The Paparoa Ranges near Blackball, on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, provide any number of beautiful walks, including the country’s latest ‘Great Walk’.
But, back in 2005, when my wife, Marie and I tramped in the hills, you were more likely to meet locals out for a stroll, than long distance hikers.
Blackball is the birthplace of the Labour Party in New Zealand, and is just as famous for its rugby league heritage, it’s favourite son being the late, Ces Mountford, MBE.
I interviewed Ces when he was coach of the Kiwi national side, during their 1982 Australian tour, when the mighty Mal Meninga made his Test debut for the Kangaroos, from the Brisbane Souths’ club. Graham Lowe succeeded Mountford as coach the following year.
Well, it just so happened, that during this bush walk in 2005, Marie and I met two locals, one of whom was related to Ces. Now, I didn’t take a note of his name, although one of the two men was Selwyn. It seems that lots of older gentlemen in New Zealand have the first name, Ces or Selwyn.
These two fellows were staunch league men, like most people on the West Coast.
In his autobiography, Mountford said Wests Coasters lived and breathed rugby league, with the same passion as the Welsh, for rugby union.
Four Blackball men were chosen in the Kiwi touring side to Britain and France in 1947-48. They were Ray Nuttall, Charlie McBride, Bob Aynsley and Mountford’s brother, Ken.
Marie and I had started our 31 day, South Island holiday on January 11, 2005, staying three nights in Christchurch; three in Dunedin; two in Invercargill and then one in Queenstown, before a three day, Milford Track Guided walk, with 80 other people, many from Japan, but with quite a few fellow Australians, including Geoff Falkenmire and his children, Gracie and Harry from Campbelltown, New South Wales. Geoff was related to former top league writer, David Falkenmire, a former workmate of mine.
After the walk, Marie and I spent another two nights in Queenstown, exploring the lakeside gardens, and undertaking a cruise on the Earnslaw Steamer (built in 1912), as well as dining at Speights’ Ale House.
Next, we drove to Franz Joseph, via Mount Aspiring National Park, where we did a couple of short walks, including one to Fox Glacier, where Indian tourists ignored the signs forbidding entry to certain areas.
The bar manager at our accommodation, said he had an Aussie working there a while ago, who went berserk on the drink, and was made to work for free, until all damages had been paid off.
The next day, Marie and I stopped at coastal Hokitika, for a look around, and Marie bought some jade.
At Greymouth, (where I covered a match between the Greg Platz coached Queensland Residents and West Coast in 1988), we bought fresh fish at the Co-op, before turning inland, driving over the Brunner Range (stopping for a swim, in a mountain stream) to Murchison, which was to be our home for the next two nights.
Murchison is a nice little town, a former gold mining centre. The big news of the time was the fact health authorities were threatening to cut back local services.
It was from Murchison that we headed to Blackball, where we walked over a small suspension bridge, and then into the hills.
After the walk, we had a drink at the ‘Formerly Blackball Hilton’, a quirky old pub. It was named after a mine manager with the surname, Hilton, but when the Hilton international hotel chain found out, they threatened legal action. So, the licensee re-named it ‘Formerly The Hilton Hotel’.
During World War II, most of the Blackball rugby league team were engaged in coal mining, an essential industry for the war effort, and Ces Mountford’s efforts to enlist were rejected. His brother, Ken, who toured Britain and France with the 1947-48 Kiwis, was killed in the ‘Strongman Mine Disaster’ of 1967, which claimed 19 lives.
Ces signed with Wigan in 1946, and never got to play for the Kiwis, but captained Other Nationalities teams against England, Wales and France. He also captained ‘The Rest’ against Great Britain, in the Lord Derby Memorial game, played at Wigan on October 4, 1950. ‘The ‘Rest’ team included Australians, Brian Bevan, Lionel Cooper, ‘Wallaby Bob’ McMaster and Arthur Clues. Britain won 23-16.
Mountford had left Blackball by rail car, in June, 1946, to catch the ferry from Christchurch, and then on to Wellington, followed by a train trip to Napier, from where he boarded the ‘Coptic’, bound for England.
The journey took six weeks. Two days after his arrival in England, he read that West Coast had beaten the Great Britain touring side 17-8, at Greymouth.
No doubt it was a big night in Blackball’s (formerly) Hilton Hotel.
Ces and his wife, Edna moved to the Gold Coast to live, in their retirement, in 1989.
“‘No problem mate, no worries’, was the standard reply to any request we made,” Mountford wrote. “Australia must be the only country we lived in with so few problems and worries. It truly is ‘The Lucky Country’.
Ces died, aged 90, at Robina on the Gold Coast, On July 20, 2009.
1 The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island
2 The Mountford family from Blackball
3 ‘The Formerly Hilton Hotel’
4 An excerpt from Ces Mountford’s autobiography
5 The 1982 Kiwi tourists in Australia.