When the Thames Goldfields opened in 1867, travel to Thames was principally by water, as tracks were few and far between. The first miners arrived at the Kauaeranga (Shortland) Landing aboard the Enterprise 2.
'The Thames goldfield was opened to the world from 1st August 1867...A code of regulations was hastily drawn up, to meet the first requirements of the rush, and Mr Mackay left Auckland on the 1st of August in the ps Enterprise No 2, with his policemen and about 40 other persons, the pioneers of the goldfield.' (1)
It would take many decades before surveyed roads were mapped and developed. As a result the wharves of Thames (at Shortland, Grahamstown and Tararu) and further along the river were kept busy with a large number of boats (of all sizes) bringing passengers and cargoes to the busy gold-mining town.
The Northern Steamship Company operated many of these ships that came to Thames and their details are given in the book 'The Servants of the North' by Cliff Furniss. (2) One of these boats was the Wakatere, which is remembered today in the Thames playground where there is a model of this once famous ship. There is also a 1.3m long builder's half-model of the Wakatere in the New Zealand National Maritime Museum in Auckland.(3)
The paddle steamer Wakatere was built in 1896 by Napier, & Bell, at Yoker in Dumbartonshire, Scotland for the Northern Company of New Zealand. Technical details were:
Official number: 102288, Tonnage 440.73 gross and 156.85 net, Entered fleet 1896, Capacity 1500 passengers with cabins for 375. Dimensions: 210ft 3in x 26ft 2in x 10ft 2in (2,3)
On the 16 December 1896, the maiden voyage took place of the Wakatere, from Auckland to Thames under the command of Captain W Farquhar.
There were 700 passengers and the voyage took 3 1/4 hours, which was deemed as being very impressive. 'Passengers by the steamer found her [the Wakatere] to be most spacious and comfortable, and there can be little doubt that if there had been no delay she would have completed the voyage in 3 hours.' (4) Thamesites had a long tradition of visiting Auckland, especially during the holidays. Remembering that many of the first settlers who left the goldfields, went to settle in the Auckland area. Therefore the people of Thames usually had relatives to visit, as well as the excitement of visiting the big city such a short distance away.
Newspapers of the day were filled with advertisements for the many ships on offer. For example, on the 3 January 1897 the Wakatere was due to leave Auckland at 2.30pm, departing Thames at 6.45pm. The cost was SALOON: Single 3s; return 5s. STEERAGE: Single 2s
Into the 1900s there was a decline in these coastal services. There were many reasons that led to this, including the constant silting of the Thames harbour area, plus the major problems given the tidal nature of the firth. The Wakatere knew the perils of the firth only too well over the thirty years spent on the Thames voyages.
'Employed on the Thames run and excursion work until worn out by dragging over the shelly bottom shallows off the Thames.' (2)
What great days they must have been at the busy Thames wharves and what a magnificent picture the Wakatere would have been steaming down the firth.
There is an ‘oral history recording’ made by the late Mrs Ruby Saunders of Thames c1990, that gives her memories of travelling on the Wakatere. A partial transcription follows. (5)
'I was working ... learning a trade and I only got five shillings a week, but there was always enough money saved to go for a trip on the Wakatere. I was very lucky because I had an Aunt in Symonds Street with a Boarding-house...
Well it was a good trip. We eventually got on to the boat [the Wakatere]. In the [Saloon] was a Mrs Tucker, who looked after that, kept it beautifully. The seats were red velvety material, and always nicely kept and nice and clean...The Bar-keeper was a Mr Alwinger...He later had a hotel at...the Northern end [The Cornwall Arms Hotel].
So, everything was good. If it was rough, you could easily go down to the Lounge. It was quite nice down there. You could get a cup of tea and a nice sandwich. If anyone was sick, the Hostess was very helpful, she looked after them. Little children, they were all cared for and I think everybody enjoyed the trip. I know I did.
We all had a great time. Then we got to Auckland and a big crowd on the wharf and then everyone would be jostling again to get off the ship...Well, there was plenty to see and do in Auckland, of course it was a big city...
Then when we got home [to Thames], the people were all going their own way again. There weren’t a great many taxis and very few cars. One man in Thames had a cab...Chris Malloy... He’d get people into the cab, you could hire the cab to be at the boat to meet you, or take you to the boat. He always hopped down off his perch and got you into the cab, then he’d climb up again and away we would go...
So that was the end of the trip on the Wakatere, but she was a great ship and I’ve got very fond memories of those trips. And as I say, it was a great thing for Thames.... that was a great experience for us.
...I was about 17 when I think I had my first trip. Then after that I had about three more trips. But the Waka had a good innings. She had about thirty years...going somewhere all the time. So when she was scrapped...proved to be worn out. So that was the end of the Wakatere.'
The Wakatere is recorded as having had several minor incidents. (3) They included a collision with the Huia off Ponui Point, a collision with the Kestrel at Auckland in 1912 during thick fog, a boiler mishap in 1913. 1914 a paddle-wheel was damaged after a collision with a buoy off Brown’s Island and later that year a collision with the scow Katie S near Ponui Light. Later in 1918 the engine room was damaged after a mishap to the low-pressure valve. On 5 July 1926 the Wakatere was laid up and sold for scrap to J E Appleton in 1929.
We must never underestimate just how special this boat was to all who travelled or just watched her voyages to and fro from Auckland to Thames. Many of us have grown up hearing stories about those special trips, on this special ship. Cliff Furniss in his book (3) shares many memories similar to those expressed by Ruby Saunders above and he summarises it best with these sentiments:
'Half a century after her paddle wheels ceased to turn, she still goes romping past in the memories of those who knew her, paddles tuff-tuffing across the calm Gulf, leaving a broad white wake and a haze of coal smoke astern to mark her passing. Of all the Northern Company ships I travelled in, none has left a more vivid impression than that masterpiece from the yard of Napier, Shanks and Bell; Wakatere, the Fast Canoe.'