My father, Oscar Garden, visited Stewart Island only once, almost 75 years ago; and even though he spent just a few hours there, he is a legendary figure in local history.
I didn’t know this until I did a lot of digging recently. He made the flight that earned him his reputation on the island some 30 years before I was born, and to me he was a stern and aloof man who never went anywhere or did anything exciting. He seemed content just to work from home as a market gardener, growing tomatoes in glasshouses. His only other interest was horse-racing, and he often wandered up to the local TAB to place bets.
Growing up, I was only vaguely aware that my father had had an earlier life—an incredibly adventurous one—as a pioneer aviator. I don’t remember him ever talking to me about this life. The first aerial landing on Stewart Island was one of his many adventures—or “close shaves” as he would have put it.
In the early 30s, my father was well known for his epic solo flight from England to Australia in November 1930. He had received a tumultuous welcome on his return to New Zealand, and after he had toured most of the country in his plane Kia Ora—a DH 60 de Havilland Gipsy Moth—he decided to cash in on his publicity by taking people for joy-rides. These lasted about 10 minutes for a cost of 12 shillings a pop—a lot of money in those Depression years.
My father was down in Invercargill in late February 1931 giving joy-rides from the old Myross Bush aerodrome when a local by the name of Geoff Todd bet him £5 that he couldn’t land his plane on Stewart Island. Owing to the rough nature of the terrain and the absence of a suitable landing strip, no aviator had dared to do this before, although a few had flown over the island.
The first aerial crossing to the island had been made on January 13, 1921, by a Captain Buckley and two passengers in a De Havilland DH9. The following day the Southland Times reported that when they reached the island, the aviators saw a beautiful sight below: “The numerous inlets seemed like a large cloth on which were laid a collection of glistening jewels—the bays and inlets in which the place abounds.”
Being a betting man, my father couldn’t resist Todd’s challenge. On Friday, February 27, the two of them set out from Invercargill at midday to make the half-hour journey.
The people on the island, the majority of whom lived at Half-moon Bay, had been notified to expect the plane at about 1 p.m. down at Horseshoe Bay. Beryl Nielson, now 93 years of age, was living on the island at the time and worked at Bragg’s general store. She remembers the “excitement of the day”, though admits she wasn’t very interested at her age (she was 19 at the time). In any case, she had to stay and look after the shop so didn’t witness the event.
Most of the other residents did, however. Along with the county chairman and members of the council, they were taken by surprise when they heard the drone of the plane at 12.30, and rushed along the three-mile track to the bay. On the beach, meanwhile, a small crowd of people was already waiting, including the teachers and children from the local school. Several of the children were evidently so frightened at the sight of an aircraft approaching that they ran and hid in the bush.
John Tolsen, now 89 but 15 at the time, wrote to me: “We had seen a few planes fly over but never one on the ground. We children had about three miles to walk to school and that morning when we got there we were told ‘no school’ as Oscar Garden’s plane was landing on the beach that morning.”
However, John and several of his friends had first to deliver a box of fruit sent to his mother on the weekly ferry, a steam tug. “We had just got to Horseshoe Bay when the plane came in to land in front of us. No mucking about. He never flew over the village first.”
But as my father and Todd were coming in to land they realised they didn’t have a straight run. As the name Horseshoe suggests, the beach was curved; it also had a definite camber, and, in addition, a strong nor’westerly was blowing. Combined, these factors made it difficult to land safely.
Land safely they did, however, and my father decided to take off again without stopping. But one of the wheels got caught in a lump of bull kelp, which slewed the plane and made it run out into the bay. Todd climbed out of his seat but as he perched on the front of the plane it suddenly tipped up and he was thrown into the water.
John said his group had run out to help and managed to bring the tail of the plane down. Soon, he said, there were more helpers, including some girls who waded in after tucking their skirts into their knickers. My father produced a rope to tow the plane out of the tide and up onto the beach. “Oscar was shaking the thing as if it was its fault, together with some under-his-breath mutterings. Everyone knew what he meant.”
Luckily, the plane didn’t appear to have been damaged by its upending in the water, but as a precaution the oil was drained and replaced with motor-car oil.
It was decided to hold a civic reception there on the beach itself, and the schoolchildren were given the rest of the day off. My father and Todd were entertained to tea “in a real picnic fashion”, and the children who were still hiding in the bush emerged when they saw the lolly-scramble, cakes, tea and lemonade. Most of the residents had never had a close view of a plane before and covered the Gipsy Moth with their autographs.
The visitors departed shortly after 4.00 p.m., having received “three hearty cheers and being wished God-speed on their return journey”. It was said that the plane took off “perfectly” and was soon a speck in the distance.
This first landing has entered Stewart Island folklore as “The Challenge”. Photos of the event—Kia Ora in a “nose-dive”, my father and Geoff Todd alongside the plane after it had been hauled up the beach, and the island residents gathered around it—adorn the walls of the South Seas Hotel. Tour guide Sam, who drives a vehicle he calls Billy Bus, always mentions my father to the tourists.
When I first became interested in this story all I had in my possession that was of any relevance was a small copy of the “nose-dive” photo and an article from an old aviation magazine that gave the occasion a brief mention. From books, magazines and newspapers I managed to dig up more details and get a clearer picture. I spent months—and almost gave up—trying to track down someone who had witnessed the event.
In his letter to me, John Tolsen describes the occasion as a red-letter day, and ends by noting that Mrs Elizabeth Murray, a widow from Horseshoe Bay, retrieved the towrope, which was left behind, and that this is now in the island’s Rakiura Museum.
Historic though the landing was, it wasn’t the day’s only event of note. That morning saw the birth of triplets to a Mrs Ryan—the first triplets to be born on the island. In a speech, Mr Hicks, the chairman of Stewart Island County Council, said that “to console the airman for this unusual competition in interest”, Mrs Ryan had told him prior to the birth that one of the children would be named Oscar. However, the newest residents turned out to be all girls and were subsequently named Ruth, Rona and Elizabeth—although, according to my mother, Osca‑rina was considered.