Memory of a boy in nature
Dad, with long, wild black hair, a long beard and bare feet, was often seen hiking along the South Westland coast barefoot and green Swanndri, carrying a homemade rucksack. Dad was a vegetarian at this point and used to grow a range of different sprouts, some of which he kept in his hat to eat on his journey. Soon he became known to the people of Haast as Beansprout, a nickname that has stuck to this day.
He lived alone in Gorge River. He had found the house there in 1980, at the age of 25, while walking along the coast in search of a place to live. He stayed for a few nights and after meeting local fishermen in Barn Bay, he learned that the house had been abandoned by another fisherman a few years earlier. They suggested he move in and become the guardian of Gorge River. Measuring six meters by ten meters, it was comfortably sized and even had flush toilets and running water from rain-collecting cisterns. Dad was finally able to fulfill his dream of self-sufficiency by expanding the vegetable garden and harvesting food from the surrounding rainforest. When he needed money, he could crew the fishermen of 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 due to go to Nelson the next day but decided to take a detour and join them as he was familiar with the area and the Pyke trail can be difficult to follow. A few years later, mum, who worked as an immunologist in Dunedin, moved to Gorge River. It was far enough that they could choose their own lifestyle and live their dream relatively undistracted by what others thought of them. It wasn’t long before I entered the scene.
When I was a baby, Dad was still working crawfish boats to earn money. Almost all the food we ate in the early years came from the wilderness around Gorge River. It wasn’t just because we wanted to be self-sufficient, but also because with an income of only $2,000 a year, we couldn’t afford to fly in food from the supermarket.
Mom worked tirelessly all year in the vegetable garden in front of our house to grow food for the family. Over time, with the burial of frames of fish, 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 the spring, Mom planted the seedlings in “pots” made of plastic milk bottles that stood on one side in the warm sun on the windowsill. The seedlings would then be planted in the main garden and grow through the summer.
The tomatoes couldn’t handle the rain and wind in the South Westland, so Dad built a greenhouse out of plastic and driftwood and tied it to the front of our house. Then we could grow tomatoes and possibly lettuce. Outside the greenhouse we grew potatoes, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, silver beets, yams, leeks, broad beans and peas, and a few leafy greens like watercress and turnips grew at the wild state. During the fall Mom would bottle beets, leeks and zucchini, but since we rarely had frosts, carrots and silver beets stayed alive in the garden all winter.
While mom did most of the gardening, dad took care of the fishing (with me always by his side). Whenever the weather permitted, he set a gillnet in the mouth of the river at low tide and retrieved it the next morning. A net is more effective than a rod at Gorge River and in the summer he usually came back with a few yellow eyed mullets or a big kahawai in the bucket. During the winter months it is more difficult to catch fish in the river and he often had to go to the south end of the airstrip to catch ‘kelpies’ (blue striped wrasse) on a handline in the rock pools at the rising tide. Some days he would stay out there surrounded by crashing waves for hours in the middle of a cold southern storm just to catch us enough fish for dinner. He would never give up.
Mom would fillet the fish and fry it in oil in a heavy cast-iron skillet on top of the stove. If we only had one or two fish, she would keep them whole so as not to waste food. The fish stocks in the area are quite good, but often the biggest challenge is the weather. If the sea is too rough and the river is flooded, there is simply no way to catch fish. At those times, Dad would try to catch a rabbit on the airstrip to eat instead.
One of my earliest memories is helping mom and dad collect sedge seeds to make flour. Sedge grass grows along the sides of the airstrip, and on each spiky stem is a marble-sized seed that looks a bit like a light brown fluffy ball. We dried the seeds in a metal camping pot behind the chimney of our wood fire. Once they were dry, Mom would grind them into flour. If we had wheat she would also dry and grind it to make thick wholemeal flour and I watched carefully as she mixed some of it with the sedge flour, yeast, salt and water in her stainless steel bowl to make a thick brown paste. Mom would let the dough rise for an hour while she fanned the fire with dry wood and placed a large aluminum camping oven on top of the firebox to preheat it. Then she would bake the bread for two hours in a round enamel pan, turning it over just before it was done to finish cooking the top. The bread from this camp oven smelled so good and was delicious with its thick, crispy crust. We didn’t always have much to put on bread when I was young, but we could have butter or jam or canola oil and that was very exciting. We always had Vegemite because the hunters left it in the hut next door.
We also ate bull kelp. The huge ten meter swells that come straight in from the Southern Ocean regularly rip clumps off the rocks and after a big storm we were always searching the beaches for freshly washed kelp. My favorite way to eat it was to dry 30 centimeter lengths behind the fire for a few days until crispy. I loved the salty flavor that tasted like the sea. Mom also ground it to make kelp powder, which I see is now very expensive in some stores. Dad liked to make a pudding with tentacles of fresh kelp cut into three-centimeter lengths that floated in a milky broth.
When I was a baby, we went to town three or four times a year, and when we got back, mom and dad brought home as much food as they could fit in their backpacks. When something was missing, like cooking oil or butter, we had to go without for a month or three until we had a chance to go back to the store.
I only tasted chocolate when I was four years old.
From the number one bestseller Tthe boy from gorge river by Chris Long (HarperCollins, $39.99), available at bookstores nationwide.
Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: Linda Clark versus Judith Collins, in Featherston.