Friday, July 19

Living Under the 16th Star

Steve Hale shares his authentic life in Tokoroa, one at complete odds with the version our national media so desperately want us to believe.

Tokoroa will never receive the rub of the green. Any isolated criminal activity is swooped upon and regurgitated with great gusto, by the click bait brigade. The absolute travesty is that New Zealanders will never read about all those bountiful and selfless acts of kindness, that occur here on a daily basis.

For the vast majority of those navigating their way through this no frills, hard-working South Waikato Timbertown, Tokoroa is simply regarded as a fast food stop, a place to gas up and get away from. If you believe the Herald, Tok is also a hive for unemployment, gang activity and methamphetamine production. Those stereotypes in no way not represent the real Tokoroa. 

The vibrant cultural mix in Tokoroa including a sizeable Pasifika contingent bring fun, vibrancy and hilarity to a town where stopping to help someone in need, is part of the unwritten code. The Tokoroa calendar is full of performances, parades, markets and colourful events. 

There are 15 Stars on the Cook Island flag (representing the nations fifteen main islands) and in the Islands Tokoroa is lovingly referred to as the 16th Star. A circle comprising sixteen stars is a popular tattoo here. An influx of Pasifika men arrived to Tok three generations ago, when forestry was booming and the Government needed to fill a massive manual labour shortage. 

Initially accommodated in single men’s camps, life would have been tough for the new recruits. You can’t compare a Tokoroa winters day to the hot sun and tepid surf of Aitutaki! Those men, many of whom later brought their wives and young families to Tokoroa, proved to be hard workers, quickly gaining acceptance from the hardy locals. 

The number of places to worship here, a legacy of the Pasifika influence is quite something, and include every imaginable denomination from the Samoan Assembly of God, to St Luke’s PIC (Pacific Island Church). The singing of the PIC Cook Island congregation mesmerizes me, always in perfect harmony and so loud it borders on screaming. Their hallowed incantations reverberate off the Kelso Street sanctuaries walls. 

Tok isn’t all about churches and fast food, it also possesses a surprising number of gyms. You will see locals attending HITT classes carrying dumbbells or plates up and down Bridge Street from dawn to dusk. 

Young Pacific Islanders possess the genetics to be serious athletes, I’ve never seen so many high tensile steel Olympic bars bent and destroyed through the amount of poundage lifted. While plenty of our boys are built like blocks of town houses, they are also humble characters, almost shy and disbelieving of their immense physical potential. 

Per head of population, Tokoroa has produced more professional rugby and rugby league players than any other town in the Waikato. Our talent has been ravaged by the constant drift netting recruitment policy of private schools, who sadly don’t always understand the importance of pastoral care for their acquisitions. 

The list of All Blacks, Black Ferns, Super Rugby and NRL players is incredible, not to mention local boys like Quad Cooper, Sean Maitland and Isaac Boss who played international rugby for the Wallabies, Ireland and Scotland respectively. 

Tohoa Tauroa ‘Paul’ Koteka, a Tokoroa born bushman who played two test matches for the All Blacks at prop in the 80s paved the way for young Pasifika athletes. Affectionately known as “Bam Bam” Koteka, was one of five Kuki brothers to play for the fearsome Pirates club. Every Saturday, in Tokoroa the Memorial Sportsgrounds are packed to the gunnels with junior rugby league, rugby union and netball talent. 

The games are extremely well supported. It helps that you’re allowed to park your truck up on the bank overlooking the Oval and sit on the tray with your mates while enjoying a quiet beer. Whenever the home team scores, all vehicle owners toot their horns in a show of support. 

Rugby League is huge in Tokoroa, with two strong local clubs and another in nearby Mangakino. The Bay of Plenty Premier Grade League final has been won by Tokoroa clubs for the last two years now, in fact all four finalists have come from here! One of the hottest properties of the NRL, Roosters centre Joe Manu, is Tokoroa born and bred.  

The residential areas of town are divided into distinctive suburbs, one part boasting solely Scottish street names, another named after members of the Royals, then there is the ‘Wais’ where all addresses begin with the letters WAI, while the area I live in is called the “Trees” 

The quality of housing varies dramatically from suburb to suburb, some areas are leafy with architecturally designed 80s builds for the mill managers on big salaries and business owners, from the days when mill executives were required to live in the “886”, to rows of decaying weatherboard Forest Products workers houses, which look cold, damp and no longer fit for purpose. 

The latter are often crowded and inhabited by extended family members, by no means great value for money either, with the average rent in Tokoroa approaching $450 a week. Nearly every dwelling in this town has some form of a deck, although not necessarily a view and on average own 1.5 hardy looking dogs.

Low income working families do it real tough, let alone the unemployed. The Food in Schools programme run by Forest View High School which provides free daily lunches to seven local schools will be the only square meal some children receive. 

Tokoroa isn’t really what I would call a going out for breakfast town although the Winnie the Pooh inspired Rumbly Tums whip up a great feed of bacon and eggs. Rumbly Tums proprietor Ben is a delightful character who left his native Hong Kong where he worked for the Government to seek a better life in New Zealand. Ben is Mr. Consistent in the kitchen and taught himself how to make the perfect Flat White by pouring over YouTube videos for hour after hour. 

My boss and workmate… also named Ben oddly enough, constantly abuses me for my Keto habits and told me straight out one day, if you haven’t had Country Fried Chicken from the Bakermans Bread Shop for breakfast, located on Bridge Street next to the secondhand bookshop, then you will never be regarded as a local in this town. 

Taking matters into his own hands, he drove me to Bakermans one morning, emerging minutes later with a snack box, then instructing me how to delicately deconstruct the fried chicken, by carefully removing the skin and wrapping it around individual chips. That is how one eats their fried chicken in Tokoroa. 

In the mid-70s with forestry booming, it was forecast that the Tokoroa population would break 20 000, there were even plans for a third secondary school. A mate of mine who worked at the mill told me it was an amazing time. Peak Tok. There was no shortage of overtime, workers would receive brand new boots and workwear every six months and the steak meals at the Kinleith staff canteen were of epic proportions. If one of the Aunties was serving, an extra piece of rump or fried egg would find its way onto your plate. Workers were picked up outside their homes in the morning and dropped off to rugby training after work.

Sadly, it was all too good to last. Mass redundancies and cutbacks saw thousands laid off, the population reduced by almost 6000 and the town hit the skids for a while. However, there are plenty of green shoots now with the new OFI dairy factory due to open next year as well as the Toi Ohomai Institute of Technologies Trade School.

The population is on the increase again as people gravitate toward affordable property in a centrally located North Island destination; commuting distance to Taupo, Rotorua, Hamilton and Tauranga and less than two hours to the snow.  

While there is a gang presence and it’s common to see patches around town, every local gang member I have ever said howdy to in my travels has happily and politely exchanged greetings. While I’m not naïve enough to compare gang life to the Cub Scouts, plenty of patched members are really good men too. They’re fathers, sons and husbands, connected through generations to their community. Treat everyone as you wish to be treated and this town has your back. There has never been any value in judging books by covers, this is a town of goodwill and great vibes. 

School events are well supported here, outrageous fundraising targets are reached. This is a giving community, in many cases, it’s those who can least afford to contribute, that find a way to give more than they should. 

Every day is a school day in Tok. I thought I had seen it all before moving here. It’s a town of characters, legends, rascals and storytellers. Every second vehicle is a 4WD, with mud tyres, in desperate need of a wash and with carpet glued to the bonnet. 

The carpet of course, enables pig dogs to grip onto the surface for dear life, while cruising down forbidden forestry roads. Illicit skeleton keys are passed around on the sly, giving local hunters access to forbidden blocks of pine. It’s not uncommon to see a truck in the McDonalds drive thru, resplendent with a recently slayed stag or boar strapped down to the dog boxes on the back tray. 

The greatest compliment I can give to Tokoroa is to say it has transformed my daughter’s life. My girl arrived here aged fourteen, albeit a little reluctantly and unsure, from Te Aroha where she was born and bred. Now in her final year of high school, she is flourishing and regards Tokoroa as her home. She has found her people, connecting with her Pasifika roots after joining “Porinetia Fa’atasi” her school’s Polynesian Culture group. And has performed competitively in front of thousands of people as well as touring the Cook Islands. She has become a confident young woman who happily rocks round Tok, decked out in bush shirt, lavalava and Red Bands, happy to chat with anyone who crosses her path. As a father this has filled my heart with peace. I’m a staunch believer that if you can make it in Tok, you can make it anywhere.