Jess Blyth

The wild life

Bruce “Chopper” Reay has lived in a remote deerstalkers’ hut on the edge of Fiordland National Park for most of his life. But he’s not exactly off the grid.

Written by       Photographed by Jessie Blyth

If you didn’t know better, Bruce Reay and Saxton Hut might scare you away. From the stern of one of his boats, all of which are named things like Asphyxia or Hepatitis, he cuts a gruff, wild-haired figure. A sign on the door of his hut warns that, “due to an increase in the price of ammo”, no warning shots will be fired. Deer skulls decorate the rusting walls, and on the two water barrels outside, one boasts the red-blazed word “BAD”.

But a closer look reveals a much more hospitable picture. The hut itself reads “Saxton Country WELCOME”, and the barrels are actually labelled “GOODER WATER” and “BADDER WATER”. Bruce didn’t paint those. And the warning sign, he chuckles, was a gift. He doesn’t actually own a gun, but his provocative sense of humour has a hairpin trigger.

Saxton Hut dates back to the 1970s, named for the late, pioneering chopper pilot Dave Saxton. A grassy airstrip stretches out in front like a green carpet, which takes Bruce a little over two hours to mow by hand.

Bruce makes no claim to the hut or the land—it all belongs to the Department of Conservation (DOC)—but it’s clear he lives there. Every inch of the walls is decorated with either a vintage aviation poster or a cheeky pinup girl, and his gear fills absolutely every corner of the dwelling. A pair of waders hangs inside the door, patched with the same material he uses to fix Asphyxia. Cans, loo rolls, and a lifetime of laundry powder line the shelves. A high-water mark from flooding in 2020 sits halfway up the front door, and above the mantle, a dust-covered wine bottle reads ‘Get Loose with Bruce’. It sits amongst a hodgepodge of spare parts, backup supplies and stray dirt. Amongst the rubble stands a sleek, alien artefact: a steadily blinking WiFi modem.

At first glance, Bruce is a model hermit: someone who has cast loose the shackles of modernity, thumbed his nose at society. Wilderness incarnate. In reality, he’s nothing of the sort.

Bruce Reay is not a hermit. He is a perceptive, articulate and sociable (if eccentric) man. In short: he’s normal. You’ll meet stranger characters in urban Dunedin or at family reunions. And yet, over the years, I heard tale after tale of the wild man on Pyke River, and, like many others, often assumed that he was a sort of zealot: a man with grand thoughts about nature, blazing a quasi-spiritual path through an overwhelming thicket of red and green tape. I assumed that he would have a kind of social allergy that drove him in disgust from the trappings of civilisation.

But Bruce is just an ordinary guy, and his only allergy is bee stings. The man has Starlink and a pension, and does the Wordle every day (though he’s never gotten it in one). He got both COVID jabs and has embraced most technologies faster than the rest of the country. He streams trivia shows like The Chase and has literally thousands of movies saved on various hard drives. Rarely does he watch the news. Groceries come in by chopper or by charitable hikers. He’s not much of a drinker, he doesn’t smoke, and he spends most of his time on Facebook, staying in touch with trampers and hunters from around the world.

Bruce spends most of his time on this chair by the fire, perfectly positioned in arm’s reach of everything he needs. Once, when he left the hut, I sat on the chair to see what it was like: impressively uncomfortable. The pillow is a new addition to the rigid throne, though he has two fully cushioned armchairs in the next room.

He’s never been married and he’s never been a Luddite; in uni he earned the nickname ‘Chopper’ Reay for his fondness of the machine that opened up the backcountry. And he’s anything but a recluse: inside, I was confronted by the fact that his calendar boasted a social schedule busier than my own, and in the three days we spent with him, he had seven other visitors. This was less hermitage, more home base for the wider Pyke River area.

[chapter-break]

Still, it wasn’t easy to reach him. Waiting to hitch a ride to the end of Hollyford Road, I anxiously watched the dark clouds above us begin to sag. There’s not much down there, but photographer Jessie Blyth convinced an American couple that it was not to be missed. And so we were deposited, in a foreboding drizzle, at the start of the Hollyford Track. I hear the view is great. I wouldn’t know.

Six hours later, in the inky black of a Fiordland evening, plodding through what was now a proper downpour, we arrived at the Pyke River Lodge: a luxurious backcountry retreat for the high-rolling tramper. Electric lights, roaring fire, a full kitchen, even a sound system. Not our destination. We continued on to Alabaster Hut in the lashing rain.

The Hollyford Valley is a place of contradictions, of luxury and ruin. The track to the Lodge is essentially a highway, but immediately beyond, the terrain becomes exhausting and unforgiving. Gone is the highway; you’re now on the Demon Trail. Maintaining anything here is a constant battle against nature, and there are many reminders of how one-sided that battle can be: the failed colony of Jamestown rots near the coast, and Gunn’s Camp, along Hollyford Road, was consumed by a landslide during the storm of 2020 which flooded Bruce’s hut. Here, the idea of permanent structures seems daring.

But Bruce has lived through it all, in spite of it all, two bends up the Pyke River from Alabaster Hut. And in the morning, just after sunrise, the sound of an outboard motor roars across the water.

[chapter-break]

On the other side of the river from Saxton Hut is Fiordland National Park, but the hut stands on stewardship land—also owned by DOC, but with markedly looser regulations. Across the river, you can’t build structures or even land helicopters.

When Bruce first got to Sax in 1982, this was all under the domain of the Forestry Service. He was a recent graduate with a hankering for the backcountry and a complete dedication to the bushman’s lifestyle. He spent glorious summers painting huts and clearing tracks for the Service, who let their young employees operate with considerable agency. Bruce soon realised a living could be squeezed out of eeling, fishing or hunting; not much, but enough to afford the lifestyle he championed. But in 1987 the Service was amalgamated into DOC, and a new wave of regulation swept the country.

Bruce is happy to ferry hunters or trampers across Lake Alabaster, cutting out the gruelling coastal slog along its edge. Oil and petrol are vital to his existence.

Bruce bounced around the West Coast, taking advantage of whatever areas still permitted fishing. In 1994, he based himself in Roaring Lion Hut in what’s now Kahurangi National Park, trying to make the most of the last eeling season before the park was gazetted. He returned home one evening to find two trampers had called in, and he happily played host for the night. The couple bolted early in the morning, without breakfast, which struck Bruce as odd. Then he realised his nets had been tampered with.

Bruce later discovered, via an Official Information Act request, a report written by the male tramper at the behest of his employer: DOC. Bruce felt he had been lied to, spied upon. The man apparently described Bruce as self-centred and said that he spent all night talking about himself. He also suspected that Bruce had a hidden freezer for poached trout on account of a yarn told about a generator.

The detail that stung the most was not the way Bruce was described, but the suggestion that he was illegally fishing trout. Bruce is an extremely fastidious man; in order to stay in the wild he’s had to become extremely familiar with the law. A single transgression could spell game over.

The mighty Darran Mountains tower above the Hollyford Valley, separating Bruce and the Pyke from Piopiotahi/Milford Sound. On the left of the image is the immaculate luxury of the Pyke River Lodge; on the right, the punishing Demon Trail charts a route between you and the coast.
Most of Bruce’s supplies come in by chopper, though some are left by friendly visitors. He holds on to all sorts of physical ephemera, giving special items valuable real estate above the fire.

For what it’s worth, I understand what the DOC ranger was trying to say. Bruce absolutely does spend all night talking, but rarely in his deluge of stories does he ever actually talk about himself. These yarns were like an oral museum to the lives of those he’s known, and all of these lives are noted, delicately, with an individual nickname. I learned of My Mate Tony with the Broken Back, Geriatric Gladys, Bad Company (a DOC worker), Matt the Nerd (help set up Starlink), Bullshit (a prodigious liar) and California Emma. But I learned tantalisingly little about Chopper Reay.

For a closer look, I turned to a bound stack of typewritten stories from 1976. It was the annual report of the University of Canterbury Tramping Club, which Bruce captained that year. Woven throughout the pages is a portrait of the young man they called Chopper.

One year, he’d led two others on a winter expedition from the Pyke across the Fohn Saddle to Glenorchy. His tramping record was questionable—his parties had been rescued twice during the last three mid-term breaks—but the trio became the first in Glenorchy memory to make the crossing in winter, in the heaviest snow season in decades. When they got home, they found a letter from the Parks Service warning them to abandon their plans in light of the coming storm. It had gotten lost in the mail. He loves telling these yarns, flush with details and branching paths. Conversations with the man are as roundabout and unpredictable as the backcountry epics they describe.

Bruce also led more casual trips, which had the hedonistic flair of students today. “Tea went down accompanied with wine,” went one trip report, “but some greedy people were not content with that and insisted on drinking a half bottle of screwdriver in a quarter of an hour with the result that Chopper Reay went from stone cold sober to paralytic in a few minutes flat. Anyhow that got rid of him for the night over a dead log—they made a good pair. Many hours later it was still a struggle to get the giggling forestry piker back into a sleeping bag.” It’s not clear who the other screwdriver-drinkers were, but listed alongside Bruce as co-leader of the trip was “Rubber Gummies” Sanson. That’s Lou Sanson, future director-general of DOC. Today, one of Sanson’s editorials hangs over Bruce’s fireplace.

Eeling was Bruce’s ticket to the backcountry, but as DOC expanded fishing rules and the borders of national parks, this income stream dried up. He applied for a concession to eel within national park boundaries, but the process stalled, and years ticked by. Stuck in bureaucratic limbo, Bruce’s money was running out when he got a windfall: an old mate sent through a copy of a surveyor’s report for the Pyke River, which noted that the river itself belonged to Land Information New Zealand, while DOC owned the land on either side. That meant Bruce could eel in the river without a concession, and he promptly set up shop in Saxton Hut.

Eeling was Bruce’s income for most of his life. But it never seemed to be a passion, more of a means to an end. When Bruce fought DOC for the right to eel in a national park, it wasn’t for the love of fishing, but to continue his lifestyle. On becoming eligible for a pension, he hung up his nets.
Bruce is on good terms with Plucky, the closest thing he has to a pet. She comes in every night for pats and some oats. Her offspring include Pluckette, a genuinely terrible possum. Aggressive and wary, Pluckette isn’t welcome in the hut. The night before I arrived, a fight between the two disconnected Bruce’s Starlink cable.

Soon after, DOC sent in a team of rangers and a fisheries officer on a bust. As Bruce tells the story, it was a “pincer operation”, with a chopper and a jetboat arriving at the hut in tandem. But the fisheries officer ultimately agreed with Bruce’s reasoning. The operation, according to another of Bruce’s Official Information Act requests, cost more than $10,000.  Bruce reckons if DOC was “hellbent on protecting eels”, they could have just bought his eel quota from him—he’d have no right to catch them without it.

Bruce’s concession application remained the only major conflict between him and DOC. He says he spent his entire $60,000 eeling income on hiring David Bain’s lawyer to take DOC to court over it. In 2014, the court sided with Bruce, but the victory was Pyrrhic; by the time the ruling came, 11 years after he first applied for the concession, an alternative income was on the horizon. For the last few years, Bruce has been eligible for the pension. He’s long since hung up his nets and has made relative peace with “the Yogi Bears”—his term for DOC workers.

Nowadays, Bruce spends most of his time maintaining the airstrip and ferrying hunters and trampers around the valley. There have been quieter times, too, where visitors were scarce. You can tell when Bruce was bored by looking at the hut book in Alabaster Hut, a 15-minute boat ride back down the Pyke and across Lake Alabaster. Often he’ll scribble answers or comments on the entries of long-gone trampers. In the days after the 2020 storm and flooding, there was nobody but Bruce and a brief visit by Police and DOC to check for stragglers. The next day, he made an entry as Sammy Stoat in the hut book. Then he came back the next day and ditto’d the entry. Then again. Nobody came for six weeks.

His greatest fear is that one day he’ll wake up and the Fiordland National Park boundary will have overtaken him. But he reckons evicting him wouldn’t be easy. Just up the coast is Beansprout, who also lives on public land—and he’s raised a family and written several popular books about his remote lifestyle. “If you’re gonna get rid of me you’re gonna have to get rid of Beansprout,” he reckons. “And I think it would be very very hard to shift Beansprout ‘cos he’s got so much public support behind him.”

There’s always the Alpine Fault, which runs more or less right through his back yard. If he’s here when that goes, he said, “I’ll probably just kiss my ass goodbye.”

But he has a sat phone handy in case of emergencies and keeps a meticulous logbook of his comings and goings in case he has an accident out there on his own.

This scrupulous nature is visible in Bruce’s mountains of paperwork. Books, logs and reports are covered in his neat scrawl. In fact, I guarantee that by this point in his reading this story, he’s already made at least one correction. (Bruce: how’d I do?)

Down the airstrip, next to his hand-built shower, is the “plastic hut”: a handmade sort of greenhouse that stores odds and ends. Eeling nets have hung untouched from the ceiling since 2014, and in one corner are piles of binders and legal documents. The flood ruined most of these, but he’s kept it all anyway.

From these archives, Bruce pulls a handful of waterlogged pages. The browned, decomposing papers date back to the 1970s, and are covered in an intricate and indecipherable matrix, a mix of names, numbers, letters, dots and lines. Pages and pages of this record are stacked on his desk, each entry hand-coded by Bruce himself.

Bruce’s love of helicopters seems to be a lifelong passion. In his Tramping Club Captain’s Report, Bruce said of the wilderness: “Access to the area should be made as hard as possible and in general you have to bloody well suffer.” Perhaps ironic, given his predilection for choppers.
Photos of a younger Bruce are strewn around with old photos of friends, or friends-of-friends. Somewhere in here is a photo of him and actor Robert Redford, who dropped in while shooting Pete’s Dragon.

In 1973 a hermit in the American Rockies began recording snowfall levels; these eventually formed the most complete climate record for the area, still relied upon by scientists. I was hoping Bruce might have something similar.

But no. This is not data. It’s the product of a lifelong passion for helicopters: a running list of New Zealand chopper registrations, including the names of the owners—information still not available online. Most regos have gone through two or three iterations, and Bruce keeps track of his personal trips with vertical tally marks. One box has been completely filled in with tallies, a record that extends into the 80s. Red dots represent fatalities.

Despite his name, Bruce never flew choppers. He was an amateur bush pilot, though, until he broke his leg in a crash. “When something goes wrong out here,” he says, “it really ruins your whole day.”

Despite that, guests are usually infatuated with his lifestyle, he says. He asks them, “Could you live like this?” and they say an enthusiastic, “Yes.” Then he asks them, “Would you live like this?” and watches them reconsider.

Life on the Pyke is sure “better than suburbia”, but he knows it’s not for everyone. Only those “crazy or ballsy enough”. Still, if someone decided to shack up down the airstrip, there’s nothing he could do about it. Not that he would mind. Even with internet and an income, out here on the Pyke, the one thing Bruce can’t buy is company.

More by

More by Jessie Blyth