Kawerau, a place where as a child I would spend my holidays with my mother and her new husband. 6 hours by bus from Auckland I would travel with my two younger siblings at the age of 8 years old. There was no worries back then as the bus driver would keep an eye on us and help us change buses at Hamilton and Rotorua.
After many attempts of running away and hitch hiking the 265km to Kawerau as a youngster at the age of 13 I was able to live with my mum in this small East Coast timber processing town.
Back in the 80’s Kawerau was bustling as the two major industries thrived. Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill employed almost everyone in town and if you weren’t (like my new Stepfather) you worked across the road at Caxton Paper Products a tissue mill making toilet paper.
Kawerau was an awesome town to grow up, we had a skating rink, geothermal heated town pool and where I spent most of my time the BMX track. I even learnt to weld here, being taken to work by an old girlfriend’s father and being hidden down the back of the workshop to learn the basics.
Unlike the schools of surrounding towns Kawerau High School had no pool, instead we had the Tarawera River flanking the school grounds. The walking track around the river stretched out for 2km upstream to the Golf Course.
Kawerau was carefully planned and in the whole town there were only two crossroad intersections to reduce traffic congestion and potential accidents.
The towns peak time was the 80’s and since then it’s just declined, the mills have become more automated and the dreams of our fathers of “Uncle Tasman” taking on the next generation dwindled and died. It was only a few years ago Tasman pulled out of the town leaving a town of the 8000 people with no mainstay income. Shops started closing down and now the Town Square is almost derelict.
Now the town grows problems of most poor towns, crime moved in and now the gangs rent the houses and harvest their crops hidden deep in the surrounding pine forests. The beneficiaries have little hope of ever getting employment. There seems to be little hope of the town ever recovering and with the economy of New Zealand in a recession it will be years until we see any growth in the houses we own here. Walking around the Town Square it’s hard to believe that during the early 80’s Kawerau was “Top Town ” in New Zealand 2 years in a row in a local community challenge that was televised and instilled great pride.
Now Kawerau’s brag is that it has one of the largest Police Stations per head of population of any provincial town in New Zealand.
One thing that I’ve learn’t as an owner of 2 houses in the town and from the decline and demise of Kawerau is that I don’t put all my hopes on one dream. In business diversify and don’t depend on one income. when the big boys go, you need to have a plan B, and in Kawerau’s case I believe that the locals thought the good times would never end.
Amidst the despair, the spirit of the locals is still there, sure there are trouble makers in the town and that to some extent is common in all small low socio-economic communities. Kawerau struggles to find an identity that gives it a good light in the mainstream media.
But no matter what happens to Kawerau in the future, those of us who grew up there in the 80’s know that Kawerau was and and always will be the place of driving our parents cars, teen love, first dates, BMX, Roller Skates and White Water Rivers and the Edgecume Earthquake.
This Blog has raised some interesting feedback, some of which have come via email:
I have been reading what you are saying about our lovely town and have twice tried to write to you from the site but twice lost all I wrote…it just isn’t working.
Anyway, I have lived in Kawerau since 1971 and will also retire here. The town is standing well, not relying on mills any more, not to say industry has gone. Carter Holt Harvey Pulp is committed to at least 25 more years here, AIE machine shop here is one of the biggest in NZ, SCA just moved packaging plant here from Te Rapa, and lots more industry is being explored.
I see you have rentals…we have several here, are caring for them well, and very pleased with our investments.
The town centre is not derelict at all…it is beautiful, even with lots of empty shops, which are seen in all places. Yes, we have a lot of beneficiaries, some not good but many are great people. There are a lot of retired people moving here and loving it. The house prices dropped when there was bad press and a lot of people moved out. That is why we do not appreciate bad press when we are presently doing a great job attracting people here.
I could go on and on, my friend, and will continue you for you if you so wish.
Kind regards from the prettiest and friendliest little town in NZ 🙂
I have just read your piece on Kawerau and loved it (from just up the road in Noosa!). I have tried to post a comment but keep receiving an error message.
This is what I wrote:
Thanks for a beautifully written piece that so clearly describes my childhood there in the 70’s and early 80’s. Having spent 11 years there (from 1-12), there is no other town or city that I have spent longer in to date. Kawerau, in my memories, is a quaint little town where we walked and biked everywhere. We played out in the cul de sac until late at night with our friends and rode the main road to the pony club and back on bikes laden with sadles, bridles, brushes and horse feed with lights on our bikes guiding the way. We too whiled away many hours at the skating rink, pool and BMX track, all within cooee of each other. I have been planning a road trip back to NZ to retrace my steps, with Kawerau being the most important place on the list. A lot happened to my family in that little town and I literally want to walk where I used to walk with my siblings and friends. I am worried about what I might find… Kawerau did a good deal to shape me and the person I am now and has always featured so fondly in my childhood memories. I am saddened in advance and wish I had more photos of that great little place I used to call home.
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All the best with your travels.