We're not hermits

Gerard Hindmarsh
Gerard Hindmarsh

Among the living subjects of Gerard Hindmarsh's new book Outsiders, the word "hermit" is almost universally rejected.

While the book is subtitled Stories from the Fringe of New Zealand Society, these people who have chosen to live isolated from the rest of society have various motivations.

Hindmarsh says the common thread connecting them is a desire for independence.

"These people really feel they have the right to live beyond the square," he says.

"They're never necessarily hermits, and they all hate that term."

The Golden Bay author became interested in the subject during the early 1990s when he began writing a series of articles for New Zealand Geographic magazine focusing on "extreme subjects".

Among the people he visited in their bush homes were: Ross Webber, who lived on his own island in the Marlborough Sounds for 46 years; long-time West Coast eeler Bruce Reay; and the now well-known Gorge River Family.

"I did very full interviews when I went out to see these people," Hindmarsh says.

"That kind of sparked my interest in it. And I realised that there actually weren't many actual outsiders in New Zealand who warranted the term, the real hard case ones."

For Outsiders, which is published by Nelson company Craig Potton Publishing, the author has broadened his focus, tracing a tradition that runs through post-colonial New Zealand history.

There are chapters covering earlier examples of people who fled society and lived happily in the wildness. There's prospector Arawata Bill, amateur South Westland surveyor Charlie "Explorer" Douglas, Fiordland legend Davey Gunn, and self-imposed Cook Islands castaway Tom Neale.

"In the end, I've got it roughly historical, but it's not quite like that because I skip back with some people," Hindmarsh observes of Outsiders.

"It's more a wave of feeling that runs through the book. Some of them were mass admired and others hardly anyone knew about them."

That was the case for years for the Gorge River Family - Robert Long, Catherine Stewart, and their children Robin and Christan.

But in the last few years both Long and Stewart have published their respective autobiographies, making their story the most well- known of contemporary New Zealand outsiders.

When Hindmarsh first visited their incredibly isolated West Coast home, his letter from months before hadn't been delivered, but writing was often the best way of communicating with the people he hoped to interview. The first occasion he met Bruce Reay, the fisherman handed over letters he'd been carrying in a plastic bag for over a month in the hope he'd meet someone who could post them.

Perhaps due to such practicalities, several of the people covered in Outsiders are no longer living in the bush.

"The time comes when they want a change," he says.

"But I don't believe that they struggle. The day-to-day thing takes up a lot of mental energy I reckon. It becomes kind of comfortable, and territorial in a way. You just know your place so well. They're some amazing people."

-Fairfax NZ

The Marlborough Express