Living 'off the grid'

17:00, Jul 16 2010
The family that lives off the grid
ISOLATED FAMILY: Robert Long with his daughter Robin in Te Anau.

Robert Long, 54, was living "off the grid" decades before the expression was coined, and the author of A Life on Gorge River: New Zealand's Remotest Family has remained that way for 30 years.

He and his family live so far from the nearest settlement that it takes two days to walk to the nearest road, and then only after fording several rivers.

More recently, however, the South Westland artist and carver has had to make some compromises, because of his teenagers.

He and Catherine, his wife of 20 years, are now hooked up to the internet, first and foremost to keep in touch with their son, Christan, 19, a student at Otago Polytechnic, and daughter, Robin, 17, in year 13 at Mount Aspiring College in Wanaka.

The family own several cellphones, but limited reception means they can't use those at home in Gorge River. Their closest town, as the crow flies, is Milford Sound to the south, but the usual way out is via Haast, in the north.

Considering himself an explorer, Long may well have clocked up more kilometres than anyone in New Zealand since colonial surveying pioneers.

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He's spent three decades traversing rivers, beaches and tracks around South Westland and Fiordland, of which he writes about eloquently, and many of his journeys are barefoot.

An incurable optimist, he seems never to find himself overwhelmed by even the most challenging circumstances. "You accept this is your life and make the best of it," he says.

Living the remote life was a conscious choice. The Tauranga-born, Brisbane-raised Long dropped out of medical school in Queensland in his third year to remove himself from the pollution and stress of city life.

"My belief that the system was unsustainable, and that we were actually poisoning the planet, led me to take practical action."

In the event of a structural breakdown of society and its supply lines, the most important things to have would be shelter and an adequate food supply, so he began by taking over the family's vegetable plot and growing nut trees from seed.

His father, upset at his decision to leave university, asked him to leave home, a rift that would take years to heal, and Long lived a simple subsistence lifestyle with a bunch of Australian friends in the countryside out of Brisbane before becoming a traveller.

He was in Sri Lanka the day he conceived the notion of living in South Westland, "where I had heard there were no roads between the ocean and the mountaintops".

Once there, he began his new life in a Forest Service hut at Gorge River, quickly becoming the official caretaker in exchange for looking after the hut and maintaining an airstrip and tracks.

He "lived hard" in those early days, he says. His staple food was bread made from bought wholemeal flour supplemented with ground sedge grass seeds and powdered kelp.

The rest was basic fare, brought in on his back from Haast: brown rice, rolled oats, peanuts, honey, raisins, mung beans and lentils.

Before he got a garden going in the mean soil, his greens consisted of supplejack shoots, while his protein came from the ocean – mussels, paua, crayfish and spear-caught fish – supplemented by the occasional deer from helicopter hunters coming to the hut.

He worked on fishing boats as much for the satisfaction of a job well done as for the money.

"I pretty much went without everything in the first 15 years. I had no radio or emergency-locator beacons. I walked in and out and packed supplies in and out."

Later, there would be regular supply drops, but when he and Catherine, a former microbiologist he met through a friend, first had children, life was still pretty hard.

It's a lot easier these days, Long says, but the climate is not always pleasant. Even when it's fine, there's a sea breeze.

"There's a katabatic wind in winter, a quite cold, chilling wind similar to the Greymouth Barber, but worse than that."

Although he considers himself tough, Long doesn't like the cold much. "I tend to dress for it or keep on the move."

In many ways, he is working harder now than when he was on his own, he says, because he is working for his family, including making it possible for the children to fly home when they want.

He has become a competent greenstone carver and painter over the years, capturing in paint the beauty of the bush, river and ocean around him.

Catherine and Robin, a keen observer of birds and invertebrates who plans to study zoology and botany at university, turn possum fur into highly desirable rugs for sale. Christan is completing an outdoor education qualification.

Long has seen many changes in his three decades on the coast and not just in technology. The spontaneity has gone out of life, he reckons, and, like a plague, the relentless march of the possum has effected a change in vegetation.

There were none when he arrived, but there is still native mistletoe, one of the first things to go when possums come in, on the big kahikatea in their valley, and native fuchsias and rata.

Traplines are checked daily to protect the family's vegetable garden from devastation and to keep the pests at bay, and the family have become adept at plucking and skinning possums for trade.

The buried carcasses enrich the garden.

Can he see himself ever moving out?

"If a time came when it was becoming impractical, I'd move further north on the West Coast."

A Life On Gorge River: New Zealand's Remotest Family by Robert Long. Random House, $39.99.

The Southland Times