up the ones on the bank after they stopped running in the water. That
could go on all night like that. That’s what used to amaze us – where did they all
come from! The Nga Totara Stream came from Forest Lakes behind Manakau and in
those days they all had drains coming down from those places. That’s where the eels
used to congregate and they used to come out in other lagoons. It was an amazing
sound to hear – the water flapping.

How many people would be out there? Two horse carts full, say half a dozen of us and
as long as you had your fires lit and you stayed on both sides of the creek so you
could all get in together you stayed there all night and came home in the morning.

When we were eeling in the creek, we used to cut old car tyres into lengths and nail
them on to a board to make it like a torch. Then we would go up the creek with that in
your hand and a spear in the other hand. The rubber would be on fire and burning
down as you went along. You always had back-ups. You always had a spare one on
your back so that when the other one got down too far and burnt the stick, you lit the
other one and put that one away – as long as it kept you going until you got a feed.

Some people used to go home with eight, nine, ten sacks. They would all be full.
When you went home you would drop a sack off at people’s homes and the next day
all you used to see on the clothes line was eels drying out. If there was a tangi
(funeral) you take the whole lot to that. It’s like other indigenous people around the
world, like the Indians in Canada with their salmon.

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You might be sitting at home one night and think, I feel like an eel or a trout. If the
next night was dark enough and no rain, you’d get a bike tyre or car tyre and just take
off. We never came to town until a Friday or Saturday night even though we only
lived half a mile up the road. Our playground was over at the Waitohu Stream and the
Nga Totara Lake and Lake Waiorongomai – those areas. We never used to come to
town until Friday or Saturday night for the pictures. Girls didn’t worry about us in
those days or we didn’t worry about them anyway.

In the Waitohu you could also get kakahi – the freshwater mussels. They were mostly
down by the golf links bridge and mostly in sandy country, in the sandy river, not in
the stony one, but they were very bitter. They weren’t like the mussel you get today.
They were very flat and very thin. Sometimes you’ll find them after a flood. The
flood brings the shells up from underneath the sand and you’d find the odd shell in the
Waitohu Stream.

There weren’t that many people whitebaiting in those days like there is today. You’ve
got whitebaiters and nets every ten yards away from each other now, whereas in those
days you’d be lucky if you saw someone within an hour’s walk. They were very
spread out along the river and there was more whitebait around. Everyone got feeds
from the rivers. In those days people hardly ever sold their food. They either dried it
or saved it or gave it to other people. It wasn’t until later that people started selling
food. There was a year when people were getting them by the sack full and you
couldn’t give it away. They had to put it on their garden because there was so much.

You could dry whitebait by putting them on newspaper on an old wire spring bed.
Spread the newspaper out and pour the whitebait on. Throw salt on them because the
salt has gone once they are in fresh water. If Māori people got too much they dried it
and ate it like that. You could wrap them in muslin cloth. Fresh whitebait was cooked
in milk and butter or in fritters in the frying pan.

Flounder was also in the Waitohu Stream as far up as the golf links bridge. They were
the size of a dinner plate. The bigger ones were down towards the beach. We caught
them with a bit of wire or a sharpened stick. We would spear them, especially the big

If you got a shark when you went hauling in the sea it could be hung up in a tree and
left to dry. It’s good tasting if you can get past the smell, like rotten corn. There were
a lot of people who made kaanga wai (fermented corn). They used the Mangapouri
Stream because they used whichever was the closest water. The Taratoa family were
great for doing rotten corn. I never ate it because of the smell. They’d say “Eat it, it’s
as good as porridge”. I’d say, “Porridge don’t smell like that!”.

When I turned 20 we sort of moved away from the stream. It was only when you went
whitebaiting that you’d look at it and say it’s not as clean as it used to be. It might
have been like that when we were kids but we never took any notice of that sort of
thing. As long as we could swim in it or do anything we wanted to, it was always
good. It could have been just as bad in our day as it is today. Those water jokers that
go around testing the water ask me how it would get polluted. It hasn’t just got
overflow from cowsheds, there’s oil and other muck in it too. I said it comes off the
Main Road. When it’s heavy rain it comes down the Pukehou Stream, underneath the

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Railway Bridge and into the Waitohu from there. They didn’t know anything about
that Nga Totara Stream coming out at the Waitohu. They thought it was normal for it
to be like that. They didn’t realise how far down it comes before it gets polluted. I
don’t think it’s human waste and all that sort of thing, it’s only overflow from when it
rains. You can go up there at any time, look over the bridge at the Highway there and
it’s clean, but you come down to the drain I’m talking about and you can’t see the
bottom in places because it’s brown – more like an irony colour. It’s been like that
since I was a kid. Always been the same.

Duffy recalls the memories of his childhood with ease, and his knowledge of the
rivers, streams, lakes and drains is evident. His living in Otaki for the most part of 70
years has given him a thorough understanding of these water-bodies and the
adjoining areas. This knowledge extends further than the water’s edge, on into the
surrounding land, hills, dunes, and hinterland. Duffy speaks of the impacts of certain
sands and substrate and how this discolours the waterways and impacts upon the

In times gone by, dependence on the environment and its offerings forced Maori to
identify with their surroundings and understand them very well. Duffy’s extended
family understood the environs that they depended upon. He and his brothers and
sisters are some of a few elders who remember when river-water ran clear, when
drinkable freshwater springs popped up out of the ground, and when fish filled the
rivers at certain times of the year. Duffy in particular has clear recollections: of
certain elders and their teachings; of young children and their learning about the art
of fishing; of the realignment of streams and rivers in the twentieth century; of
catching, preparing, preserving, and cooking certain foods.

This story captures some of Duffy’s stories, and inevitably some of the stories passed
down to him by his elders. He continues to catch whitebait in the Waitohu Stream. He
still lives near to the beach and to the Otaki River and always presents a smile and a
wave should you see him driving his car along the beachfront. This oral history
interview was recorded at his home and was deposited in the Oral History Centre
archives of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand and at Te
Wananga-o-Raukawa Library, Otaki, New Zealand. Copies of the transcription,
abstract, tape and official release documents were also presented back to Duffy and
his family at a gathering in the town.

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