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Driving on a beautifully sunny ANZAC day, I reflected on the lives of those who came back from WW1 a century ago. They were the survivors, many of whom lived for decades more in silence with those around them.
Their lives, and the lives of those they loved, were never the same again. Many were damaged beyond repair, physically and mentally, and carried their burdens for the long years ahead. Seven of my great-uncles, the Kindberg brothers from Taranaki, represented this country in the ‘great war’ and were all fortunate to return. Several were wounded in battle and no doubt all were scarred by what they had experienced. Adjusting back to life in this peaceful and tranquil land was difficult.
Three of the sons, Sam, George and Gus initially went farming. Sam suffered badly from the skin condition eczema, which was either induced or exacerbated by his time in the trenches, and sometime after the war moved to Ngawha Springs, near Kaikohe in the Far North, to ‘take the waters’.
Ngawha thermal hot springs were well-known in the medical field for their spectacular healing properties. Returning soldiers were encouraged to soak in the various pools to ease or cure skin, chest and arthritic conditions resulting from wounds and exposure to the elements in the trenches.
Sam’s brothers George and Gus soon followed. Both had been wounded by shrapnel in the war and no doubt their symptoms were considerably eased by the heat and mineral properties in the spas. They built themselves small cottages and set up gardens to provide vegetables. They never married and eked out a living working the Kauri fields digging for gum. While holidaying in the upper North Island the week before ANZAC Day, I decided to drive to the springs to see what, if anything, was left at the original site. It did not appear to be on the tourist trail and I wondered if the pools still existed. I was pleasantly surprised to find the collection of pools with different temperature and mineral compositions.
They were well away from civilisation (7kms from Kaikohe) and didn’t seem to have been upgraded to attract tourists. The appeal was the rustic ambience, history and absence of modernity.
There were also powered and tent sites for campers nearby at very reasonable rates. I parked my self-contained camper right by Lake Tuwhakino and within a short distance to the hot pools. The small lake was a haven for varieties of waterfowl, stilts, ducks, gulls and pukeko, feeding in the shallows, crying and whirling in flocks above the steaming waters. I sampled the different pools by day. All occur naturally (no filtering or additives) and have a high mineral and soluble metal content. Temperatures vary from cool, to pleasantly hot, to very hot depending on the time of day or night.
My highlight was bathing in the open hot pools late one night. It was 9.30pm and I was totally alone. The weather was fine and mild and the stars were out.
As I lay in the water and looked up at the dark sky scattered with tiny pinpoints of light, I reflected that three of my great uncles had lain in these same waters, in this same pool, still with its original kauri wood frame, all those years ago. I wondered at their thoughts, their dreams and their memories as they relaxed, soaking away their muscular aches from old war wounds and the day’s digging.
Ngawha means ‘hot spring’ and prior to European settlement, the local Ngapuhi dug holes in the mud, lined them with flax and bathed their wounded after battles. They also recognised the water’s benefits for skin conditions and bathed in the hot pools by the stream which ran through the valley.
European settlers built rickety wooden frames to enclose the pools with local native timbers to contain the smoky green waters. The kauri boxing is now coloured by years of mineral staining. The bottom is still the same sandy mud that sends up bubbles and steam, just as 100 years ago. The area has been virtually untouched in all that time, left behind as money poured into other health spas more accessible to the tourist mainstream.
ANZAC Day is a time of remembrance, giving thanks to those who sacrificed their lives so we could live in this beautiful, green and peaceful land that is Aotearoa New Zealand. Though many did not return, we must not forget those who did. They lost their youth and lived on with the awful memories of the horrors of war. Remember too the mothers, wives, sisters and children who shouldered the burden of their returning men, physically and psychologically forever changed by what they experienced.
(First published in The Motor Caravanner Issue 339, June-July 2019)
Ngawha Springs is just 7 minutes away from the main centre of Motorhome Friendly Kaikohe.