A home in high places
For generations, club fields have provided access to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular backcountry.
For generations, club fields have provided access to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular backcountry.
Writer, filmmaker, backcountry skier, flyfishing guide, author of bestselling TROUT DIARIES, TROUT BOHEMIA, GOING TO EXTREMES and SMALLEST CONTINENT
Hatched in rivers, mayflies rise to the surface and unfurl new wings, the final phase of their precarious and astonishing lifecycle.
Rust, lichen and wild Central Otago thyme combine forces to consume and cover the last traces of human industry at the Earnscleugh Dredge Tailings near Alexandra. Mined and washed of their gold from the 1890s, the river gravels have become a sanctuary for rare species, and one of the country’s most unusual wildlife reserves.
Snow avalanches—such as this one seen from Tasman Glacier in Mt Cook National Park—are among nature’s most striking spectacles. Most occur naturally, unseen and harmless, but those that occur around ski fields or roads have claimed the lives of 140 New Zealanders since records were kept.
This year, the Department of Conservation will embark on a brave new model for managing takahe, one of New Zealand’s most endangered birds. After more than six decades of intensive intervention, rangers are going to try to do the impossible: nothing.
In the 1960s, New Zealander Arthur Lydiard introduced the concept of jogging to the world and sparked a global revolution towards fitness and well-being. Running became the most popular participation sport on the planet, but also the cause of numerous preventable injuries. Now, new scientific evidence and an emerging movement of ‘natural running’ serve to reinforce Lydiard’s original vision of the sport—the ultimate regimen for “a healthy, vigorous life”.
Derek Grzelewski is one of New Zealand Geographic’s most prolific writers. With stories on trout and salmon in his back catalogue, and living as he does on the banks of the mighty Clutha River in Albert Town, it’s no surprise that he has written a book about the piscatorial life. Trout Diaries draws on Grzelewski’s experiences (usually with dog in tow) over one calendar year starting in October, the first month of the fishing season in most places. Grzelewski’s book is no how-to or where-to guide in fact, he keeps the location of one River X secret but rather chronicles his evolution as a fly fisher. The writing is incisive and full of anecdotes, like riding shotgun with him as he scours the land for new waters and experiences. It is set largely in the South Island (with a couple of forays to the North Island thrown in), a backdrop that many consider to be an angler’s nirvana. Trying to make a living from something you love sounds ideal, yet many anglers-turnedtrout guides have killed their passion by making that very choice. Grzelewski tried it himself for a few seasons, before realising that his clients fished for different reasons. “They seemed to have lost their footing on Earth and gone adrift in a dreamland of sound bites, digitised reality and instant gratification,” he writes. Quite different, then, from Grzelewski who, when camped near Lake Moeraki with his dog, read Nature as Teacher by Viktor Schauberger, the Austrian master forester who could stare at flowing water for hours without becoming bored. Schauberger was a pioneer of vortex mechanics but also something of an iconoclast who believed that water was “a living thing, the blood of the Earth”. He designed successful log flumes in the 1920s but swung from derision.
There is a slow war raging, under our noses.
Central Otago has long been a magnet for painters and photographers as its landscapes offer vibrant colours and plenty of vistas to challenge one’s visual perception.
A peek out of the passenger cabin window of a restored Fox Moth offers a time-travel glimpse of what it must have been like to fly with New Zealand’s first licensed and scheduled air service. Between 1934 and 1967 the bush pilots of Air Travel (NZ) Ltd plied the skies of the South Island’s West Coast, with remote beaches and paddocks as their aerodromes, and “anything that will go through the door” as their cargo.
Lake Taupo lies in the caldera of an active supervolcano, the site of the world’s most violent eruption of the last 70,000 years. Just 10 km beneath it sits another lake of molten rock 50 km wide and 160 km long. With a growing need for alternative energy sources, plans for tapping this latent reservoir are hotting up.
Growing out of New Zealand’s links to Antarctica and our dependence on huskies for the exploration of the South Pole, dog sledding has transformed into a local sport with a passionate following.
Sometime in the mid-1950s a young boy asked “Would you like to come for a ride in my boat?”, and the world has been saying yes ever since. The jet boat’s unrivalled performance in the shallowest of rivers revolutionised water transport and remains a quintessential New Zealand invention, perhaps our greatest contribution to the world of engineering. And the man who perfected it, in a farm workshop of a remote high-country station, was our original “bloke in a shed”, an inspiration and a role model for generations of Kiwi tinkerers, inventors and innovators.
Olive oil gains traction
Touching the void
High on the side of Mt Pisa, 1000 m above the Crown Range road and across from the Cardrona ski resort, a crowd of career snowboarders, groupies, and spectators mill about the lodge in a miasma of sweat, fresh coffee and gangsta rap. The kids— there’s hardly anyone over 25—are txt’ing and pxt’ing, and uploading clips of their half-pipe stunts onto laptops. This is the first day of the Burton Open, a kind of snowboarding Grand Slam event where the world’s best jostle for big prize money and a moment of fame. In this peculiar subculture of baggy pants, hoodies and goggles, John and Mary Lee blend in unnoticed. These (grand) parental figures own the place, have made this event possible and are ensuring that it all goes according to plan. John’s sun-faded ski suit is scuffed with road dust, his hands blackened with soot—a telltale sign of a previous emergency. He’s 72 and has a staff of 90, yet his involvement in the family’s mini-empire remains hands-on. Yesterday a whole trailer-load of sponsor’s beer went off the icy mountain road taking the vehicle with it, and today, John was out before first light with bucketfuls of ash to dust the iciest hairpins, already gritted by the maintenance truck. “What I didn’t realise was that we’d been burning demolition off-cuts and they were full of nails,” he says. “Of course, the wretched things froze to the road on contact with the ice and I spent most of the morning hacking them off with a hammer.” In winter the Pisa Range—a high, extensive plateau which, softened with peat bogs and cushion plants, is the closest we get in this country to tundra—is a snowbound wonderland. You may have seen it as the background in the movie 10,000 BC, minus the digital mammoths. John’s father Bob was granted this land in 1920 as a returning serviceman from WWI. He farmed it for 40 years before passing it to John who also farmed it for several decades, all the while wondering what else the family could do with such scenic but inhospitable land. A lot, as it turned out. First, they put in New Zealand’s first and only cross-country ski field. After that they developed a testing ground for winter tyres and car brake systems with leading manufacturers where, under a thick veil of secrecy, pre-release models could be put through the paces on purpose-built winter roads. The infrastructure followed—cafes, lodges, backcountry huts, a conference centre, as did a host of peripheral activities—biathlons, multi-sport events, films and commercials, even dog sledding. Then came the real hit—an idea of John’s son Sam—a designer-made terrain park for skiing and snowboarding stunts. A large skateboarding park on snow, it became an instant oasis. Here, safe from the scorn of other ski fields, snowboarders could strut their stuff: grind rails and fang down the half-pipe in death-defying zig-zags, stomping off lips and kickers, pulling big-air helis and grabs, sick and rad, all within the grandstand view from the cafe. But the Lees didn’t stop there. Just as global warming has become the hottest of topics—and as other ski fields teeter on the brink of viability and the ever-ascending snow line—they proposed an entirely new snow resort; a miniature township at altitude with skiing, ice-skating and spas, and gondola access from the bottom of the hill. A trifle grandiose? Maybe, but John Lee was the guy who conceived and constructed Cardrona, perhaps the best family-oriented ski resort in New Zealand. He was also one of the leading proponents of New Zealand hosting a Winter Olympics, though that bid was never officially lodged. (It transpired the Games could not be held in the Southern hemisphere as the television coverage would clash with that of the soccer World Cup.) What drives the Lees? “He does,” Mary says, pointing at her husband. He nods, smiling. Yes, he says, he’ll take the blame. “When I was growing up in the valley, New Zealand had one of the highest standards of living in the world,” John says. “Then things went downhill. Farming wasn’t good anymore, we lost the school bus, then the rural mail delivery. The local government was going to put a locked gate on the Crown Range road and turn us into a dead-end backwater. I guess I’ve made it my lifetime mission to change that. “Of course just proving the pessimists wrong would be a shallow achievement,” he goes on. “At my age you begin to realise time is precious and there’s a limited amount of it for each of us. If I were to voice my reasons for doing it all it’d be in the form of an epitaph. Something like, ‘We’re glad he passed this way’.” Many of John Lee’s visions have come to pass. The Crown Range road, now sealed and upgraded, has become a major artery connecting Wanaka and Queenstown, always busy with a steady stream of traffic, particularly in the winter. And Cardrona and the Snow Farm are a major contributor to the valley’s economy. But, considering the changing climate and the increasingly fickle weather patterns, isn’t the idea of another winter resort, well, a little risky? If you believe some of the forecasters, couldn’t this new mountain village be left high and dry? Without any snow? John Lee appears unfazed. “The technology is certainly keeping up with the challenge,” he says. “We can now make snow at plus eight degrees, we also collect the water run-off from the melting snow and pump it back up the hill to feed the snow guns, so having enough snow will not be a problem. We see a huge number of visitors even in summer. Snow or not, we can’t lose.” Then, in a lull in the conversation, he slaps his knees and gets up: “Right, I’d better go and double-check on those nails,” he says. “If I’ve missed any they’d have melted out by now. Wouldn’t want people getting punctures on the way down.” At the end of the day long convoys of cars make their way down the windy mountain road. The drivers should be grateful that, earlier today, John Lee passed this way.
Gaza, Beetle, Lily and Jaq, Inky, Tootle, Shrek and Skippy—every town and community has them. They style themselves as ordinary people but their lives and service are anything but ordinary. Unpaid and unheralded, they are our first line of rescue in 65,000 emergency calls a year, routinely saving the lives and assets of people they don’t know.
In upper Moutere, inland from Nelson, Anna Barnett lives in love with the earth. Earth at large and in close-up. Particularly in close-up.
On 10 April, 1968, the southbound cyclone Giselle hit Wellington just as a cold front swept up from Antarctica, creating one of the most ferocious storms in New Zealand history, with winds that ripped the roofs off houses, overturned trucks and toppled trees. The inter-island ferry, Wahine, entered Wellington Harbour at 5.50 am but soon after, a massive wave drove the ship off course and toward Barrett Reef. Captain Hector Robertson struggled to drive the ship back out to sea against 160 kp/h winds, but the turbulent seas swept it back onto the rocks. The Wahine then began drifting into the harbour, dragging anchors for two hours before finally holding 500 m off Seatoun. Numerous rescue efforts were made over the following hours, but at 1.30 pm, the ship began to list so severely that passengers and crew were told to abandon ship. The pitch of the boat meant only four starboard lifeboats could be launched. The first one was swamped as soon as it hit the water. Others, overloaded, capsized as they approached shore. Some people had no choice but to jump into the sea where they were swept towards Eastbourne, some 5 km away. Around 200 people struggled ashore there, but slips on the road prevented rescue teams getting through and many died from exposure. The Wahine disaster remains the most famous of New Zealand’s maritime tragedies, one that was witnessed by hundreds of would-be rescuers who stood by helplessly as people were swept past so close to shore but out of reach, and by thousands of shocked New Zealanders who witnessed the event on television. Of the 734 passengers and crew on board, 51 people lost their lives.
Jacky Price had a problem, a big one. He shouldn’t have stolen those stashed sealskins. At least, he should have never let himself be caught doing it. Alas, it was too late and now the enraged owners of the treasure made sure he had plenty of time and space to ponder his sins. And that he would not be tempted again, not anytime soon. To this end, they had unceremoniously dumped him and his wife Hineawhitia, daughter of the chief Te Pahi, on the most god-forsaken place they could think of: Solander Island, a storm-battered whale-tooth of a volcanic rock smack-bang in the Roaring Forties. In a direct line it was some 22 nautical miles back to the mainland but there was no hope of ever making a beeline across the Foveaux Strait, some of the roughest seas on earth. Both Jacky and Hineawhitia knew what happened to the last party of sealers marooned here in 1808. They were not rescued until 1813. Still, they did not despair. There was good shelter on the island’s east side, the Sealers Cave, plenty of fat tucker—seals and albatrosses—and there was timber for firewood. Thus Jacky and Hineawhitia began hatching an escape plan. It was desperate at best, but some time later they were ready, their escape craft bobbing among the beds of kelp. It was the most fragile looking thing, a coracle made of driftwood and sealskins, waterproofed with animal fat, barely bigger than a bathtub. They picked the day when they thought the weather would be kindest. Then they paddled for the mainland. The story of Jacky and Hineawhitia is only one of the remarkable tales now told in the newly-open Heritage Centre and Museum at Riverton, a community driven and manned project. “We’ve tried to bring Riverton’s history alive again,” said Dave Asher, one of the project originators. Local iwi, Oraka-Aparima Runaka, particularly brothers Ron and Stewart Bull and their sister Nan Barrett, have been especially helpful. Flax muka costumes were woven by Wini Solomon, a talented local traditional weaver, and many others have also helped. They have certainly succeeded. Some of the display mannequins have been made by Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital. They are so lifelike that touching them, you’re surprised to find their skin cold. Formerly a Southland engineer, now a film-maker, Asher is best known for his videos of New Zealand’s back country and its people. Some of his films, like The Last Great Adventure, Good Keen Men and The Venison Hunters, have achieved an almost cult status. Not surprisingly, the anchor point of the entire museum is one of Asher’s docudramas featuring several episodes from the area’s history set against spectacular flyovers of the wild coastlines and islands. A black-and-white sequence of whalers in a skiff, made fast to a whale and racing across the huge swell—rope smoking on the bollard, unabashed fear etched on the men’s faces—is particularly memorable. The film is shown in a theatrette stylised into the aft deck of a wooden ship, with a screen coming down from among the rolled-up sails. Add the booming soundscape of the Southern Ocean and the sensation of being out there is complete. Riverton’s residents are quick to point out that theirs is one of the oldest towns in the South Island, and a frontier town at that. Despite its tempestuous seas, southern Maori had always favoured the area for it was an unrivalled source of kai moana, particularly the titi, the mutton birds which come to nest on the outlying scrub-covered islets after their remarkable around-the-world migration. (Recent tagging experiments have shown that birds breeding in New Zealand may travel 74,000 km in a year, reaching Japan, Alaska and California, averaging more than 500 km per day.) The first Pakeha settled in the earliest 1800s, and they were mainly sealers migrating from the exhausted seal rookeries of Bass Strait, between Tasmania and mainland Australia. There was bloodshed and cannibalism in the 1810–11 period over unauthorised sealing, bloody massacres of sealers in 1817 around Otago harbour and further bloodshed and utu in 1822–23 until a peace accord. But things settled down. The blending of cultures at Riverton went on relatively peacefully, with both Maori and Pakeha coexisting, eking out a living from the unforgiving sea. The sealers and whalers began to marry into the tribes and the Maori were quick to benefit from trade, muskets and superior seacraft like whaling skiffs. Over the ensuing decades this process of cultural mixing produced some colourful bloodlines. For example, a Colac Bay publican now proudly introduces himself as a “Portuguese Maori from Codfish Island”. The early mixed marriages and the children they produced became the key to peaceful and harmonious race relations and trade in Southland. Once the seals were gone—within a few years—the migrants’ attention turned to whaling. In December 1845 Ruapuke Island’s resident missionary, Rev. Wohlers, wrote: “A considerable number of European men live on the shore of the region, and from the whaling ships that stop, more and more people remain here who like the freedom of this country. All of them amalgamate with the natives and from this a new race is emerging, which will probably devour and fuse with the remainder of the pure natives.” In the same year, Dr Edward Shortland, Protector of Aborigines to the New Zealand Government, added this observation: “The most westerly of the whaling stations...and the last which we visited was Aparima [today’s Riverton]. This is a small bar harbour, capable only of admitting vessels of some 20 to 30 tons. The huts of the residents were built on the southern slope of some well-wooded hills, and being white-washed, and having near them green enclosures of corn and potatoes, presented, while shone on by the morning sun, the most smiling and refreshing aspect imaginable. In my mind I at once pronounced it to be one of the loveliest spots in New Zealand.” Though Maori and Pakeha continued to live in relative harmony, this was soon shadowed. Not by conflicts but by plagues. Measles, influenza and tuberculosis, against which the Maori had no natural resistance, devastated their population. In August 1835 alone, hundreds had died, including the chief Te Whakataupuka. Waves of the epidemics continued to wash over the southern shores—in 1838, 1840, then again in 1858. They caused the chief Tuhawaiki to lament: “We are but a poor remnant now, and the Pakeha will soon see us all die out, but even in my time we were a large and powerful tribe...We had a worse enemy than even (Te) Rauparaha [whom they successfully repelled with the newly-acquired muskets] and that was the visit of the Pakeha with his drink and his disease. You think us very corrupted, but the very scum of Port Jackson shipped as whalers or landed as sealers on this coast. They brought us new plagues, unknown to our fathers, till our people melted away.” Still, those who survived the plagues prospered. In 1857, Surveyor John Turnbull Thomson, reported: “On my late visits to Jacob’s River, more proofs of comfort were to be noticed than any other part of the province outside of Dunedin, the capital. The inhabitants both Native and European, possess abundant supplies of wheat, potatoes which they have grown. They have plenty of pork in their enclosures and fish for the trouble of catching them, while the wealthier possess large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep feeding on the extensive pastures surrounding the village.” Notable from the very beginnings too, was the frontier town’s free spirit. Thomson mentions that arrivals of American whalers looking for fresh provisions were always an opportunity for “quick traffic in things contraband”. He also added: “So much are the inhabitants attached to free trade that, on an exciseman being seen in the village, all the houses were shut, locked and barred.” Oh, those were the days. You can glimpse many snapshots from those times walking the display rooms of the new museum. There is a section on the largest community of Chinese goldminers in the country, the story of 16-year-old James Caddell, who in 1810 was kidnapped near Stewart Island’s South Cape by a band of Maori warriors, and who was miraculously spared and accepted into the tribe to became Southland’s first Pakeha Maori, teaching his new whanau the ways of the musket, leading them on raids on sealers until a trade deal was reached in 1822. There is also a story of a cooper who brewed his own cabbage-tree rum. His lost art is about to be revived. This bottled “taste of the old Riverton”—not unlike its Gore counterpart Hokonui Moonshine—will be available through the museum’s souvenir shop. Apparently, it’s just the thing to ward off the South Coast chill. What happened to Jacky Price and Hineawhitia? Eventually they made it to the mainland but they did not dare to return to their home, perhaps in fear that the offended sealers would relocate them again, this time somewhere even more remote. Instead, they went to live in a cave in south-west Fiordland and continued sealing until Jacky’s death in 1829. The replica of their coracle is one of the new museum’s choicest exhibits. It’s seaworthy, too. It’d only need another southern man and woman to paddle it from Solander again. In a way, Jacky and Hineawhitia’s extraordinary feat set the tone for how things are done in Southland quietly and together, without fanfares but with maximum commitment. That a community of 1900 people could raise some $400,000 to self-fund the project is remarkable enough. But the fact they’ve built something so significant and worth visiting is an indication of how keen they are to have their stories told. Robert McKee, perhaps one of the world’s greatest authorities on the craft and essence of screenwriting, once said that: “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.” Obviously, the people of Riverton have understood that. The quality of the new museum is clear proof of that. There are many more tales worth telling from this land’s end jutting into the Southern Ocean. About the fishermen of the fiords, the paua divers of Foveaux Strait, the Codfish Island kakapo. About modern-day heroic feats, like that of the diminutive Jacinda Amey who, on 24 April 1992 off the coast of Campbell Island, swam out to rescue meteorological officer Mike Fraser, bleeding to death after a great white shark tore off his forearm. Amey received the New Zealand Cross, the highest award for civilian bravery, though in Southland they take such things with quiet understatement. All in a day’s work, they’d say. After the construction dust has settled and the nervousness of the museum opening subsided, Asher, the Heritage Committee and the rest of the team just might start thinking about building an extension to have these other stories told as well.
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