By Paul Mahoney, Senior Heritage Advisor, Whanganui
Sunday’s Anzac Day gathering in the Mangapurua Valley is a contender for NZ’s most remote commemoration. Wounded Gallipoli survivors were amongst the 96 returned WW1 soldiers who from 1917 took up land in the Mangapurua soldier settlement scheme. Many started families there with strong wives prepared to build a dream in the harsh remote conditions. Descendants retain a strong connection with the valley and come from afar to meet there on Anzac Day every second year.
In this remote valley up the Whanganui River the government offered returned soldiers the chance to clear new farms from the bush. The men started with great optimism but faced an arduous struggle against the relentless forces of nature. Some land proved unsuited to farming and the unexpected loss of government support was disheartening. Over the next twenty years most ran out of money and walked away with nothing to show. In 1942 the government forced out the remaining families and burned down their homes to prevent their return.
Descendants and community groups work together to maintain their connection with the valley. A history highlight has been the publication by Raewyn West in 2017 of the 360-page history ‘Remembering Them’. Friends of the Mangapurua group has placed a large story panel at the carpark. The Friends of the (Whanganui) River group have marked each farm property with its family names. Mike and Raewyn West host the biennial Anzac gathering.
On 11am on Sunday morning, 80 participants gathered for the ceremony at the Anzac Memorial. Parking their cars at the Ruatiti Road end they had to journey 8 km to the Mangapurua Trig. For most the trip to the site along the steep winding former road route was quite an adventure; whether done by foot, mountain bike or quad bike. This time the youngest was an 8-month-old accompanied by the oldest, her 94-year-old great grandmother. The old road route today is busy with 16,000 visitors each year, of all ages, enjoying it as the Mountains to the Sea cycleway, the Mangapurua Valley hike, the Te Araroa Trail, or access to hunt for pigs and deer in the distant backcountry.
Mike and Raewyn West headed a project to raise the funds and create a Memorial site to mark the centenary in 2017 of the first of the soldier settlers arriving on the land. The inspirational site offers panoramic views over the rugged bush lands that were proposed for farms. The Memorial includes a striking sculptured monument, a flagpole, and a shelter with story panels naming the 96 soldiers with their photos.
At each gathering, one descendent family has the opportunity to present a history highlight. This time the McIntyre family featured a letter written in 1925 from their grandfather in the valley to his wife who was in hospital in Whanganui having their second child. Jack said he would be happy with whatever name Irene chose for the baby and that his plan was to go to Whanganui and accompany her back to the valley once he had finished the shearing. That wool clip was important for the new baby; it would be the only farm income for the family for that year. In fact, Jack was so fond of babies that there were nine McIntyre children.