03 January 2023

(7) Cliff Lewis' Air Travel Memoirs


Part 7 of a twelve part memoir written by Cliff Lewis, an Air Travel (NZ) pilot... 

This memoir relates to my my larger post on Air Travel (NZ) Ltd which can be found here -


Chapter 7 - The Whitebaiters


At the end of each catching season the fisherman from the southern rivers would casually make their way north and might spend a night at Williams’ Fox Glacier hostel, then the Graham’s Franz Josef hostel and thus onwards to their favourite Hokitika pub. Here they would gather and discuss the season’s catch and their returns. 

MacIntyre and Douthwaite were able to tell their friends about the new service that Bert Mercer's aircraft were offering them. These gentlemen became interested and made a special journey across the Hokitika River bridge to the aerodrome to have a talk with this chap Mercer and ask him if he could land at their place of fishing - the Cook river shingle strips, Blue River shingle strip, yes and Dinnie Nolan of Okuru asked Bert, could he fly his catch out of the Cascade beach at the mouth of the Cascade River. “Of course,” Bert assured each of them that it could be managed. So, Air Travel (NZ) Limited had further points of call for whitebait freight, in all Paringa River strip, Cook River strip, Blue River strip and Cascade beach south of Jacksons Bay by some 30 miles. Bert assured everybody that the catch would be delivered to the Hokitika railhead in time to catch the night goods to Christchurch for the next day's market by all of his aircraft and pilots. Whitebait freight was now a very integral part of Air Travel's business. 

Fox Moth ZK-ADI at Paringa with Tom Condon (left), pilot Jim Hewitt in the leather jacket, Arthur Condon, and whitebaiter Bill Douthwaite and Jack Condon (right)

Not so with Dinnie Nolan of Okuru. He saw great possibilities, his own canning factory! So by the coastal vessel Gael he acquired the materials to build his canning factory and became New Zealand's first exporter of canned whitebait, this by a New Zealander living 130 mile south of Hokitika in one of New Zealand's most isolated parts. What enterprise and fortitude!!!

None of the river strips were longer than 400 yards long, some a little less, so we were limited to the load we could uplift at any one time.  All catches had to be placed in the old type kerosine tin (they usually held 70lbs). Our maximum uplift at no time could go beyond 16 tins. If they had more we would fly out the first load and take it to Waiho, return, take out the balance to Waiho, uplift the lot and fly off to Hokitika with a deadline in time to have one of the Kennedy’s taxis get them on the night goods train. Air Travel never let these fishermen down.  

Once a very unfortunate occurrence did happen but it was not the fault of Air Travel. The catches had been safely placed upon the Railways and the train left Hokitika. Some shunting had to take place at Stillwater Junction a little east of Greymouth.  The whitebait truck was unfortunately left on the siding. It was only discovered by the Railway when a very unpleasant odour was permeating the Junction some three days later. 

Whitebait season on the West Coast meant a lot of northbound freight. Here Air Travel (NZ)'s Fox Moth ZK-ADI is seen at Paringa River. Photo : Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-09365-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22858230

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