NORTH BY NORTH-WEST

“When vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings…”
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness 

North of Westport, State Highway 67 followed the coast on a narrow, scrubby littoral. The outer edge of the Denniston Plateau, where vast amounts of coal were hewn from the earthquake-rumpled landscape during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dropped almost vertically to the road, clad with wind-raked trees combed flat against the scalp of the land. The farmland was thin, hungry and tired-looking. Dilapidated houses, surrounded by scrapped machines and broken-down cars stared vacantly out at the sea. Abandoned sway-backed sheds, their skeletons of timber bones protruding from beneath warped and sun-faded weatherboards, stood beneath windbreak clumps of gaunt, twisted macrocarpas.  Skinny cattle peered at me from behind bent and rusty farm gates tied closed with bits of plastic string. 

At Mokihinui, the road turned inland, crossed a big river via a rattling bridge of silver-painted steel girders, then climbed in a series of zig-zags and switchbacks across the forested seaward slopes of the Paparoa Range. The heavy rainforest crowded the road. Gigantic matai trees, each one an ark of epiphytes, moss and dangling supplejack vines, towered overhead. I drove with the windows down and over the sound of the wheels on the road and the dulcet tones of the narrator of the audiobook I was listening to (Winston Churchill’s biography of the Duke of Marlborough) I could hear a chorus of birdsong: tui, grey warblers and bellbirds. The warm, sweet smell of the forest filled the air.

Below the road, the lower slopes of the hills, stripped, denuded, burned, slashed and scoured by generations of miners and woodcutters, were clad in an insubstantial skin of regrowth manuka and gorse. On the higher slopes, inaccessible to the axe and the steamshovel, the forest grew in a heavy, natural abundance. But in the white, skeletal branches of dead trees scattered liberally through the living vegetation, I could see the effects of another man-made scourge: possums. 

Introduced into New Zealand from Australia in 1837 to establish a fur industry, the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) has run amok in the tasty larder of New Zealand’s rainforests. Apart from the damage they do to bird species by eating their eggs, the nocturnal and highly mobile possums munch through an estimated 21,000 tonnes of native foliage every night. They are especially fond of the flowers of pōhutakawa and rātā trees: iconic species of New Zealand flora. Hunting and trapping only goes part of the way towards controlling these cute but rapacious critters, so the Department of Conservation (DoC) has gone hard out against them with a poison called sodium fluoroacetate.

1080, the brand name given to the synthetic form of sodium fluoroacetate (FCH₂CO₂Na occurs naturally in at least forty plants native to Australia, Brazil and Africa), is widely used by DoC to control introduced pests such as rats, stoats, ferrets and, our voracious possum friends. In the almost inaccessible ranges of the Kahurangi National Park, the poison is spread in pellet form using helicopters with spinning applicators slung beneath them. The applicators’ predictable ballistics allow for precise control of the application rate and a very strict code of practice is used by the pest control authorities to monitor and control the application of 1080. The pellets themselves are composed mostly of fat mixed with cinnamon and very small doses of sodium fluoroacetate. The poison breaks down easily after rain, does not remain viable in the soil and does not pollute or poison waterways. Admittedly, it is, for some, reason, highly toxic to dogs but to humans it is relatively benign unless a large quantity is consumed.

But despite the very well researched benefits and safety of 1080, a sizable fringe of idiots, egged on by spurious data shared on social media by various organisations opposed to its use, are in constant revolt against 1080. Hunters, who consider New Zealand’s forests and mountains to be their private domain, think that possums, deer, rabbits and himalayan thar are best controlled by shooting. However, the impossibility of overcoming the immense difficulties posed by terrain and population numbers makes this a difficult argument to justify. Conspiracy theories abound about “government-controlled” 1080 factories and moves to eliminate the local fur-gathering industries supposedly propping up the economies of small, impoverished towns. 

Mostly, though, the opposition to 1080 is composed of the usual mix of well-meaning but mis-informed people whipped up into a frenzy by agitators with a motive of some kind. Regardless of this, however, as I descended through the forests cloaking the serrated hills I passed several vehicles towing the stainless steel applicator drums used to apply 1080 from the air.      

The road descended onto the Karamea Plains, an altogether different landscape to the hard-scrabble farmland I had passed through on the southern side of the Karamea Hills. It was almost as though, having traversed the blocking shoulder of the Karamea Bluff, which separates the northern tip of Westland from the rest of the coast, I had entered a new country: Paradise beyond the Rubicon.

The wide littoral, backed by fluted and scalloped ranges beneath a blue infinity of sky daubed with brush-strokes of pure white cirrus, was fertile, neat and fecund. The sunlight shimmered in lush paddocks of ryegrass. Sleek herds of Jersey and Freisian dairy cows lolled contentedly in the fields. In massive glasshouses beside the road, incongruous in such an isolated place, the entire New Zealand supply of tomatoes used by the McDonald’s hamburger chain, are grown. In the warm, sub-tropical climate of Karamea, the cost of heating the glasshouses is so low that it offsets the cost of transporting the tomatoes out to Westport and beyond.

Karamea was almost empty. A tourist town as well as a farming town, the COVID-19 epidemic had shut off the town’s supply of tour buses, campers, cyclists and backpackers. All that remained were the local farmers and as it was mid-afternoon, milking time, even the farmers were busy elsewhere. I drove up Karamea’s short main street and continued north along a narrow road where the farm fences edged the tarmac and viridian grass waved in the wind. Small rivers of tea-coloured water ran down from the distant hills between banks heavy with flax. Dunes of pure white sand glistened along the edges of the seaward pastures. 

I turned off onto a narrow gravel road leading up into the hills bordering the hidden Oparara Basin. The road twisted and wound up through the forest and I drove slowly in low range, mindful of risk posed by oncoming traffic on the blind and corrugated corners. After half an hour or so, the road opened into a car park fringed by rimu trees. There were new toilets and some interpretation panels beneath a roof of coloured iron. A couple of hopeful wekas prowled the periphery in search of tourist tidbits. A tui sang mellifluously in the treetops. 

The road continued over a low bridge, twined through some low scrub and emerged at another carpark. A plasterer was working on another, smaller set of toilets: his old Ford Falcon station wagon laden with trowels, paint and buckets of Tradefix 40 plaster, a somewhat dissonant sight so far out in the bush. There were more wekas patrolling the perimeter of the car park. With their stocky bodies, brown plumage, long triangular beaks and powerful clawed feet they resembled a gang of thuggish chickens. Two of them sauntered over and fixed me with bright, red eyes, daring me to throw them something to eat. I declined the invitation so one of them pecked my foot as I turned to walk up to the Box Canyon Cave.

The Oparara Basin sits on a bed of 350 million year old granite overlain with a thin skin of limestone laid down around 35 million years ago. The limestone varies in thickness from 15 to 60 meters and is in turn covered with a rind of blue-grey mudstone. Saturated by an annual rainfall of up to six metres, the limestone of the Oparara area has been extensively eroded into a number of features – pinnacles, caves, arch and sinkholes – typically found in Karst landscapes such as that around Guilin in southern China. Extensive tectonic activity, along with changes in sea level, have isolated the basin whose paleozoology offers a unique record of many now-extinct species that once roamed the surrounding valleys and hills. The first intact skeleton of a Haast’s Eagle (Hieraaetus moorei), the largest eagle known to have existed, along with the skeletons of Lyall’s wren (Traversia lyalli), a tiny, flightless wren, and several species of Moa (Dinornis) have all been found in the caverns of the Oparara.

Leaving the wekas to sulk, I followed a short gravel path to the foot of a flight of wooden stairs which ascended the punga-clad remains of an ancient rockfall to the mouth of a cave slotted into a cliff of mossy limestone. Another set of steps led down into the crepuscular depths of the cave. My headlamp illuminated a high, vaulted ceiling carved with waves and ripples. The floor of the cave was covered with desiccated dirt and the air was cold and dry. It was silent. No sound of dripping water. No echoing rush of an unseen Styx. No keening of wind around the fluted and scalloped walls. Just silence.

As I walked deeper into the cave the evanescent gleam from the entrance faded until the only light came from my little Petzel headlamp. But in that vast hollow space, the headlamp’s 100 lumen beam scarcely penetrated the gloom. I stopped and turned the lamp off and was instantly enveloped by complete, almost tactile darkness. I stood there alone in that cocoon of utter blackness.    

It’s an odd feeling to be by oneself, underground, in complete silence and complete darkness: not exactly terrifying but undoubtedly very, very disconcerting. I imagined the millions of tonnes of rock overhead and the absolute certainty that if it collapsed I would instantly be as extinct as a Haast eagle. I blustered my way through a Snapchat post, pretending that I wasn’t somewhat uneasy there in that potential tomb, but I was glad when, at the twist of a knob, I had light again. 

The Box Canyon Cave had once been filled with flowing water. Over eons of time the water had carved passages and tunnels which led off from the main cavern. I explored some of them now, running my hand over the smooth limestone pillars and filigrees as I crouched low and squeezed through shoulder-wide crevices into tiny chambers. At some time in the distant past a landslide or earthquake had blocked off the river which had once flowed through the cave, leaving it to dry out and become a habitat for several unique species of arachnids including the Nelson Cave Spider (Spelungula cavernicola) with its 150mm leg span, cave wetas and the New Zealand short-tailed bat. None of these critters presented their credentials, however, but as I made my way back out into the daylight (after the cold dryness of the cave, the outside air felt humid and oppressive) I was certain that myriad tiny eyes were watching my exit.

Later, I followed a narrow, muddy path slung, in places, across the face of precipitous limestone bluffs, to the Oparara Arch. Here, the tannin-stained water of the Oparara River has carved a tunnel through a ridge of solid rock. Passing tourists had built cairns of water-rounded stones in a sun-dappled glade beside the river which emerged from the cavern in a series of slow, languid curves. Lurid signs warned of the dangers of entering the cavern but, undeterred (Danger, No Entry signs always say to me: “come and find out”) I waded into the river and walked upstream in the cool, knee-deep water. 

The interior of the cave was choked with rockfalls and the jammed trunks of dead trees. The river entered the cave through a jagged slit, beyond which an iridescent profusion of forest trees shone in the sun. The noise of the water as it flowed over the stones and curled around the base of the rockfalls filled the cavern with reverberating sound. Alone in that wild, improbable space, I babbled a few lines into my Snapchat story then waded downstream and back out into the light. 

An hour later, at the intersection of Kohaihai Road I faced a dilemma. It was getting late in the day and I still had to return to Westport, more than an hour’s drive away, before I could head on up to Blenheim where I was planning to spend a few days with my brother and his family. The sensible option would be to turn left and start back towards Westport. But, on the other hand, here I was, close to the top end of the West Coast. Five kilometres more and I would be at the end of the road: as far north as it was possible to drive on this side of the South Island. It wasn’t a difficult choice. I turned right and ten minutes later I was standing on the edge of the world. 

Jack’s Beach lay bathed in a dazzling shimmer of silver light. Beyond a screen of pure white dunes the Tasman Sea crashed onto the steeply-dipping shore. The Kohaihai River curled out from a forest of nikau palms and fell gently into the ocean beside a bluff of black rock encrusted with ferns and flax. The breaking waves pushed ripples of salt water upstream to combine with the tannin-dark fresh of the stream. My bare feet sank into the soft, yielding sand along the edge of the lagoon behind the dunes. The trunk of a massive rainforest tree, bereft of branches and shiny-black beneath the water, lay submerged in the shallows. A lone pied cormorant sat drying its outstretched feathers on a snag of twisted sticks and stones on the farther shore.

I followed the Heaphy Track upstream for half a kilometre to a bouncy swing bridge slung across the river into a forest of nikau palms. The nikau (Rhopalostylus sapida) is New Zealand’s only endemic palm tree and grows abundantly in the warm, sunny climate of northern Westland. The forest floor was composed of soft white sand and was carpeted with fallen fronds. The crowns of the palms formed a coruscated canopy overhead. Their trunks tapped and creaked in the gentle breeze blowing in from the ocean. I thought of Joseph Conrad’s evocative description of the Congo River in his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness: “ Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”

It was the sort of place where I could have lingered for hours, exploring the curve of the river and listening to the living silence of the palm forest. Darkness was still far off; the afternoon had life in it still. The sun was incandescent in the blue dome of the sky as I wandered back to my truck. The roar of the waves resounded from the bluffs overlooking the river. I turned the ignition key and turned south  towards evening. 

The High Road to Central

There is gold in these here hills…

West of Duntroon, beyond the limestone caves with their Maori rock art, beyond the fertile river flats where sleek cattle graze and sheep stare stonily from boggy paddocks, the Danseys Pass Road enters the gorge of the Marawhenua River. The hillsides, cloaked in scrub and pine trees, close in until there is only enough room for the river and the road.  The Danseys Pass Holiday Park stands on a sunny bend where the river flows through a deep rocky pool, then the road steps across the river on a Bailey bridge and begins its climb up the flanks of the Kakanui Mountains.

Sheepdogs, Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.
Sheepdogs, Danseys Pass.

There is gold in these here hills.  Side creeks, descending in steep gullies, show signs of sluicing from olden days when gold rushes were a regular occurrence in these parts.  Prospectors still fossick in the riverbed, looking for traces of colour in their gold pans and clues to the ever-elusive Mother Lode.

The road, surfaced with the fine pink quartzite gravel of North Otago, undulates along a ridgeline past woolsheds and farm buildings. There are rows of baled silage, wrapped in long plastic sausages, and muddy tractors parked in fenced enclosures.  Snow posts mark the edges of the road and big, bushy snow tussocks wave in the constant breeze blowing down from the tops.

The Danseys Pass road began life as a stock route for sheep and cattle being driven over into Central Otago from the stations of the Waitaki Valley. Gold miners followed, their pots and pans clanking on the sides of their bullocks as they crossed the ranges en route to the goldfields of the Maniototo. Today, a steady stream of tourists travel the road which is well-maintained and perfectly safe for 2WD vehicles. 

Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies… 

The road crosses a dozen small streams – some bridged, others with concrete fords – and rattles over a similar number of cattle grids set into fence-lines which traverse the road and climb the hills on either side.  Gateways open onto steep 4WD tracks which zig-zag up the mountain-sides, providing access for shepherds to the high tops. The hillsides – “as steep as a hen’s face” is how shepherds describe precipitous country – fall right to the river.  Sheep scuttle off the road at the sound of your approach, leaving piles of poop where they have been sitting. A battalion of power pylons marches across the landscape.

High Country shepherds and their dogs in the Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.
High Country Shepherds and Their Dogs.

Finally, the road climbs across a vast tussock-clad face towards the pass, winding in and out of narrow gullies and sidling around the muscular flanks of the hillside.  Encased in your cocoon of twenty-first-century technology, it’s easy to forget how harsh this environment is. You need to be tough to live up here. Late snows, baking summer heat, floods, landslides, fire: farming in the High Country is a constant struggle with the elements.  

…and light takes on a life of its own.

Dansey’s Pass itself occupies a wide saddle slung between shingly peaks.  Bare slabs of stone lie scattered amongst the tussocks and traces of winter snow cling to the hollows of the mountaintops all year round. Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies.  

From the pass, the road dips steeply into the catchment of the Kyeburn River.  Fangs of black rock protruding from the hillsides, giving the landscape a slightly menacing aspect.  It’s the sort of place you would expect a troll or an elf to live. Water seeps from the gravel surface of the road which is hewn through slabs of solid rock in places.  The sky up here is dazzling, and on summer days, streaks of tinsel nor’ west cloud stretch out from the distant Southern Alps.  

Fangs of rock protrude from the tussocky hillsides of the Danseys Pass on the South Island of New Zealand.

The Kyeburn, another river full of gold, twists out from the hills, beginning its long journey to the coast where the water of the snowfields will be swallowed by the sea. Hereford cows peer at you over rusty fences of flat standards and barbed wire as you pass by. In this landscape of stone and gold, every view is back-dropped by the snowy spines of mountains and light takes on a life of its own.    

The Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, deep in the valley, offers superb food and coffee, and overnight lodgings in unique gold rush-era rooms. Travel is always a vanishing act. From the Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, you could get into your vehicle and drive back to the top of the pass, with the world spread out at your feet, and watch the sun set over the hills. Perhaps you could take some other long straight back road and see where it leads, like a prospector following a new reef of gold. Or, you could simply order another cappuccino instead.

THE FOREST OF STONE

The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools,
but the gentle touches of air and water
working at their leisure
with a liberal allowance of time.
                                                            – Henry David Thoreau

On a hot, humid morning, one hundred and eighty million years ago, a volcano standing on the edge of a primeval forest of primitive conifers on the eastern coast of the supercontinent of Gondwana, erupted with shattering violence. The blast wave from the eruption spread out from the volcano’s conical slopes. Traveling at the speed of sound across the surrounding country, it flattened everything in its path. Trees were snapped off at ground level and flung down into haphazard rows. The heat of the blast instantly incinerated the foliage, their ashes blown into dust. The blackened plain was stripped to bare soil. Chunks of pumice and  incandescent blobs of lava rained down on the devastated landscape. The sun was blotted out by a roiling plume of pulverized rock, dust and poisonous gas, lit by jagged bolts of lightning, which reached the stratosphere and was torn away by the jet stream to encircle the Earth.

Worse was to come. Mudslides raced down the volcano’s sides, engulfing everything that remained in a cloying, anaerobic blanket. These lahars, as geologists call them, completed the work begun by the volcano’s blast. The flattened trees, the tree stumps, even the very soil of the plain, was buried under a thick layer of mud. The volcano continued to erupt. Lava flows covered the landscape. Rivers rose and fell, spreading sediment and gravel across the plain. Gales blew for thousands of years, carrying dust and grit from distant mountains to accumulate in deep beds of loess.

Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone.

But as the millennia ticked slowly by, the radioactive core of the planet began to cool. The volcanoes ceased to erupt. Their magma pipes solidified into plugs of solid rock that would one day form otherworldly clusters of symmetrical, vaguely conical mountains. Things settled down a bit. The Earth continued on along the elliptical path of its orbit around the sun. And time began seriously to pass.  

One hundred and eighty million years later, I awoke on the edge of a primeval shore of blackened reefs, pounding surf and a thin mist rolling off the sea onto a landscape frosted with ice. The air glowed pale pink above the coves of Curio Bay, fading up to a

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Primeval.

rich blue as light from the rising sun filtered into the sky. Inside my truck, a rime of frozen condensation decorated the windscreen. The temperature felt well and truly subzero.  

I started the engine and lay with my sleeping bag pulled up tight around my neck while the heater thawed out the interior. Below the isthmus where I was parked, the sea sloshed back and forth into a narrow slot in the reef. The water spilled out over the surrounding rock like an over-flowing bath. I could see penguins hopping into the water and swimming briskly out through the waving forests of kelp to their fishing grounds. The ocean steamed like a young man’s dreams.

Later, after a reborative latte, hot and hot, full of sugar, and served up with a plate of toast, butter and jam, I set of along the cliff top though groves of rustling flax to the southern end of the bay. I descended a steel staircase to the reef, exposed by the receding tide, and walked out into the forest that had stood there so long ago.

The trees lay in the haphazard rows where they had fallen. Their stumps protruded from the soil beside them. It was as if I was standing there alone in a sylvan glade, with the sunlight filtering down and the sound of birds echoing around. The only difference was that this was a horizontal forest. Its perpendicular heights had been laid flat. And it had been turned to stone.

On that distant day when the forest had been overwhelmed by the lahars, the fallen trees, the tree stumps, and even the soil was buried in a layer of volcanic ooze devoid of oxygen. As oxygen is required in order to make organic material decompose, the buried forest had simply lain there, inert, encased in its sterile cocoon of mud. As time passed and the volcanic conniptions above had quieted then ceased, a process began which would completely replace the stem tissue of the trees with minerals. This process. known as permineralization, retains the original cell structure of the parent tissue, but replaces it with silicates such as quartz.

The permineralization, or petrification, process can only occur underground and takes millions of years to complete. The rivers which flowed across that ancient landscape were rich in the minerals required to petrify the tissue of the buried forest. As the mineral-laden water permiated through the layers of mud, the minerals began replacing the lignin and cellulose in the plant tissue, forming a kind of stone mould which retained the shape of the cells down to a microscopic level. Elements such as chromium, manganese, carbon, iron and copper created different hues in the petrified tree trunks.

The tree stumps

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Petrified Trees at Curio Bay.

underwent an identical process, which preserved and petrified them in the ground where the trees had stood. Even the soil, which is, of course, organic material, became petrified. But while this unhurried, gentle transformation was taking place at a cellular level, another bigger, more ambitious transformation was going on around it. The rocks where the trees lay, the volcanoes and, indeed, a big chunk of Gondwana itself, was on the move.

The the lump of continental crust that would one day be known as Zealandia lay on the eastern side of Gondwana. For millions of years this massive supercontinent, itself a remnant of another former supercontinent, Pangea, had wandered the globe: a gigantic raft of rock floating on a subterraneann ocean of magma. Eighty million years had passed since that summer day when the volcano had erupted and buried the trees. As the eons ticked by, ranges of mountains were eroded by wind and frost, ice and water. Their sediments were washed into shallow depressions in the continent’s surface, accumulating layer upon heavy layer and pressing down on the crust beneath. As the weight increased, the crust began to stretch and become thinner. Continual faulting and rifting created a basin into which the sea flooded. Elsewhere on Gondwana, the continental blocks that would one day become Australia and Antarctica were also in the process of separating from their mother continent. But out on the eastern coast, as the inland sea grew wider and wider, New Zealand and Australia would now forever be separated by an ocean.

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Petrified Tree Stump.

Around seventy-five million years ago, Zealandia was completely separated from the remains of Gondwana. The seafloor between the two continental blocks continued to spread apart, pushed by upwellings of new rock on the fault line between the Indo-Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. On this slow-moving porridge-pot of rock, constantly subsiding and cracking and bubbling, the tiny chunk containing the petrified trees rode. By forty million years ago it was roughly in the position it occupies now, albeit still buried deep in the floating crust. As New Zealand came to a halt, a new tectonic fault grabbed it like a slewing truck, sliding half of it northwards to form the North Island. As the Pacific plate shoved against this new fault, the rocks surrounding the ancient, lithified trees were thrust upwards to the surface. The scene was set for the trees to re-emerge for me to stand on, one-hundred and eighty million years after they had been buried.

…with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film.

There was one final stage of the process. The surrounding rocks needed to be stripped away from the petrified trees, stumps and soil. For that to occur, some decent erosion was required. And for that, you need some big, energy-laden waves. Luckily, plate tectonics had sorted that out as well. The Gonwandan remnant that made up Australia and Antarctica had been split apart by tectonic action separate from that which had been working on Zealandia in general and New Zealand in particular. As Antarctica wandered off from Australia like a runaway child, oceanic currents began to circulate around it. These currents, known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, effectively isolated Antarctica, upon whose shores tropical forests had once flourished, from the warmth of Australia and South America. The continent froze.

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Erosion.

Frigid storms wracked the cold waters around Antarctic, generating huge seas whose waves, propagating outwards, smashed into the southern coast of the South Island. The energy contained in the waves began eroding the rocks surrounding the petrified trees, exposing them to daylight once more. They chipped and gnawed at the coastline, creating Curio Bay and nearby Porpoise Bay, and carving out the fretwork of cracks and fissures in the rocky platform where the trees lay.

I stood there now, watching the waves surging up onto the rocks. A flock of seagulls, looking like the black and white keyboard on an eighties synthesizer, fluttered and fussed just out of reach of the waves. Pools of water, left by the receding tide, lay around the trees. The sun glittered on their trunks and branches. The woodgrain stood out as clearly as a piece of new timber on a wood-turner’s lathe. The stumps were also plainly visible, their outer skin of bark and sapwood distinctly different in texture from the heartwood within. The surrounding soil, lithified just like the trees, formed carpets of raised grey nodules between the stumps.

I lingered there among the old trees for ages. Well, that is to say I lingered for an hour orZQ6vg4cbTN2JPclpGPCZhA so at least: The term “ages” being a highly relative term when I considered just how long the trees had lain there and the stupendous journey that they had been on. I couldn’t escape from the image they conjured in my mind of a quiet stand of forest, with a warm mesh of dappled sunlight filtering down, with me standing there in a clearing like a character from a science fiction film. I imagined the camera panning around me as I looked up into the towering canopy, with a flare of light coming into the wide-angle lens.

But then, alas, I was jolted back into reality by the wash of a wave coming over the rock platform and the arrival of a the first tour group of the day. I toyed with the idea of zapping them with my imaginary phaser but decided against it. So with my tricorder in my hand, I climbed the steel steps back up to the present day and set off north to find some trees that were still living.

The Legend of Mackenzie.

But one thing is certain though: he was a tough bastard. You had to be to survive out in the hills.

On Sunday March 4, 1855, James Mackenzie made camp below the summit of a mountain pass.  Nearby, on a small flat where two streams met, a flock of 1000 sheep grazed, guarded by Mackenzie’s faithful sheepdog, Friday.  Mackenzie had stolen the sheep from a farm called The Levels, near Timaru, and had driven them over the remote pass that he had discovered three years before.  But as he ate his meagre supper of cold gruel, Mackenzie was unaware he was being watched.mac1

On the hillside above, John Sidebottom, manager of The Levels, and his two Maori shepherds Taiko and Seventeen, scrutinized the camp below.  They had pursued Mackenzie for two days through rugged, trackless hills, up the twisting bed of a stream, over the pass and, finally, down to the spot where they now hid.

Leaving the cover of the tussock, the three men crept up on Mackenzie.  The sheep-stealer had trained his dog not to bark so she gave no warning of the men’s approach.  After a struggle, they overpowered him and tied his hands. Mackenzie fought wildly at his bonds, so Sidebottom took away his boots and threatened to “apply a bark poultice to his head” if he did not settle down.  

Despite being barefoot, Mackenzie escaped from his captors during the night.  He turned up in Lyttelton six days later, intending to take a ship to Australia.  However no vessel was ready to leave and as he waited for one to depart he was arrested again on March 16.  

Convicted of sheep-stealing, Mackenzie was sentenced to five year’s gaol.  In the first year of his sentence Mackenzie escaped five times. On each occasion he was re-captured.  Eventually the authorities decided the easiest option was to set him free on the condition that he quit the country.  Mackenzie left New Zealand in 1856, bound for Australia, perhaps thinking his talents as a rustler would be more appreciated there.

James Mackenzie is one of New Zealand’s few folk-heroes: our own version of Ned Kellymac4 or Dick Turpin.  Little is known about him and even the spelling of his name (McKenzie or Mackenzie; James, John or Jock)  is open to conjecture. How many sheep he actually stole and how he managed to drive them so far with only one dog depends on which version of the legend you believe.  But one thing is certain though: he was a tough bastard. You had to be to survive out in the hills.

Fast forward one hundred and thirty years to nineteen eighty-five.   A young shepherd watches the last of a mob of one thousand merino ewes cross the Mackenzie Stream and climb the farther bank to a gate set into a ten wire fence.  The hills of the Mackenzie Pass are now part of Grampians Station; the shepherd is one of six single men employed to tend the station’s thirty thousand sheep. Six sheep dogs follow at his heels as he jumps the creek and follows the mob up to the gate.

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February 1983. 

The long-legged ewes, freshly blade-shorn, mill around a monument to James Mackenzie, which sits on the flat where his stolen flock grazed the evening he was captured.  Guided by whistled commands from the shepherd, the dogs keep the mob together while he opens the gate then leans on the monument as the sheep make their way through and climb in long lines out onto the hills beyond.

…I remember the day I crossed that mob of a thousand and put them out onto the Monument Block.    

Fast forward another thirty-three years.  West of Timaru, I turn off State Highway 8 at Albury onto Mackenzie Pass Road.  My SUV moves about on the loose gravel as the road undulates through rolling farmland towards the distant  brown hills. Fat sheep lounge in paddocks of rippling grass. Yellow smudges of gorse and broom stain the hillsides.

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The Mackenzie Pass.

As I draw closer to the looming Dalgety Range, the hillsides become steeper.  Spiky matagouri and fragrant, needle-sharp spaniards grow thickly on the slopes.  The sides of the valley draw in leaving just enough room for the road and a glittering creek.  The road crosses several narrow bridges and steps across a constantly shifting shingle scree.

The Mackenzie Pass occupies a narrow notch in the ranges.  A buffeting wind snatches at the snow tussocks growing beside the road.  The distant snow-capped Southern Alps lie blue/black in their veil of haze.  The road, a powder white scratch in a beige landscape, winds out from the hills and seems to lose itself in the vastness of the Mackenzie Basin.  

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The Monument.

The Mackenzie Monument stands on a corner where the road curves to cross the Mackenzie Stream.  The three-sided obelisk has an inscription in English, Maori and Gaelic which reads: “In this spot James Mackenzie, the freebooter, was captured by John Sidebottom and the Maoris Taiko and Seventeen and escaped from them the same night.”   

I sit on the ridge overlooking the monument.  It’s early afternoon. The wind shuffles a high overcast across the sky.  The creek chatters in its bed of stones. Looking down, I remember the day I crossed that mob of a thousand and put them out onto the Monument Block.  I remember the dogs I had with me that day – Mick, Bess, Jill, Torn, Dale and Tex – and how good it felt to be young and fit and alone in a mountain world.  I was a shepherd; nothing else mattered.

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Old Sheep Yards, Grampians Station.

The Mackenzie Pass today is a quiet, virtually forgotten part of the South Island.  A battalion of power pylons marches over the hills. The road hardly ever sees a car.  On easterly days, mist spills over the top of the Dalgety Range and cold winds whistle down the valley.  Rows of dark green pines shiver in the breeze: austere inhabitants of an austere landscape. Overhead, clouds polarize white against the cobalt blue sky.  

The discovery of  Burke’s Pass – an easier route into the Mackenzie Country – in 1858 left the Mackenzie Pass an almost unknown detour.  Mackenzie would have liked it that way. If his ghost walked through the pass today he would probably recognize all the landmarks he knew 150 years ago.

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The Mackenzie Country.

But memories are the only real ghosts.  And memories, like history itself, are open to re-interpretation, embellishment and exaggeration.  The truth should never get in the way of a good yarn. It is the hills, the glittering creeks, the golden snow tussocks rippling on the muscular hillsides that are the real things.  All the rest is just part of the Legend of James Mackenzie.

Coasting the Catlins

Turn your face to the sun
and the shadows fall behind you.
– Maori Proverb

I meet the coast at Fortrose. The road makes an abrupt turn eastward and follows the edge of a tussock-fringed lagoon. A brisk sea-breeze ruffles the water and whips around huddled masses of white-baiters, crouched expectantly over their nets in the muddy shallows. Offshore, a container ship floats on the horizon like a cubic city. The tide races into the estuary between heads of black stone.

Tautuku Bay.

I am here on the Catlins Coast quite by chance. Having attended to a small business matter in Gore earlier in the day I had decided on a whim to drive further south instead of heading home to South Canterbury. I have a few basic provisions and a sleeping bag stashed in the back of my 4WD. The Gore i-Site has provided me with a map of New Zealand’s south-eastern corner. Work can do without me for another day. All I have to do is disappear.

The Catlins Mountains rumple the landscape of Eastern Southland like a carpet rucked up against a wall. The steep, bush-clad hills step down towards the ocean in a series of green undulations, ending abruptly in tall headlands and shelving bays where the incessant waves grind the bones of the ranges to sand. Sleek rivers twist from the interior and fall asleep in lagoons framed by endless dunes and wild, lonely beaches.

At Waipapa Point, the wind is a living thing.

Maori populated the rough coastline and brooding ranges with legends of colourful heroes and dreadful monsters. Whalers plied their brutal trade along the Catlins Coast from the earliest days of European settlement. Timber cutters hacked at the seemingly endless forests. Farming replaced these boom-and-bust industries and today it is the continual stream of camper vans and tourists which has re-invigorated the economy of the Catlins.

East of Fortrose I turn off the Southern Scenic Route at Otara and follow a gravel road out to Waipapa Point. The paddocks are dotted with ewes and lambs: a sight now so uncommon in dairy-converted Canterbury that I find myself staring in wonder at the woolley hordes. I stop while a shepherd shifts some late-lambers across the road. His team of huntaways gleefully micturate on the wheels of my townie truck while his business-like heading dogs control the mob.

At Waipapa Point, the wind is a living thing. Its invisible fingers have sculpted the trees into grotesque topiaries which lean away from the sea as if in fear of further torment. A slender, white-painted lighthouse stands on the point overlooking the Otara Reef, the place where my mother’s great uncle, Thomas Gillingham, died in New Zealand’s worst civilian maritime disaster.  

On the morning of April 29th 1881, the screw steamer SS Tararua struck the Otara Reef off Waipapa Point. The vessel had put to sea from Port Chalmers, Dunedin’s deep-water port, twelve hours earlier, en route to Melbourne via Bluff and Hobart. On board were 151 passengers and crew. Among them was forty-three year old farmer Thomas Gillingham, who was returning to England to claim his inheritance.

Thomas Gillingham had emigrated to New Zealand from Hampshire, England, in 1874, one of several members of the Gillingham family to do so. He had taken up land near Fairlie, in South Canterbury, and had become a very successful and wealthy farmer. He had married the daughter of another prosperous landowner had had set about building his own little empire in rural New Zealand. 

Thomas’ father, Norbert Gillingham, had died in March 1881 and Thomas, as his oldest son, was set to inherit the lion’s share of his estate. As was the custom, Thomas was required to present himself at the offices of his father’s solicitors, Hansen, Dalgleish & Co of Chancery Lane, London, in order to hear the Will read and to formalize the hand-over of the cash and property coming to him. With this in mind, he had taken a First Class berth on the SS Tararua from Lyttelton to Melbourne where he would connect with the SS Cardrona for the voyage back to England.

At 563 tons displacement, the SS Tararua was large by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century. She had been built in 1864 by the Gourlay Brothers of Dundee, Scotland, for the Union Steamship Company, the New Zealand shipping company founded by James Mills in Dunedin in 1875. The Union Steamship Company would go on to become the largest shipping company in the Southern Hemisphere and would continue operating until the end of the twentieth century.     

That April night was dark and clear, with no moon and a vague haze of fog hanging over the land. Captain F.G. Garrard, steering by the stars, had instructed the helmsman to set a westerly course of 268° at 04:00, believing the ship to be clear of Slope Point, the southernmost extremity of the South Island. At 04:25 a lookout stationed in the fo’c’sle hailed the bridge that he could hear breaking waves. Captain Garrard, still believing that the vessel was clear of the land, ordered a course change to 185°, half a point south of south-west. They ran on this bearing for several minutes before returning to their original westerly course. At 05:00, the Tararua slammed head-on into the Otara Reef.

Running thirteen kilometres seaward from Waipapa Point, the Otara Reef is just one of several reefs jutting from the fingered coastline of Eastern Southland. Beyond them, the vast Southern Ocean is empty apart from a few battered specks of land jutting from the seascape like broken stumps of bone in an endless blue and grey plain. The reefs are composed of the same ancient sedimentary rocks which make up much of Southland: folded and faulted and inclined at various angles. Weathered and eroded by the sea into black fangs and jagged fissures, the reefs lie just beneath the surface: immobile, implacable and deadly. The soft steel plates of the Tararua’s hull, riveted to her iron ribs, were no match for these monolithic outcrops. Her bottom ruptured and the sea poured into her.    

In the violence and confusion of the impact, the captain and the helmsman threw the wheel hard to starboard. Reacting to a barked command from Garrard, the First Officer wrenched the handles of the Engine Order Telegraph forward and back three times, then set them to Full Astern. Below decks, in the stifling, dimly-lit engine-room, the EOT’s bell emitted three strident rings: the emergency signal known as the Cavitate Bell. The stokers and donkey-men worked feverishly to bring the engines to a stop and then reverse them.  But it was too late. Lifted by a surging wave, the Tararua’s stern swung to port and smashed onto the reef. The rudder was unshipped from its iron pintles; the brass propeller, spinning at full revolution on its shaft, tore itself apart on the black, unyielding rocks. On the bridge, the wheel spun uselessly under the captain’s hands. The polished timber deck canted as the ship heeled over. Her compartments filled with water, and she began to break apart.

The passengers, flung from their beds by the impact, emerged from their cabins in their night-clothes and raced confusedly up the companionways, emerging into a darkened world of noise and motion. Heavy rollers, their force had been amassed over thousands of kilometres of ocean, smashed into the aftermost section of the ship. The captain ordered the passengers forward to meage shelter offered by the forepeak, the elevated portion of the ship’s bow. One of the ship’s lifeboats was launched but was immediately carried away and smashed by the surf. 

At 06:30, with the light of dawn greying the sky, Captain Garrard called for volunteers to swim ashore and raise the alarm. Four people came forward but the captain, on reflection, decided that only one, a young man named George Lawrence, should attempt the swim. Lawrence was carried closer to the shore in a lifeboat and dived in. Although a strong swimmer he was rapidly overcome by the force of the waves and the powerful backwash as the receding water slipped over the smooth, kelp-clad rocks. Eventually, however, he struggled ashore, cut, bruised and bleeding. 

Beyond the narrow strip of sandy beach, rubbly sandstone cliffs rose almost vertically to the headland above. Lawrence managed to scramble up to the clifftop and ran to a nearby farm outbuilding where some farm labourers were having their breakfast. A rider was despatched to the Post Office at Fortrose with news of the wreck. A telegram was sent by the Postmaster, George Attwood, to the Union Steamship Company office in Dunedin which read: S.S. TARARUA ON OTARA REEF. ASSISTANCE WANTED. GEO. ATTWOOD. Incredibly, given the situation, the telegram wasn’t marked URGENT so no action was taken to dispatch a rescue craft until later in the day. By then, it was too late.

Of the one hundred and fifty-one passengers and crew aboard the SS Tararua, only twenty survived. Unable to launch its lifeboats in the pounding surf, and with only a handful of lifebelts on board, the ship’s occupants were forced to choose between swimming for the shore or remaining on the vessel in the vain hope of being rescued. Few of those who attempted to swim made it. Most of those who tried were pummelled lifeless on the rocks or were drowned as they succumbed to exhaustion and cold.

Although the weather through that April day remained calm, the ferocious waves and surging swell meant there was little that the watchers gathered on shore could do to help. As night fell, the cries of those still aboard the wreck could be heard in the darkness, pleading for salvation. At 22:00, a voice was heard to cry out “A boat. For God’s sake send a boat.” There were heart-rending shrieks in the darkness, then silence.

I wandered now among the scattered headstones of the Tararua Acre, where fifty-five of the seventy-five bodies recovered from the wreck are buried. The afternoon sun was warm, and sheep grazed contentedly beyond the fence which separated the burial ground from the surrounding farmland. Offshore, beyond the lighthouse, the ocean rolled gently over the Otara Reef with barely a ripple. It is often the case that places where horrific events occurred look benign and unthreatening in a different light. The last resting-place of the Tararua’s victims, and the reef that had caused their deaths, looked positively bucolic now.

Thomas Gillingham’s body was returned to Fairlie, his adopted hometown, and buried in the cemetery there. Our family history doesn’t record who got hold of his father’s fortune. The fact that I’m not a millionaire English aristocrat points towards the fact that the cash didn’t come out to the colonies. Oh well. Easy come, easy go.

Two other small, coincidental and, admittedly, highly tenuous threads connect me with the SS Tararua. The Gourlay Brothers’ shipyard in Dundee continued to turn out ships of various kinds until 1908 when the company was wound up. On March 26th, 1899, another screw steamer slid down the yard’s slipway into the River Tay, its bow wet with champagne. On the same day, in far-off New Zealand, my father, Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston was born. The new ship’s name was the SS Zealandia

Further north, at Waikawa, a flock of perendale hoggets are paddling in the sea. The withdrawing tide has left a narrow littoral of mud at the base of their steep, scrubby paddock and the young sheep (I count 269 of them) have taken the opportunity to wade into the water for a look around. Beyond them, a cluster of moored yachts and fishing boats float on the calm water of the inlet. Nearby, on a gentle hillside smudged with the yellow flowers of gorse, the headstones of the Waikawa Cemetery gaze out over the waters of Porpoise Bay.

Waikawa Cemetary

The road now climbs away from the coast and into the cool fragrant hills of the Chaslands Forest. I drive with the window down and over the hum of the tyres on the tarmac I hear the limpid voices of tui and the chatter of grey warblers. The forest grows right to the edge of the road; the air is heavy with the earthy fragrance of damp earth and forest flowers.

In the manuka-smothered valleys between the ridges, shaggy ponies with Rastafarian manes gaze at me over post and wire fences. A pair of brick chimneys stand watch over the collapsed ruins of an old cottage backed by ancient, gnarled macrocarpas. Nearby, an abandoned timber and tin cottage, its empty door-frame agape, seems to be sinking under the weight of its memories. Its sightless eyes stare out across a sea of daffodils; its roof is rusted to the colour of dried blood. I realize that here in the Catlins the landscape seems to embody the cycles of birth and decay which more bucolic countryside is able to conceal.

catlins

The road meets the ocean again at Tautuku Bay. Oceanic swells, born off the coast of Antarctica, wrap around the headland and roll in long sweeping arcs into the arms of the bay. A haze of spray detaches itself from the waves and drifts across the brooding forest which overlooks the sand. Three walkers, Lilliputian on the vast expanse of the beach, make their way along the shore.

Not much is happening in Owaka. The town’s main street is empty of cars even though it is only mid-afternoon. I buy a can of fizz from the supermarket then drive out to Surat Bay where a collection of ramshackle beach houses nestle amid a sea of lupins. Nearby, an indistinct track leads through a wilderness of sand dunes to the beach. A silvery river slides across the sand and loses itself in the leaping waves. A weathered timber sign points seaward to the place where the three-masted immigrant ship Surat, foundered without loss of life in 1874.

I spend the night in the back of my truck beside a rocky cove near Kaka Point. The reassuring beacon of the Nugget Point Lighthouse, flashing every twelve seconds, shines across the water as I sleep. In the darkness before dawn I drive up the road leading to the lighthouse. From the car park, a shingle track leads around the steep slope of the point. A cold wind shivers the tussocks clinging to the hillside.

There are few things more beautiful than a lighthouse at dawn. As colour seeps into the eastern sky I stand on a timber platform beneath the winking light of the Nugget Point Lighthouse. Swells surge between jagged fangs of rock protruding from the sea below. Colonies of seabirds keep up a screeching din over the roar of the waves.

“it’s OK…I’m here.”

Built in 1869, the Nugget Point Lighthouse stands on the last part of the land. A triangular precipice of white stone rears behind it; the ground collapses into the ocean in front. The original revolving electric lantern, behind its faceted dome of polished glass, was replaced by an efficient but un-romantic LED lamp attached to the front of the tower in 1989. It flashes silently above me as I watch the sun clear the horizon beneath a gathering ceiling of cloud.

Nugget Point Lighthouse

To me, lighthouses epitomize both the loneliness and romance of coastlines. By definition, they occupy spectacular locations. And there is something heroic in the way these solitary sentinels stand alone against the elements. To mariners lost in the darkness of night or engulfed in the violence of storms, the beacon of a lighthouse reaches out as if to say “it’s OK…I’m here.”

Offshore, a coastal freighter bounces southwards on the swell. Its captain will have taken a bearing on the Nugget Point light and set his course a safe distance off the Catlins Coast. Here on shore, there are still hidden coves to discover and twisting back roads for me to explore. The shadow of work can wait. I turn my face to the sun and set my course for another day of coasting in the Catlins.

River Song

Smooth is the water,
where the brook runs deep.

                    – Old English Proverb

Every surface, every tree, every stone, every blade of grass seems to absorb the sun’s light, bend it into gentle new spectrums, then radiate it back into the air. 

The Taieri River rises amid the stone and gold landscape of the Lammerlaw Range, on the southern edge of the Maniototo Plain high in Central Otago.  From its small beginnings in tussocky snowfields, the fledgeling river gathers the waters of rocky creeks and icy springs as it descends from the hills and flows eastward across the Maniototo.

Cattle graze its willow-lined banks as the river meanders through swampy paddocks, and fishermen cast their lines into deep pools where some of Otago’s best trout live.  An eel trap set in any of the rivers sluggish backwaters will always yield a rich harvest of the slithery creatures which early Maori gathered on their expeditions across the great plain.  The name they bestowed on the river means “River of Light.”  

Headwaters. The Kyeburn is one of many tributaries of the Taieri River. This tiled strata juts from the hillside above the river in Dansey’s Pass.

The sky is big up here. Light falls from the sky like powdered gold and the landscape seems to glow as if lit from within.  Every surface, every tree, every stone, every blade of grass seems to absorb the sun’s light, bend it into gentle new spectrums, then radiate it back into the air.  Long straight roads lead the eye towards the surrounding ranges from which fortunes in gold were extracted during the region’s gold rush days.  These days, though, the real treasure lies in the Taieri’s burnished gleam as it reflects the sun setting on another day in this land of stone and gold.      

The Taieri turns slowly around the north end of Rock and Pillar Range, past the hamlets of Waipiata, Kokonga and Hyde.  The railway brought wealth to these isolated places, which alternately freeze in winter then bake through the long summers.  But the railways are gone and with it the prosperity of wool and beef.  Abandoned farmhouses stare sightlessly out across the hills and pencil-thin Lombardy poplars claw the sky.  But the longevity of family life up here is evident in the names on farm mailboxes which match those of the roads and those on graveyard headstones dating back to the earliest settlers. 

…in the endless cycle of wind and water.

Cemetery, Pateoroa, Maniototo District.

At Middlemarch the river enters the Taieri Gorge.  This barrier to trade was bridged during the gold rush by the construction of the Taieri Gorge Railway.  The chugging steam engines of those days have been replaced by diesel locomotives which pull carriage-loads of tourists through the gorge where the track spans vertiginous creeks on box girder bridges and the yellow smudge of gorse hugs the hillsides. 

Freed from the confines of the ranges, the river flows south across the rich dairy country of the Strath-Taieri district to enter the sea on the east coast of Otago, thirty kilometres south of Dunedin.  The riverbanks are faced with golden sands ground from the hills and its final wander to the sea is through a wilderness of flax, swamps and Manuka forest.

Where the river falls idly into the ocean, ramshackle holiday bachs line the shore.  Seabirds patrol the river’s margins in search of titbits and fishing boats ride the swells offshore.  The river which began its journey as a trickle of silver amid the stone and gold heights of the Lammerlaw has run its course.  The river’s song is sung and down the line

Where fresh and salt combine.

where fresh and salt combine all its history is released.  But nothing is ever truly finished in the endless cycle of wind and water.  Soon of the river’s water, evaporated from the ocean and blown inland in the clouds of southerly storms, will fall on the hills of the Maniototo, gather together and begin the journey again.   

Sgt. Dan the Creamota Man

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. 

When I was a kid, back in the seventies, our wintertime breakfast of choice was Creamota, a sort of sweet, creamy, rolled oat porridge made at the Flemings mill in Gore. The Creamoata mascot was Sergeant Dan, a plucky amalgam of a boy scout and an ANZAC soldier. There was the Stirring Times Creamota Recipe Book, in which Sergeant Dan showed you how to cook all manner of yummy things using, of course, Creamoata as a base ingredient. You could get Sergeant Dan recipe cards, so mum could make such things as Sergeant Dan’s Sweetheart of Wheat Custard, and join a club called Sergeant Dan’s Creamota Corps. It was a simpler time back then, a time when you actually cooked your porridge on the stove, in an aluminium pot guaranteed to give you Alzheimer’s in later years. There was none of your thirty-seconds-in-the-microwave nonsense.

The old Flemings Mill, Gore.

The Flemings Mill still dominates the skyline of Gore. I could see it as I drove into town on State Highway One, past the giant statue of a leaping trout and the billboard advertising the Gold Guitar Awards. The wide main street had angle parking and the kind of deeply-verandahed shops typical of colonial towns, where the sun and the rain beats down and perambulating shoppers need shelter from the elements.

I parked in front of a solid, two-storey Victorian edifice with the legend H&J Smiths Progressive Stores emblazoned in plaster above its pedimented windows, and set off to find some lunch. Along the street there was the usual assortment of corporate frontages and local retailers, as well as a few empty shop, like missing teeth in a worn smile. Changes in retail patterns wrought by the likes of malls and online shopping have been hard on rural towns all over the South Island. But still, Gore’s main street had a cheerful, if somewhat tattered confidence, and in the bright, cold southern light it felt friendly and prosperous.  

And then I thought, “Well fuck this”…

I took a window table in Café Ambience and sat doodling over my notes as I watched the people passing by outside. The café was warm and crowded. The windows were a little steamed up, which added to the feeling of coziness, like a farmhouse on a winter’s day. My quiche and salad were superb and, in typical farming fashion, was a big enough meal to sustain a shearer through to afternoon smoko. The café had wifi, of course, so I checked out what was happening on Facebook and did a Google search for information about Sergeant Dan.

Back out on the Gore-Mataura Highway, the town’s unimaginatively-named main street, I walked up to the Railway Station, a solid two-storey Edwardian building of brick and limestone. A white-painted statue of a Romney ram stood on a plinth beside the station. The statue pays homage to the role played by the Romney sheep breed in the economy of Southland.

Originally bred in the Romney Marsh region of Kent, in South-east England, the first recorded shipment of Romneys to New Zealand was in 1853, when nineteen ewes and a ram were sent aboard the SS Cornwall to a stud in Wellington. A dual meat and wool breed, Romneys were soon recognised as a breed perfectly suited for New Zealand’s relatively cold and wet climate. Southland, with its boggy soils, cold winds and steep hills, was ideal Romney country and the breed became the  Southland

Stubborn, thick-willed and stupid, even by sheep standards, Romney’s are often referred to as “boof-heads” because of their woolley faces and obdurate attitude. As shepherds, working with the noble Merinoes, we looked down our noses at Romneys, considering them, and all other sheep breeds for that matter, as inferior. As my old boss Peter Kerr used to say, “There are only two kinds of sheep, Merinoes and others.”   

But regardless of whether or not we smug shepherds approved of them, by the nineteen eighties, Romneys made up fifty-five percent on the country’s flock.

Across the railway tracks from the Romney statue stood the imposing bulk of the Flemings Mill, a mural of Sergeant Dan adorning the front wall. With his wide-brimmed slouch hat, shouldered rifle and shining boots, Sergeant Dan stood to attention, peering out over the town. Originally created in 1915 by Charlotte Lawlor, who worked for the advertising agency that handled the Flemings account, it seemed to me now, with the cynicism of age, that Sergeant Dan’s protruding belly, large buttocks and rouged cheeks were a little at odds with the rugged, tractor-driving, can-do, soldierly farm boy persona we attributed to him as kids.

Sgt. Dan.

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. As it happens, the Flemings mill, Creamota, and Sergeant Dan are all things from that foreign country known as the past. Flemings was taken over by the Australian food giant Goodman Fielder in 2006. Creamoata, along with several other Flemings products familiar to all Kiwis, Thistle Rolled Oats, and Sweet Heart-o Wheat, were absorbed into the Uncle Toby’s brand and disappeared. The Gore mill itself closed in 2008.

But, I was happy to see, the name of Sergeant Dan lives on in Sgt. Dan Stockfeeds. It was emblazoned on the side of a truck that was loading bulk pig food, or something, from an auger protruding from the front of the building.The mill that once produced the breakfasts of countless Kiwi kids now grinds up Primo Calf Meal, Porki Pig Complete Mash, Velvet Plus Deer Nuts (childish snigger) and something called Goat Pellets. There was some sort of neat symmetry in all of this.

Standing there beside the railway tracks, in the bright, cold Southland sunshine, I felt a brief pang of nostalgia. I thought of those long-ago winter days of hot breakfasts cooked by mum on the stove while she made our school lunches and we listened to 3ZC on the wireless. And then I thought, “Well fuck this”, walked back to my truck and headed west towards the uttermost end of the earth.

Extracted from The Greenstone Water, by fajB.