In every whitebaiter’s life there is a moment they dream of; a tantalisingly elusive moment which will make all the misery, the discomfort, the sheer boredom of ‘baiting astoundingly and deliciously worthwhile.
Writer and whitebaiter Kerilulme recalls her special day:
“It was the seventh of November, getting toward the end of the season, and there hadn’t been much ‘bait for the past week or so. So when I went out at around six in the morning, there wasn’t anyone else near. The water was clear amber perfection, every stone on the bottom visible, and I thought, ‘This won’t be much cop, any ‘bait’ll see me coming.’ But the morning was quiet and still, so I slid the net into the water and strolled toward the mouth, looking at oystercatchers on the other bank, the distant green waves, a gull flying away to the south. Suddenly the net was strangely heavy, like I’d snagged something. I lifted it, and there were streams of ‘bait sliding down to the bottom. Beautiful golden streams.”
In one drag, Hulme had netted nineteen-and-three-quarter pounds of whitebait. That, for those of us unused to such quantities, is about a bucket-and-a-half. Such a moment comes once in a lifetime.
Hulme has been ‘baiting on the coast for 23 years—since September 2, 1970, to be precise. That was the year she moved over the hill from Canterbury to be a West Coast postie. Where she’d come from, ‘baiting was no big deal. But on the opening day of the West Coast season, as her fellow Post Office workers skived off to check their nets, Hulme realised that white-baiting was to be part of her cultural adaptation to the Coast. The following day she was down there with the others, and has been, ever since.
Like whitebaiters, photographers need one characteristic above all others: patience. Arno Gasteiger had ample opportunity to test this truth as, over a period of 18 months, he spent his every spare moment walking, waiting and watching for the images which appear in his photo essay on Queen Street. For the period of this assignment—his 23rd for the magazine—the versatile Austrian-born photographer lived in a converted office space just off Queen Street, and visited the street at all hours of the day and night to observe the urban jungle at ground level. Eventually, the regulars of the street began to notice that he was a regular too. And with that observation came suspicions and assumptions. Twice he was asked if he was a plainclothes police officer; several times if he could supply drugs.
Gasteiger says his life became a schizophrenic switch between the heart of the city and the wilderness beyond, as his other Geographic assignments continued. The contrast was, he says, beneficial to the way he perceived his work. “When I was on the street for long periods, I would start seeing the things which happen as ordinary. When I came back from wilderness areas it was as though my eyes had been washed, and I could see the outrageous nature of the street clearly again.”
For Tauranga photographer and writer Kim Westerskov, whose work features in both the emperor penguin and White Island stories, the closer he is to real wilderness—and the further away he is from cities—the better. Westerskov, a naturalist with a doctorate in marine sciences, “gave up studying nature with graphs and mathematics” 12 years ago to record nature lovingly through a camera lens.
Antarctica is one of his particular loves, and when he was offered the chance to be there in the moody halflight of spring, rather than the bright, non-stop glare of summer, he seized it. “When I’m in that landscape sculpted by wind and water, humanity and all its problems might just as well not exist,” he says.
For someone used to the cool silence of the frozen continent, the contrast of White Island’s raw volcanic violence must have been a shock. Whereas the Antarctic hides its threat to human life behind a face of stark beauty, the dangers of White Island, with its steamy clouds of poison gases and constant eruptions, are quite apparent.
“On White Island, you are constantly aware that if you make a wrong move, you’re history,” Westerskov says. “Several times the geologists warned me that the area on which I was about to walk was only a thin crust.”
Westerskov has visited the island five times, and most times, he says, there is a point at which the alien rawness of the island suddenly becomes intolerable to him.
“At that point I think: ‘Let me off, I want to go home.”‘
So, even for one who loves the wilderness with a passion, a time comes when the safe familiarity of human society is necessary.