January 29, 2007

Ohura It’s More Than a One-Dog Town; Floods Were Treated As a Novelty

By WETTON, Krysti

`There's no

risk of being

run over on

the main

street, except

for maybe a

stray horse'


* With talk of new coal mining and tourism ventures, Ohura is refusing to die.

KRYSTI WETTON went to meet the resilient locals

ALONE dog wanders along Ohura's broad main street searching for company. The blue-heeler trots past abandoned shops on the deserted road, failing to find a friend.

A car whizzes through the once bustling King Country township having no reason to stop. At a quick glance it's easy to see why.

But if the driver had pulled over, called into the general store and chatted to the locals, he would have realised there is more to the quiet settlement.

Ohura has been described a ghost town and there was speculation it would die after the prison closed in 2005. The comments hurt the residents who choose to stay.

"People come back and can't believe what they see. Then they ask, in an accusing voice, why we haven't done anything about it," says Elwyn Koorey, who works part-time at Ohura Valley Primary School.

There is talk of coal mining resuming in Ohura and the prison being turned into a tourism venture -- but that hasn't happened yet.

The community was sceptical when the prison was first proposed. Public meetings were held to address its concerns. It turned out the 97-bed minimum security correction facility, which opened in 1972, was a saviour for the town after the Tatu coal mine closed in 1971.

Prison officers moved into the area and visitors supported the businesses.

Mrs Koorey, who moved to Ohura in 1959 to take up a teaching position, says there were few problems with inmates. She knows of only one who escaped and, while hitch-hiking to Taumarunui, was picked up by an officer.

Another stole books from the school while helping clean up the mess caused by floods.

The closure of the prison, which was originally built as a miners' hostel, was more unpopular with locals than the decision to open it.

"They decided to close it then came up with the reasons, which everybody could pull apart," Mrs Koorey says.

The Corrections Department blamed problems attracting staff and rising infrastructure costs for the closure.

It is understood the main prison was bought for $90,000 and the smaller building, known as the Bee Shed, for $8000 by an Auckland- based purchaser.

Bill Nicholas, of Taumarunui First National Real Estate, has confirmed it is back on the market -- for $750,000. He says there has been interest in the site from parties including a national company.

He has sold "quite a few" houses in Ohura in the last 18 months. The buyers include people wanting a holiday home in the town.

"You can blob out without any worries and there's no risk of being run over on the main street, except for maybe a stray horse."

Media reports saying that houses in Ohura could be bought for $2000 led to a handful of people investing in property. It is believed an Englishman was so excited about the prospect he purchased a house without sorting his immigration status. He was forced to sell the home and move back to England.

When the prison closed, The New Zealand Herald reported the town was in its last throes. Ohura school students were so angry they wrote letters to the editor.

Ohura Food Market's David Eden has kept the article.

"We don't like reporters here," he jokes. He says Taranaki people give him a hard time about living in Ohura. "But they don't realise what a cruisy life I've had compared to running their businesses in town," he says as a rush of customers come into the shop.

It's the relaxed way of life that attracted clothes design Juli Hunter and her family to the township. She opens her shop only on Saturday mornings. A garden centre and two second-hand shops do the same.

"Most people come into chat."

She says people in campervans often stop and stare at her through the window. She isn't sure why -- maybe they are surprised to see her fashionable garments and sewing machine in one of the few occupied shops.

It's hard to imagine Ohura used to be a thriving town, with a population of 3000 -- many working at local coal mines and timber mills.

Mining first started in King Country in the late 1800s and by the 1900s there were several mines operating in the area. Coal mining began at the Tatu mine, just south of Ohura, in the 1930s.

In 2003, Taumarunui-based King Country Mining Ltd announced plans to open the mine again. The Mokau field owner, Mokau South Resources Ltd, also hoped to see mining start up.

They intended to use Ohura as the centre for loading coal on to rail wagons for transport to other parts of the North Island. New load-out facilities were to have to been built, and a number of new jobs created.

Ohura residents welcomed the news, but Mrs Koorey's husband John (JB), who was born in the town, was sceptical. His stance hasn't changed. "I'll still believe it when I see it."

King Country Mining owner Ben Richardson says the project has experienced delays because of commitments elsewhere, but they still plan to re-open Tatu mine.

"It's still in the pipeline -- we haven't given up. We're working on the road and they will see a bit more of us shortly."

The demise of the coal mining and timber industries, closure of the prison, floods and farms amalgamating have all contributed to the decline in Ohura's population.

In 1996, there were 375 residents. In 2001, the number had dropped to 222 and by 2006 there were just 165 people living in the town. A Statistics New Zealand spokeswoman says some of the inmates may have classed themselves as Ohura residents.

In the 1960s, Ohura had a picture theatre, bank, three garages, a doctor's surgery, TAB, a taxi service, five grocery shops and a rugby club. Of those, all that remains is one general store.

Mr Koorey has seen it all. The good times and the bad. He owned the last garage. There isn't even a petrol pump in the town now.

Continued on page 18


* Continued from page 17


HIS garage had a chart indicating the heights water levels reached when floods hit the town. "The floods were treated as a novelty, but that soon wore off."

Ohura experienced the worst flood on October 28, 1998. A state of emergency was declared and more than 20 houses had to be evacuated. A total of 79 houses were affected and 18 considered inhabitable. The community rallied together for the massive clean up effort.

The school was raised to prevent flooding in the future. The school, which lost its secondary education status in 1999, currently has a roll of about 50. It peaked in 1968 with 366 children.

Mr Koorey says Ohura used to be an extremely social place, which is why so many people are expected at this weekend's Ohura and District Schools 100th jubilee celebrations. "We've got 800 coming back so we must have had something going for us."

The Kooreys say there is still plenty to do in the town. There are tennis courts, a library, and swimming pool at the school. Their favourite past-time is golf and Mr Koorey looks after the nine-hole Taranui Golf Club, which opened in 1963.

Fences around each green keep off the sheep, which graze on the fairways. Players are allowed another free hit if the ball hits the wire.

It all adds to the character of Ohura, which has been through a lot in the past 100 years and managed to survive.

It will take a lot to break its resilient spirit. *


The Ohura Prison, which closed in 2005, is on the market again. There is talk of the facility being turned into a tourism venture.

This 1932 photo of Ohura is of day-trippers arriving on the train from New Plymouth.

(c) 2007 Daily News; New Plymouth, New Zealand. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.