Kennedy Warne

Walking the line

The telephone at the end of the world

Written by       Photographed by Kennedy Warne

On March 25, 1894, three prospectors left Puysegur Point, on the south-western tip of Fiordland, to walk to the railhead at Orepuki, a distance of about 100 km. They took enough food to last three weeks, and intended to pan for gold along the way.

Things went wrong from the start. Heavy rains and swollen rivers slowed their progress to such an extent that it took them three weeks to reach Big River, a mere 25 km from their starting point. There they were forced to wait three more days until the current was slow enough to cross on a makeshift raft. They were able to ford the next major river, the Waitutu, but by the time they reached the swift-flowing Wairaurahiri, the most dangerous river on the coast, they were all but done for. Their stock of matches had run out and they had practically no food.

[Chapter Break]

Two of the men, Evans and Kelly, could not swim. The third, Harvey, stripped off his clothes, took a flax line and managed to swim across. His cobbers tied his swag to the line, but as he was pulling it across, it came loose and was swept out to sea.

Evans and Kelly hunkered down on the riverbank while Harvey, wet, cold and naked, went for help. Travelling around the knuckle of land where the Hump Ridge meets the sea involved a choice between two evils: thick scrub that cruelly scratched his body if he went inland, or sharp rocks that cut his feet if he stayed on the coast. At night, he would dig a hole in the sand and cover himself with tussocks.

His progress was slow and painful. Caught in a hailstorm, he dug a hole beneath a rata and lay there for two days, numb with cold. A few days later, half dead with hunger and at the end of his strength, he spotted smoke coming from the chimney of a hut. There was nobody inside, so Harvey stoked up the fire and devoured the remains of a dinner he found. When the two surveyors who had been using the hut returned a few hours later, they were stunned to find a naked man inside. They quickly got a message through to Invercargill. Harvey was saved.

The coast at Puysegur Point has been shattered by the relentless thrashing of the Tasman swell, and buffeted by some of the most violent storms in the country. When a phone line was installed from Orepuki to the lighthouse in 1908 it was out of order 701 days in the first three years of service.
The coast at Puysegur Point has been shattered by the relentless thrashing of the Tasman swell, and buffeted by some of the most violent storms in the country. When a phone line was installed from Orepuki to the lighthouse in 1908 it was out of order 701 days in the first three years of service.

Back at the Wairaurahiri, Evans and Kelly had managed to light a fire by discharging their gun into some dry kindling, but they had nothing to eat. In desperation, they killed and cooked the dog that had been their companion on the journey. As the days passed, unsure of the prospect of rescue, they decided to strike upriver in hope of finding a place to cross. They reached a tree that had fallen into the water and seemed to offer a way over. Evans tried to cross, but lost his footing and was drowned.

Kelly, surviving on morsels of dog meat, kept walking upstream until he found a bridge used to drive sheep across the river. He ate some scraps of sago and suet he found in a hut, and three days later he was picked up on the coast by a search party.

Harrowing and tragic it may have been, but the journey of Harvey, Kelly and Evans was not unusual for travellers on the south coast of New Zealand. Miners down on their luck, surveyors, track cutters whose supplies had run out, even a disgruntled lighthouse keeper pitted themselves against the brutality of terrain and weather in this consummate wilderness. Most survived, but few rolled the dice more than once.

Few, that is, except the linesmen who had the task of maintaining the most remote telephone line in the country—a single strand of number 8 wire which connected the lighthouse at Puysegur Point with the settlement of Orepuki. Over the 15 years of the line’s operation, these tough southern men packed their swags and trekked into the Fiordland forest, a world equal parts glorious and brutal, of razorback mountains, rampant rivers and a wave-lashed coast. They followed the flimsy metal thread that kept communication alive. They were the keepers of the wire.

[Chapter Break]

I had thought about walking the old Puysegur line for several years, ever since the seed was planted by the masochistically adventurous Carl Walrond, instigator of such follies as bushcrashing through the Tin Range in southern Stewart Island for New Zealand Geographic, and author of a recent book of survival stories in the New Zealand outdoors. A particular line in Moir’s Guide, the Bible of tramping in the deep south, had seized my imagination. “The route from Big River on to Preservation Inlet [has] no formed track and should be attempted only by stoical, experienced parties.” How did I rank on the stoicism scale, I wondered. There was, of course, only one way to find out.

My usual policy with madcap notions is to talk about them often enough to enough different people that the chagrin of wimping out exceeds the pain of proceeding. Of the prospect of pain I was fairly certain: another passage in Moir’s Guide spoke of travel “through diabolical, dense, slimy, scratchy, stunted bush”. Paul Roff, who operates a jetboat service shuttling trampers from Tuatapere to the mouth of the Wairaurahiri River, had mentioned picking up the occasional Puysegur tramping party—“or what was left of them”.

The realisation that 2008 marked the centenary of the telephone line brought a note of urgency to my attempts to entice a few doughty companions to join me. Surely it was now or never. Several candidates deselected themselves. One regular tramping buddy complained that the arches of his feet felt like they were being stabbed by a thousand needles. Walrond said he was unable to obtain a domestic leave pass. (His wife disputes this, saying he didn’t ask creatively enough.) A third made it all the way to Invercargill but was struck down with a chronic migraine and stomach cramps on the very morning we were due to begin the trek. Puysegur is no place to take chances on your health, so reluctantly he decided to pull out.

(It proved to be a wise decision. By the time he reached Invercargill Airport for his flight back to Whangarei, he could barely see. His doctor later diagnosed a delayed reaction to solvent in the glue he had used in the laying of a bamboo floor a few days earlier.)

So it was a party of four that climbed aboard a helicopter at Tuatapere on the foggy morning of February 28. We were a nepotistic crew: my son, Jeremy, and me from Auckland, and my nephew, Samuel, and his future father-in-law, Geoff, from Nelson. Team Nelson’s stoicism was not in doubt—one a builder, the other a trainer of firemen, these men were bullock-strong and of the head-down-and-get-there school of tramping. Team Auckland, truth be told, was a less robust pair. Callowness in Warne the younger, creeping decrepitude in Warne the elder. We had the mettle but did we have the horsepower?

Confused? We were. Despite the plethora of signs, we managed to select the wrong track from the Preservation Inlet mine workings to the shore, and ended our first day clambering over boulders and traversing coastal bluffs.
Confused? We were. Despite the plethora of signs, we managed to select the wrong track from the Preservation Inlet mine workings to the shore, and ended our first day clambering over boulders and traversing coastal bluffs.

We flew over the coast, over the thick scrub we would soon be battling through—Moir’s “slimy, scratchy, stunted bush”. The pilot landed beside a sea cave where we stashed a food drop—smoked olives, Parmigiano-Reggiano, a Blackball salami and other items of a celebratory “made it halfway” nature. (Stoical, indeed. The linesmen would turn in their graves.) Then it was onward to Puysegur for a photographic spin around the lighthouse before being dropped on the lawn at Kisbee Lodge.

For a place as lonely as Preservation Inlet, Kisbee Lodge seems an anachronism. Owned by a group of businessmen, the lodge stands on one of the few pieces of private land in the vastness of Fiordland National Park. Seeing it from the air is like coming across the Taj Mahal in a mangrove swamp.

The caretaker, a retired policeman enjoying a three-month stint in the middle of nowhere, put the kettle on, then showed us around his wilderness backyard. He pointed out a rampant rhododendron—a relic from the days of the old Kisbee Hotel—which had sprawled into a thicket covering a quarter of an acre, and produces a blaze of pink blossoms in spring. Not far away an elephant seal had taken up residence. Weeks earlier, it had hauled its blubbery bulk several hundred metres in from the sea, and now lay in fetid, fly-covered repose among the crown ferns. A DOC pinniped expert had pronounced it healthy and put its behaviour down to adolescent adventurousness. The snoring beast’s nostrils fluttered with each breath, making a sound like a motorboat. Every now and then it delivered an elephantine sneeze, sending a blast of reeking air in our direction.

The place where we were standing had been part of the town of Cromarty, social hub of Preservation Inlet’s mining community at the turn of the 20th century. It was named after a town in Scotland, and originally laid out as a fishing settlement in 1868. However, nothing came of that idea, and Cromarty existed only on paper until the discovery of gold in the 1880s.

It was one of the lighthouse keepers at Puysegur Point who sparked the rush to this most isolated of New Zealand’s goldfields. Philip Payn, a probationary assistant keeper, caught gold fever from a group of prospectors who had based themselves at the lighthouse for a month in 1886. He started working a claim on Coal Island, across the inlet from Puysegur Point, and by the end of 1887 had become so consumed with prospecting that he was dismissed from the lighthouse service for dereliction of duty.

Word spread, and by late 1890 there were 120 miners sluicing and sieving the alluvial deposits on Coal Island, averaging, according to a newspaper report, half a dramweight of gold (about three-quarters of a gram) per man per day.

Within two years, mining had started up on the mainland. At the height of the rush, as many as 200 men were working in mines around Cromarty and Te Oneroa (midway between Cromarty and Puysegur) and, according to one newspaper report, there were 500 on Coal Island.

With such a concentration of humanity in the inlet, the need to establish a communication link with the outside world became too great to ignore. In 1896, the Post and Telegraph Department sent its district inspector of tele-graphs, Joseph Orchiston, to scout a route for a telephone line between Puysegur and Orepuki, the nearest large settlement at the eastern end of Te Waewae Bay. Orchiston and his four men struck the same bad luck that had dogged Harvey, Evans and Kelly two years earlier. It rained incessantly for the first 15 days. Sometimes the party sat up until midnight in front of the fire, drying their clothes as well as ferns to sleep on. So trying was the journey that when the men stopped to rest, they often fell asleep where they sat, their swags still on their backs.

The rain ruined their bread and biscuits, so they subsisted on oatmeal, eels, birds and the pith of tree ferns. At Big River they had to build a flax-stalk raft to get across, while at Waitutu River they rafted over on beech logs. At Wairaurahiri, Orchiston left his exhausted men to rest and walked the last 60 km of the journey alone, non-stop, reaching his destination 20 hours later.

The district inspector wasted no time in filing a report that recommended establishing a line along the south coast, but the department baulked at
the cost. The gold boom had already peaked. The urgency had diminished. Orchiston’s report was shelved and the miners, settlers and lighthouse keepers of Preservation Inlet and Puysegur Point were left to rely on monthly ship visits and, for a time, carrier pigeons—the birds could make the journey to Invercargill in under two hours, if they evaded the local raptors during take-off. (After sustaining a few casualties, the operators of the pigeonmail service took to exploding a firework at the commencement of each flight, “to frighten the hawks from the fairway”.)

Twelve years would pass before Orchiston was given a chance to build the line.

[Chapter Break]

It took us most of the day to walk to the mouth of the inlet. DOC, keen to promote the area as a historic enclave, has cut tracks to all the old mining sites, which are some of the best preserved in the country. Such is the remoteness of the area that when the mining bubble burst, machinery was abandoned where it stood.

Along the route I kept finding lumps of rotting wood stained the colour of verdigris—I initially thought by minerals in the soil. One piece had a cluster of fungal cups of the same shade of blue. Later, I learned that this is the natural colour of the fungus. As I was picking up a piece, I heard something crashing through the forest and a deer and fawn came galloping around the corner. Seeing me, they veered off the track and ploughed into the undergrowth.

Midway down the inlet is Te Oneroa, where Swedish prospector Jules Berg arrived in 1925 and remained for 27 years. He lived in a shack wallpapered with photos from the Weekly News and spent his days gardening, prospecting and making carrot, beetroot and parsnip wine of paint-stripping potency.

I looked for the remains of his hut, but the coastal scrub had reclaimed the area. There was no sign, either, of Berg’s legendary garden, which he manured with rotten fish and the carcasses of deer that had made the mistake of venturing onto his domain. Berg had trip wires running through his vegetable plots to alert him if a night-time browser had broken through the fence. If disturbed, he would poke a shotgun full of nails through a slot in the wall, switch on a battery-powered spotlight and blast the intruder.


Berg had his eccentricities. He smoked tobacco enriched by being kept in a tin with a couple of lumps of ambergris, liked to dress up in a cowboy costume with six-shooters slung from his hip and used to smear a mixture of rancid butter and kerosene around the brim of his sombrero to keep sandflies away.

Perhaps we should have tried that recipe. After only a single day in Preservation Inlet, the sandflies were driving us mad, and we hated ourselves for being so soft as to care. They reminded me of the adage about terrorists: if you fear them, they’ve already won. Maori legend says that Hinenui-te-po, goddess of the underworld, created the sandfly to keep humans from becoming idle in the face of Fiordland’s stunning beauty. She succeeded. When visiting Fiordland, the rule is: Keep moving, and douse yourself with the most potent repellent known.

By dusk we were on the beach in front of the Puysegur landing shed. For over a century, supplies were landed here by rowboat and stored in the shed for later transportation by horse-drawn dray to the lighthouse station, three kilometres away on the clifftop. Across the narrow arm of water known as Otago Retreat lay the long green flank of Coal Island, or Te Puka-Heraka, the tied anchor. The sea was flat, the air warm and still, the clouds dark with impending rain—apt, considering the Maori name of the inlet: Rakituma, the threatening sky.

Conditions aren’t always this calm. In 1877, two carpenters employed in building the lighthouse drowned crossing Otago Retreat on an errand of mercy. They had spotted woodsmoke on Coal Island, with men standing nearby—presumably castaways from a shipwreck. The carpenters decided to row across to lend succour to the survivors, but their boat capsized in rough seas and both drowned. When a landing was eventually made on the island, no trace was found of either castaways or a fire. The “smoke” had been windborne spray from a waterfall.

Otago Retreat claimed more victims in 1895—three elderly miners who were crossing the 800 m of water between Coal Island and the landing shed to collect their newspapers and mail. Negotiating the passage though the reef, they struck a rock, capsized and were overwhelmed by the breaking surf. A fourth man—Philip Payn, the lighthouse-keeper-turned-prospector—made it to shore after spending an hour in the water.

Thwarted by a rising tide, we cooled our heels in a cliff-bound bay, whiling away the hours playing cards under a sandfly net. Fiordland sandflies have a persistence and abundance that makes them a truly formidable foe—the intrepid writer gathers documentary evidence of the problem (above).
Thwarted by a rising tide, we cooled our heels in a cliff-bound bay, whiling away the hours playing cards under a sandfly net. Fiordland sandflies have a persistence and abundance that makes them a truly formidable foe—the intrepid writer gathers documentary evidence of the problem (above).

Lack of communication in the face of accidents and emergencies weighed on the minds of the residents. In letters to the Department of Mines, prospectors also argued that better communication would mean “auriferous developments would become largely increased”. In 1898, the Otago Witness newspaper carried a report from the inlet that stated: “Parliamentarians debate the telephone service to Puysegur. Far better to stick a telephone wire along the trees from Orepuki and debate afterwards.” Asking a parliamentarian not to debate is like asking a dog not to bark, but in January 1908, the Cabinet finally authorised the line to Puysegur Point, and two weeks later Joseph Orchiston and two gangs of linesmen set out for the south coast. By July, the 130 km line had been completed. Not one orthodox pole was used. As a report on the line noted, “The difficulties of transportation through virgin bush, mountainous country and across dangerous rivers precluded the adoption of the usual methods.” Instead, trees were cut down to stumps of around three metres in height and an insulator screwed into the top of them.

“Prejudices were cast to the winds in selecting the timbers; whichever tree chanced to be standing in the most convenient position was commandeered to do duty as a telephone pole,” continued the report. “The bulk of New Zealand timbers…had their representatives in this unique line, even the much despised tutu, which grows to abnormal dimensions in this locality.”

The line went live on July 20, 1908. Though the first words carried down that solitary strand of number 8 wire have not been preserved, I hope they were more interesting than Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.”

Eighteen months after its installation, the line proved its worth when the passenger steamer , on a cruise to the fiords, struck an uncharted rock near the entrance to Dusky Sound and began to sink. All 141 passengers and 85 crew were safely taken off the stricken vessel and landed on a nearby island. To raise the alarm, second officer Appleyard set out in a lifeboat to Puysegur lighthouse, 60 km to the south. Rather than land at Otago Retreat and make the long walk to the station, Appleyard beached his boat directly under the lighthouse and scaled the cliffs to send the mayday message over the telephone. He then climbed back down to his boat, launched it through the breakers and returned to the ship. A newspaper at the time commented: “The story of the storming of the Puysegur lighthouse in defiance of Nature’s sternest obstructions is likely to be told in Preservation for many a long day.”

[Chapter Break]

Today, Puysegur Point is a place of ghosts and memories. When the lighthouse was demanned in 1980 the keepers’ houses and sheds were removed, leaving behind only their concrete foundations—now eroding among the windswept shrubbery. The light tower itself is a squat concrete structure five metres tall, a far cry from the 12 m wooden tower built at great expense in the 1870s and burnt to the ground in an arson attack in 1942 (see sidebar).

I walked to the cliff edge and imagined the daredevils who tempted fate here. In a howling gale, so the story goes, young keepers would crawl and stagger to the cliffs, hold their oilskin coats out wide and lean into the void, trusting the wind to fling them back to safety. The keepers reckoned that if a man had the nerve for this sport, he would never lack for courage for the rest of his life.

We found the old keepers’ track down to the coast and plotted a south-east course for Gates Harbour, staying about a kilometre inland, where the telephone line had been. We struck trouble crossing Macnamara Creek. There were no banks to speak of, the steep gullies dropping straight into whisky-coloured water, dark enough so you couldn’t tell how deep it was. This early in the trek, no one had an appetite for swimming the packs across. We decided to walk to the mouth, which the map suggested spread out wide, where it would possibly be shallow enough to wade across.

Every decision you make in the outdoors is a cost–benefit calculation, where you can estimate the cost but rarely the benefit. We reached the mouth of the Macnamara to find our calculation was way off. The river was as difficult to cross here as it was where we had confronted it earlier. We would have to go further upstream. Consulting a topo map and GPS, we searched for a path of least resistance through the labyrinth of watersheds.

We spent the following hours slithering down valleys, crossing streams and hauling ourselves root by root and trunk by trunk up steep inclines. The punishment took its toll in the form of an escalating pain in one of Jeremy’s knees. At this point in the trip, it was a worrying development. He used a stick to keep some weight off the problem leg, but in the steep terrain it was of marginal use. Every step brought a grimace.

In failing light and with waning energy we pitched tent flies in the forest and licked our mental wounds. We had made about half the distance we had planned for the day—less than four kilometres. We had wasted half a day traversing up and down the Macnamara, when we should probably just have plunged in, forded it and taken the soaking. We were wet anyway: it had started raining. I graded my report card C-; “needs to do better”.

Slithering down gullies, crossing tannin-stained streams and hauling tired bodies and heavy packs up to the next ridge—this was standard fare for the stretch from Puysegur southwards.
Slithering down gullies, crossing tannin-stained streams and hauling tired bodies and heavy packs up to the next ridge—this was standard fare for the stretch from Puysegur southwards.

Sleep eluded me that first night. Listening to the rain drip off the nylon and wriggling like a caterpillar as I tried to get comfortable among the tree roots, I thought of the hardy breed of men who had made their living as linesmen. For once the telephone line to the country’s most isolated lighthouse was installed, it had to be kept operational. One linesman worked westward from Orepuki, the other eastward from the lighthouse through the bush we had just crashed through. As well as repairing faults, they carried the mail, receiving for their efforts 30 shillings a trip plus two pairs of boots a year.

Six huts, spaced along the wire, were built for them to use as camps. The method of locating a fault was simple but tedious. Each linesman carried a field telephone which he would connect to the wire at regular intervals, stabbing a knife into the ground to use as an earth. Cranking the dynamo would initiate a call either to the lighthouse or to the Orepuki exchange. If the call was answered, the wire was intact to that point and the linesman would push on to the next section.

But the cost of maintaining a wire strung between tree trunks on a coastline lashed by the Roaring Forties soon became a budgetary black hole for the Post and Telegraph Department, which started an interdepartmental duck-shoving match with the Marine Department, each claiming that the other should take responsibility for the line’s upkeep. Telegraph argued that as there were only a handful of miners left in Preservation Inlet, the primary beneficiary of the line was the lighthouse community. Marine countered that telephone lines weren’t in their ambit.

The dispute became moot with the advent of radio. When the telephone connection failed yet again in December 1922, it was not repaired, and in 1925 a radiotelephone link was installed at the lighthouse. The district engineer’s report of 1923 stated that the Puysegur line had been out of order for 701 days during the previous three years, and that linesmen had worked on repairs for 196 days, at a cost of between £300 and £400 per year ($26,000–35,000 in 2009 terms).

While it lasted, though, the Puysegur line was a godsend to the lighthouse community perched on the clifftop. In his book Viaducts in the Sky, Warren Bird records that Verdon Sheehy, manager of the sawmill at Port Craig—a settlement midway between Puysegur and Orepuki—used to ring the keepers and read the newspapers aloud to them. Sheehy also recalled chatting to one of the keeper’s children, a girl of nine or ten. “We were great friends although we never met…We had many yarns over the crackling bush telephone.”

It must have gladdened the hearts of the linesmen to know that their efforts eased the ache of loneliness for the families of Puysegur Point.

[Chapter Break]

It took us another full day to reach Gates Harbour. Another day of poring over paper map and digital map, trying to divine the most energy-efficient route. The ridges were more sparsely vegetated and easier walking, but we would waste valuable energy reaching them, only to have to descend again soon afterwards to make sure we were heading in the right direction. We followed deer trails where we could, but the few we found didn’t take us far before ending in thickets. Some we had to negotiate on our hands and knees. As an earlier Puysegur walker had noted, “the deer around here must have very short legs”.

At Gates, the coastline turns more east than south. The terrain becomes less steep, the forest more dense. We shouldered our way through the springy tree trunks, levering this way and that to break their hold on our pack frames. Legs and arms were strafed by rimu and stabbed by mingimingi. A tramping party in the 1960s had written that after a particularly wearisome grind, alternately climbing over and crawling under the exasperating scrub, they felt “like sandpapered yo-yos”.

At times we abandoned our bulldozering through the forest for the relaxation of boulder-hopping on the shore. Though I felt journalistically obliged to keep inland and see as many relics of the telephone line as possible (though some might argue—indeed, did argue—that when you’ve seen one insulator you’ve seen them all), the spectacular geology of the coast, not to mention the easier walking, was a powerful draw.

There aren’t many huts as superbly located or well appointed as the one at Westy’s Cave, between Big River and Waitutu (top). The buildings are under a massive natural arch, giving complete protection from the elements. Paua and lobster are to be had a stone’s throw from the hut door, and a stack of dry firewood stands ready for fueling a wood-burning outdoor shower. Sedimentary deposits (bottom) create unusual formations at Sealers Bay, just south of Puysegur Point.


So, too, were the paua. Near Long Reef the massive molluscs, some a good handspan in length, were crowded on boulders above the tide. We picked as many as we could eat, without getting our boots wet.

It was not easy to switch between forest and shore. Much of the south coast is hemmed by cliffs that were beyond our climbing ability. So a commitment to coastal travel often meant forfeiting any possible return to the forest. On the fourth day, a day of rounding multiple headlands, we raced a rising tide, and the tide won. Unable to get past surf that was rushing into a gut, we retreated to a beach piled with bleached driftwood and waited for the tide to drop.

We fished, played 500 under a mosquito net, watched a Fiordland crested penguin potter around the rock pools and wondered which would happen first: the fall of the tide or the fall of night. As the last light seeped from the sky, Samuel checked the headland and pronounced it still impassable. With no source of fresh water, nowhere to pitch our tent flies and no way up the Cliffs of Insanity, as we dubbed them, we had to backtrack around a previous headland in the darkness, using lumps of granite in the cliff face for hand and footholds, while the surf thrashed the kelp a few metres below us. That day I gave myself an F on my report card.

[Chapter Break]

By day five, a Wednesday, we realised we had a problem. We faced a difficult two-day inland slog up to a peak called Kakapo Hill and down to Big River, in order to skirt an impassable section of coast. Then it would take two more days to get to the Wairaurahiri River, our jetboat pick-up point. Jeremy’s gammy knee was forcing him to goosestep. Gruelling 12-hour days weren’t helping the injury heal. My own legs felt wooden, and the 50-year-old engine wasn’t producing as much torque as I’d expected. Samuel had 500 concrete blocks to lay on Monday. Jeremy had a plane to catch to Brazil.

Then we had an amazing stroke of luck. From a ridge above the Green Islets we spotted a lobster boat in the bay. Maybe we could ask for a lift. I switched on our VHF radio and hailed it.

“Fishing vessel east of Green Islets, this is the Puysegur shore party. Do you copy?”

No reply.

“Fishing boat east of Green Islets, this is the Puysegur shore party. Do you read me?”

This time, a reply, but not from the vessel in the bay.

“This is Othello, at Waitutu River. How can we assist?”

I explained our predicament and asked if a pick-up might be on the cards. I wasn’t holding my breath—Waitutu lay a good two hours away by boat. To our ecstatic relief, skipper Brent Ballantyne said he wasn’t doing much and would be happy to give us a lift in the morning.

Forget stoicism—we were like kids on Christmas morning! We positively bounded down the gully to the beach (momentarily impeded by a sheer drop over which we had to lower our packs and ourselves with a rope). While the others walked two kilometres to the sea cave to pick up our food drop, I put on a mask and snorkelled around the reefs.

The next morning we were treated to a fiery sunrise. As pink faded to blue, we watched for Othello through a hole in a massive slab of rock that looked like the Arc de Triomphe. Sure enough, a black speck in the distance began to grow into the thrumming, blue-hulled lobster vessel that was our salvation. The wind had been blowing offshore for the past few days, so the sea was flat—so rare for this south-facing coast. Had it not been, a pick-up would have been impossible. In an hour we were at Big River, clutching a sack of lobsters and a bag of blue cod fillets.

Fiordland’s Arc de Triomphe (also referred to as the “slice of bread” by an earlier tramping party) is one of many rock arches that lend grandeur to the wild south coast.
Fiordland’s Arc de Triomphe (also referred to as the “slice of bread” by an earlier tramping party) is one of many rock arches that lend grandeur to the wild south coast.

Two more days on a track—a track!—that took us through lowland podocarp forest that was at the heart of a settlement with local iwi in the 1990s. In exchange for cash and cutting rights elsewhere, the invaluable virgin Waitutu forest was secured as a reserve to be managed as part of Fiordland National Park.

Walking through this cathedral of immense trees, I noticed that the streams are no longer brown. Beech, whose tannins darken (and, to my taste, sweeten) the rivers to the west, are not present in great numbers in Waitutu, so the rivers here run clear.

And so we arrived at Wairaurahiri, where Paul Roff was waiting to pick up “what was left of us”. He had other clients to collect, so we whiled away a couple of hours at Waitutu Lodge, where caretaker Alastair Osbourne (known as “Peanut”) fed us possum stew, joshed and told us tales of the south coast. In his younger days as an electrician he had serviced lighthouses, so he knew something of the rigours of that life. He gave me a horseshoe he’d picked up years before, a souvenir of track-cutting days.

I recalled some lines from John Watt’s history, Preservation Inlet. It was a tongue-in-cheek epitaph written in the 1890s to “C. H. Williams, who graded this track so beautifully”. The words were inscribed on a rimu stump carved in the shape of a tombstone:

Dash Preservation

Dash the track

Dash the sandflies there and back.

Dash the rivers

And dash the weather

Dash New Zealand altogether.

Dash the sandflies? Certainly. Dash the track? I don’t think so. There is something magnetic about this place, its whisky streams and rain-drenched forests, the wild untrodden coast. A certain inland section still beckons where, I’m told, the ruins of an old linesman’s hut remain. I know a man in Whangarei who had a migraine, smarting that he missed out on the journey. And another who’s saving up domestic brownie points. Who knows?

Douglas Adams had his restaurant at the end of the universe. I’d like to go back to the lighthouse at the end of the world.

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