Anzac, General Freyberg and the Once Pristine Lake Horowhenua (Pt 1)

The iconic ANZAC poppy

Here is a story of pollution at its worst. ANZAC, unexpectedly this year (2015) became the avenue of discovery and the event that prompted me to write this post. A note first to non-Kiwis/Aussies, ANZAC stands for Australian New Zealand Army Corps … every 25th of April, we commemorate our brave soldiers … our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, who both risked and sacrificed their lives in the two World Wars.

Freyberg in his youth at Oriental Bay, Wellington (NZ)
A young Freyberg at Oriental Bay in Wellington NZ

I hadn’t intended going to an ANZAC service and haven’t done since my father passed away in 2007. It brings back my deep sadness at losing him. An ad however, in the Horowhenua Chronicle, was brought to my attention by a family member about a special service to be held at Lake Horowhenua, Levin, honouring Lord General Freyberg for the centenary of  the Gallipoli landing.  My father had been his driver for four years during WWII, and Lake Horowhenua was one of the venues Freyberg had trained at in NZ as a young swimmer.  His swimming would later earn him the VC (Victoria Cross) in WWI. The Horowhenua Chronicle read:

” Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg was a dentist in Levin before World War I; by the end of the war he was a decorated hero and recipient of the Victoria Cross. He earned the first of his four Distinguished Service Order medals for a swim he undertook on the morning of the invasion of Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. In darkness, Freyberg had towed to shore a raft of flares to light as decoys before undertaking unarmed and alone a reconnaissance of the large army entrenched nearby.”

This ANZAC service was being organized by Phil Taueki (Muaupoko iwi) one of Lake Horowhenua’s owners and kaitiaki or guardian of the lake.  The original commemorative plans would have seen swimmers crossing the lake however, those plans were dropped. You will see why shortly.

General Freyberg, his batman laurie Keucke and driver (my father) Jim Vernon
General Freyberg (centre) Corporal L. Keucke (left) and L. Sgt. J. Vernon (right)

We had no idea Freyberg had trained in Lake Horowhenua, or even that he had lived so close to our home town, only fifty or so minutes drive away. We decided to go to the service and take along with us the group photo my father treasured of the General, the General’s batman (also my father’s good friend) Laurie Keucke and himself, taken en route from Arrezzo, Rome, when they’d stopped for a ‘brew up’ and refreshments .

Lord General Freyberg

“… although it could be frightening  being on the road and always vulnerable to attack, nevertheless the General was always without fear … ” L. Sgt. James Vernon (Driver)

My father remembered Freyberg as a fearless man who already had 18 wounds at that time. His driver from El Alamein to Monte Cassino to Rimini, he said that although it could be frightening  being on the road and always vulnerable to attack, nevertheless the General was always without fear.

Freyberg apparently had a sense of humour too behind his fearsome exterior and knew the boys called him ‘Tiny’. Because his parents had emigrated from the UK to NZ when he was just a small child,  he would undoubtedly have experienced the Kiwi culture and its characteristic sense of humour growing up. For example, when staff who didn’t like the fact that Kiwi soldiers didn’t always salute them, he’d suggested they try waving instead!

“… they wouldn’t get away with that in the British Army … ” (General Freyberg)

The New Zealand guys always gave him a bit of stick too my father said. Knowing of his swimming expertise, when Freyberg and his men were getting ready to cross the Sangro River during the Italian campaign, someone called out, “Hey Freyberg, you gonna swim across?”. This was met with a tight lipped, “they wouldn’t get away with that in the British Army”, and as always with this kind of comment, a gleam in his eye.

The kind of man the Freyberg was is evident too in his posing for the group photograph. Generals wouldn’t normally be photographed I’ve been told, with that level of staff . After WW II when Freyberg visited Dad’s home town Whanganui, he’d broken rank and hugged my father when he spotted him in the parade … exclaiming how he always remembered the wonderful breakfasts he’d cooked him in the desert.  I always remember him as an excellent cook. After Freyberg’s appointment as Governor General of NZ after the war in 1946 my father and other of Freyberg’s staff I’ve heard, would call on him for a cup of tea at his home in Wellington, and every year, there would always be a Christmas card from Government House.

Lake Horowhenua

Lake Horowhenua, Levin, NZ
Lake Horowhenua, Levin, NZ

Returning to Lake Horowhenua, it turns out that the pristine lake the young dentist had trained in all those decades ago, had since been transformed  from a valuable source of income and kai (food) for Muaupoko … into a literal toilet bowl. Raw sewage had been pumped into it for two decades starting in the 1950s, and although it ceased in the 1980s, the lake has continued to be polluted to this day by effluent from both surrounding dairy farming and from local agricultural activity. The price tag to clean up the pollution and realize the dream of having swimmers cross the lake on the day was estimated by Horizons to be $2.886 million.

This story is all too familiar. Here in the Rangitikei we have our own pollution scenario, where locals have complained that the extension to Bonny Glen landfill to now nearly quintuple its size, will turn our ‘unspoilt’ district into the toilet bowl rather than the ‘grain bowl’ of the lower North Island. ‘Unspoilt’ is the featured word on our official district logo. This is clearly not true.

“Two-thirds of more than 160 monitored river swimming spots in New Zealand have been deemed unsafe for a dip”   NZ Herald  30/1/2015

Read Part 2 of this post with more on the events that transpired that ANZAC Day.

Dad 2

~ EnvirowatchRangitikei ~

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10 thoughts on “Anzac, General Freyberg and the Once Pristine Lake Horowhenua (Pt 1)”

  1. Reblogged this on Another Spectrum and commented:
    Aotearoa New Zealand likes to sell itself as “100% Pure”. Unfortunately it is far from that condition. I’m re-blogging this as firstly, I am concerned that even in this wonderful country of ours, money too often takes precedence over the welfare of its inhabitants (human and otherwise). Secondly it illustrates the egalitarian attitude to those in authority that is part of the Kiwi character.

    Like

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