A short, weathered, Tolkienesque figure tries the door of a decrepit shed at the bush’s edge. The shed is the former Paradise School at the head of Lake Wakatipu, and the elderly gentleman is the last survivor of its seven pupils from the 1920s.
He is George Adams, formerly of Mt Earnslaw Station and now of Timaru, back visiting family today, and tomorrow tearing around the southern lakes and the South Island’s big braided rivers in his personal hovercraft. He is the oldest registered owner of a hovercraft in New Zealand.
What sort of man dares to zap around in a hovercraft at age 89, when he should be dozing on a recliner in front of television? This is a man for whom the call of the bowling green will never be as strong as the call of the wild.
George has been shaped by mountains and plains and rivers, by horseback and hardship, by a simple and honest life, by two wives and six kids and by a limitless capacity for hard work. Born in Heriot, west Otago, in 1916, the youngest of eight, he came with his family to the upper Wakatipu in 1920-21, when he was five. He almost never made it.
“My first memory is of my father cutting oats with three horses and a binder. I was just a little chap, and I got lost in the oats for half a day. They didn’t know I was there. When they found me I was carrying my trousers. I probably took them off to lie down and go to sleep. I was lucky not to have been cut up by the binder.”
The family sold up at Heriot and, like carpetbaggers seeking a new life, left for the two-day journey on the back of their truck to Mt Earnslaw Station.
“We had a four-cylinder Chevvy without a cab or body—just the chassis. My father built a cab, seat and deck and transported the whole family on the back from Heriot to Kingston, at the bottom of Lake Wakatipu.”
From there, truck and family caught the ferry Earnslaw to Queenstown, then to Glenorchy at the head of the lake, and then drove 20 km over a horse-and-buggy track to Mt Earnslaw, fording the Rees River to reach the station. It was, George says with typical understatement, “quite an adventure”.
At school, in that converted shed under the towering mountains at Paradise, George’s classmates were the sons and daughters of the scheelite miners, farmers, sawmillers and gold-miners who populated the region, and in class he was clearly a cheeky little pest.
“I got the strap every morning before class started. The teacher, Pearl Reid, said that was in anticipation of my behaviour that day. She was just out of standard six with a certificate in proficiency. She could read and write and do a few sums. There were no exercise books. We wrote on slates with slate pencils.
“A lot of the kids in the region didn’t go to school at all, like the family down the road. They were tough kids, just like their father, the biggest fellow around, a sawmiller who could lift huge logs. One of the boys had a cat, and when it scratched him he held the cat up and whacked off its head with a tomahawk. They were tough kids all right…”
George, although he would never say so, was a pretty tough kid himself. He was thrown from the school “bus”—a horse and gig—when the horse spooked during a storm, breaking his collarbone. There was no local doctor so the bone was left to mend of its own accord.
“Six months later, when we visited Queenstown, the doctors had a look and said the break hadn’t knitted properly and they would have to reset it. One of them held me down while the other rebroke it with his thumbs without anaesthetic.”
The broken bones department, which was part and parcel of life in those days, wasn’t restricted to humans.
“We’d find ducks’ nests and break a wing on each of the ducklings so they wouldn’t be able to fly, and leave them in the nests. Two or three months later the dogs would hunt them out. The ducklings had fattened up like muttonbirds. They were delicious.”
Ducks weren’t the only wildlife to suffer. Fiordland’s famous mountain parrots came in for their share of hardship.
“Kea attacked stock, and the local council put a bounty on them. On one hunt I shot 16. I got five shillings per beak.”
As we drive around George’s boyhood turf, more memories come back.
“I first went hunting over there as a lad [pointing toward the Rees Valley], where I’d take a pony, a .22 rifle and a blanket or two and sleep out for an early-morning shot at a deer. And Diamond Creek over there—used to be full of 10- and 11-pound trout. See that house? A remittance man from Ireland lived there. Got his own sister in the family way. And over there we had the Spitter. He chewed twists of tobacco and could spit about as far as that fence [six metres. He stank. Don’t think he ever washed or took a bath.”
Isolation ruled those early years, especially when floods roared down the Dart and Rees valleys, smashing bridges and cutting off the family for weeks. There were no roads, just horse-and-gig tracks. The Adams family truck and two ageing buses at Kinloch were the only motor vehicles George can remember in the upper Wakatipu. A trip from Glenorchy to Queenstown took eight hours. Today it takes 40 minutes. There was no doctor, no dentist, no police, no crime to speak of, a newspaper maybe once a week, and the occasional drunk who would wash up on Wakatipu’s shores to break the rhythm of life.
George’s father, a blacksmith with his own forge, would do all the smithy work for the region. He was also the family shopper, and every couple of years would make an expedition to Dunedin to buy goods and clothes for the whole family. But really he had no idea.
“He’d come back with the same size clothes for everybody, including undies. My undies came up to my chest and under my armpits.”
After 10 years in the upper Wakatipu, the Adams family moved in 1930 to take over Cainard Station at Fairlight, near Garston in northern Southland, where George left school at 14 to fulfil his dream of becoming a high-country musterer—a dream inspired by his first contact with horses, when, as a toddler at Heriot, he left his trike outside the farmhouse one night and it was trampled by a Clydesdale.
For the next 12 years George rode Cairnard Station’s high ranges, all 64,350 ha of them, up among the clouds and snow, in the sweltering summers and merciless winters.
The toughest job as a musterer, he recalls, was snow-raking—freeing up lost, frozen, snowbound sheep and raking (stamping) a trail to guide them out of the drifts and up to the ridges where they could find enough food to stave off death by starvation.
“A mob of sheep would get snowed in on the dark side of a gully. We would tramp the snow away to reveal the dirt beneath. The sheep needed to be able to see the dirt to follow the track that we stamped up to a windswept ridge where they could find a bit of pasture and scrub.
“We had to get there quickly and work nonstop because the sheep were starving and would eventually eat each other’s wool and die. On one occasion we worked 48 hours at a stretch. It was tough.
“It was a hard life, but a healthy life. We’d all be as fit as trout.”
You not only had to be fit, you had to be made of something stronger to go out rabbiting on winter nights, but with rabbits eroding whole hillsides the work had to be done.
“At Cainard I once poisoned 1111 rabbits in a night. I picked them up with a dray and had to go back to the farm to skin them. I could skin 100 an hour, so the skinning took more than 11 hours. The carcasses were all frozen as stiff as boards. It was a tough job.”
That winter he earned £1700—”big money in those days, nearly enough to buy a farm”.
Those were the days of the Great Depression. “I had five older brothers to help run the place, and we were OK, but they were desperate times. We had 14,000 merinos on Cainard and in the worst year of the Depression we got only £500 for the wool cheque.”
Despite the hardships, they were idyllic years for a young man, spent close to the stars and the sun, ringed by Tennyson’s azure worlds in lonely lands atop God’s Own Country. But they were shattered by the horror of World War II, in which George served with Second New Zealand Division in the Middle East and Italy and fought in the infamous Battle of Monte Cassino.
“At Paradise I learned reading, writing and arithmetic, but my real education was the war. We don’t need any more wars—all those young fellas being cut to pieces …”
After the war George drove tour buses around Southland and the Lakes District. Romance bloomed in the bus-company office in Lumsden, northern Southland, on his meeting the fair-haired, blue-eyed clerk Grace Casson. The two married in Dunedin in the mid-1940s before settling on their first farm, an 80 ha spread at Wrights Bush, central Southland, which cost £9600, and where they raised three daughters.
George’s most tangible asset has always been his amazing capacity for hard work, and he showed his entrepreneurial flair at Wrights Bush by starting a sideline in gorse-cutting.
“No gorse had been cut in Southland since before the war. It had spread like mad and gorse fences had become a chain wide. I bought a Hedgehog gorse-cutter, attached it to a Fordson tractor and went to work. In one winter’s cutting I made £1500. A brand-new car in those days cost £900. After getting home from gorse-cutting I used to dig ditches till 11 o’clock at night.”
At that time too, he recalls fondly, there was the Incident of the Cow Woman. He had arranged through a stock agent to buy a cow from an Ayrshire breeder and had gone to the breeder’s farm, where he was about to load the cow for the trip home when a rampaging woman burst from the farmhouse shouting, “If that cow goes, I go with it.” “I decided I didn’t want both,” says George, who returned home cowless.
Tragedy struck when Grace died of kidney failure, leaving George with three young daughters to raise, a farm to run and not much money. “I had a hard time for a while.”
Salvation came in the form of Alwyn Barkman, a dark-haired beauty from Dunedin, a nurse and housekeeper, who had cared for Grace during her illness and who proved to be superbly efficient. People didn’t beat around the bush in those days. “My brother told me, ‘Alwyn’s a great woman. You should keep her.’ And that’s what happened.” The pair married in 1957 and raised two boys and a girl.
George’s family left Wrights Bush after 17 years, decamping to isolated Mt Allan Station near Hindon, northwest of Dunedin. There, on 2830 ha of excellent land, George carried out perhaps the most remarkable achievement of his life, epitomising the resourceful spirit of the do-it-yourself New Zealander.
Mt Allan Station was inaccessible except by horseback. There was no road, just a rail siding at Taioma in the Taieri Gorge, on the central Otago line. The vendor had decided to sell because he was unable to find a manager to cover the station by horseback, and his application for a county road had been repeatedly turned down by Taieri County Council.
George told the Otago Daily Times in 1965 that, after his first inspection of the property, “I was forced to the conclusion that if a road were to be built, the owner would have to carry out the task himself.”
Back in Invercargill he bought a 23-tonne D8 crawler-tractor, which had to be juggled slowly up the narrow Taieri Gorge by rail on the back of a flat-bed freight truck. With George astride the bulldozer yelling warnings to the engine driver each time the blades started scraping the rock walls of the gorge, they crept, inch by inch, to the Taioma siding.
George started work on the road lacking even the most basic knowledge of engineering. He simply followed a sheep track across the rugged, steep terrain, some of it like granite, some of it crumbling “rotten rock”, debris from which almost buried the crawler. He was lucky to get out without serious injury.
The road snaked from 50 m above sea level at its lowest point to more than 300 m at its highest. “In some places it was as steep as the side of a hen’s face.” During much of the construction George camped on the job, sleeping under a covering strung between the crawler and a jeep.
He completed this 7 km mission in two weeks.
Two years later the family again moved on, to Nimrod Downs Station in South Canterbury, where, at age 50, George confronted and beat the only vice that had ever infected his life: tobacco. There were no nicotine patches in those days, and he didn’t use chewing gum or sweets. He used walnuts. “I used to crush walnuts in my hands to do something with my fingers, and the tang of walnut in my mouth helped.”
After 16 years at Nimrod Downs, George and Alwyn opted for an easier life, running motels in Timaru. But you can’t keep a man of the wide-open spaces cooped up in little boxes, and before long George was back out on the highways and byways, driving tour buses from Cape Reinga to Bluff. This he did for the next 10 years.
Today, retirement sits uneasily on his shoulders, but his hovercraft takes him back to the land that he loves. For the summer of 2005, he and Alwyn have planned a few trips away in their campervan with hovercraft in tow.
“I want to do the southern lakes Tekapo, Wanaka, Wakatipu—and the big rivers like the Clutha, the Waiau and the Waitaki.”
The 3 m-long hovercraft has a 50 hp light-aircraft motor, a top speed of 80 kph, and cost $38,000. George uses it for fishing and generally hooning around.
“You can go anywhere in it—water, land, mud—no problems. You can go out in your slippers and not get your feet wet.”
Recently, he bought a bicycle too. Bright red with cream tyres. Got it for $11.50 at the Timaru auctions. Riding home after a few plonks with his mates at the Timaru RSA, he took a spill. Walking inside, bruised, grazed and bleeding, the old horseman told his wife: “The bike threw me!”