Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

14 October 2009

Kaihu Tavern

I wrote and illustrated ‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’. It was published in 1995. It was a snapshot of some New Zealand pubs as they were at the end of the 20th century. I have decided to share some of the entries from the book from time to time on this blog.

I first painted the Kaihu Tavern in 1991 (that’s the little drawing below) when it was looking a bit worse for wear and was in the early stages of a restoration programme. Now the flaking, biscuit-coloured exterior has given way to a fresh, clean coat of white paint but, praise the Lord of Pubs, the structure has been left alone and that half roof over the ground floor still seems to hang in space with little apparent means of support. I was tempted to show the pub as seen through the stones of the cemetery across the highway but Eric Lee-Johnson had already beaten me to it with a vibrant black and white drawing, done in 1967, depicting a building which has hardly changed in nearly thirty years.

I’ve read somewhere that Hone Heke made use of the accommodation — it’s possible. At first called the Opanaki Hotel, in its time both its name and its location changed. In 1895, when it was seven years old, it was shifted down Kaihu Hill to marry up with the new railway line from Dargaville; a line that should have been inaugurated by prime minister ‘King Dick’ Seddon but which, because he didn’t turn up, was opened by a drunk with a pair of hedge clippers who had been wheel-barrowed to the ribbon by the publican.

The most famous landlord was Albert Docherty who bought the pub in 1917. Like Bill Evans of Houhora, he was a man of many parts: hire-car operator, ambulance driver, nurse, athlete, cyclist, trophy hunter… he built a famous collection of kauri gum which adorned his main bar along with curiosities such as a two-headed calf, a four-legged chicken, a hair-ball from a cow’s stomach, several deer’s heads, stuffed trout, boars’ tusks, and Maori patu and taiaha. It became something of a tourist destination in its own right and was certainly an important stop on the way to Waipoua kauri forest and the Hokianga.

The museum went with Albert in 1951. It’s just as well, those bits and pieces are terrible dust traps. Since then the pub has been saner but you can feel the history oozing through the floorboards.


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By Don Donovan