Monday, July 12, 1999

Planned tavern brings hope

Published in the Otago Daily Times

On the route between Central Otago and the West Coast, the Clutha and the Hawea rivers pose a massive barrier to travellers, goods and animals. They flow together at Albert Town, beginning the chain of confluences which power Central Otago's electric appliances.

On the banks of the Hawea River, there is a nohoanga site, one of several in the area traditionally used by local Maori for camping and gathering food on trips from the east coast to the greenstone-guarding glens of the West Coast.

Soon there may be a new re-supply site, not just for Ngai Tahu, but for all travellers and residents in the region. Alison and Bruce Hebbard, great-grandchildren of early residents of Albert Town, are planning to build a tavern just south of the bridge over the Clutha.

Near where the bridge is now, Henry Ferris Norman, the grandfather of two of Albert Town's current residents, set up the first licensed ferry across the Clutha in 1863. It immediately became a stopping point for travellers and locals. The early settlers were well-known for their hospitality and willingness to help farmers and miners solve any problem that arose.

The tavern has the potential to change Albert Town as it will provide the town's first social space where everyone can gather at any time. With a shop and a takeaway/restaurant, Albert Town's residents will no longer have to drive all the way to Wanaka to remedy a moment's inattention at the supermarket.

There are some arrangements still to be made. The Hebbards are negotiating with Transit New Zealand over the location of a traffic sight line restriction on the property.

The traffic negotiations and the request for a smaller, cheaper building than the one they originally proposed have held up the council's final go-ahead. Worse, the delays mean more delays. There is a time limit on development and subdivision of the property and the Hebbards have applied for an extension, which means more paperwork and more waiting.

"We don't like setting deadlines when we don't know if we'll be in a position to make it," Bruce Hebbard said.

They have sympathy among the community. "The bureaucracy those people have put up with is absolutely disgusting," said Ida Darling, one of three surviving grandchildren of the first Albert Town ferryman.

The residents are impatient for the tavern to get the go-ahead, which is a departure from the usual reaction of small towns to change. Ethel Templeton said: "It would be very good for the area." This favourable reaction from newcomers and old-timers is not just because the people building the tavern are locals, it is because residents see it as a growing, changing area which has opportunity for future projects.

Albert Town was once the only town in the district. The first school in the area, though called the Wanaka School, was at Albert Town. The school building once used at Albert Town is now part of the Wanaka Primary School in Wanaka. Three grandchildren of some of the founders of the town still live there, along with some of their children and grandchildren.

This is still the kind of place people grow attached to, even if they are spending only small parts of the year here. Tourism is having a mixed impact on Albert Town — there are large numbers of visitors to the area year-round but since there is only one storefront business, there is not much economic impact. The tavern may change that.

In the summer, the camping ground across the Clutha from Albert Town fills with holidaymakers from all over New Zealand.

Over the past 20 years, one family has perfected the art of summer holidaying by the Clutha. They have a generator, a water pump, a water tank on a scaffold, a wood-fired water heater and a shower tent. They even run a washing machine in the camping ground. The kids have a water slide set right on the river bank.

Some of the group don't come anymore: the ashes of two of them are scattered in the reserve, and a tree and an inscribed rock in the corner of the old, disused historic graveyard speaks of the memory of those two and three others.

The five names fit neatly on one sone. They are connected in spirit to this place, and to the people who gather here to build their temporary village for the summer, but are only distantly related by blood and marriage.

The townspeople may yet adopt the tree (planted there at Christmas 1998) as part of their history, though none but two know about its meaning. Those who live and holiday in the permanent structures don't mix much with those in tents and campervans across the river. But if there is a tavern across the river, they might begin to.

Albert Town is a mixed-age down with residents from newborn, to those in their 90s. It attracts the 20-and-30-something set with cheaper housing than nearby Wanaka. The increasing number of lifestyle sections in Albert Town attract retirees and affluent families seeking a relaxed place to live. Others come in search of peace and quiet, a place away from the madness the world can sometimes become.

The community association gathers twice a year. Many newer residents are being drawn because their friends and neighbours are long-time town residents, so they feel comfortable in these groups. On weekends, neighbours help with various household and outdoor tasks.

There are informal gatherings such as the winter solstice outdoor barbecue hosted by Rae and Ngaire Benfell.

The new tavern will provide a purpose-built place for get-togethers. The living room and back garden gatherings will continue but will be broadened by contact with others in town.

Albert Town residents share concerns about the future of the town and its services and amenities. Most of them love living here, preferring Albert Town to other places they could have lived and worked.

Gary Templeton, who grew up here and is raising his children here, thinks "there's nowhere better to live." Moira Fleming, who has been here for 10 years, agrees. "The people who live in Albert Town love living in Albert Town," she said.

Residents are specially concerned about road sealing, sewage treatment and speed limits. As local government priorities change and national governments chance policies and regulations, Albert Town is caught in the resulting turmoil. But the community association is promoting Albert Town's interests in discussions the Queenstown-Lakes District Council has about funding and resource allocation.

The separation between the people on each side of the river may subside with the arrival of the tavern. The separation between neighbours and those on opposite sides of State Highway 6, which bisects the town, is also likely to improve.

As Moira Fleming put it, "The tavern is a wee hope sign for lots of things."