“Right, if the raft flips, you need to get to the front or back and find an air pocket. Don’t put your legs down or they’ll get trapped under a bloody rock and you’ll drown. And don’t smack your head on a rock—they’ll be pretty hard to see in the dark. But we should be sweet.”
And with that we were off… Three men, two dead deer and a raft, descending through a steep gorge and headed for the ocean on dark. From time to time, the moon—fat and heavy in the sky—would peek through the treeline, luminescent on the white froth of the rapids, silhouetting river stones jutting above the water. For the most part it was dark. But I was in good hands.
Josh James is New Zealand’s answer to British adventurer and television star Bear Grylls. Tall, bearded and intense, ‘The Kiwi Bushman’ is a pastiche of what it means to be the archetypal man in this country. Based in a small township* on the West Coast of the South Island, James is a jetboating, deer-hunting, tahr-killing, fish-catching wildman.
The star of two Discovery Channel television shows, he documents his lifestyle on the internet, posting hunting videos, gear reviews, motivational clips and even the occasional political rant on his Facebook and YouTube profiles. It’s no side project—Josh James Kiwi Bushman has just shy of 50,000 Facebook likes and more than 30,000 subscribers on YouTube. His Patreon account (an online subscription platform for fans) brings in around $4000 a month.
In the glossy landscape of the entertainment industry, James is a gruff, sincere and cheeky bloke, redolent with Kiwi vernacular—a new chopper is the “mutt’s nuts”, a change in plans “good as gold”, the hammer he uses to finish off trapped possums is his “whispering stick”.
Father to three (Jack, 10, Charlie, 7, and Sonny Jim, 2), he opens the home he shares with partner Kristen to the world, giving a glimpse into their unique way of life between the Alps and the Tasman Sea.
The West Coast is historically a place of primary industry, but making a dollar there is a hard ask given the fickle fortunes of gold strikes, dairy prices and the demand for timber. In pioneer fashion, James and his family live by their wits, subject to the same forces as any other family on the Coast. But life hasn’t always been bountiful. Over shanks, potatoes, peas and cider at the Hard Antler in Haast, James reminisces of a time when things were entirely less comfortable.
“I knicked my finger with a knife, taped it up and went rafting the next day. But because it was taped, it got caught in the rope around the raft and snapped the tendon. I went to the doctors and they misdiagnosed it; they said, ‘Nah, it’s just a bit of swelling,’ gave me antibiotics, and I ended up needing a two-stage reconstruction and three months off work.”
To make things considerably worse, a miscommunication with ACC meant James received only half of what he expected each week—less than enough even to meet mortgage payments. Without meaningful income, James and Kristen had to negotiate with local helicopter operator James Scott for a stay on their $20,000 bill. Unable to work, James’ rafting business was all but going under.
“We were in major debt, looking like we were going to lose our house, fighting a lot, stressing out, depressed. But one day I said, ‘Bugger this, life’s too short for this to ruin it. If we go bankrupt, so be it. Money isn’t worth being depressed over.’
“And you know what? It worked. It’s the power of positive thinking. You ever hear of that Law of Attraction? It’s crazy sh*t, but sometimes it works.”
After his ‘possum whisperer’ video gained traction on YouTube, James began making more videos, carrying a GoPro into the mountains to capture footage and studying shows on television to learn how to edit it down into something enjoyable.
“I used to watch a show that I liked and I’d be analysing it, thinking, ‘Why do I like that? What are they doing? How are they getting those shots?’ And when it came time to edit the videos, I’d try to copy what people like [celebrity chef] Al Brown did well, and really focus on quality,” he says.
Soon he was scouted by Discovery Channel, flying to Panama to audition against a US Marine and a survival coach. “Basically, I was just way more switched on than they were when it comes to the basics,” he says. “Because we have such a diverse landscape, with deserts, mountains, rainforests, beaches and rivers, the average Kiwi hunter gets to develop a skillset that’s equal to and probably surpasses basically anyone else on Earth. It’s pretty cool, really.”
James landed the show, travelling to Finland and Borneo across six episodes of Kings of the Wild, a hybrid hunting and cooking show with British chef Matt Tebbutt.
“I used to love going to the airport in my stubbies and gumboots and walking into business class like I didn’t know where I was supposed to be,” he says. “People would be looking at me like, ‘Um, Sir, you can’t be in here,’ then I’d pull my boarding pass out of my gumboot and go, ‘Oh, there it is!’
“But it was hard at first, doing those shows, because I’m not an actor. I’m just me. So when they say, ‘Okay, ready, be funny now,’ it was hard to turn it on. Especially with 10 or 20 people standing around, directors and producers and assistant producers.”
A year later, Discovery came calling once more, and James joined two US military nuts for Season 8 of Dual Survival.
“I learned a lot from watching the Discovery production crew, seeing what the camera guys were doing, what shots they were chasing and why. It’s hard doing it myself because I’m always constrained by time, but once I’ve got my own cameraman, it’ll be sweet. I can just say, ‘Get this, get that.’ It’ll be choice.”
James has ambitions of ending up behind the camera, capturing more of his kids, partner and life. But it’s a long way to owning a production company.
The James residence is a compound of sorts. Rafts, guns, vehicles, wetsuits, spears, knives, camera equipment and a drone fill the available space. Inside the house, beneath a row of longbows and beside a basket of Vizsla-Labrador puppies, is James’ work station. A Mac sits in front of an empty leather chair—James generally does most of his work on his laptop on the couch. Kristen runs their rafting company, Eco Rafting, from the kitchen table, where Sonny alternates between playing with handfuls of smoothie and smushing playdough into Mum’s water bottle.
“Sonny ripped some of the pages from this diary, so I’m not sure if we’ve got any bookings,” Kristen tells me.
Three dogs—Bugsy, Poochy and young Mark Brown—jostle for attention, chased by Charlie in hunting gear, his permanent outfit. Jack, fresh from school, builds Lego. James is asleep on the floor.
“He’s been so good,” says Kristen’s mother, Sandra, over from Canada for a two-month holiday. “He just works so hard. They both do.”
Three kids, three dogs, chickens, a cat, two businesses and a social-media empire take their toll on James and Kristen. Every morning, it takes more than two hours just to manage email. Twenty minutes of video takes about eight hours to edit, plus the helicopter flights, river crossings, mountain ascents and animal stalks necessary to capture footage; James often hunts for up to five days, climbing thousands of feet into the mountains to shoot Himalayan tahr, and running multiple rapids. A week before we arrive, he evacuated a hunter with suspected appendicitis, setting off an EPIRB locator beacon for a high-stakes mountain air rescue through dense fog, right on last light.
A Patreon video blog entry from the next day shows an exhausted James blinking into the camera. “I’ve got 500 different video clips to put together, I’m absolutely buggered, I need a few days off.”
He settles for 20 minutes. Oilskin pants switched for stubbies, a pair of wraparounds on hand, it’s action stations once again.
“Right, let’s go get some mussels.”
Speeding along the beach, Poochy in hot pursuit, we bump around in the tray of James’ ute. In between bursts of Nerf gun fire at enemy soldiers storming the stony dunes, Jack puts me through an interrogation. “Are you a writer for Geographic? Do you do hunting? Do you do exploring?” he asks. “When I grow up, I’m going to be an adventurer.”
“And I’m going to be like Dad,” asserts Charlie.
At the mussel beds, empty beach stretches in both directions, a gentle curve snaking back and forward along the coastline. The high-tide line marks the entrance to a driftwood forest—bleached trees the only witnesses to the endless roar of the Tasman Sea. Against the melancholy isolation, the family looks like a band of survivors, the last people on Earth, a warm nucleus of home.
By the fire, a bottle of white wine splashes into a soot-blackened pot, tomato sauce emerges from a boot and a two-litre bottle of malt vinegar lies in the sand. At the water’s edge, Charlie sits alone, staring out at the horizon like a tiny Buddha in camouflage. In the distance, the dogs tumble. While James builds a platform on the fire, Kristen and Sonny skewer saveloys.
“They give you bum cancer, Jack,” James says.
He and Kristen are passionate about the way they raise their boys, and they share a lot of it on their videos. “I’m a role model now,” says James. “And there’s no framework out there on how to be a dad. There are books, but what guy is actually going to read those? Hopefully I can show those young fellas how to make the time and get their kids out there doing stuff, and instilling good ethics in them.”
A tearaway youth, James spent his days unearthing hidden rods at the beach, fishing, building huts and playing in the bush. Kicked out of his Napier home at 14, James moved to the central North Island, working on the ski fields in the winter and rafting in the summer. Rafting meant he could see the world, but after growing up poor, affluence seemed like a distant dream for most of his life.
“Money is a funny thing. I want the kids to learn that money doesn’t come out of thin air,” he says. “I want to teach them a good work ethic, and I want them to realise what Mum and Dad do to pay the bills and all that, but I also want to provide the opportunities that I never had, so it’s hard.”
And it’s through showing their lives that he can. The filming can take its toll, however.
“It is kind of weird,” says Kristen. “It’s our income now so I’m getting better with it, but it can be hard being filmed at 6AM, or trying to keep natural when we’re having a nice moment without worrying about what the shot will be like.
“And I do occasionally feel weird about the kids.”
They’re legitimate concerns. Less than one per cent of the population of New Zealand lives on the West Coast, and fame tends to follow you around. “I’ve seen plenty of people driving by the house—it happens about once a week, people cruising past slowly,” says James. “They must figure it out from the videos, just being hardcore fans. There are a couple of crazy old guys who come by from time to time, in their late 60s, and they’re like screaming schoolgirls, like I’m The Beatles or something. I dunno, they just think I’m the best thing since sliced bread. It’s kind of weird.”
But when James spoke negatively about dairy farmers, concerned about the implications of nitrate leaching, there was an immediate outcry; Patreon income went down measurably overnight. Likewise, his concerns around the poison 1080 whip some punters into a frothing fury—particularly on Facebook. Some people take offence at his filming of nature poos, something James finds particularly funny.
There’s always a price for speaking your mind. And similarly, so with sponsors. “I think they all think I’m a stoner,” he says.
But sales go up regardless. When James endorsed a range of Svord knives, stock sold out. Despite—or because of—his rough edges and straight shooting, James has built trust with his audience. He’s careful not to associate his brand with a substandard product, sometimes losing out on vehicles and other significant endorsements as a result. Even so, companies have used his face to promote outdoors campaigns without permission—“a bummer, but encouraging too”.
Beyond materialism, however, James believes his audience is there as much for the lifestyle and colour as anything else. The hunting is often ancillary to the glimpse at another, more grounded way of being. His Facebook is full of comments such as, “That’s the way, bro, living the dream”, “Every dad can learn from you” and even the odd, “I’m a Canadian/Slovakian/South African and your videos have convinced me to move my family to New Zealand.”
“I get a lot of people who aren’t even hunters and fishers watching my videos. I’ve had dudes email me saying, ‘My girlfriend’s a massive fan; she doesn’t even like hunting and fishing.’
“Most real hardcore hunters are pretty nonplussed, they’re just like, ‘Aw yeah, he’s just another guy with a camera… who cares?’ I think a lot of the viewers are people who really like hunting and fishing but haven’t done a lot. They’re keen to learn but they just don’t get the opportunities. And then there’s a whole lot of Kiwis living overseas, too.”
A hard core of expats follow James and his family—homesick Kiwis, and Kiwis stuck in the concrete jungle, living out our founding mythology vicariously over the internet. In an age of ‘PC-gone-mad’, the cursing and the banter and the failures and the successes feel real. James talks to the camera as if over a beer.
I ask whether he’s worried production companies will try to impose Hollywood upon his character, or affect his vision in some way.
“I am, I’m extremely worried about that. I’m worried they’ll sensationalise it and I’ll lose all my cred in New Zealand. People will just be like, ‘Oh, that’s bullshit, it’s not even real,’ but they look at my YouTube videos and they realise they don’t have to. Life here on a day-to-day basis is interesting enough, and there are a lot of characters on the Coast.”
The lifestyle breeds a certain mentality, too. James has views on everything, a considered philosophy of hard work and optimism. “I’ve been depressed and suicidal, but it’s all about positive thinking and positive energy,” he says. “I’m careful with everything, even the music I take in. Have you heard that Bring Me the Horizon song Happy Song? You know, ‘But if I sing along, a little f*cking louder, to a happy song, it’ll be all right.’ They’re taking the piss, but they’re actually right—even songs can cheer you up. It’s like monks doing their bloody mantra.”
That’s led to a concept for a new Discovery Channel show, one which takes a broader look at life on the West Coast: the flora, the fauna, the lifestyle, and an assorted cast of local legends, the likes of whom are found nowhere else on Earth.
James is playing for the long haul. “Getting this show is the difference between mucking around here, having fun, getting by, or making millions of dollars.”
In a narrow valley, the sound of a seven-millimetre Remington is shocking and concussive. Having leaped from the raft, James presses himself flat against the river stones, fire flaring from the muzzle of his rifle, and the acrid smell of gunpowder drifting across the water.
BLAM… BLAM BLAM BLAM.
One hundred metres downstream, a heavy body crashes into the river, followed by another, but on our arrival, only a single body bobs in the shallows. It’s a hind with a bronzed summer coat, her open eye staring up at us from beneath the surface.
James slices her above the mammaries, reaching into the stomach cavity and pulling out the stomach, liver, bladder and obliterated heart and lungs—a perfect shot. Within a couple of minutes, she’s tied to the raft, and we begin our search for the second deer.
Two kilometres later, in full darkness, we find him in an eddy. A spiker in velvet, he is pierced through the hind quarters and likely drowned—a hazard of shooting in low light. His heart, however, is fine, and after gutting and tying him to the raft, we store the harvested organ in the body cavity, dark blood curling in clouds into the inky current. Ahead lie the rapids.
“There’s one pretty gnarly section we might have to line [walk around],” says James, cleaning his knife and hands in the shallows. “And a few of them are pretty boney. So, when I yell, ‘Over left’, I need you to dive in the front there and hold on. Ready? Over left! Righto, forward, lads.”
Rapids are graded on a scale of consequence to the swimmer—how likely you are to be dashed on the rocks, rag-dolled, battered and drowned should you fall out. Grade 3 is square in the middle of small waves and certain death. Nothing extreme, particularly for James, with his 20 years of rafting experience. But plenty scary for me, with my cold and amateur hands, and fear of the dark. A small voice considers the karmic implications of the two deer lashed (minus their organs) to the raft.
“Okay, we’re not going to line it,” says James as we approach the opening section. “That was a bit of a white lie. But you’ll be right. Forward, lads.”
As we pass by banks glinting with unclaimed gold, the roughest water well behind us, James is introspective. He says he wants to run father-son camps, teaching work ethic and self-determination to boys on the precipice of manhood. “It’s so important for kids to take responsibility, to do things without being asked, and to realise they’re capable of a lot already.”
Packages are selling already, months before any kind of official release. It’s a formidable task taking on another project above and beyond the rafting and the filming and the potential shows with Discovery. But nothing comes easy on the West Coast. Only the strong get by. Have a mug of tea and a snooze. There’s work to do tomorrow.