Memoir of a boy in the wild
Dad, complete with long, wild, dark hair, long beard and bare feet, would often be seen hiking along the coastline of South Westland in his green Swanndri, carrying a homemade backpack. Dad was vegetarian and he used to grow a range of different sprouts, some of which he would keep in his hat to eat on his journey. Soon he became known to the Haast locals as Beansprout, a nickname that has stuck to this day.
He lived alone at Gorge River. He’d found the house there in 1980, aged 25, as he hiked along the coastline in search of a place to live. He stayed a couple of nights and after meeting local fishermen at Barn Bay learned that the house had been abandoned by another fisherman a few years earlier. They suggested he move in and become the caretaker of Gorge River. At six metres by ten metres it was a comfortable size and even had a flush toilet and running water from rain catchment tanks. Dad was finally able to live his dream of self-sufficiency by expanding the vegetable garden and collecting food from the surrounding rainforest. When he needed money, he could crew for the fishermen at Barn Bay and Big Bay.
One day Dad was in Queenstown staying with a friend when he met two girls who were planning a hike through the Pyke Valley to Big Bay and up the coast to Haast. He was meant to go to Nelson the next day but decided to take a detour and join them, as he knew the area well and the Pyke track can be hard to follow. A couple of years later Mum, who had been working as an immunologist in Dunedin, moved to Gorge River. It was far enough away that they could choose their own lifestyle and live out their dream relatively undistracted by what other people thought of them. It wasn’t long before I came on the scene.
When I was a baby, Dad was still working on crayfishing boats for income. Almost all the food we ate in the early years came from the wilderness around Gorge River. This was not only because we wanted to be self-sufficient but also because with an income of just $2000 a year we couldn’t afford to fly food in from the supermarket by plane.
Mum worked tirelessly year-round in the vegetable garden in front of our house to grow food for the family. Over time, as a result of burying fish frames, seaweed and homemade lime from burnt mussel shells, the soil became more and more productive and we were able to grow a wider variety of vegetables. In springtime Mum would start the seedlings off in ‘pots’ made from plastic milk bottles lying on one side in the warm sun on the windowsill. The seedlings would then be planted out in the main garden and would grow over the summer.
The tomatoes couldn’t handle the rain and wind of South Westland, so Dad built a greenhouse out of plastic and driftwood and attached it to the front of our house. Then we could grow tomatoes and eventually lettuce. Outside the greenhouse we grew potatoes, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, silver beet, yams, leeks, broad beans and peas, and a few leafy greens like watercress and turnips grew wild. During the autumn Mum would bottle some of the beetroot, leeks and zucchinis, but since we rarely got frosts things like carrots and silver beet would stay alive in the garden all winter.
While Mum did most of the gardening, Dad would do the fishing (with me always by his side). Whenever the weather allowed, he would set a gill net in the river mouth at low tide, and he would retrieve it the next morning. A net is more efficient than a fishing rod at Gorge River and in summer he would usually return with a few yellow-eyed mullet or a big kahawai in the bucket. During the winter months it’s harder to catch fish in the river and he would often have to go to the south end of the airstrip to catch ‘kelpies’ (blue-striped wrasse) on a hand line in the rock pools on the incoming tide. Some days he would stand down there surrounded by crashing waves for hours through the middle of a cold southerly storm just to catch us enough fish for dinner. He would never give up.
Mum would fillet the fish and fry them in oil in a heavy cast-iron frying pan on top of the stove. If we only had one or two fish, she would keep them whole so as not to waste any food. The fish stocks in the area are pretty good but often the biggest challenge is the weather. If the sea is too rough and the river flooded, there is simply no way to catch fish. At those times, Dad would try to snare a rabbit on the airstrip to eat instead.
One of my earliest memories is of helping Mum and Dad collect sedge-grass seed to make flour. Sedge grass grows along the sides of the airstrip and on each spiky stalk is a marble-sized seed that looks a bit like a light brown, fluffy ball. We would dry the seeds in a metal camping pot behind the chimney of our wood fire. Once they were dry, Mum would grind them into flour. If we had wheat, she would also dry and grind that to make heavy wholegrain flour and I would watch intently as she mixed some of it together with the sedge-grass flour, yeast, salt and water in her stainless- steel bowl to make a thick brown dough. Mum would leave the dough to rise for an hour while she stoked the fire with dry wood and placed a large aluminium camp oven on top of the firebox to preheat. Then she’d bake the bread for two hours in a round enamel baking pan, turning it over just before it was done to finish cooking the top. The bread from that camp oven smelled so good and tasted delicious with its thick, crunchy crust. We didn’t always have much to put on the bread when I was young, but we might have some butter or jam or canola oil and that was extra exciting. We always had Vegemite because hunters would leave it in the hut next door.
We also ate bull kelp. The huge ten-metre swells that come straight from the Southern Ocean regularly tear clumps from the rocks and after a big storm we would always search the beaches for freshly washed-up kelp. My favourite way to eat it was to dry 30-centimetre lengths behind the fire for a few days until it was crunchy. I loved the salty flavour that tasted like the sea. Mum would also grind it up to make kelp powder, which I see is now very expensive in some shops. Dad liked to make a pudding out of fresh kelp tentacles chopped into three-centimetre lengths that floated in a milky broth.
When I was a baby, we would go out to town three or four times a year and on our return Mum and Dad would carry home as much food as they could fit in their backpacks. When something ran out, like cooking oil or butter, we would have to go without for a month or three until we had the opportunity to get to the shop again.
I didn’t taste chocolate until I was four years old.
Taken from the number one best-seller The Boy from Gorge River by Chris Long (HarperCollins, $39.99), available in bookstores nationwide.
Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: Linda Clark vs Judith Collins, in Featherston.