When Whangaparoa resident Sandra Baker went searching for the graves of her ancestors near the small settlement of Taheke in Northland, she was shocked to find the cemetery overgrown with scrub and bracken, and the tombstones barely visible. “It’s terrible when graves are treated with indifference and left to the weeds,” she says.
Somehow the cemetery was overlooked as a council responsibility and reverted to wilderness.
Sandra teamed up with two descendants of the Punakitere settlers and the trio (who became the project sponsors) worked for a couple of years to obtain council interest and ownership to get the graveyard cleared.
After this period of very limited progress, Sandra approached Community Probation Services for help.
Technical difficulties were endless for this project, however. The remote farmland surrounding the cemetery was privately owned, and there was difficulty getting hold of the farmer. There was no vehicle access across the farm and along 120 metres of muddy track up a steep hill, and over a couple of fences to the cemetery. Access permission was required (and took some time); there were no toilets, no cellphone coverage; and very heavy rain also complicated matters.
Finally, however, the work began, albeit sporadically, given the challenges. Approximately 20 offenders spent nine days onsite, marching up the hill with their equipment, to get the site under control.
Fellow sponsor George Goodhew remembers the graveyard from his youth. “My father was the custodian there,” he says. “Thankfully, the community work offenders have done a great job.”
Upon completion of the project, the trio had a meeting with the Far North District Council to discuss the future upkeep of the graveyard. Sandra is relieved to confirm that the council has undertaken to maintain the cemetery to a minimum standard every six months. “They gave an assurance the cemetery would never revert back to the condition in which I found it,” she says.