Blissful isolation in the back of beyond

It's a community with a holiday population of a couple of hundred people, few of them are related, but all treat each other like close family. Reporter John Lewis takes a look at one of Otago's most popular holiday haunts, Toko Mouth.

Toko Mouth is a village where the rules of normal civilisation seem to have been swept out to sea.

Take the dogs, for instance. They seem to be everywhere, roaming the streets without leads, free and easy.

It's a reflection of life there - humans included.

People greet strangers like long-lost friends, lend fishing equipment, and share beers around a barbecue while spinning yarns about the year gone by.

Milton couple Ron and Helen Pierce have holidayed at a crib at Toko Mouth for the past 30 years, and lived permanently there for four of those years.

It's the friends they have made there over the years that keep them coming back.

''Even if we only see our neighbours once a year, they are like long-lost family to us,'' Mrs Pierce said.

''Rekindling friendships is a big part of why we come here each year. It's such a friendly place.''

There's not much to do but ''pig out and relax'', she says.

The beach is less than 100m from their crib but Mrs Pierce warns it is not safe for swimming or surfing, given the strong rips.

Mr Pierce says the shallow waters of the docile Tokomairiro River mouth that meander past the village are perfect for paddling and great for fishing - especially sea-run trout and whitebait.

Seals and sea lions frequent the beach and occasionally a yellow-eyed penguin is spotted.

Despite being only 15km southeast of Milton, Toko Mouth appears isolated from civilisation because the gravel road to and from the village is filled with potholes and severely corrugations.

It's a notoriously rough road - so much so, someone with a sense of humour has erected a road sign warning ''judder bars ahead'' as you leave Toko Mouth. There are no judder bars as city folk know them.

The locals say the road gets flooded a lot, being so close to the river, and it can be closed from time to time.

Mrs Pierce says it adds to the appeal of the place.

They've got running water, electricity, television, a land line, even a flushing loo.

And if they need a couple of ''emergency'' grocery items, they can pop along to a small window-less building on the corner, otherwise known as the Toko Mouth Shop, which is open for about an hour and-a-half a day during the holiday season.

Mrs Pierce says if they don't have what you need, someone in the village will have it spare and be only too happy to share it.

A crib at the end of the road has a big sign hanging above the front door saying: ''Didyabringabeer''.

Then there's Mark and Sue Kingipotiki, of Balclutha.

When we first pull up to their tent, which is sagging under the weight of the squally showers, Mr Kingipotiki says: ''I'm not telling you nothing because the more that people find out about this place, the more that will come flooding in.

''It's a terrible place. It rains a lot,'' he says with an exaggerated wink.

''You wouldn't like it.''

Then he giggles and offers us a beef and bacon burger that he is making on the barbecue for lunch.

He says he and his wife decided to ignore the heavy rain warnings issued for the better part of two weeks and go camping in a tent with seven grandchildren for a week.

Some would say it's crazy. Mr Kingipotiki says it's an adventure.

''It's great for the kids. It keeps them away from Playstation and all that other electronic stuff.

''There's no cellphone coverage out here.

''They can get out and play a bit of cricket, explore the hills and play with other kids. Or if it's raining, like it is today, they can play board games or cards.''

Farming has always been important in the area and today sheep, beef cattle and dairy cows live side by side with extensive forestry plantings, the basis for a growing silviculture and sawmilling industry.

Those who have lived in the village or holidayed there for decades say the original village consisted of just a few cribs on the banks of the Tokomairiro River, which were surrounded mostly by swampland.

When the river began to erode the banks in the 1930s, the Bruce County Council took sand from further up the Tokomairiro River and used it to fill in the swampy area, giving the crib owners a place to relocate their buildings.

Mr Pierce said none of the owners relocated. Instead, new cribs were built on the reclaimed land and the population of Toko Mouth grew almost overnight.

''I've been here 30 years. There were 50 cribs when I first came here. Now there's about 80.''

These days, the village is administered by the Toko Mouth Crib Owners' Committee. Mr Pierce has been the treasurer for the past 25 years.

He says the committee is important to keep some semblance of order in the community.

Regulars in the village say it's a case of ''fit in or forget about staying''.

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