Buller-the mighty river
Known to Maori as Kawatiri—deep and swift—the Buller is the largest river on the West Coast of the South Island, and in flood carries a greater torrent than any other New Zealand river. Although for most of its course Abe river runs in gorges through remote bush-clad mountains, its last few kilometres broaden to a Mississippian expanse. At Westport, the nation’s busiest river port, half a million tons of cement is shipped out each year on the 118-metre Milburn Carrier II and her sister tanker.
From where I am standing, high on a crumbling bank, the river is a stampede of whitewater storming an archipelago of boulders. Green tongues of current collide with the rocks and each other, creating stationary waves, like ocean breakers caught on a treadmill. The roar fills my ears, drowning all other sounds.
The foaming whitewater, like steam from a dozing volcano, is a surface hint of the river’s underlying power; the sweat of its struggle against the bone-white boulders of its twisting course. When the Buller runs high, most of its whitewater disappears. The torrent of water—all beer and no froth—is fast and silent, tight-lipped with intent. Unstoppable. Maori named it Kawatiri, the Deep and Swift, and spoke of its taniwha. In later years, hydro-developers eyed the thousands of untapped megawatts streaming by, but in the end they too bowed their heads to the might of the river. Kawatiri preserved its untamed essence.
As rivers go, the 169 km-long Buller doesn’t score highly in the national “widest, longest, fastest” statistics. You can drive its length in about two hours and, seeing only occasional glimpses of the green water below, may wonder where the lore of its might comes from. At water level, however, it is a different story. It was the gorges of the Buller that provided the crux for one of the most incredible journeys in the history of New Zealand exploration.
In 1846, the 25-year-old unemployed surveyor Thomas Brunner, accompanied by two Ngati Tumatakokiri guides and their wives, set out from Nelson in search of rumoured green pastures in the interior. In late December, they reached the source of the Buller, in Lake Rotoiti, near what is now the village of St Arnaud. From there they followed the river to the sea.
Brunner’s account of that trip would still make the hardiest adventurer wince with discomfort. Torrential rain, floods and scarcity of food turned the journey into a desperate fight for survival against a river that just wouldn’t let up. They needed some 170 days—an average of just a kilometre a day—to reach the West Coast, and Brunner’s diary entries are a crescendo of growing despair and failing hope:
26 February: “I am getting so sick of this exploring, the walking and the diet being both so bad, that were it not for the shame of the thing, I would return to the more comfortable quarters of the Riwaka Valley.”
3 March: “Continued rain . . . fern root served out in small quantities twice a day. This is without exception the very worst country I have ever seen in New Zealand; not a bird to be had or seen . . .”
13 March: “We all passed a most miserable night, not having room either to lie down or sit up, and the woman moaning with pain . . .”
14 March: “Our fern root almost exhausted, and no food to be found.”
21 March: “Rain continuing, dietary shorter, strength decreasing, spirits failing, prospects fearful.”
Two months later, and still 13 days from the coast, they were forced to eat their emaciated dog, Rover. At least it made a change from eels and rats. In 18 months of exploring, they never did find the legendary prairies, but Brunner’s do-or-die journey gave Kawatiri a reputation which never really faded, and the river periodically sees to it that our memory remains fresh. With its wild, unmodified tributaries reaching deep into the hearts of three national parks—Paparoa, Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes—the Buller is like the narrow end of a funnel draining 6350 square kilometres, an area four times the size of Stewart Island. The two gorges which constrain the river’s passage overflow to create spectacular floods. At Hawks Crag, where the highway is reduced to one lane cut into a vertical wall of rock and the river makes an omega-shaped turn banking up against it, a red-painted 20-cent coin nailed to a weathered pole pinpoints the high-water mark of a record flood. The coin is two metres above the road, and the road some 15 metres above the river.
When the river flexes its muscles it sends a shudder of fear all the way down to the sea. Along the lower Buller, the locals say that the river is like a neighbour who gets drunk and violent. We may build roads and bridges and overflows and stopbanks, they say—we may pretend that we’re in control—but the river always has the last word.
I had wanted to paddle the river from source to mouth, but an exceptionally dry El Nirio winter meant that it would have been a rocky ride. Starved for water, the Buller’s ribs were showing, and the only way to explore its headwaters was on foot.
So, on a brisk October morning, fly-rod in hand, I found myself walking the meandering course of the river with Zane Mirfin, a sixth-generation Nelsonian who has been a fly-fishing guide in the Buller catchment for over 12 years. Around the Nelson Lakes district fly-fishing is almost a religion. The rivers are long and clear, the access good, and the varied topography of pools and eddies, rapids and backwashes, combined with abundant insect life, creates an ideal habitat for wild brown trout. If anglers go to heaven, say the locals, this is where they come.
“There are only two strongholds of wild brown trout left in the world. One is in Tasmania, the other right here, in the South Island,” Tony Entwistle, another Nelson guide with a lifetime of local knowledge, told me. “For reasons that we don’t quite understand, the fish in the headwaters of our rivers grow exceptionally large. Maybe it’s the superb water clarity, maybe the plenitude of large insects. Whatever the reason, trout have found New Zealand superior to the countries they came from. Like a lot of immigrants, I suppose.”
The Buller catchment is a good example of Entwistle’s point. The two rivers draining Lakes Rotoroa and Rotoiti—the Gowan and the Upper Buller—contain the highest and the third-highest biomass of trout of any river in the country. Sheltered from floods by the buffering effect of the lakes, the two rivers are major fish nurseries, constantly restocking the entire catchment.
“Many New Zealanders still don’t realise what an outstanding fishing resource they have on their doorstep,” says Brent Hyde, manager of the upmarket Rotoroa Lodge. “We cater for the Rolls-Royce end of the market—fly-fishing fanatics who can afford to fish the best water in the world, like the private rivers in Norway or Iceland, where you pay $10,000 a day for exclusive fishing rights. Yet these guys come back year after year to the Nelson Lakes, and if you take them up one of the tributaries of the Buller and put them on to a 10-pound fish, they think all their Christmases have come at once.”
Quietly hoping for my own Christmas, I follow Zane Mirfin’s long strides, squinting into a stinging rain. The spring weather has been indecisive, downpours alternating with scorching sunshine. When the clouds lift I can see the St Arnaud Range, freckled with snow. We wade across the river, arms hooked around each other’s shoulders, feet stumbling over slippery stones, the current pushing hard against our thighs. In the shadow of the opposite bank there is a pool of slack water, and on its edge a large trout feeding in the current.
“Right now the fish are still weak after the winter spawning,” Mirfin says. “They sit in holes and eddies, where there’s plenty of food and no hassles. Later in the season, they’ll move into the faster water.”
I stalk upstream until I’m only a few metres behind the fish, and cast. My imitation stonefly drifts slowly downstream, right over the dark shape finning idly below. I hold my breath. There is a loud slurp, and as I tighten the line, the water explodes.
Leaping and plunging, the fish rockets away in mad zigzags that take it from one side of the river to the other, while my line follows it like a laser beam slicing the surface.
The fight is over quickly, and with surgical precision Zane removes the hook. “Catch you later,” he quips as he upturns the net.
The fish is free, but I feel hooked firmly, through the heart. Kawatiri has cast its spell.
My chance to wield a paddle comes in Murchison, the undisputed Mecca of New Zealand whitewater kayaking. Here, far from the languid headwaters where the angler stalks, the Buller is a pumped-up heavyweight of a river; a river not to be trifled with. Under the experienced eye of whitewater guru Mick Hopkinson, I seal myself into a plastic kayak and nose nervously into the current.
My boat is called a Pirouette, implying a readiness to spin and dart across the surface, but in this aquatic dance I am an awkward partner. Each faux pas results not in a muttered apology but the slamming thud of plastic against rock, sudden breathlessness and the sky swallowed by the foaming river. There follows a moment of panicked disorientation, a desperate roll back upright and the realisation that the whirling dance goes on. The music is the roar of the river.
Whenever the current offers a lull, I point my kayak upstream and snatch a few moments’ respite from my bucking, jarring bout with the river. As I psyche myself up for another round, I watch Mick playing in the rapids. He glides effortlessly, teasing the waves and holes with the confidence of a matador and the grace of a figure skater. It looks so easy. But then, Mick shot the Huka Falls to celebrate his 40th birthday.
After more than three decades of expeditionary living, chalking up the first descents of some of the world’s most powerful rivers, he and his American wife, Pam Weiss, are now semi-settled in Murchison. Their open home, signposted with a broken kayak speared with a broken paddle, has become a focal point for paddling enthusiasts nationwide. Rafting guides, kayakers, outdoor instructors—both experts and beginners—all converge on Mick’s whitewater school to tap into the high volume of river knowledge that this 49-year-old Yorkshireman has accumulated.
“This is a unique place because of the range of whitewater available,” he tells me in his soft, early-Beatles Geordie. “Within a short drive you can choose from 14 river runs. Except for the most extreme floods, there is always somewhere you can paddle. Sure, there’s bigger water elsewhere, but for the sheer diversity of river terrain, this place is hard to beat. And access is free.”
In many countries, Mick says, access to rivers is becoming increasingly restricted. In the UK, for example, riparian rights have rendered kayaking almost illegal in many areas. In the USA, commercial operators hold exclusive permits to operate some of the best whitewater runs. “You don’t realise how lucky you are here. From the river users’ point of view, the Queen’s chain is a godsend.”
The only blemish on this whitewater El Dorado is the fact that some people use the river as a rubbish dump. Old fridges, broken farming machinery, dead animals, rolls of crumpled fencing wire—it all winds up in the river. Stuck in the current, the debris acts as “strainers,” potential death-traps for kayakers.
“We pull some of the stuff out of the river during our swift-water rescue courses, but ultimately we’d like to change people’s attitude towards the river,” Mick says. To that end he has introduced free kayaking sessions for the locals. Every Tuesday night, youngsters get to try out his kayaks in the swimming pool and the river. Attendance has been high.
Murchison is the only sizeable settlement between St Arnaud and Westport. Located at the convergence of five major valleys—Maruia, Mangles, Matiri, Buller and Matakitaki—the town was once the cultural and commercial hub of a community of industrious pioneers. There was gold in the rivers, timber on the hills, acres of farmable land and the freedom to use it all—freedom unknown in the rigid class system of the settlers’ European homelands.
Today, Murchison is little more than a “drive-thru,” a place living more off passing traffic than its natural resources. “It used to be a proper P&T [Post and Telegraph] place,” says one longtime resident. “Now it’s just a ‘pee-and-tea.”‘
Outside the Beechwoods tearoom, I watch as a busload of backpackers pulls up. The passengers look bored and road-weary, enduring yet another comfort stop en route from one attraction to the next. They buy drinks and snacks, write postcards and queue for the toilet. A few wander into the frontier-style general store, where you can buy not just your groceries but anything from shoes to seeds, fish hooks to ammo belts—even Duchess bone china, direct from the United Kingdom.
A truck-and-trailer rig rumbles by, then another and another. The backpackers return to their bus and their thick paperbacks. As they leave, a dust devil kicks up at their heels.
Time seems to stand still here, as if the 1929 earthquake, which ended a pioneering boom and shook the life out of the district, had stopped every clock in town. Remnants of that past are still here: three doll’s-house churches, a rundown stables and the community theatre that doubled as a dance hall. Another relic is a free medical service for its 580 residents. Because of its isolation, Murchison was granted a “special area” status, on a par with places like Hokianga and the Chatham Islands.
In the Murchison Museum, I chance upon a birthday party. Gertie Oxnam is 79, but even a birthday is no excuse for a day off work as a volunteer museum curator, a duty she shares with her sisters, Doris Nalder and Jessie Bradley, and several others. With the three silverhaired sisters as guides, I spend the afternoon reliving the day when the big quake struck.
“It happened on Monday, the 17th of June, at 10.17. A.M.” Gertie recalls. “Doris, me and our brother Bob were at school. Suddenly the ground rocked and heaved like a boat caught in huge waves. We all thought it was the end of the world.”
They bolted for the door, but Doris didn’t quite make it. The rubble of the collapsing roof caught and half‑digging frantically like managed to pull her out.
On the way to their home—which they found in ruins—the children saw images of destruction as bad as if their neighbourhood had been hit by an outbreak of war. Hardly a house was standing.
Bridges were pulled apart by the moving river banks. There were landslides everywhere.
A refugee camp was set up. It was winter. There was snow on the hills.
The memories peter out, and while the sisters sit lost in thought, I rummage through the yellowing newspaper clippings, compiled into scrapbooks that smell like an old violin case.
Murchison’s history is the tale of a district which, once forced to its knees, never managed to stand up again. The earthquake was followed by the Depression and the War. In the 1950s, the butter factory was shut down, as were the last of the timber mills and coal mines. There were a few glimpses of hope—discoveries of oil, copper and uranium in the lower gorge—but they never sparked another industrial boom.
In the evening, I walk the deserted main street, thinking about the fickle nature of prosperity. A farmer’s ute sports a sticker: “Aim high. At least you won’t shoot yourself in the foot.” In the pub, a crew of tired roadmen play pool, waiting for their chips and steaks. I’m the only other customer. Elvis is crooning on the jukebox: “Are you lonesome tonight?”
I am driving around Murchison looking for a man named Bryan Evans, but no one, even, as it turns out, his closest neighbour, can tell me where he lives. I ask two men repairing an old Bedford truck. “Evans. You know, the gold diver?” “Ah, the caveman!” one of them lights up. “He’s in that house, next door.” Outside a house that looks as though even the slightest tremor would topple it, there is a picnic table turned into a workbench, with tools scattered everywhere. In the living room, lit by morning TV, Bryan’s partner, Teressa, is finishing a piece of mail-order needlework. Their nine-year-old daughter Bonnie is playing with an empty bird nest, woven tightly like a wicker basket.
The caveman himself—his children call him Cavie—is a wild-looking man with the “been to hell and back” air of a survivor. Over endless brews of weak coffee, he tells me about his days as a professional hunter, shooting deer and pigs, trapping possums for a government culler’s wage. But his hunting days are over, and now Cavie makes his living diving for gold in the Buller.
After a few days of rain and a minor flood, his dredge needs refloating and I offer to help. We drive to the river and lower the contraption down a steep hank.
There is no whitewater here, just swift, unrelenting current. The dredge is an alloy frame bolted to four plastic floats, with two motors on one end and a trough lined with wire mesh running lengthwise down the middle. With the long trunk of a suction hose probing the bottom, the whole apparatus resembles a mechanical elephant, tethered in the current.
Cavie pulls on a wetsuit and fires up the motors, one of which powers an air compressor. Two long yellow hoses lead to Cavie’s backpack harness: one is the airline, the other constantly injects his wetsuit with hot water, protecting him from sure hypothermia. As he stands chest-deep in the river, a bow wave of whitewater foams around him. The motor’s exhaust pipe spews blue-grey fumes in his face, blowing away the mob of sandflies. The noise of the engines is deafening; the only way of communication is an improvised sign language.
Cavie dives in and begins vacuuming the riverbed. A stream of gravel pours over the trays of wire netting and a fan of muddy tailings forms behind the dredge. Regular bursts of surfacing bubbles measure out his “bottom time.” An hour passes. Standing on the bank, I synchronise my breathing with the frequency of the emerging bubbles. Cavie’s breathing is short and hard, the breath of an athlete running up a steep hill.
Then it is my turn to dive, and I wade into a current that any bushcraft instructor would proclaim unfordable. Holding on to the branches of sunken trees, I drop to the bottom, where the current is less strong, and creep towards the nozzle, reaching from one handhold to the next.
At the end of the hose I set out to work. The 15 cm-wide nozzle sucks in the upper layers of rocks embedded in silt until the solid riverbed is showing. Stones the size of coconuts disappear down the tube. Cavie says he can move a truckload of gravel in a day. That can produce up to two ounces of gold. And the gold is here all right. Among the undisturbed gravel, specks of golden dust glitter like brocade.
However, my incipient gold fever does not persist. The water is cold with snowmelt, and my face and hands are soon numb. As I follow the underwater handrail of branches back to the surface, I am happy to admit that this self-taught diver who built all his equipment by gutsy trial and costly error deserves every grain of “colour” he finds.
With gold at $500 an ounce, his business would seem lucrative, if not for the other, darker side of the venture: the whims of the unpredictable Buller River.
“Floods are my biggest worry. When it rains hard I can’t sleep,” he says, recalling many midnight outings. “I often come here with a spotlight to check on the river and the dredge. My entire livelihood could be flushed away.” Once the river rose 10 metres in seven hours, and when it eventually subsided it left the dredge stranded six metres up a willow tree.
You quickly learn to respect the river, Cavie says—you’ve got to, or you won’t live to have another lesson. Many times he has found himself outwrestled by the current, hanging on for dear life at the end of his airline, downstream of the dredge. Just below his claim, the river enters the Upper Gorge and turns into a cascade of rapids. It’s no place for a swimmer.
Despite the dangers, Cavie is optimistic about the future. He is building another dredge for Teressa, and that should double their turnover. “With due fear and respect, we can live with the river,” he says. “After all, we owe her our living, so we have to endure her moods.” As a parting gift, he hands me a sliver of gold. An amulet for the Buller, the river of gold.
It was gold that put the Buller on the maps of the pioneers. In 1862, following a nearly disastrous expedition led by Nelson surveyor John Rochfort, who discovered coal and gold in the region, a “nugget rush” exploded in Lyell-15 km downstream from where Cavie works his claim—and prospectors swarmed in like bees to a honeypot.
The gold was everywhere. You could collect nuggets the way you pick shells up off a beach. In three days of prospecting, three men found 1300 oz (36.8 kg), and someone else unearthed a 108 oz (over 3 kg) chunk, the largest nugget ever found in this country.
It was a short-lived bonanza. The nuggets were soon exhausted and miners reverted to more labour-intensive extraction methods. Spoon dredges began to work the gravel of the Buller and deep shafts were sunk into the surrounding hills.
The returns were good, and Lye quartz reefs were considered the richest in the country. Crushing returned between one and 10 ounces of gold per ton of rock, averaging four. However, this was no longer free-spirited prospecting but the beginnings of an organised goldmining industry, dominated by the owners of heavy machinery.
Most men worked for wages, and were expected to mine a ton of rock a day. They worked in hellish conditions and lived on tea and damper. More than food, it was dreams of fortune that nourished them, dreams of tapping into a reef of “plum-duff quartz” containing pieces of gold “as large as plums in Christmas pudding.”
Lyell was a lethargic town periodically swept by waves of gold fever. Its population grew to over 1000, enough to maintain two churches, three butcher’s, two shoemaker’s, a school, brewery and a newspaper, not to mention eight pubs.
It was a town of rogues, brawlers and rough frontier justice. ‘T. J. Metcalf, the local schoolteacher, claimed that “a complete reign of terror has gone on in this wretched hole for years.” But often the gold-and-grog-induced bravado gave way to despair, for when the river flooded, it cut off the only supply route.
For everything except gold—everything from shoelaces to mining machinery, even the occasional piano—Lyell depended on river freight from Westport. When the river was navigable, horses, led along rough riverside paths, pulled 13-metre-long supply boats upstream. Men on board poled and winched the craft through the rapids. The journey—today an hour’s drive—took three to four days, and drownings were common. Even when the road, with its fords and ferries, was completed in 1878, a wagon pulled by six or eight horses still took two and a half days to reach Lyell.
Faced with such harsh conditions, the stream of miners slowly trickled away to easier goldfields, and Lyell was left a ghost town. The last building, the Post Office Hotel built by a Greek, Demetrius Mangos, burned down in 1962, and today, if not for a tiny bush cemetery and a picnic spot adorned with a few weathered maps and pictures, you would never guess that anyone had ever lived here.
Upstream from Lyell is the most challenging obstacle on the river: the narrow canyon of the Upper Buller Gorge, where rapids lie stacked up like barricades. It was this gorge that blocked the obvious supply route from Nelson over the Hope Saddle, enforcing a four-day upstream slog from the sea. With skill, the lower gorge could be negotiated, but no sane boatman would take his boat through the rapids above Lyell. Not in those days at least. Now, the rapids are just what an adventure-hungry tourist in a fat rubber raft craves.
I join a group of 38 students from Buller High School who have come up from Westport for a day on the river. It seems ironic that what they see as a playground their forefathers regarded as certain death. In 1859, John Rochfort and his five companions, while surveying the uncharted river, lost their dugout, all their food and equipment and nearly their lives trying to negotiate the Rochfort Falls. They were lucky: they lived to tell their story. There was no Search and Rescue in the 19th century. If travellers were overdue, you simply kept an eye on the river mouth, where their bodies were most likely to wash up.
Whopper Stopper, Rodeo, Ankle Breaker, Gunslinger—the names of the rapids give a pretty clear idea of what’s ahead, and the schoolkids are buzzing with excitement. They yell and yahoo, ambushing each other’s rafts, engaging in water fights, throwing one another into the river. As I stand on the prow, intercepting airborne attacks and emptying bucketfuls of water on frogmen clambering aboard, I wonder what Thomas Brunner, stuck here for 10 weeks, would have given for one of our unsinkable, go-anywhere inflatables.
The current picks up and soon we’re bouncing through the first rapid. But before the whitewater roller coaster fully begins, our guide points out a geological phenomenon which, had things gone differently, could have turned into the biggest natural disaster in contemporary New Zealand.
In May 1968, an earthquake centred near Inangahua and measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale shook the upper half of the South Island, killing three people. From the air, the Buller road resembled a frozen river breaking up during spring thaw, sheets of asphalt ramming each other, deep fissures opening around them. Between Stillwater and Westport a goods train was thrown off its tracks. Near the river, a rescue helicopter hit high-tension wires and crashed in flames, killing the crew of three.
In the upper gorge, worse trouble was brewing. There, an entire mountainside had peeled off the Brunner Range and avalanched into the river, creating a dam 30 metres high. Immediately downstream, the river dried up and opportunists rushed in to rake the bottom for gold. Meanwhile, the Buller was steadily building up above the dam, filling the valley, swelling into a lake five kilometres long. If the dam had burst, the resulting flash flood would have taken Inangahua, and probably Westport as well, out to the sea.
The Army airlifted 235 people out of the immediate danger zone, but luckily the dam held. The river found an overflow and gradually wore its way through the slip, draining the lake and, in the process, creating sonic of the rapids we are rafting today.
We punch our way through Whopper Stopper, a standing wave the size of a surfable breaker. The kids are whooping like a bunch of attacking Comanches. “Get ready, guys!” our guide, Zane Smith, shouts. “We’re about to ride an aquatic bronco!”
One long rapid later, we eddy out into the calmer water. The Buller is being kind to us today: clear and low, with fair-weather clouds streaking overhead—very unlike the Buller after rain, when it turns into an unstoppable torrent within hours.
“The volume of water changes enormously,” Zane says as we idle along. “In medium flow, the Ariki Falls in the Upper Gorge are five metres high. In flood they disappear. You can take a jetboat all the way up.
“When the river is high, the rapid we’ve just done has a Grade Six hole in it that can swallow your raft. A friend of mine—another guide—had an unwieldy crew once who didn’t get up enough speed and got swept into it and totally trashed. The raft was sucked in and flipped about five times, and he was the only one that managed to hold on. Man, you’re talking King Kong’s washing machine set on `spin’!
“They all got spat out at the bottom and lived, but for the next two weeks every time he sneezed, river gravel came out of his nose.”
It sounds a tall story to me, but only until we reach the next bend in the river.
At the Lyell rapid, an underwater rock has created a spectacular boil which can flip a raft and jam it against a rock wall. “I’ve never seen it so big,” Zane says, scouting from the stern. “We gotta take it at full speed, so dig in guys, Dig in! Dig in! DIG IN!”
We are digging hard, but still the boil and the wall come at us with terrifying speed.
Suddenly the raft is standing on its side, with us falling out like jellybeans from a jar. A split second later a wave swamps the raft, filling it to the brim with one and a half tons of water, but at least preventing it from overturning. We climb back into our floating bathtub, but we are out of danger and into the calmer water.
Lyell is our last major rapid, and as the emotions subside and we cruise, brothers in arms, watching the thick beech forest glide by, Zane drops in some environmental PR: “This is your backyard, guys; don’t ever take it for granted.” In young, freshly flushed souls, this message may just find some fertile ground.
We make a landfall on a gravel beach, just below the Iron Bridge, and the kids feast on barbecued chipolatas and coleslaw, drinking Coke and swatting sandflies. I walk across the bridge, looking for signs of habitation.
Somewhere around here, I’ve been told, there lives a rebel from I find his home a with a tarpaulin lean to at the end of a stony cul-de-sac. The ground is littered with gnarled tree offcuts and carpeted with wood chips. A hound of Baskervillean proportions is patrolling an area defined by its tether. “Sean!” I call out, keeping my distance. “Sean, are you home?” A tall figure emerges from the bus and welcomes me as if he’s been expecting me all this time.
Sean Duffy is a chainsaw sculptor who collects his raw material—tree trunks washed up during floods—by scuttling up and down the river in an aluminium dinghy. He is wiry and intense, his speech like bursts of sprint over the hurdles of words, his thoughts racing like an express train constantly going through Y-junctions, often leaving you a lone passenger stranded on an empty station.
He hands me a wooden ball the size of a melon, smooth, beeswaxed to a golden sheen and, to my eye, perfectly spherical. I’m amazed. How do you carve a perfect sphere out of an old stump with nothing more than a chainsaw and a disc sander?
The walls of his bus are patched with pin-ups from muscle mags. Sean has been experimenting with human forms, and his first creation—a male torso modelled on one of Schwarzenegger’s cronies—has already been freighted to an eager buyer.
“Sean, why are you here?” I ask. “Why are you hiding in the woods?”
“You have to get away from society, from prostituting your values to please others,” he says. “Here, I have no distractions, no judges. Total artistic freedom. True greatness comes from within, but in all that outside racket you never get to hear yourself. You need a place like this, a quiet place.” A place by a river.
I backtrack upstream to visit another hermit. Stephen McGrath, a one-time shepherd and musterer, is an organic farmer who works the river terraces in the upper gorge. His home, Newton Livery, used to be a wayside inn, a staging post where travellers could find food, rest their horses and swap yarns by the fire. “In the late 1800s there must have been hundreds of places like this around the country, but almost all of them have burnt down or vanished,” 47-year-old McGrath tells me. “Somehow, this place survived, and when I saw it, I fell in love with it.
“That was 23 years ago. My wife lasted only six years here. She’s in Nelson now, teaching arts, writing and directing for theatre. We had an amicable separation,” he explains. “She was always a city girl.”
He takes me on a tour of his farm, across paddocks that slope down to the river. The opposite bank is a steep mountainside covered with virgin forest and scarred by a huge earthquake slip. Through the riverside bush, we follow a network of trails kept open by Stephen’s four half-breed Clydesdale horses.
He works the land with his Clydesdales, relishing the pace of their unhurried gait. “A working horse has a rhythm that we’ve long forgotten, the rhythm of the land,” he says. “All that we do has an impact on our land, and we have to manage and minimise this impact. That’s what a responsible life is all about.”
We walk around the farm for hours, Stephen boyishly leaping ahead, me following his earth-coloured heels flashing through the holes in worn-out gumboots. He shows me his favourite places. An ephemeral beach that appears after some floods and vanishes after others. An emerald swimming hole (for strong swimmers only). A trout pool. The pink riverside rocks, some of them the size of shipping containers, are polished smooth by the current.
Through an orchard of blossoming fruit trees he takes me to his semi-wild, self-seeding vegetable jungle, a garden of organic Eden. I sample purple sprouting broccoli and a daikon radish the size of an apple, nibble the pink leaves of a toon tree (they taste like peanut butter) and crisp miners’ lettuce. There is witch hazel for cuts and bruises and horsetail, an antifungal herbicide.
Inside the house, Stephen and his Japanese partner, Miuki, prepare a feast. Home-baked bread (sliced with a machete), yeasty cheese, fresh butter, Buller honey, a rainbow salad of flower petals. Water from the creek, power from the generator, food from the earth—a simple yet deeply attractive existence. We sit in contented silence.
“But what do you do in the evenings? Do you ever get lonely here?” I ask over a brew of heady coffee, freshly ground in a hand-cranked mill.
“When I’m home, I’m never lonely. I’m more likely to feel alone among other people. I like to read. Mainly classics. Over the winter I finished all of Dickens.
“Here, I’ll lend you a book by my favourite author,” he says, crossing to a bookcase. “Promise you’ll send it back.” The return address is simple: Murchison, Buller Gorge.
As I leave, Stephen is cutting his lawns, and I can hear the rhythmic swishing of his scythe. In the evening, I read from his book, Home Economics, by Wendell Berry: “a healthy planet is made up of healthy nations that are simply healthy communities sharing common ground, and communities are gatherings of households. The measure of the planet’s health is the health of its households.”
From Iron Bridge, I have two options if I want to continue my journey on the water: to take a jetboat and let the river blur past me or to paddle the remaining 55 km in an open canoe, going with the flow and dodging the rapids. After the Clydesdales and brother Wendell, I decide I’d better take the slow road.
As we launch our boat, the river—in ebbing flood after many days of rain—has a milky colour, its surface opaque like freshly poured cement. My companion, rafting guide Martin Thwaite, knows the river well, and I admire his skill in making the most of the swift current while at the same time avoiding the full force of the rapids. Occasionally we take a short punchy ride on a wave train, swamping the canoe. Once, a two-metre-wide whirlpool opens next to us, a furious vortex tapering off into an evil-looking black hole—an “eye of death,” Martin calls it. But for most of the time the river is like a silvery conveyor belt snaking though the bush-clad gorge.
Sitting cross-legged at the bow, watching the river unfold, I reflect on my journey so far. Buller has been a river of hermits and runaways, a place to lose track of days and weeks, an enclave for those who have little tolerance for routines and deadlines and the rigid structures of society.
A few days earlier I’d met another of this type, pedalling an overloaded mountain bike through the gorge. He welcomed a short respite, and we sat on a rock overlooking the river. “I’ve had a bad run recently,” he told me. “Lost the job, my missus left me, been drunk or stoned every night. I figured this would be a good way to take time out, to get some strength for a fresh start.” He would camp by the river, he said, fish and hunt, pan for gold and let the river wash away his anger and pain. A hunting bow was strapped to the frame of his bicycle, and tucked under the bungy cords of the rear panniers was a wok-sized gold dish. If not gold, he smiled, he may at least pan out some peace.
Martin Thwaite is a runaway of a different kind. Once a successful Wellington builder, he now lives the life of a recluse on a small bush farm near the Bridge, guiding rafts down the Buller, refurbishing a rundown homestead, walking the hills. “For us, moving down here has been a one-way road,” he told me over a bottle of his Buller moonshine. “This is our kind of place. I’d rather be woken up by a tui than the morning traffic. If I have to choose between time or money, I’ll take time. Every time.”
The land that cradles the river—the ridged and gullied mountains and the flats screened off by the bush—may be conducive to such an existence, but don’t be lulled into thinking that it’s all peace and love here. For the past decade the Buller catchment has been an environmental battleground.
Since 1987, anglers, kayakers and rafters—locals and city folk alike—have been lobbying for a National Water Conservation Order to be granted for the entire Buller catchment. Opposition has come mainly from mining and power companies, which, having given up on the main river, still hope to tap some of its tributaries. During lengthy negotiations, some of these rivers—the entire Inangahua, lower Matiri and lower Matakitaki—have been excluded, but finally this year the conservation order has been approved by the Environment Court and is soon to be gazetted.
“Our greatest success is that we’ve managed to preserve almost an entire ecosystem,” Neil Deans, manager of the Nelson-Marlborough branch of the Fish and Game Council, told me. “In the case of the Buller, the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts, and the conservation order gives the river and its catchment a status equivalent to that of a national park.”
The last leg of our canoe journey, downstream of Te Kuha, is the only part of the Buller River that has been excluded from the order. But by now we are out of the wilderness and hermit country. In the late afternoon we drift under a highway bridge near Westport. The air smells of sea spray.
The Town of Westport, hugging the eastern bank, lives in a precarious relationship with the river: a shaky marriage of convenience rather than a true love affair. On one hand the river provides a safe harbour for tuna and hoki boats, a port that keeps the coal and cement industry viable and the town alive, and a good run of whitebait in the spring. On the other hand the Buller has flooded the town frequently. During one such event, in May 1872, after weeks of incessant rain in the mountains, a hotel, bank and 18 other buildings were washed away. A year later, another hotel, its lights still aglow, was seen floating across the river. Even today, when the overflow from the Buller joins the Orowaiti, Westport—nestled in the fork of the two rivers—can become an island.
Upping the ante, Westport, considered to be the first permanent European settlement on the West Coast, lies in a tectonically active zone. After the Murchison earthquake it took a year to reopen the road through the Buller Gorge. Another severe earthquake, centred over Cape Foulwind, occurred in 1962, and the Inangahua ‘quake followed in 1968. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that the official history of Westport bears the subtitle “a struggle for survival.”
One of the more successful survivors is 70-year-old John O’Connor, who for the past half-century has been farming the west bank of the river, from the end of the lower gorge to the highway bridge near Westport.
“My grandfather, Myles McPadden, was one of the first settlers on the Coast,” says John. “He had a farm just across the river from town. Before the bridge was built in 1888 he had to row across to sell his milk in Westport. Flood or no flood, in eight years he missed only one delivery.”
On an aerial picture of his 650-acre farm, John shows me the trouble spots. During every major flood, a quarter of his farm disappears underwater.
“Big floods do not happen often, and they only last for a day or two,” he says. “The trouble is, they come without warning, and so we always watch the weather, always look at the sky.
“We get a lot of localised weather here: a heavy downpour in one place, sunshine in another. You can tell by the colour of the river which valley has been hit. Inangahua is brown, Murchison yellow, Ohikanui black like strong tea. You start worrying when they all get mixed together.”
He described a time when, within a few hours, a part of the farm was submerged under six metres of fast-moving water and the stock trapped on a shrinking island. Men on horseback had to swim the 50-metre-wide channel to drive the cattle to higher ground. “I’m scared of water,” admits John. “Never learned to live with it.”
Above the channel, he shows me a cabbage tree which he has used as a high-water marker. The tree has collapsed from old age, but its trunk still holds eight fencing staples chronicling half a century of floods. The highest came from the flash flood which followed the 1968 earthquake. John had to climb to near the crown of the tree before he could nail his staple.
Every spring, as if penitent for its intimidating presence and violent moods, the river delivers a bounty of whitebait. The beginning of the baiting season—September 1—marks the end of the Coasters’ seasonal hibernation, when the fresh breeze blows away the lethargy of winter and the smell of smouldering coal. On that day I stand with Westport resident Russell Bromley on the western bank of the Buller, scanning the water for the elusive fish.
Year after year, driven by mysterious migratory instincts, five species of galaxiidsmainly inanga and koaro—make their strenuous upstream journey, battling the current, working their way up from the lee of one large boulder to the next. There, against dark rocks, you can see them, slivers of iridescent blue, exhausted on the home stretch of a marathon journey.
Many of them never make it any further, for this is where the baiter waits, poised on slippery rocks, balancing a waterlogged net.
Whitebaiting is a game of patience, with a highly unpredictable outcome. To improve our odds, we work as a team. Russell, in shorts and green knee-length wool shirt, stands a few metres downstream, gazing intently at the water, warning me of an approaching shoal. I drag the net.
Two good scoops later, we have enough for dinner. The fish, all eyes and spine, transparent, finger-length snakes, wriggle at the bottom of our optimistically large yellow bucket. “The Coast is still a place where the world is your pantry,” says Russell as we drive home. “Every year I catch a couple of hundred trout with my three daughters, and shoot one or two venison beasts. Our freezer is never empty.”
That night we eat whitebait fritters spiked with peppery horopito leaves. Next morning, I am back on the bank, baiting with the pros.
There are eight professional whitebaiters along our stretch of the river. They stand motionless, like herons, staring into the river, nets at the ready, their patience fuelled by memories of boundless plenty. To keep their positions, they camp nearby, sleeping in dilapidated vans and station wagons. Many arrive several days before the season opens, settling in for 10 weeks of back-breaking dawn-to-dusk vigilance, staking their claims the same way gold-diggers did 130 years ago.
One of them is Nick, a toothless man in blue denim overalls, his long, blond hair growing like a weed from beneath a trucker’s cap. He is waiting for the king tide to reach its lowest mark, so he can scrub the rocks clean of moss and paint them with white acrylic—ecologically, an improvement on sinking a white highway marker or a sheet of bright corrugated iron. When the tide comes in, all of these spotting devices help show up the bait swimming across them.
A shoal is always led by four or five fish, Nick explains. “If you get the leaders, the whole shoal follows into your net.” With luck, you can make a small fortune. “In 1993, I got 120 kg in one day. My miss us stayed up until two in the morning, cleaning ’em. We had a bathtub full of bait,” he grins. “Or you can sit here for a week and get nothing.”
A shoal of whitebait is sneaking past and, like a feeding whale shark, Nick scoops it up with one sure sweep of his wide-mouthed net. The pickings are slim, though—no more than a handful—but it is still early in the season. The bait will run. It always does.
Standing waist-deep in water or straddling riverside rocks wielding an oversized butterfly net seems a quintessentially West Coast way of making a living, or at least of supplementing an income. In Christchurch, whitebait fetches $36 a pound; in the North Island, even more. By the river you can get it for $15—if you can coax a baiter to sell. Often they won’t, especially if there are rumours of tax or income support inspectors on the prowl.
Ask any baiter and he will tell you that his is the poorest “possie” on the river, that the season has been so bad that he’s truly wasting his time. With a wistful sigh he’ll tell you how good it used to be. A few years ago you could walk into an appliance shop, get a TV set, a microwave or a washing machine, and pay in pounds of whitebait.
Only later, by coincidence, you may learn that your interlocutor—this victim of life’s unrelenting unfairness—sold a 34 kg sack of bait, that morning’s catch, at the local pub.
In the best tradition of their pioneering and goldmining ancestors, West Coasters enjoy a good yarn and won’t let the truth spoil it. Was the nugget the size of a walnut? I heard it was as big as an orange. Me cobber said the nugget was like a melon. He saw it. It took two men to lift it!
But the nuggets, and the fortunes they brought, are long gone. Today in the Buller (the river lends its name to the entire district, from Kahurangi Point in the north to Punakaiki and inland to Inangahua, making up the northern third of the West Coast) 70 per cent of the residents over 15 survive on an annual income of less than $20,000, and a third of those fit into the $1000-10,000 bracket. This close-to-the-breadline existence results in resilience and resourcefulness that are another of the Coast’s hallmarks.
On a fly-fishing trip up the Inangahua River, one of Buller’s major tributaries, my fishing companion spotted an old circular-saw blade, the size of a round table for four, rusting in the current. Before I could make another cast, he was up to his thighs in the water, carting the thing towards his truck, struggling like a dung beetle when the banana-sized teeth caught on the gravel.
This was his catch of the day, prized more than any mere trout. The teeth would make excellent zip-knives (named after the role they play in gutting game animals); the rest, when cut and shaped, would serve as barbecue hotplates for the owner and his neighbours.
Where else but on the Coast can you see a breaking-up car body fixed by flooring it with sheets of chicken wire and a layer of concrete? Russell Bromley: “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the dole days when everyone was in town, you could walk the length of Westport’s main drag and find that only one in five or six cars had both a warrant of fitness and a current registration. Flying squads of traffic cops from over the hill would come and block off the town centre, sprinkling fines like confetti. Next thing you know, the garages were flooded with cars the mechanics were too scared to touch. Cars worth $300 and needing $1000 repairs just to get them roadworthy. For their owners, they were the only means of transport.”
Lack of cash results in a thriving parallel economy, a “green dollar” exchange based not on the virtual dollar somewhere in the electronic financial world but the I-wireyour-house-you-fix-my-truck currency. “When you’re sick, people will come, unasked, and bring you soup for lunch, do your lawns and groceries, look after your kids,” one Westport resident told me. “When you need to see a doctor but haven’t got money to pay for the visit, you take a couple of wild ducks from your freezer. The doctor loves duck, but hasn’t got time to go and shoot ’em. One woman patient knitted him a jersey. That’s how it works. In the community, you get out what you put in. If you only take, you get cut out, ostracised. In a town this small you get to know the crooks by name.”
One night, as the rain pelted down, I sat with the Bromley family in their self-built Carters Beach home, along the coast from the river mouth. Katie, one of Russell’s daughters, was kneeling on the floor, schoolwork spread around her. “Dad, what are the main industries in Westport?” she asked. “Coal, Milburn cement, fishing and dope,” he replied, and she wrote it down in her exercise book.
I was curious about the dope and the shadowy part it plays in the local economy. The Buller district, with its remoteness and mild climate, its laid-back lifestyle and good opportunities for not finding a job, attracted a number of work-shy drifters for whom marijuana, locally known as “cabbage,” became a natural alternative: a low-input, high-return cash crop.
A few days later I was introduced to a grower. “We’re not getting rich growing cabbage,” the man said. “It’s just enough to improve the quality of our lives a little, to buy a few extras for the house or the kids. There’s plenty of it around, but most of it is grown in small-scale operations. We don’t really want to make a killing. When you have a family, the risks are too high. I hate growing it, but what can you do? Man needs his wheels and the kids need new toys. You can’t have those things living off the dole.”
I had come to the end of the river, and one November afternoon I stood aboard the tug Bob Gower as it chugged towards the last obstacle before the sea, the treacherous sandbar that continuously fills the river mouth.
The banks of the river have been artificially extended to create a pair of breakwaters reaching out into the Tasman Sea. They were built of granite boulders, quarried at Cape Foulwind and transported here by a purpose-built, 10 km-long railway. In 1888, at its peak, the project employed 380 men.
The breakwaters were extended another 100 metres in 1966 and now their tips converge slightly to speed up the flow of the river. During a flood, when a fan of dirty-brown water reaches 15 kilometres or more out to sea, the river can flush the sandbar clean, but it brings with it tonnes of wood debris, entire trees sometimes, creating a serious shipping hazard.
Contrary to common belief, it is not the river that clogs up the 179 metre-wide port entrance, harbourmaster David Barnes told me, as we studied a sonar map of the ever-changing riverbed. “The south-westerly winds generate a strong coastal current which causes a littoral drift of sand all the way to Farewell Spit. Westport just happens to be in its way.”
Keeping the entrance clear is a never-ending task for the crew of the Kawatiri, a ship built like an oversized gold dredge, which removes some 300,000 cubic metres of sand and river debris a year.
The use of differential GPS [Global Positioning Satellite] and computerised depth-sounding equipment has greatly reduced the amount of dredging required. With a freshly-plotted contour map of the encroaching sand, accurate to one metre horizontally and 13 mm vertically, Kawatiri can perform a precision liposuction of the bar, custom-designed for a ship which needs to cross it.
At the end of the breakwater, sea waves were squeezing in through the narrow entrance, overwhelming the river. Our tug began to pitch, the deck underfoot inscribing lazy figures-of-eight. Beside us, a lone shag rode the swell. Ahead, the Tasman breakers were streaked white in a cross-shore breeze.
Following a river is like living its lifetime. You witness its birth in the womb of a lake. You watch its carefree meandering childhood as it grows and gathers strength until, full of riotous energy, it plunges into the rapids and turbulence of its teenage years. In adulthood, the river is focused and powerful, shaping the land as its life work. A mellow old age follows; the current, a remnant of its previous momentum, is tired and spent, forever slowing down. Then comes the death of the river, the end of a journey.
For me, the Buller had been a life of learning and adventure, an experience of simple, spontaneous hospitality and unexpected friendships among people as tough as their land and as strong and unruly as their river. Most would not live anywhere else. Brunner’s “worst country in New Zealand” has provided them with a safe haven, as far away from the troubles of the world as if they were living on the moon.
“Here it’s the lifestyle of the ’50s, but with all the mod cons,” one farmer told me. Indeed, along the Buller River people seem to have learned the knack of harnessing fin de siecle progress for their own ends: enjoying its many offerings while avoiding the trappings. As Barry Townrow, a Westport schoolteacher, put it: “Ours is a place where seemingly nothing ever happens, but where you can make happen anything you want.”
In that, the Buller and its people epitomise what has always made this country special, an ability to straddle the best of two worlds: one foot in the woods, the other in the stock exchange—playing a Thoreauvian recluse by day and surfing the Internet by night.
The Buller had been a journey lived well and without regrets, and I did not fear its end. I braced myself against the railing and we headed for the breakers.