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Alison Sanson’s glorious childhood at Inchbonnie was filled with wonder and warmth. Pioneer airman Bert Mercer, resplendent
in leather gators and knickerbockers, would fly in in his Tiger Moth. Once, the Taramakau River broke through into Lake Brunner,
creating the epic flood of 1936. Now of Hokitika, she shares with LAURA MILLS some stories of the pioneering farmers of
Inchbonnie is of
a place where the
sun always shone, the valley floor
was a riot of colour and a flying
ace regularly called in.
She came to the early realisation
that a huge earthquake had struck
there once, with the tell-tale signs
of a drowned forest at nearby
Lake Poerua. A diver recovering
rimu logs from the bed of Lake
Brunner found an upright forest
on the lake bed from a pre-
“ It had slipped off Mount Te
Kinga,” she says. There were also
old riverbeds, and river terraces
with only springs, not rivers, and
the Taramakau River had changed
“As children, the road up to the
railway was dead straight, now
it’s curved. Over 70 years it has
deformed,” she says.
The first people to come through
were Maori on the greenstone
trail. Most of the early farmers
in the area found old hangi pits
with cracked stones from the fires.
There were also square eel pits,
dug half a metre down, where
they stored them. Greenstone
implements were ploughed up,
and the children once found
an adze with polishing stone
Next came the goldrush
and the arrival of diggers over
Harpers Pass. Then came the
drovers, bringing cattle over the
Inchbonnie was called Big
Paddock for a while, as it was
where cattle were rested — 27,000
head of cattle were brought
through here. But the rivers
were fast and dangerous, and as
children they used to say there
were unmarked graves on every
After World War One, land
in the area was balloted off to
returned soldiers. Alison’s father’s
nephew got one but did not stay,
so her father took it on.
Her mother, as a bride, came
over Arthur’s Pass in her hat and
finery, atop the stagecoach, and
got soaked on the way. She arrived
to a three-roomed hut with a tin
fireplace, and started to cook in a
One of Canterbury’s earliest
settlers, the new Mrs Armstrong
felt she had travelled back in time
Alison was the youngest of three
girls, born during the Depression.
Up to 30 children lived in the
valley back then, and school was
three miles from the Armstrong
home, so they rode there on
an old pony handed down the
generations from the Shaffreys to
“He was abandoned at Kumara
by the circus,” Alison says.
The pony only took girls to
school, but during its circus days
boys had been invited on to its
back only to be bucked off.
“He was as wicked as a pony
could be. ”
Old Donk as they called it even
had a habit of eating the tails off
the horses in the school paddock.
Inchbonnie School is today
a bach, and the porch remains
where a young Alison got a
terrible fright on her first day
at school. Two older boys put a
leather handbag on their heads
and threatened to hook out her
eyes with a clothes hanger. Used
to sisters, she was shocked by
what was meant as a fun trick.
Swede, Jo Hanssen, with two
degrees (in natural history and
geography), was her inspirational
teacher. He would bring his
microscope along to evening
meals with the family, in the days
when the ponds were teeming
with insects such as dragonflies
“He made a great impression on
She learned the names of the
trees, bird calls, and that some of
the 27 varieties of wildflower had
been blown off the mountains.
Back then, the valley was covered
in orchids, wild violets, myrtles,
and many other flowering plants.
“ Today it’s all green, green
grass,” she says.
One night, a great electrical
storm raged and when dawn
broke the water was under the
floorboards, and out in the yard
for about 1km everything was
under rushing water.
Most of the Taramakau River
had broken through, flooding
Inchbonnie. It washed out
bridges and the railway line, the
floodwaters naturally finding their
way down the Arnold to the Grey
River. The coal carriers tied up
at the Greymouth wharf had to
be run at full speed to keep them
“ We thought it was fun, we
waited all day for the water to go
down. It returned to its own bed
(in the Taramakau) after about 24
hours,” Alison says.
However, the flood was
so serious the government
released funds for a stopbank to
protect the downstream port of
Greymouth. A seed of fear had
been planted in their heads.
Bachelor Jim Hensen, who
had lived in the old gaol at
Greenstone, took up land at
Inchbonnie and his cattle went
wild. They called his shack the
‘Dormicile Edifice’. He had an
old bush harp, and they would
hear him in the evenings playing
mournful, homesick songs, such
as Danny Boy. It was punctuated
by great cracks, as the shack
was lined with wood from old
kerosene boxes which cracked as
the house cooled down.
There was great excitement
when pioneering aviator Bert
Mercer began flying into the
valley in his Tiger Moth. Tourists
would be driven down from the
express train at Otira (he only had
room for two at a time).
Mercer would fly past once to
scare the cattle off the airstrip on
Randall Topliss’s farm, taxi to the
fence and tie up his plane so it
could not blow away.
“He would climb out in his
leathers and knickerbockers, and
leather gators and goggles.”
He would carry flying gear for
the tourists. When he was ready
to take off again, Mr Topliss
would stand in front and spin
the propeller until it caught. The
children would then watch, agog,
to see if the Tiger Moth made it
over the fence.
Then Captain Mercer just
stopped coming. The children did
not realise he had been killed in
1944 in a plane crash.
Another visitor to the valley was
Miss Neilsen, who would arrive in
her Model T Ford to take Bible
lessons. It ended up a shouting
match over the older boys.
“ We were an irreligious and
wicked bunch of kids,” Alison
laughs. Then off Mrs Neilson
would go, through the creek with
loud explosions from the exhaust
pipe, as it backfired.
“S he must have been a soul of
virtue to face up to us.”
One day “infantile paralysis”
(polio) came to the valley. It was
a beautiful summer’s day when
Alison developed a headache, and
everything started going black.
She was put in a dark room, and
her father pumped water from the
well as he tended her and kept her
wrapped in cold towels. The fever
started to drop, and she suffered
no ill effects.
The best summer of all was
1939, just as Hitler’s troops began
to advance in faraway Europe. The
big boys had already left school
when, one day, the lady next door
came up the path wrapping her
hands anxiously in her apron. The
adults conversed in low voices.
Then, with a sense of history, the
teacher announced “we are at
war with Germany ”. School was
dismissed for the day.
“Most of us exploded out the
school doors into the playground
with wild excitement. We had no
idea what a war meant. ”
Three weeks later a team of
carpenters arrived and erected
a flagpole at the school. Then,
every morning, the children were
marched out in order of height,
the flag would be raised, and the
order ‘school salute’ barked out.
They would sing ‘There Will
Always be an England’
A poster warning them that
“rumours cost lives” was hung
alongside a map of the world,
and another poster warning that
spitting spread disease.
The summer of 1939-40 was
beautiful, Alison remembers. It
was the first time they saw the
drowned forest in Lake Poerua.
The pupils were taken to the lake,
and the teacher waded out to
where they could not touch the
bottom, instructed them to dog
paddle, and let them go. With
the black water beneath (and
knowing eels lurked there) it only
took three tries before they were
That summer she learned to pop
fox gloves, and whistle through a
Americans came to Kumara
searching for oil. They also tried at
Inchbonnie, setting off a seismic
shock that caused the Armstrong’s
pretty mare to bolt, throwing
Alison and her sister.
Her face lights up as she
remembers that summer.
“That glorious life came to an
end with my mother’s sickness. ”
And that his where this story
ends, though of course another
one began for Alison. She went to
boarding school in Christchurch,
then art school. She still has her
early drawings of the old home at
In later years she returned to
the West Coast as a mother of
three boys, an art teacher with
a teacher husband. She has
lived in Hokitika for 54 years,
having taught art at Westland
High School, while her late
husband Trevor taught science
and maths. Their son, Lou, is
now the director-general of the
Department of Conser vation.
Alison visited Inchbonnie after
the April cyclone.
The old house was torn down
soon after the family left, many
years ago, but the old school,
garden and trees, she smiles, are
One of Alison Sanson’s early paintings, showing
the family home and garden, at Inchbonnie
during the 1936 flood.
Alison and her sister Connie on ‘Old Donk’
shortly after the Lake Brunner track was put
through to Mitchells.
PICTURE: History House
The 1936 flood in Greymouth.
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