Chapter I: Early Life
Chapter I: Early Life
I was born in New Zealand on September 15, 1909, six weeks after Blériot's historic flight across the English Channel. At that time my father, a dental surgeon, practised in the town of Rotorua, in the heart of the thermal district. This region, abounding in geysers, mineral springs, pools of boiling mud, and every kind of thermal activity, is vastly different from any other in New Zealand and unique in the world. At an early age I took a great delight in the wonders of Nature amid which we lived. In the beautiful gardens in the centre of the town were mineral waters of every description where people from many parts of the world came to find health and put new life into their disabled or paralysed limbs. The people who visited New Zealand, whether they came to see the great snow-covered ranges and lovely lakes of the big South Island or the glorious scenery of the North, or to indulge in the winter sports or to catch the gigantic deep-sea fish or the lovely salmon trout, one and all visited Rotorua to see its wonders before returning to their own countries. So it was that a large part of the population of the town was composed of tourists, and my parents entertainedpage 16 an interesting variety of sportsmen and travelled people.
It was therefore not surprising that even at the early age of two years I had developed a great desire to roam. One afternoon the town was thrown into an upheaval at my disappearance. The house and garden were searched by my anxious mother, who only discovered that I had after much endeavour managed to negotiate the little gate on the wide veranda, and which for some time past had proved a barrier to the outside world, which I had on more than one occasion set off to explore. Eventually I was discovered contentedly playing on the floor of a stable among the horses, which had fortunately stood quiet. My mother used to ride a lovely milk-white mare, and to my great delight she would sometimes hold me on the front of the saddle and speed along like the wind.
I never ceased to wonder and marvel at the great bubbling mud pools, the streams where hot and cold water ran side by side, where the Maori women used to wash clothes and cook, and the warm pools invariably filled with chubby, laughing native children splashing about and playing. "Where does it come from?" I would ask my two brothers, clasping their hands tightly as we stared at crevices in the ground from which came blasts of steam while we listened to the thumping of little gas explosions under the ground. It was always great fun when the family went to see these thermal wonders and an outing of which we children never tired. My elder brother would sometimes 'make magic,' as he called it, and putting a copperpage 17in some dark wet sand would laugh at my amazement as the chemicals turned the penny silver. Then he would place a silver coin in a pool, where it was turned black. Gasps of admiration and delight used to accompany a display by one of the geysers sending a huge column of boiling water into the air, sometimes nearly a hundred feet high.
No two of the ever-fascinating wonders were quite alike. In some places pale pink and white bubbling mud made pretty flower patterns, while in others large pools of black mud splashed up like miniature volcanoes. There were also fairylike-caves patterned with yellow sulphur crystals, silica deposits forming even little terraces; exquisite crystal-like waterfalls showered down over pure white rocks, and jet-like streams of water rose high into the sky.
It is not to be wondered at that when practically a baby I developed a vivid imagination and deep appreciation of beauty. My father was a very keen yachtsman, and we would often sail in his lovely yacht across the shimmering blue waters of the lakes near which we lived. Sometimes we would sail over Lake Taupo and set up camp on the far shore. This great freshwater lake is twenty-five miles across, and is set like a great sapphire amid magnificent scenery in the heart of the North Island. There were delicious pink trout to be caught in the lake, and my two brothers would climb the big cherry-trees planted by early missionaries and return with baskets laden with fruit. They were happy days, and I used to like gathering the lovely ferns and gorgeously coloured wild flowerspage 18in the bush and listening to the beautiful songs of the native birds.
The family moved to Auckland when I was only four years of age, and there my home has been ever since. Scarcely three months after we had settled in our new home Britain entered the World War. My father had long been interested in military matters, and held a commission in the Territorial Army. Immediately the news came through he enlisted in company with other officers. I was too young to realize the full significance of the event, and New Zealand too far away to feel the deadly effect of the War immediately. I could not understand what it all meant—only that the hundreds and hundreds of men in khaki who marched down the street to the stirring tunes of the bands boarded ships and sailed far away from our island to the other side of the world. It was not until, tightly clasping my mother's hand, I stood on the quay and watched the ship taking my father away that I began to realize what a wrench it was. My two brothers were twelve and fourteen years of age, and I was barely five, so that for the next two years the full responsibility of bringing up the family was to rest on my mother's shoulders. The ship with its khaki-clad figures became blurred as I strove to keep my tears back and my mother looked at me with her large dark eyes and reminded me that brave girls never cried.
There was always great excitement when the mail arrived, and we would gather round as my mother read passages from my father's letters, written "Somewhere in France." Sometimes letters came from London, andpage 19my brothers would open the atlas and trace a line right across the page to where they would triumphantly show me the position of the great city. "Look—all this way!" they would say. "Right across the sea to Australia, and over the equator, and away up there," pointing to England or France."That's where Dad is now." They were always pleased when I was suitably impressed, and laughed heartily when I once announced that some day I too would cross the sea to London.
"One day a letter arrived which on being opened disclosed a bunch of violets specially for me. A note read that my father had gathered them in the woods of France. Looking at the little purple and white flowers, I was intrigued. "Were they really growing wild in the bush?" I asked my mother incredulously, thinking of the violets in our garden which she tended so carefully. I knew there were lovely native flowers growing in the bush among the ferns and tangled undergrowth—the brilliant rata, silvery clematis, and yellow kowhai—but anything so delicate as a wild violet seemed to my mind almost unthinkable. "We will go to England and France one day, won't we?" I had asked my mother. We experienced a vague idea of the deadly effect of war when troopships brought hundreds of wounded, maimed, and blind men home in place of the happy, strong boys who had gone forth so eagerly to fight for their country.
After two years my father returned; also two of my mother's brothers, who fought at Gallipoli. When the interesting-looking military trunk belonging to mypage 20father was opened it disclosed all manner of wonderful things which gave pleasure to my brothers and me: plans, books, maps, and to my delight a small compass, which interested me more than anything else. "It's a bearing compass," my father had explained. "North, south, east, west," he added, showing me the cardinal points on the graduated dial. "Oh, can I have it? " I had pleaded. "No, not now,"he had replied, adding, "I shall give it to you some day when you are a big girl."
The War had been a big blow to every one, and among others my father had to start in business all over again, for his practice had been closed while he had been away. At this time I was attending a preparatory school, and my two brothers were going to college. As we lived not far from the sea swimming was our favourite sport, and one at which my brothers excelled. I had always loved the sea, and even as a baby had clung to my mother as she swam with me on her back. At five years of age I had been able to swim, and as I grew older swimming remained the sport in which I delighted most.
In 1919 great interest was aroused in Australia and New Zealand when an air race from England to Australia was organized. A big prize of some thousands of pounds was offered to the winner, and almost one month after the commencement of the race the Vickers machine piloted by the two brothers Ross and Keith Smith(both afterwards knighted) landed on Australian soil, completing the first flight from England to that Dominion. With their crew the two brothers were fetedpage 21by their country, and even in New Zealand there was tremendous excitement at their arrival in Darwin, which was afterwards to witness the landings of other great pilots who strove as time went on to lessen the time between England and Australia. Although I was only ten years of age, this flight impressed me tremendously, for the same year we had heard of the great pioneer flight across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown.
When I grew older I was sent to board at a very beautiful college, which was designed on the lines of a small castle and situated amid wide lawns and lovely gardens. The headmistress was an Englishwoman, and with her daughters endeavoured to instil the English traditions into the pupils. The time I spent at the college was a happy one. My favourite subject was, I think, geography. I was very fond of art too, and had evinced a deep love of music. I passed several music examinations, and was very pleased on one occasion when an original design for a poster which I painted won a silver medal in an exhibition. All New Zealanders are fond of sport, and I was never happier than when indulging in one game or another or striving earnestly for my team in a basket-ball match or tennis tournament.
For many years books of travel and adventure had increased my enthusiasm and longing to travel abroad. One school vacation had been spent in Sydney, but this experience only made me want to see more of the world. In 1928 two events occurred which may havepage 22indirectly helped me to find the element for which I was evidently destined. The first solo flight from England to Australia was completed by Squadron-Leader Hinkler, who achieved the then astounding time of fifteen days for the flight. Shortly afterwards Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles Ulm, and their companions flew across the Pacific Ocean from America to Australia, thus linking the two countries by air for the first time. I was deeply interested in these two flights, and when later Charles Kingsford Smith flew over the Tasman Sea to New Zealand my enthusiasm for aviation increased and I decided to become a pilot.page 23