The last farmer in the back of beyond

THE GOOD OLD DAYS: Tim Te Aika, the last Stewart Island farmer, in retirement.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS: Tim Te Aika, the last Stewart Island farmer, in retirement.

When Tim and Ngaire Te Aika gave up their Stewart Island pastoral lease in 1985 it brought to an end one of the last true pioneering farming lifestyles in New Zealand.

They had moved to Mason Bay in 1966 with their two young daughters, and were the last of a small number of hardy families who had worked the remote Island Hill block for around 100 years.

It is the only part of the island that has been farmed, and is featured in a new documentary, To The Back of Beyond, made and released on DVD by South Coast Productions.

Dave Asher and Dave McCarlie of South Coast Productions, working on a shoestring, have made about 30 documentaries on southern New Zealand's heritage and its people in the past eight years, including features on high country farming and deer recovery.

Much of the country behind Mason Bay on Stewart Island is made up of ancient sand dunes which have been driven a long distance inland by the onshore westerly winds. There is also a lot of wetland. It is not great country for farming, and the resourceful, tough families that have farmed there have always needed other sources of income to survive.

In the early days, collecting high-value ambergris off the beach provided some of that. Ambergris, a waxy substance that comes from the intestines of sperm whales, is used as a fixative in the perfume industry.

It was a hard life. Collecting driftwood off the beach for buildings and making fences was an arduous, yet necessary task, and much of the back-breaking farm work was done without the aid of machinery. In later times, possum and deer hunting provided an additional income.

Today, the land is part of Rakiura National Park. It is a popular place for tourists, in particular because it is the only place in New Zealand where they have a good chance of seeing a kiwi in the wild.

Speaking from his home in Invercargill, Tim Te Aika says he was brought up on a family farm in the Chatham Islands and moving to Stewart Island provided a similar lifestyle.

Before buying the Island Hill pastoral lease, he was shearing in Southland. "During that time the objective of most people who shore sheep was to own a bit of land. Even when I was shearing, land values were rising quite dramatically."

At the time in Southland, numerous small dairy farms were being replaced by sheep farms, the reverse of what's happening today. "When it [Island Hill block] came up I saw it as an opportunity because land was pretty dear in Southland."

He says the family initially looked at the move through "rose- tinted glasses". "But the reality was quite a lot different. The isolation was something we had to deal with more than anything else, especially the family.

"It was a very adventurous lifestyle, one that would appeal to any young person in those days. There was hunting and an opportunity to make a living, not a big one, but we were able to exist."

Farming itself would not pay the bills in that type of country where the farming income was from wool alone.

"Just about that time venison recovery was starting to take off, and that helped a lot. There was a lot of deer over there. Certainly sheep wouldn't have provided enough income to pay our way because we had quite a mortgage."

He shot deer for about five years and sold the venison to a company which eventually provided him with a chiller and freezer. "We had to shoot and hold the carcasses until they could fly them out, which was dependent on the weather. We had no airstrip at that stage and had to rely on using the beach.

"Once we got the chiller in, it allowed us a bit of extra time if we had trouble with the weather."

"At the start it was quite simple because there were many deer there. I kept it up for about five years, but got to the point where I'd shot everything out within reach, and it became uneconomic to run a freezer. It was sometimes up to three weeks before I could get a plane load."

He says deer numbers recovered after a couple of years and he was approached by some Australians to allow a safari operation on the land. The income from that was similar to what they had been getting from venison recovery.

Sheep farming was a continual struggle, and he says there were a number of years where having sheep was a liability. However, income from other sources allowed improvement to be made to the flock. During his time on the land the lambing percentage increased from 55 per cent to 85 per cent.

Mustering was difficult in the rugged sand dune country and it was easy for mobs to escape into the thick cover. When the sheep were shorn their fleeces were usually full of sand.

In the early days everything went in and out of the farm by sea. In the Te Aika's time, getting supplies in still needed long-term planning, although once the deer recovery flights started that became easier. "At the start Ngaire had to prepare two or three months in advance for what she might need," he says.

Was this a pioneering lifestyle similar to what early settlers were faced with?

"I think all the early communities in New Zealand faced what we were faced with. At the time we did what we had to do and never thought whether it was hard or we were disadvantaged. It might have appeared disadvantaged to people who visited and they might have thought it was a hard life, but we didn't."

Is he sad that country is no longer farmed?

"I feel sad that younger people don't have that opportunity to take up a challenge like we did, but to be honest farming didn't fit into that type of country.

"I think farming disadvantaged it in quite a number of ways. It changed the flora and fauna. Browsing animals can do a lot of damage to a community like that. I've got to say sheep and deer were pretty destructive.

"But we bought into that and we had to live with it. I don't think we dwelt too much on whether it was a good place to farm or not."

When they left Stewart Island they went to Manapouri where he became a "gentleman farmer" for about 15 years on a 100-acre block. "It was a good change for us, I don't think we would have dealt with it very well if we'd have gone from where we were and been dropped in the middle of a city lifestyle."

Straight Furrow