The West

South Island s buried past
Howard Willis at Stanley Graham's grave, Hokitika

The weather is always an issue in the South Island's Westland. It had been raining since we came down through the Buller Gorge. And when it rains on the coast - it rains.

So when, on the afternoon we arrive in Hokitika, there is a lull in the showers, I take the opportunity to drive up to the cemetery on the escarpment overlooking the town.

I want to have a look at Stan Graham's grave. But after a 33-year absence, memory reverses the cemetery. I am completely back to front, facing east rather than west, looking towards the Southern Alps rather than the Tasman Sea.

I am beginning to think the burial place has been allowed to be quietly grassed over. But no, my wife, who has never been there before, finds it.

The grave is unique in that it has nothing other than the given name inscribed on it. Someone has left plastic flowers, yellow and red, daisies and a rose, in a glass jar. Who would have good reason to place flowers on Graham's 71-year-old grave?

There had been faded plastic flowers on it when I first visited in 1974. His widow was still alive then, but she died more than 30 years ago.

My account of the Graham affair was originally published in 1979. The hardback edition was entitled Manhunt, but when a paperback was released in conjunction with a film adaptation, it took the film title, Bad Blood.

I saw a second-hand copy of Manhunt for sale in Hokitika. Without saying who I was, I asked the sales assistant about local opinion of the book: Did the author get it right?

Her initial response was to say that some people reckoned there was more to it than was in the book. But then, perhaps sensing she was losing a sale, she added "But I think it's pretty right".

I asked whether there was still much raw feeling about what had happened at Koiterangi in 1941.

She looked at me a little more closely then. The official name of the district in the valley behind Hokitika is Koiwhiterangi but I had used the old settlers' shortened form of the name.

She asked if I had grown up "out there". To satisfy her curiosity I told her I had been associated with the film. Which was true - just not the whole truth. At that point she was called away and I took the opportunity to leave quietly.

Koiwhiterangi is on a broad and lush alluvial flat between two rivers, 20km from Hokitika. Surrounded by steep, black mountains, it is often under a solid blanket of low, grey cloud.

In 1941 Graham and his family lived at the very centre of the isolated farming community. In financial trouble, mentally deteriorating, he had started threatening his neighbours. All the classic signs of trouble were there.

When the police tried to confiscate his guns, Stan Graham started shooting. He killed seven men. The manhunt lasted 12 days. Lord Haw Haw made a broadcast from nazi Germany saying that if Graham could hold the South Island, Hitler would send another man to take the North.

Since 2004 an impressive memorial for Graham's victims has stood where the front gate and path to Graham's house once were. The house was burnt down after Graham was captured and died of his wounds in late October 1941.

Although modified since the manhunt, the Koiterangi Settlers Hall across the road preserves the 1940s place name. It was from there that two brave home-guardsmen rushed under fire to assist their besieged comrades in Graham's house. One was killed by Graham, the other managed to wound the fugitive.

On the tourist map the monument is marked as the Koiwhiterangi Incident Memorial. Tourists going up to Hokitika Gorge's Blue Pool drive right past it. On the gloomy, drizzling day we were there several campervans passed. None slowed down.

There is a modest Koiterangi tragedy exhibit in the Hokitika museum but it is entirely understandable that the locals do not regard the event as a tourist attraction. OK Corral style re-enactments are not going to happen. Glenrowan's Big Ned will not be emulated.

The history and heritage for tourist consumption is the gold rush of the mid-1860s. In 1867 the river mouth port of Hokitika was, both in vessels entered and value of cargo (gold), the largest in New Zealand. It rivalled San Francisco.

Gold is still being taken out of Westland's rivers, mostly by a massive floating mine, the legendary Kanieri dredge. Coal, too, long trains of it, still comes out of the hills and down the valley behind Greymouth, just up the coast.

You only have to look down Hokitika's main street at the big dairy factory to know that this remains a working town. If further confirmation is required, stand in the crowded bar of the Station Hotel on a Saturday night, a glass of Monteith's original ale in hand.

But times are uncertain and the tourists are coming through by the busload - their dollars, yen and euros are there to be had. If nothing else they may be tempted, as I was, to treat themselves to a genuine whitebait fritter at the fish and chip shop over the road from the Station Hotel.

Bigger transactions take place in Hokitika's numerous greenstone factories and their showrooms. The greenstone may be polished but the competition is bare-knuckle. Almost all places let it be known that their competitors' goods were somehow suspect, overpriced or both.

For those interested in the wildlife there is an aquarium with tanks of whitebait, turtles, tuatara lizards and giant eels, one of which is said to be about 120 years old and was probably bigger than me. Feeding time is not for everyone. Unaccompanied children . . .

The same establishment has a solitary kiwi bird earning her keep by racing back and forth against the glass at the front of her enclosure. I had wanted to see her but feel grubby that my admission fee played a part in keeping her in demented captivity.

That night I lie awake in the small hours listening to the squalling rain and the timeless thump and wallop of the Tasman against this hard weather coast. I remember standing on that beach another, clearer night almost 40 years ago.

That was when I first saw the snow-covered Alps under a full moon.

I had hoped to finally share that vista with Erica, but rain and mist not only obscured the moon but hid the mountains as well.

Until our last morning on the coast.

We were at Haast Beach, on the Jackson Bay road. The rain had passed. The mists parted. The sun flashed over the shoulder and along the face of the main range. For a long minute the fresh fall of snow was suffused by every shade from gaudy cerise to the most delicate apricot.

That's when you forgive the coast everything.

The grave is unique in that it has nothing other than the given name inscribed on it. Someone has left plastic flowers in a glass jar.

The West Australian

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